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A User's Guide to Sample CDs

Not all sampler owners have access to every instrument they might wish to sample, hence the appearance of Sample CDs containing all manner of digitally recorded sounds. But how useful are they? Are they value for money? Keyboardist Dave Stewart recently spent many hours sorting the wheat from the chaff. Here are his findings.

It seems absurd that a CD full of boring, expressionless, single notes played by a lone trumpeter should sell for £50, when you can buy a Miles Davis CD for £12. This, however, is the price we put on samples in 1990. Companies like Prosonus and McGill University are now offering CDs for sale with titles like 'Brass: Volume 1' and 'Historical Instruments', but you will search in vain for a merry madrigal or 'A Walk Through The Black Forest' - these are merely recordings of solo instruments, painstakingly going through their ranges one note at a time for the benefit of the avid sample collector.

In organising my own sound library, I have tried wherever possible to record the samples myself. But recently, out of a combination of curiosity and expediency, I have bought several of these sample CDs, and taken the time to listen to all the commercially available ones I could find. Naturally, I formed preferences (and hatreds) for some of the sounds I heard, but it seemed to me that a subjective account and comparison of the contents of these discs might prove useful to other musicians. So here goes...


Vol.1 - Percussion & Effects
Duration: 35.41 mins.
331 sounds (samples play twice).

20 different bass drums sounds good, until you discover that 12 of them are pitch-shifted versions of the first eight! Unfortunately, this kind of repetition is rife, halving (at least) the amount of genuinely different samples on the disc. A shame, as there are some excellent percussion sounds - ethnic hand drums, brake drums, ambient blocks, handclaps and Latin percussion. The drum sounds are disappointing, barring a couple of promising snares, and the effects section is short but amusing. Inaccurate documentation (booklet track numbers are one step out of line with the CD track numbers) and excessive extraneous noise on some samples are an irritant.

Argents. (Contact Details).

EARWORKS (Terry Fryer)

Vol.1 - Percussion.
Duration: 18.00 mins.
156 sounds (samples play once).

Esoteric names like 'Kendang Ketipung' and 'Bells Of Sarna' cannot fail to attract the jaded audiophile. Clever marketing notwithstanding, this disc has true exotic appeal. No drum kit sounds, but a good selection of ethnic percussion - Javanese drums and gongs, Chinese toms, dumbeck and log drums, combined with more familiar/Western percussion - triangle, vibraslap, flexatone, crotales, orchestral crash cymbals, etc. Nice stereo imaging, good sound quality, but Terry - how come the stand rattles on all the Chinese tom samples?

The Synthesizer Company. (Contact Details).


Vol.1 - Drums, Percussion & Musical Effects.
Duration: 58.53 mins.
288 sounds (samples appear twice on disc).

The first six minutes of this CD demonstrates 24 different drum 'kits', which include percussion and sound effects. The samples are then presented individually, allowing the listener to select a kit or make up a new one. The drum sounds I found to be a little dull (both sonically and emotionally) but many are usable. The percussion is good, and the effects are great - varied, interesting, and mad. Sloppy cueing at the tops of tracks mars the presentation.

Executive Audio. (Contact Details).


Percussion Vol.2 - Orchestral Percussion.
Duration: 63.44 mins.
359 sounds (samples play once).

Brass Vol.1 - Trombone & Bass Trombone.
Duration: 41.22 mins.
403 sounds (samples play once).

Brass Vol.2 - Trumpets/Cornet/Flugelhorn.
Duration: 66.24 mins.
637 sounds (samples play once).

Brass Vol.3 - French Horn & Tuba.
Duration: 33.31 mins.
349 sounds (samples play once).

Brass Vol.4 - Brass Ensembles.
Duration: 39.41 mins.
348 sounds (samples play once).

Woodwinds Vol.1 - Double Reeds.
Duration: 48.12 mins.
356 sounds (samples play once).

Stringed Vol.1 - Electric Guitar.
Duration: 52.43 mins.
371 sounds (samples play once).

Keyboards Vol.1 - Pianos.
Duration: 54.23 mins.
273 sounds (samples play once).

Electronic Vol.1 - Synth Textures.
Duration: 59.33 mins.
439 sounds (samples play once).

Sampler Sampler - Various.
Duration: 27.50 mins.
190 sounds (samples play twice).

On now to companies that have progressed beyond Vol.1. Apparently, Prosonus don't sell a specialised drum CD, but they've had a good stab at everything else! Their 'Sampler Sampler' is a comprehensive selection of noises from the company's set of discs for "the musician who needs a little bit of everything", so we get synths, eight or so orchestral instruments, voices, drums, percussion, guitar, sound effects, and even the odd whale. Once again, the drums fall short of greatness (the hi-hat has a bass drum recorded in with it - surely some mistake?) but enough instrumental multisamples are provided to make a reasonable clarinet, trumpet or string section. If more detail is required (eg. every note of a muted bass trombone) then the more specialised discs can be bought. Good samples, well recorded.

On request.
Syco Systems; Argents. (Contact Details).


Vol.1 - Solo Strings & Ensemble Violin.
Duration: 67.54 mins.
847 sounds (samples play once).

Vol.2 - Woodwinds & Brass.
Duration: 67.04 mins.
740 sounds (samples play once).

Vol.3 - Piano, Percussion & Saxes.
Duration: 64.05 mins.
667 sounds (samples play once).

Vol.4 - Rock Percussion & Tympani.
405 sounds (samples play once).

Vol.5 - Rock Strings.
Duration: 67.15 mins.
344 sounds (samples play once).

Vol.6 - Latin Grooves 1: Solo Instruments.
289 sounds (samples play once).

Vol.7 - Latin Grooves 2: Ensembles.
Duration: 58.35 mins.
150 sounds (samples play once).

Vol.8 - Jazz Sounds.
496 sounds (samples play once).

Vol.9 - More Orchestral Instruments.
Duration: 68.06 mins.
626 sounds (samples play once).

Vol.10 - Pipe Organ.
415 sounds (samples play once).

Vol.11 - Historical Instruments.
689 sounds (samples play once).

A sincere attempt to realistically simulate a wide range of instruments, by sampling every single note (hence 847 samples on Vol.1 - phew!!). Though well recorded and excellently documented, the MUMS samples can seem a little bloodless - academically correct but lacking in power. Their grand piano, however, is as good as they come. If you want to construct a MIDI version of a chamber orchestra concerto, simulate the Edmundo Ross band, or turn your sampler into a German Baroque pipe organ, these would be the ideal discs; others might be more suited to general rock and pop applications.

£61.00 per disc.
Argents; Syco Systems. (Contact Details).


Vol.1 - Misc. Instruments.
Duration: 69.44 mins.
574sounds (samples play once).

Vol.2 - Misc. Instruments.
Duration: 58.53 mins.
724 sounds (samples play once)

Vol.3 - Misc. Instruments.
Duration: 60.34 mins.
544 sounds (samples play once).

Vol.4 - Misc. Instruments.
Duration: 66.44 mins.
392 sounds (samples play once).

Vol.5 - Misc. Instruments.
Duration: 70.35 mins.
764 sounds (samples play once).

Vol.6 - Sound Effects.
Duration: 70.25 mins.
373 sounds (samples play once).

The over-made-up American model on the sleeve of these CDs parts her lips in mock ecstacy. She is listening to 'Bagpipes', the first in a formidable collection of sampled instruments (which, inexplicably, omits the flute) from Sound Ideas. Few other companies would be bothered to go out and obtain samples from a ukelele, washboard or squeaking piece of plexiglass, but this lot have gone about the task with a manical intensity, resulting in an immense range of sounds. Some excellent samples (saxophone, distorted guitar), indifferent snares as usual, but generally very good.

£399 per disc set.
FW0 Bauch. (Contact Details).


The Air Sessions
Duration: 68.15 mins.
731 sounds (samples play once).

This CD, designed for use with Akai's stereo S1000 sampler, seems to have acquired a bad reputation but I can't see why. Half of its generous running time is devoted to a drum kit that offers 91 different versions of the bass drum alone, most of them punchy and powerful. Like Prosonus's 'Sampler Sampler', it features a good range of usable instruments such as strings, brass (for once, recorded in unison instead of the normal octaves - Lord be praised!), saxes and woodwind. I suppose the room ambience on certain samples might offend some people... not me, certainly!

Akai dealers.


A brief honourable mention must go to British company Star Samples, whose five volumes of samples are available not on CD, but in the digital format of Sony PCM F1 cassettes. I can recommend their 'Vol.2 - Percussion' and 'Vol.5 - Saxophone' as good usable sounds. They also manufacture volumes of brass, piano, and drums, which I have not heard.

£79.00 per F1 tape.
Hybrid Arts UK. (Contact Details).


Finally, two comprehensive sound effects libraries from opposite sides of the Atlantic. I was desolated to find Spike Milligan's 'Sock full of custard' absent from the BBC discs, but was appeased when I discovered 'Lemurs', 'Drooling-Comedy', 'Grist Mills' and 'Oystercatchers'. This is the stuff hit records are made of!

Dimension offer the same kind of thing, but with an American accent - 'Electronic Cosmos', 'Guns, Explosions, Environments' - all holophonically recorded. A jolly good racket.

BBC £442.75 (18 disc set); £37.95 per disc.
Canford Audio. (Contact Details).

Dimension £599 (10 disc set); per disc price on request.
Hybrid Arts UK. (Contact Details).

Dave Stewart is still playing keyboards and working with Barbara Gaskin. They have released three CDs in the USA and Japan, and can be contacted through their own label, Broken Records, (Contact Details).

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Sound On Sound - Copyright: SOS Publications Ltd.
The contents of this magazine are re-published here with the kind permission of SOS Publications Ltd.


Sound On Sound - Mar 1990



Feature by Dave Stewart

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