Armadillo A616 Sampler
The Acorn Archimedes has not yet proved to be a popular computer amongst musicians, mainly because of the lack of useful software. Paul Ireson takes a look at a significant development in the world of Archimedes music: the Armadillo A616 stereo 16-bit sampler.
Since computers became commonplace in music, computer-based samplers have offered a viable, and often cheaper or more powerful, alternative to otherwise comparable dedicated audio samplers. As powerful personal computers, with the memory and data processing facilities central to the sampling process, proliferated in musicians' hands over the past few years, it has been relatively easy for a succession of companies to produce hardware/software sampling systems for a good many current and past computers.
Armadillo, a British company, are the latest to enter the field with their A616 16-bit stereo sampler for the Acorn Archimedes. The Archimedes has not yet made much of an impression on the music market, but its 32-bit RISC (reduced instruction set computer) architecture gives it processing power that should make it an excellent host computer, particularly for applications involving heavy number-crunching - sample editing, for example. Nevertheless, professional music software that might take advantage of the Archimedes' finer points has been notably thin on the ground to date.
The A616 will work on any Archimedes computer, although older machines without the MMC (memory controller) chip may cause minor problems. The system consists of a 19" rackmount sampler, containing all of the audio input and output electronics, an interface 'podule' board which slots into the back of the computer, a 50-way interface cable, and the system software which comes on a single 3.5" floppy disk. A second disk contains some samples to get you up and running.
Setting up is simple: there are no connection or installation problems. The rackmount hardware incorporates all of the connections to the outside world: stereo audio inputs and outputs via ¼" jacks; MIDI In, Out and Thru; a digital I/O socket; and a socket for the 50-way interface cable to the computer.
The system software is based on an operating environment called HighNote - this provides a 'wrapper' within which you can use the various modules provided by Armadillo to sample sounds, edit the samples, define how the samples are mapped onto MIDI nc^tes and channels, and so on. HighNote effectively takes over from RISC OS, and so no RISC OS multitasking is possible while HighNote is running (although a RISC OS version is promised). HighNote looks and feels the same as RISC OS in that windows, icons, and other elements of the Archimedes' graphic interface operate as normal, which is good; in comparison with the Atari ST's GEM, with which most musicians will be familiar, RISC OS is easier and more powerful in use.
Planned updates to the system will extend its facilities by adding further modules. Hard disk installation of the software is easy, and hard disk operation is essential to get the best out of the system - floppy disks are just not a convenient storage medium for 16-bit stereo sample data.
The A616 promises high audio quality, with its 16-bit 48/44.1 kHz (user switchable) sampling - and it delivers. The sound is clean and clear. The stereo sample playback is truly coherent, something which at least one early, rather famous, 16-bit stereo sampling system had problems with. Eight audio channels can be replayed simultaneously, which means that the system is 8-note polyphonic with mono samples, and 4-note polyphonic with stereo samples. Mono samples can be played back in one of two ways: either appearing alternately at the left and right jacks, which only uses one channel per sample, or in the centre of the stereo picture, which requires two audio channels for playback. There is no limit to the number of samples that you can load up into HighNote, and any sample can be assigned to a note or range of notes on any MIDI channel. At present no layering or crossfade facilities are available, and neither pitch bend nor modulation data is recognised, so the system is better suited to 'digital tape recorder' type applications than to use as an 'instrument' sampler.
The maximum sample length is limited only by the amount of RAM in the host computer, and whether you are taking mono or stereo samples - the latter obviously require twice as much memory. It is quite possible to run and use the A616 on the Archimedes A3000, the baby of the range, and expand the machine's RAM at a later date when you feel the need for more sample time, or finances permit.
The Sample Display/Editor/Sampler module incorporates all of the most important facilities of the system - those that allow you to sample and edit sounds. Taking samples is made easy by the provision of excellent simulated LED bargraph meters, and pre-sample and threshold facilities for auto-sampling. Comprehensive editing facilities include Looping (all of the expected cut-and-paste variations), along with Reverse, Invert, Gain, Fade, Crossfade, Add and Average. The latter two are very useful for converting stereo samples into mono, should you be on a memory conservation kick. EQ and proper enveloping facilities are notable by their absence from this list, but both are promised in forthcoming updates.
Choosing the Archimedes as a host computer benefits the A616, and thereby its users, in several ways. The system is very fast and easy to use, and the processing speed of the computer ensures that even lengthier editing functions, such as Reverse or Add, do not require much tedious waiting on the part of the user. The Archimedes' colour monitor seems well-suited to graphic sample displays. All open windows are active, and editing involving several samples does not therefore involve having to constantly select which window is to be active so that it can be worked on. There are also more minor perks - such as the fact that a sample icon can simply be dragged from a disk to the Sampler/Editor icon to load it - but these all add up to a system that is a delight rather than a chore to use, and ease of use is important in any piece of equipment that is in constant service, as most samplers are.
As it stands, the Armadillo A616 is a fast and efficient quality sampling system, but it is also a system with great potential for development. The most obvious additions to the present capabilities would be a direct-to-disk recording module, and a module that would allow recording via the currently unused digital in/out socket. Digital input and output could lead the way to CD/DAT editing applications for the A616, and would also make more sense of limiting Armadillo's sampling rates to 48kHz and 44.1kHz only. So, watch this space, but in the meantime the Armadillo A616 could prove an interesting alternative to better-known 16-bit stereo samplers.
£1489.25 Inc VAT.
Hugh Symons Distribution (Music Division), (Contact Details).
Review by Paul Ireson