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Using Samplecell II With Sound Designer II

David Mellor explains why he abandoned his hardware sampler in favour of Digidesign's computer‑based sample playback card, and takes a look at what you need to make it into a fully‑fledged sampling setup.

A few months ago, I had an expensive, top‑of‑the‑range sampler sitting next to my computer, behind my MIDI keyboard. It had pride of place, and it served me faithfully and well. Now, however, it is gone. It was a perfectly good machine and I was sorry to see it go, but I had already bought its replacement — a Digidesign Samplecell II card. This now resides inside my Macintosh computer, and there is a vacant space where the old sampler used to sit.

So why the swap? A few reasons. The first was that the display of the sampler seemed to be getting ever smaller as time went by, compared to my computer monitor close by. Whilst this was purely an illusion, it did make me think about turning to some form of system where I could use the monitor for sampling and editing. But the major problem was in storing my sample library. I have an optical disk drive, which I used with my sampler and my computer. I never could manage to hook up both the sampler and computer in the SCSI chain and achieve total reliability, so I was continuously swapping the SCSI cables around, which was an inconvenience. More awkward, though, was the sampler's system of storing samples and programs, which I thought old‑fashioned compared to the Mac's Finder. I also found it far too easy to lose valuable work by accident.

Of course, my sampler did have some advantages over Samplecell II. Most obvious of these was its portability. It is very easy to throw a sampler in the boot of a car and drive off to a session or a gig, much more difficult to pack an entire computer. But I can record my sampled tracks at home, and I don't use a sampler on stage, so I can live without the ease of transport.

What You Need And What You Get

Samplecell II is actually a sample replay device, but with the right hardware installed in your computer, it can offer sampling capabilities as extensive as you will find anywhere.

To run Samplecell II, you need an Apple Macintosh computer that can take NuBus cards. If you want sampling capabilities, you will need two available NuBus slots. This rules out all the compact Macs, LC models and the IISi, Quadra 610 and PowerMac 6100 (and it's still early days for doing this type of work on the PowerMac, anyway). All other Mac II and Quadra models, as far as I am aware, would be suitable — I use a Quadra 650. You will also need some space to store your samples, so a largish hard disk is desirable, and removable media can be even more versatile. I'll mention the Micropolis AV range of hard disks here, as they are one of the few makes that are advertised as being especially suitable for hard disk audio recording. A CD‑ROM drive is a handy accessory, too, and considering how useful these are, they are are amazingly good value for money at the moment.

Inside the Samplecell II box is a NuBus card crammed full of tiny components, a stereo output cable, and two CD‑ROMs of samples. If you send in your registration card you should get another CD‑ROM for your troubles, although I am still waiting for mine to be delivered. Installing the card inside the computer is a reasonably simple matter of undoing one screw, lifting the cover and slotting the card in (but see my notes on sample memory below). You have to take a reasonable amount of care in positioning the card before you push it home — and you must also earth yourself before touching the card, to make sure you don't have a static charge that might zap sensitive components. The best way to do this is to buy a special wrist strap that plugs into a mains socket (but not into the live contacts!). The Samplecell Editor software is installed just like any other software, and so should cause no problems. Once you have the output connected to your mixer, and a MIDI keyboard and interface hooked up, you are ready to play some sounds from one of the CD‑ROMs.

When you buy Samplecell II, you may find it supplied without sample memory installed, or it may be bundled with 8Mb if you shop wisely. Samplecell II will take up to 32Mb, in 8‑Meg steps of old‑style Mac 30‑pin SIMMs. At around £130 per 4Mb module, it's well worth splashing out on a full installation if you can afford it. The power of Samplecell II is such that you will find yourself getting full value out every last byte. Follow the installation instructions carefully, and once again, make sure you aren't statically charged before you touch those sensitive components.

The Roms

On the CD‑ROMs supplied with Samplecell II you will find an excellent library of sounds that will keep you in business for ages before you get bored, if you ever do! As with any sample library, there is a quantity of rubbish, and as you can imagine, with a CD‑ROM, in which data is permanently frozen, you always have to wade through the stuff you don't like to find the stuff you do. With Samplecell II, there is no problem, because you can use the samples on the ROM as source material, and it is these that take up the bulk of the data. Instruments (which are groups of samples arranged on the keyboard) and Banks (groups of Instruments allocated to MIDI channels and outputs) take up little storage space, and can be kept on your hard disk. You only keep the ones you like, so you know that everything in your Samplecell folder is to your taste. You do have to make sure that you have the right CD‑ROM with the source samples in the CD‑ROM drive, but a dialogue box will prompt you when necessary. I aim to acquire a reasonably large library eventually, and I don't envisage any problems keeping track of sounds.

Although Samplecell II comes with two CD‑ROMs, most of the material on them consists of the same samples, but arranged into large banks which require more memory capacity. This may sound like a negative point, but the first CD‑ROM is very good, which makes up for the previous gripe in some way.

Bank Building

Most samplers have three levels of hierarchy. A single Sample is the basic unit of currency, and a number of these can be collected and spread across the keyboard to form a Program. It is possible to have a number of Programs active simultaneously on different MIDI channels. Few hardware samplers make this easy for you, but Samplecell II does. Figure 1 shows a Bank of Samplecell Instruments. These correspond to Programs on other sampling setups. An Instrument consists of a number of samples in key and velocity zones. To open an instrument, simply go through the normal Mac opening procedure and it will appear as a 'channel' in the window. Figure 1 shows five instruments open. The practical upper limit is set by the memory you have available, and you can fit an awful lot into the maximum 32Mb (I remember recording a track on a Synclavier a few years ago which had 32Mb of RAM and 32 voices. I thought I was in heaven, and now I have the same memory capacity on my desktop). It should be mentioned that you're not limited to a single Samplecell card. If you have NuBus slots to spare, or a NuBus expander, you can fit multiple cards, and the software will look after them all with ease, so your 32Mb/32 voices could easily become 64/64 or 96/96, if you have the funds. Looking at the Instrument 'channel' you will see the card number, the MIDI channel (selected via a simple pop‑up menu), and the lowest and highest notes the instrument will respond to. Next are the outputs and pan. Samplecell II has eight polyphonic outputs, to which voices are dynamically allocated as necessary. You can set a priority if you wish. Moving down, we find a 'scribble' strip like that on a mixing console, where the instrument's name appears. Then there are the Solo and mute buttons, and a fader you can grab with the mouse. It really is as simple as it looks.

Figure 2 shows the Sample Map page, and you can see how the samples have been allocated to key and velocity zones. You can change these around as much as you like, and even bring in different samples from disk or CD‑ROM. One deficiency is that Samplecell II will not automatically spread a number of samples evenly across the keyboard, and it would be nice to have some sort of computerised help towards making key groups from a number of samples, taking notice of the original pitch of each sample. This is the sort of thing a computer ought to be able to arrange, so
that only a little manual labour would be necessary to tweak the map to perfection. Another slight irritation is that middle C is described as C4, when I am used to seeing it as C3. Either all manufacturers should get together and agree a standard, or there should be an option to set it as a preference. Incidentally, with this window you don't have to type in note numbers or velocity values, or play them in from the MIDI keyboard — you just pull the boundaries across with the mouse.

I have included Figure 3, showing the Miscellaneous Parameters window, to illustrate that you really do have as much control over the sound as you would expect on a normal sampler. Perhaps some samplers offer the odd extra, but all the basics are certainly here. Notice the Aux Sends over to the left of the window, which are greyed out. This is because they are not present on Samplecell II. They were on the original Samplecell card, and they are left available in the software for those who can make use of them.

Figure 4 shows the Matrix window, which is a lot of fun. Here, a list of 18 controllers can be allocated to any of 27 destinations. Once again, it's amazing how easy it all is. I am so used to sampling being a pretty tedious affair that it's a joy to have machinery that really helps me to achieve my desires.

Sampling With Samplecell

If, at the start of reading this, you were asking what possible use a sampler could be that can't sample, I hope I have convinced you that you can do quite a lot with the CD‑ROM library supplied (note also that there are more available). But sampling really is all about capturing unique sounds that no‑one else has access to. It's a way to achieve individuality in a musical world that is becoming all too much the same. Unfortunately, moving to actual sampling with Samplecell II steps up the cost significantly, but it's worth it, I assure you! What you need to sample with Samplecell II is a Digidesign Audiomedia II card, together with Sound Designer II software. As a bonus, you get stereo hard disk recording thrown in! Samplecell II actually comes with a limited version of the Sound Designer II software, called Sound Designer SC, and with this you can edit samples you already happen to have available on disk. If you already have Sound Designer II, the SC version is redundant, because it has no significant feature that is not present in the full version. Digidesign are making great strides in computer‑based audio — the Sound Designer II file format is now pretty much a standard on the Mac, and is used by software from other manufacturers. Mono and stereo Sound Designer II files are completely compatible with Samplecell II, so anything you record onto your hard disk can be played by Samplecell II, as long as it will fit into the memory.

I wrote about Sound Designer II and Audiomedia II in the July issue of Sound on Sound, and the recording procedure is exactly the same when using it as a 'front end' for Samplecell II. I find that it's a good idea to record a chunk of material, from which I will be able to make a number of samples. This might be, say, 10 samples from an audio sample CD. Using the selection tools in the Sound Designer II software, I highlight a region that will become the first sample, and copy it to the Mac's clipboard. Then I create a new file with an appropriate name, and paste the contents of the clipboard into this. Once saved, this becomes the raw material for Samplecell II. If you have used Sound Designer II with other samplers, you may be used to selecting a region, and then being able to download this region directly into the sampler. This doesn't work with Samplecell II, but it's no great loss. Figure 5 shows the main Sound Designer II window containing a looped stereo sample.

If you have Sound Designer II but haven't used it for sample editing yet, then you must be aware that you have to switch off the direct‑from‑disk playback option to loop a sample, otherwise the looping just doesn't work. Although Sound Designer II can handle an unlimited number of loops, Samplecell II can recognise only two, which is about the right number for all normal users. If you create one loop, that will be used as a release loop; if you have two, the first will be a sustain loop and the second a release. There appears to be no provision to use the natural decay of a sample if it is looped, which might have allowed fastidious programmers to add a little extra finesse. Figure 6 shows the Loop Window of Sound Designer II, which is the same in Sound Designer SC. I'm sure you'll agree that this beats squinting at a tiny LCD to try and figure out where the loop points should be — and it's very easy to match up the slopes of the waveform on both ends of the loop. There is an automatic loop finding function, and you can also have crossfade loops. Thankfully, unlike with some samplers, you can easily undo an unsuccessful attempt at crossfading.

Let's see how the samples are loaded into Samplecell II to make a playable instrument. If you look back at Figure 1, you will see a row of icons along the top of the window. These provide access to the various program editing functions, such as the keyboard map and miscellaneous parameters windows. The one on the far left, however, is used to create a new Bank or Instrument. You might create a new Bank when you need to make a new collection of Instruments from those you already have on your disk. But if you have some newly‑acquired samples you want to play, then you must create a new Instrument. There are a number of different kinds of Instruments in Samplecell, specifically mono and stereo Instruments, which may be composed of single samples or multi‑sampled. I can understand the difference between mono and stereo, but I am not quite clear why there has to be a differentiation between single and multi‑sample instruments, because it's quite possible to have a multi‑sample Instrument with just one sample loaded. Samplecell II will allow up to fifty multi‑sample Instruments to be loaded simultaneously, which I am sure is more than anyone will ever need, bearing in mind that even 32Mb of sample RAM gets filled up eventually. There can only be 10 single‑sample Instruments, however. I can't understand this limitation, and I can't really see the point of single‑sample instruments either — I must have missed it.

Looking back at Figure 2, we can see how a multi‑sample Instrument is built up. When you start, this window will be blank, but you simply click on the first or second icons underneath the Instrument name to add each new sample. The second icon with the horizontal arrows indicates a key group or zone. Click on this and the selection window will open for you to find your sample. Once loaded, this will fill the space in the window entirely, over all the keys and velocity zones. Each new sample you add will automatically be allocated to the topmost note — you then drag the dividing line with the mouse to spread it over the keys you want. You can swap samples around, too. If you want to add a new velocity zone, you click on any sample to highlight it, then click on the velocity zone icon. When you have loaded your new sample, you can adjust the threshold between velocity zones simply by dragging the dividing line. If you want to adjust all the velocity zones simultaneously, hold down the option key as you drag. The tuning fork icon visible in Figure 2 allows you to edit sample parameters; a window like Figure 7 will appear, which I think is fairly self‑explanatory, except possibly for loop tuning, which might help you to match up the start and end of a loop if the pitch isn't quite constant.

The icon next to the tuning fork in Figure 2 allows access to your sample editing program, which will almost certainly be Sound Designer SC or Sound Designer II. The only slight advantage the SC version has is that it allows instant transfer of an edited sample to Samplecell II. With Sound Designer II you have to save the sample and reload it using the next icon along. It's hardly more inconvenient — the only problem comes if you are editing a sample from CD‑ROM, which of course can't be saved back to the CD. You have to copy it to hard disk first.

I could go into far more detail about using the Samplecell II and Audiomedia II systems together, but I am itching to get back to using them again. They really do make a powerful combination, and although the cost of a Mac, a decent‑sized hard disk and the two cards is considerable, many Digidesign users will already have Audiomedia II, and the extra cost of Samplecell II is a bargain compared to the cost of a good hardware sampler.

PC users should note that the PC version of this program is not bundled with Sound Designer SC software. This article features the Macintosh version of Samplecell II; the PC version may differ slightly in operation.

Samplecell II Memory

Samplecell II uses on‑board memory for sample storage, and does not need to use the Mac's memory except as space to run the software. The Samplecell Editor software only needs around 2Mb of memory, so you probably won't need an upgrade for the computer (but remember that Sound Designer II likes more). As with any 16‑bit digital recording system, the rule of thumb of 5Mb per mono minute applies, so with a fully‑expanded 32Mb Samplecell II card, you will be able to store over six minutes worth of samples. When your hopes and ambitions exceed this limit, you can buy another Samplecell II card and load it with another 32Mb. Samplecell Editor will handle multiple cards happily. The only problem with the way Samplecell II uses memory is that inevitably you can't use the on‑board memory for anything but sample storage. It's frustrating to know there is 32Mb sitting in your computer that you can't get to except when you're sampling. Grrr!

What Sample Cell II Desperately Needs...

Akai compatibility! Despite the fact that Samplecell II is a great piece of kit, there isn't much of a sound library available for it on CD‑ROM in this country. I checked with Time and Space, who you may have noticed are pretty big in the world of sample libraries, and they have around 11 CD‑ROMs available at the moment. This actually represents a vast wealth of sounds compared to what you could ever have on floppy disks, or what you could hope to sample yourself from audio sample CDs. But compared to the market leader in CD‑ROM availability, the selection is puny. I don't know the technicalities, but surely it must be possible for Digidesign to supply software to allow Samplecell II to use Akai format CD‑ROMs, even if it means translating the data to Sound Designer‑format files and copying them onto the computer's hard disk. Assuming that they could do it and keep the keygroups and programs intact, this would boost the market for Samplecell II at a stroke.

Sequencing With Samplecell II

You've probably been thinking as you've read this that you can't use your Mac for sequencing while you're using it to run Samplecell II. Do you have to buy another Mac? The answer is no; you can run Samplecell II and a sequencer at the same time on one machine. If you are a Cubase user, you will find a Samplecell driver program on one of your original Cubase disks. All you have to do is copy this to your Cubase folder and you will magically find that as well as printer and modem MIDI outputs, you will also have a Samplecell output with another 16 MIDI channels. Notator Logic is also compatible with Samplecell.