You are here

Toccata 16-bit Sampler

Amiga Notes
Published March 1994

Paul Austin finally puts the long awaited Toccata 16‑bit sampler to the test.

It's been a long time coming but at last Sound on Sound can provide the definitive review of the very latest European import. Although the necessary Toccata hardware has been available for some time, the lack of any documentation has kept it from the glossy pages of the UK's premier music magazine.

Thankfully, postie has now come good, with English documentation for the sampler and its accompanying Samplitude editing software. However, before diving into the aforementioned software, a brief introduction to the hardware might be wise.

As is rapidly becoming the norm in the world of 16‑bit sampling, a Zorro slot is an essential for Toccata — which inevitably puts the A1200 and below out of the picture. Assuming you have the necessary slot, adding the various I/O connections is pretty straightforward, with the back of the board providing a stereo line in, an aux input, and a single stereo line out.

However the story doesn't end there, as the card also provides a mic input alongside a second auxiliary. But, strangely enough, both these additional ports sit approximately halfway along the board, and therefore require connections to be trailed inside the machine.

Assuming you've supplied the necessary cabling, inputs, outputs and amplification, it's time to boot the control software and set up the board. Fortunately, initialisation is taken care of on boot‑up via WB‑Start‑up/User‑Start‑up, so all that's required is adjustment of the odd slider and selection of the required input.

As you've probably guessed, I/O is one of the board's strengths, and this is reflected in the control panel, which boasts both 8‑ and 16‑bit sampling in both stereo and mono, plus the essential sample rate slider, which provides rates between 5513Hz and 48000Hz.

Not surprisingly, you're provided with Line, Aux1, mic and mix options, with the last two being particularly notable in that the mix feature allows both aux inputs to be combined and recorded simultaneously as part of the same sample.

Although the mic input isn't particularly unusual, it does benefit from a very useful gain option, which means that there's no need to pre‑amplify the input externally prior to sampling. Obviously, to adjust the mix some form of monitoring is essential, and this is achieved via the board's loopback feature, which allows the selected signal/s to be monitored constantly. Lastly, the overall output level can also be adjusted — but don't confuse this with actual recording levels. In order to avoid recording samples that are either too quiet or clipped, close attention must be paid to the actual input levels.

To assist in this, you're provided with a generic input slider as well as a pull‑down option which initiates a real‑time stereo level indicator, operating just like an analogue VU meter. As a result, clipping or quiet samples shouldn't be a problem.

Assuming you have a signal with appropriate recording levels, the next task is to activate the Toccata recorder, select a location and format for your new sample, and hit the record button. The new sample will then be recorded directly to hard disk or RAM, depending on your particular preference. Once safely recorded, you can play back your sample either direct from the recorder, or alternatively by loading up the Toccata jingle player and auditioning your latest import from there — alongside any others you may have in the same directory.

As you've probably guessed, basic setup and recording is very straightforward, but how does the board fare when it comes to sound quality? Well, as you'd expect from the creators of the VLab range digitisers, Toccata's sound quality is exceptional. In fact, after extensive testing, I'd say it's probably the best yet available on the Amiga. And, better still, the default hardware also supports hardware compression, which provides a very respectable disk space saving in exchange for a slight degradation in the signal to noise ratio — which, in the case of 16‑bit samples, translates to an SNR of 70dB compressed — as opposed to 96dB uncompressed.

However, no matter now impressive the sound quality may be, it's only part of the overall sampling equation. As any muso will tell you, a sample is only ever as good as its editor — or, in the case of Toccata, its usability within the overall Amiga environment. As you may already have guessed, this board is much more of a multimedia board than a traditional, MIDI‑friendly direct to disk recorder. However, considering its target user base, it appears curiously lacking in some basic multimedia requirements — the most notable of which is the lack of direct ARexx support. As a result, its use within Scala or MediaPoint productions would appear tricky at best.

Another curious aspect is its affinity — or perhaps the lack of it — with MIDI. Although an upgrade, to Samplitude Pro II, makes it possible to dump MIDI data to a suitable sampling keyboard, the basic version has no direct MIDI connection so, alas, there's no way to transport or trigger samples via MIDI.

As a result, there's also no way of using the card under direct sequencer control, and even if this was possible, there's no means of pitch‑shifting existing samples. Consequently, anyone in the market for a pseudo‑sampling keyboard had better look elsewhere.

Add to this a lack of support for the videographic and musical essential of SMPTE timecode, and Toccata's place in the market is rather difficult to pin down. However, in its defence comes the accompanying sample editor — alias Samplitude.

On‑Line Editing

As you probably spotted, the basic Toccata software suite has a drastic lack of editing options; as a result, Samplitude plays an essential part in the overall Toccata equation.

Samplitude is essentially very similar to the vast majority of 8‑bit Amiga sample editors, and of course there's no reason why you can't operate Toccata as an 8‑bit sampler if you wish.

For the old guard, Samplitude will be very familiar, with all the usual cut and paste operations, mixing, fading and special effects, alongside sample shifting, amplitude control and so on. In short, all you need to manage and edit your creations.

On a more glamorous note, the software also offers the odd power feature, such as very advanced range control. Thanks to this, you can select an infinite number of ranges within the sample and then employ the program's playlist feature to sequence the various ranges together. To achieve this, you're provided with a a mini single‑track sequence, from which any one of the ranges can be selected and dropped into the sequence, along with a user definable repeat. Once all your ranges are in place — stereo or mono — you simply hit the play button and the playlist kicks into life, leaping around the sample to run the sequence.

Another impressive feature is the program's ability to combine and split projects. A project is simply another name for a sample which, in the case of Samplitude, can be either mono, stereo or quadro projects. As you've probably guessed, thanks to Samplitude, Toccata can play twin stereo samples simultaneously, which can either be built up from four individual mono samples or twin stereo recordings.

ARexx is another added bonus of the Samplitude environment. Although ideally Toccata should have an ARexx port all to itself, at least Samplitude can provide an alternative window into the world of multimedia — if only by a slightly roundabout route.

And Finally...

Basically, with its various limitations Toccata is very much a matter of taste. As mentioned earlier, the actual sound quality is exceptional and could carve it a niche as a direct to disk mastering system. Obviously, the link with VLab will ensure at least limited success in the multimedia department, courtesy of existing VLabY/C users, whilst the convoluted approach to ARexx — via Samplitude — could make it an appealing investment for the hordes of Scala fans.

However, with the strong market position of the SunRize boards and their existing links to all kinds of software, it's difficult to see how Toccata will successfully break into the mass market. Basically the problem boils down to software; if Macro Systems can continue to support and build on their existing hardware, Toccata could well become a world beater — the question is: will they? Watch this space to find out!

Upgrade Options

If all this talk of missing features is a tad depressing, don't despair — there is a ray of hope in the form of Samplitude Pro II, which comes as an optional upgrade and provides much improved MIDI functionality, including MIDI‑based sample dumps and access to the Maestro DAT backup system, which not only allows system backups onto DAT, but also pure digital recording and mastering via Toccata.

The Video Connection

The creators of Toccata already have an impressive track record in Amiga video with their premier product, namely VLabY/C, a digitiser widely regarded as the best grabber in the business.

One of the major reasons for such acclaim is VLabY/C's ability to grab sequential video images via the IFR frame‑grabbing option — a feature which allows multiple passes over a defined section of video — thereby building up an entire, frame‑accurate sequence.

Impressive stuff but, thanks to Toccata, that's only the tip of the iceberg. With the 16‑bit talents of the board, full16‑bit audio can also play a part in the equation. To combine the two, all that's required is a click on the Toccata option within the IFR control panel and the process becomes totally automated, the end result being a perfect 16‑bit sound track to accompany your 24‑bit graphics.

The Speed Of Sound

Like most 'power' pursuits, 16‑bit sound makes heavy demands on both disk space and your CPU. In the case of disk space, the equation obviously varies according to the sample rate and format you require, but to give you an idea, the average stereo sample recorded at 41000Hz — otherwise known as 'CD quality' — will require approximately 11Mb of RAM per minute.

As for the CPU, a 68020 is the lower limit. Using this, you could expect to record a stereo sample at 32,000Hz but that would be the upper limit. For full CD or DAT quality, an 030 processor would be essential, while quadro samples really need an 040.