Baz Watts looks into the Armadillo sampler for the Arc
Following on from our review of High Note for the Archimedes Baz Watts takes a look at the latest additions to the Armadillo range of sampling products
Few musicians would disagree that sound sampling is perhaps the most significant advance in musical technology in recent years.
Indeed as I write, the record topping the UK charts for the fourth week, "Swing The Mood" could easily be titled "We've Got A Sampler And We're Gonna Use It" and it illustrates the wide acceptance of this technology.
For those who have thus far managed to avoid sampling (and some is definitely worth avoiding) here is the briefest of brief sampling guides. You have a sound whizzing along a cable. You squirt this into a sampler and make a digital "recording" of that sound. You replay the "sample", (or an edited version) by using your computer or by sending the Armadillo some MIDI instructions from a MIDI device (keyboard, sequencer etc). It's done digitally and computers can manipulate digits until the cows come home - it's what they're good at! For example, use MIDI from a keyboard and your sampled 'Woof!' can be played as a chord of 'Woofs!' looped (Woofssssssssss...) or even reversed (Sfoow!).
The mind boggles and horrible music gets produced. But Despair Ye Not! With imagination, a sampler becomes a powerful, creative tool as good as any other musical instrument. But what matters here, with this 16-bit machine, is sampling at 44.1 KHz, we're talking CD-quality, no less.
Many samplers are dedicated instruments doing nothing but sample, edit and replay sound. Some only replay pre-recorded sound such as the Roland U-110 or the EMU Proteus, they're not cheap and use much computing power.
Many of us own that computing power already. It's doing our word processing and playing Pacman. Therein lies the case for a micro-based sampler. So let's make the micro into a sampler and when it's not sampling it can do what computers do. Disadvantages? Well it's not as easy to carry to a gig as a single, dedicated box. But if you own an Archimedes, sampling comes far cheaper this way.
I quote from a recent magazine article: "The music potential of Acorn's Archimedes is without doubt enough to make any musician drool. However, music software has been rather a long time coming...". Well thankfully that's changing. New software (Word Processing, DTP, MIDI Sequencing) was much in evidence at the British Music Fair and the Personal ComputerShow. Technology marches ever onwards and the Archimedes, representing the latest, allows greater speed and accuracy than has been possible in recent years. Archimedes is of course 32-bit RISC technology (Reduced Instruction Set Computer) which equals greater speed. In practise this means a distinct advantage over other 16-bit machines like the Atari.
A-616 SAMPLER: a black, 1u, rack-mounting unit with some classy red/grey stripes, graphics and the name Armadillo; ON/OFF power switch and green LED on the front panel. The back panel has line inputs and outputs, L & R, and outputs for phones and a ribbon cable for connecting to the Archimedes. There are MIDI IN, OUT and THRU sockets and a Digital Out (SPDIF) socket giving output to digital amplifiers. Armadillo are planning an extra board which allows bulk storage of sampled data to DAT from this port, however there is no SPDIF input for reloading data.
Interface Podule: fits into an expansion port on your Archimedes. The Arc 300 needs a backplane (standard on A-3000 & 400) to accommodate this podule. Backplanes cost around £37.00 for the 2-way and £57.00 for the 4-way.
2 x HighNote Software Disks: System Disk plus Key Disk containing the modular software.
Sample Disks: You get disk examples of several typical keyboard sounds plus a looped example (more of this later).
Manual: Manuals are neccessary, boring, and not my idea of good bedtime reading. I want to dispense with them at the first opportunity, returning only for reference. Hence I want to learn and find what I want - quickly! In my pre-release copy several sections were bound out of sequence, and some pages within sections also jumbled. And I could have used a good index. These points are apparently corrected in the manual proper.
The system is easily assembled. The interface podule plugs into the Archimedes and a short cable, sufficient for table-top use, connects to the A-616. (Longer cables for rack-mounting are available). You must connect audi-in/out leads to your sound source/reproduction system and switch on the A-616 before booting the computer or else you get a boot-failure message. Booting demands two separate disks - the HighNote software disk and a Keydisk. Manufacturers avoid illegal copying in a variety of ways. Armadillo use a Keydisk and your system won't work without it. Should you damage or lose this they'll replace it if you are a registered user and quote your software serial number.
You've set up the A-616, fitted your podule, connected your leads so let's dive straight in. The A-616 gives a satisfying click of recognition when the system disk is booted. The Arc asks for your key disk, allowing the loading to complete. Install the system onto hard disk and boot times can be dramatically reduced.
Highnote is a modular structure which apparently makes for easy future development and the first sign of life on booting is a yellow icon bar at the bottom of a neutral grey screen holding module symbols for Voice Setup, Sampler, various Disk Drives, Object Manager and Dustbin. Clicking on these produces pages from which other screen options and pages are available. They are easy to identify and load by a double click. All work is done incidentally, using just a mouse and it's three buttons:- Left for Select, Middle for Menu, and Right for Adjust.
Click on a disk icon and reveal any samples present, select a sample, drag it to the Sample icon. Sample is loaded, the screen appears and your sample beautifully displayed. Easy! Your creations are temporarily stored in the Object Manager file. By opening this, your wonderful creations are listed. Saving is equally simple. Simply click on the sample and drag it onto the disk icon. Even easier!
Clicking the Sample Editor icon reveals the sample screen. If you loaded this by dragging a sample to the sampler icon there will be a sample up and ready. If not you will have the empty sample screen staring back at you. A submenu (accessed using the 'L-Sel M-Menu R-Adj Rule") reveals the sample control screen. This sets criteria for your sample-to-be. It's here you set sample length, trigger threshold (below which an incoming signal is ignored as a sample 'trigger'), sample rate (44.1/48kHz), Pre-trigger (allows the capture of sound before the trigger event - useful for retaining full dynamics of a sample) and a choice of input type: Mix, L, R or L+R (Stereo).
There are also buttons for Monitor, Record, VU, Stop and Play. All self-explanatory if you think of it for a moment as a tape recorder. Hitting VU and Monitor buttons activate the VU meters and you'll hear the monitored sound. Monitoring allows easy adjust of input gain, avoiding overloud, distorted signals. Now simply hit REC and your set length of the incoming signal will be sampled and displayed on the sampler screen. The display will depend on your input type: choose Mono and it will have one Main Display + zoom box. Stereo has two + zoom box. Now hit Play and you'll hear the sample. Simplicity itself.
HighNote runs quite happily on the A-3000, 300 and 400 Series machines, needing at least 1 mB RAM to run. On the 440, it's possible to record 20 seconds of stereo sampling. On the a 310 this is drastically reduced to only a couple of seconds. But remember that the average drum sound is anywhere between 0.5 and 1 second you could quite easily get a nice percussion set-up going on even the limited 310. It works out at about 6 seconds per megabyte, less around 1MB for the total system.
Editing is done by using markers on the sample display. Just select a sample section and edit! For instance, mark that odd noise at the end of your wonderful sample, highlight it then Delete it, leaving the main sample minus odd noise. If samples are stereo all this can be done on a channel-selective basis or to both Left and Right simultaneously.
A good rule is to save 'raw samples' to disk before editing. So when things go wrong after you try all manner of silly things, (you KNOW you will!) just reload and begin again.
Edit functions are numerous: delete, copy, move, insert, zero, reverse, fade-in, fade-out, zoom (horizontal & vertically) and soon and all using the same system they are simplicity itself to handle. All these wonderful tricks to play around with and create quite stunning new sounds.
Sampling is expensive on memory. But take your three second sample, put in two loop markers at say 0.25 and 0.75 second, and if you're careful, this 0.5 second section will loop continuously and smoothly. Suddenly your 3 second sample is just 0.75 second but will continue to sound as long as you've the patience to hold down a key! With care you may get sample lengths even shorter and save even more memory. But it's worth noting certain sounds defy looping while others loop almost anywhere.
The production A-616 will eventually have eight mono audio channels, each of which can be assigned to any sample, memory permitting. My pre-release unit had four, but produced four stereo pairs (eight voices) quite happily. So for example we could play two monophonic samples while a third sample enjoys six-voice polyphony - useful for chord-playing.
The page is a grid formation, easy to understand and alongside voice allocation, lists sample name & length, and presence of loops (sustained or released) and envelopes. The latter here, not included in my software, is due for release as a further modular software release.
Also within this module is access to master tuning/volume, keyboard module and MIDI. No doubt some will already have MIDI equipment to hook up. But if not, it's worth knowing that while it's great fun making and editing samples, to realise the full potential of the system, (ie. inputting a MIDI keyboard/sequencer to play/replay musical compositions) you'll need various bits of outboard gear too.
In the keyboard module there is an on-screen, 10 octave, graphic keyboard which plays assigned sounds using the mouse. You can have as many of these as there are MIDI channels, and have a sample assigned to each. Even assign Glissando and such. It's quite fun playing a keyboard with a mouse! The MIDI module gives a selection of input and output switches to filter data, allowing specific MIDI channel/velocity/mode information to transmit or be received.
Perhaps the only MIDI problem would be where great clusters of chords are being played from a keyboard. 6-voice Polyphony would create severe limitations. But for drum tracks and general use - no problem!.
Recommended retail for this all-singing 16-bit version is £1295.00, with £165.00 for the smaller 8-bit stereo version, or £195.00 if MIDI is included (all exlusive VAT).
While the real fun is creating your own samples, if you intend using the system in serious studio situations then an established library is certainly an attractive proposition. Armadillo intend to market a full library of sounds for a ridiculous sum barely covering the cost of the disks themselves. File under 'Good News'.
When one imagines the multi-tasking capabilities of the Archimedes the thought of running a Sequencer package alongside HighNote under one roof so to speak, makes the mind boggle indeed! And being a modular structure it's an easy system to expand and the plans are here in profusion.
On the cards are a text editor (to label work onscreen), a MIDI/SMPTE event sequencer, SMPTE Interface card, Direct-to-disk recording system, and several other packages. Plus plans to extend software to cover improved keyboard splits, and velocity selection of samples. If half this is realised it'll still be Mega. And a Fourier Analysis package (available NOW, priced £60), adds further to system flexibility and value. (Fourier is a method of taking audio data, dividing into component harmonics and displaying in editable, 3-D form). File also in the 'GoodNews' department.
Summing up, I found the software methodical, intuitive and pleasing. There are some lovely touches, obviously borne out of thorough testing. Like having locking loop points, or Pre-trigger or offering intelligent sample names (attempt to save a modified "Piano 1" sample and you are offered "Piano 2" as a name! Very nice.) Exciting is a word that springs to mind. It's great fun and a usable professional system. It's not cheap, but then it's not a toy and you get much and clever software for your money. In short, a serious sampling system flexible enough to be of serious use to the professional MIDI-based musician.
Products: Armadillo A-616 system
Prices: 16-bit version £1295.00, 8-bit version £165.00
Supplier: Ampsound, (Contact Details)
Review by Baz Watts