ALTHOUGH DIGITAL sound sampling for the masses may not be a new concept, the idea of a usable computer-controlled device at under £50 may still raise a few eyebrows. For owners of the Sinclair Spectrum (in all its many forms) and Amstrad CPC home computers, the idea is now reality; witness the Music Machine reviewed elsewhere this issue, and the Cheetah Sound Sampler, reviewed here.
The Cheetah is the follow-up to the highly successful SpecDrum and AmDrum digital drum machines. Like them, it fits onto the user port of the computer; and provides a good introduction to sampling techniques at a reasonable quality, considering the memory and processing speed limitations of the computers it runs on.
The package comes complete with a cheapo microphone - which is the first thing you'll want to replace - software on cassette, and a good manual. The hardware unit itself has two control knobs, for input level and feedback, an output lead terminating in a phono plug and a headphone output.
The software can be transferred to Sinclair microdrive (if appropriate), and is arranged in a fairly straightforward menu form. It's dead plain, showing not the slightest attempt to inject any graphic sophistication, so don't expect any stunning displays.
There are five options on the main menu, and of these, obviously the first thing you'll want to select is Sample Sound. Sampling can be triggered either by pressing the spacebar, or automatically as soon as an input is detected.
Usefully, there's an oscilloscope-style display available which shows if the incoming signal is being "clipped"; if it is, you can trim the input level to eliminate distortion. Two sampling rates are allowed: full rate gives a sample of around a second; half rate, not surprisingly, two seconds.
After naming your sample, you can move to the Sample Configure page to edit it. On this page, the sample is displayed as a waveform across the screen. You can position four bars marking the start point, end point, loop start and loop end, mix samples together, and reverse them. And if you make a mess, you can easily return to the previous setup.
The Playback section allows you to select the sample number you wish to play - several can be kept in memory at once, and extra storage space is available on the Spectrum 128K - switch the loop function on or off, then play using the QWERTY keyboard. Playing range is two octaves, and to make life easier there's a new note detect feature which kills the sample if you hit a new key before it has finished playing.
Samples can be saved to tape or microdrive, and Cheetah thoughtfully provide some examples on the B-side of the tape - dog barks, handclaps, breaking glass and so on.
As a bonus there's a real-time effects section, though this cannot be used at the same time as the sampling facility. It allows you to introduce variable delay, reverb, harmonising, distortion, chopping and other effects to any input signal, and the sound quality is surprisingly high.
The obvious drawback of the Cheetah sampler is that there's no way to control it other than from the QWERTY keyboard. In short, no MIDI. Yes, Cheetah do produce a MIDI interface for the Spectrum, but there seems to be no way to use the two packages together. This means the sampler is largely useful for recording, editing and replaying spot sound effects such as percussive noises, rather than complex instrumental parts.
Having said that, there's no doubt that Spectrum and Amstrad CPC owners will consider the Cheetah Sound Sampler a fascinating introduction to sampling techniques, arid should find it useful in many ways in small home recording systems.
Price £44.95 including VAT