Samplecell is a top-quality RAM sample playback card for the Macintosh II, and the latest addition to Digidesign's impressive range of digital audio hardware and software. Paul D. Lehrman enthuses.
The idealised modern digital audio workstation can be thought of as consisting of three distinct elements. One is hard disk-based recording and editing, for dealing with 'real' audio tracks, preferably in a multitrack format. The second is MIDI, which is used by the powerful composing and sequencing tools developed over the past few years to address electronic instruments and sound processors in real time, using a music-oriented language, and also to control sound processors and mixers from a time-based interface. The third is sampling, in which short digital recordings are used as sound elements, either in musical or sound effects contexts, and addressed in real time by MIDI or timecode.
The Synclavier, AudioFrame, and other high-end digital workstations use this 3-pronged approach, and provide customers with totally integrated systems built largely from specially-designed components. Their prices, which start in the £30,000 range and go well into six figures (in dollars or pounds), reflect the amount of custom engineering and manufacturing that go into them.
For the last couple of years Digidesign have been developing a similar system, but using primarily off-the-shelf components: the Macintosh II family of computers and conventional hard disks. The most obvious advantage to this approach is cost. Digidesign hardware cards are available for around £1000, and thanks to the economies inherent in building products for a very broad market, a computer and hard-disk combination powerful enough for all but the most expansive projects can be had for less than £10,000.
Another important advantage is ergonomic: the graphical interface and large high-resolution screen of the Macintosh are very well suited to editing audio, on either a macroscopic or a microscopic scale. They have the potential to be equal to or better than the interfaces on dedicated systems, and if they follow Apple's guidelines, they should be very easy to learn for anyone with basic knowledge of the Mac.
Digidesign's approach has been to develop one component of the system at a time and release it as a stand-alone product, making sure that it can be integrated smoothly with the other products in the line. Their first venture, the Sound Accelerator card, was an adjunct to their already popular Sound Designer software, allowing the Mac to play the samples it was editing in real time. This evolved into Sound Tools and later Audiomedia (for stereo hard disk recording and editing). On the MIDI side, the company produced MacProteus, which brought the power of Emu's excellent ROM sample player inside the computer.
The software portion of the system includes: Q-Sheet A/V, which allows playback of digital audio along with MIDI Files and timecode-synced MIDI-based automation; Deck, which allows 4-track digital playback and mixing, plus more complex MIDI functions; and Studio Vision, developed jointly by Opcode and Digidesign, which combines an extremely powerful sequencer with highly flexible 2-channel hard disk recording, editing, and playback. Now Digidesign has come out with the third part of the hardware troika: SampleCell. Simply described, it is a RAM sample-playing card. It has no on-board recording capabilities, but it comes with a huge library of pre-formatted samples, and it is designed to work smoothly with the company's other products for creating new samples.
SampleCell is a NuBus card that fits into any Mac II. It is based around the chip used in the Dynacord ADS family of samplers, and provides full 16-bit fidelity at sample rates up to 48kHz. It can play 16 voices polyphonically (in some circumstances 32), with up to 16 different timbres on as many separate MIDI channels, and it has eight audio outputs.
It uses the Macintosh in real time only for MIDI-level communications, so that it puts almost no load on the computer, which means that as many cards as you have slots for can be used simultaneously. Filling every slot in a IIfx will give 96 voices on 48 audio channels!
Installing it is a fairly involved operation. Before you put the card into the Mac, you have to load it with RAM chips. SampleCell plays its samples from on-board RAM, up to 8Mb of it. The memory is in the form of Single In-line Memory Modules (SIMMs), identical to those used in Macintoshes. The card is available from Digidesign either empty or 'pre-stuffed', the latter costing around £655 more. Frankly, you'd be insane to buy a stuffed SampleCell, because you can buy the SIMMs for less than £50 each and install them yourself, thereby saving around £290. In fact, Digidesign recommends you do just this, but they also report that there are some folks who can't be bothered and really do order the stuffed card. (Those people are invited to call me — I will happily carry out the installation for them at a bargain price, including overseas shipping.)
Installing the chips is a delicate operation, but not a difficult one, and you only have to do it once. After stuffing the card, you insert it into an empty slot inside the Mac. The eight audio outputs, in the form of four stereo 1/4" jacks, are accessible through the knockout at the back of the computer. Two cables, each with a stereo 1/4" jack on one end and two mono 1/4" jacks on the other, are provided.
Next you have to load all the software. First, you must copy the SampleCell Driver into your System Folder. Then copy the SampleCell Editor application (none of the software is copy-protected), as well as a special version of Digidesign's excellent sample editing program Sound Designer II SC, on to your hard disk. Then, unless you already have them, copy the MIDI Manager 2.0 files — the Apple MIDI Driver, and the MIDI Manager INIT — into your System Folder, and install the Patch Bay DA with Font/DA Mover or Suitcase. (There's also a Patch Bay application, but the DA is more convenient, at least until System 7 comes out - but that's another story).
Finally, there's the sample library. It comes on a CD ROM, which contains no fewer than 630 megabytes of samples. (A few samples also come on floppy disks, but they're really just a tease.) If you don't have a CD ROM player, you'll need to get one to take advantage of the library, and you'll have to install the player's CDEV into your System Folder as well. And don't forget to watch out for those nasty SCSI ID conflicts.
The SampleCell Editor is used to configure the SampleCell card. It is logical, and very Mac-like, and it provides you with most of the features one expects from a top-of-the-line sampler. Opening the program puts an empty bank, the highest level of the software's hierarchy, on the screen. A bank consists of up to 16 'instruments', which are arranged like fader modules on a mixer. Level, MIDI Channel, audio output selection (one of the four stereo pairs) and pan, mute and solo, and high and low MIDI note limits are set in each module. Several banks can be open at once. Each bank addresses one SampleCell card, but you can have more than one bank controlling the same card if you wish, and by switching between them you can instantaneously change the card's configuration.
For more elaborate editing, there are also several icons in each module that open windows when you click on them. The Sample Map window assigns different samples across the keyboard for multisampling, and also selects 'zones' for velocity switching between samples. Up to 20 keyboard regions, or 'keygroups', can be set up, and within each keygroup, up to three different samples can be velocity switched. There is, however, no velocity cross-fading.
The samples themselves are not edited within the SampleCell Editor, that's the job of the Sound Designer II SC program that comes with the package, which also lets you use sounds from external hardware samplers in SampleCell. You can run both programs in MultiFinder (assuming there's enough memory in your Mac), but after a sample has been edited in Sound Designer, which works only with data on disk, it must be re-loaded into the SampleCell card. This is quite straightforward, but it can take a little while if the sample is a large one.
You can do some things to a sample in the editor software, however, and these functions are accessed by double-clicking on an individual sample within the Map window. You can tune the sample, edit its sustain and release loops (if any), adjust the amplitude of the sample relative to the others in the instrument, edit the sample start point, edit the MIDI root note, and set whether the sample plays forwards or backwards (in backwards mode the loops are disabled). You can also set an individual pan position for the sample (actually the entire keygroup), so that you can stretch multi-samples across the keyboard and create stereo images out of several mono samples.
Another window is called Miscellaneous Functions. Here, the instrument can be detuned by up to four octaves, in hundredths of a semitone. Also, parameters for voice re-triggering and note priority are set up, MIDI volume and keyboard tracking are enabled or disabled (keyboard tracking is normally disabled for sound effects and drums), pitchbend range is determined, a non-linear velocity curve can be set up, and a crossfading function can be enabled. This last feature is used when two instruments are assigned to the same MIDI channel: it modifies their velocity curves so that one responds at low velocities and the other at high. It is an adequate, if slightly clumsy, substitute for the true velocity cross-fading found in some other samplers.
The window also has two 'auxiliary' sends for the instrument, each with its own level control and switch for pre or post-main fader operation. These outputs are designed to be used to add processing to the signal, and they can be dynamically controlled in software, so that the amount of signal being processed can be time, volume, or controller-dependent, opening up all sorts of expressive possibilities.
"The graphical interface and large high-resolution screen of the Macintosh are very well suited to editing audio, on either a macroscopic or a microscopic scale."
Opening another window displays three ADSR envelopes. Besides offering a graphic display and adjustment of the envelope, you can choose an overall level for the envelope, a Gate Time, which is the minimum amount of time the sustain segment will sound (useful for long drum samples), and whether the envelope will track the keyboard, ie. get shorter as the pitch goes up.
Envelope 3 is 'hard-wired' to the amplitude of the sample, while the other two envelopes' mod destinations are user-definable in the Matrix Modulation window, which is the most powerful section of the SampleCell Editor software. Matrix Modulation allows up to 16 real-time control paths to be defined, each with a source and a destination, chosen from pop-up menus. A source can be a MIDI note number, note-on or note-off velocity, channel pressure (polyphonic aftertouch is not supported), pitch bend, mod wheel, sustain pedal, or one of two user-definable controllers (each instrument can have its own distinct pair of definable controllers).
You can also choose a random number generator; a ramp generator with adjustable time; two LFOs, each with selectable speed, amplitude, sync, and waveform; or any of the three envelopes. In addition, there is a Tracking Generator, a user-definable transfer function consisting of four line segments, which can set up non-linear control slopes (for example, a pressure curve that is not sensitive at low values but very sensitive at higher ones).
Possible matrix destinations are: pitch; volume; panning; sample select (normally connected to velocity so as to enable velocity-switching, but you can also use a controller like a foot pedal to determine which sample will sound the next time you hit a key); sample start point; the overall amplitude of any of the three envelopes or the level of any individual envelope segment; the speed or amplitude of either of the LFOs; the level of one of the auxiliary sends.
Each modulation path can be scaled, either negatively or positively, so a source can be used to change one parameter one way, and another parameter in the opposite direction simultaneously. The amount of flexibility this scheme gives the user is tremendous, and the simple and direct way it is laid out on the screen makes it easy to use.
The veteran sampler user will notice an important omission from this list of destinations: filters. The Dynacord chip in SampleCell (as in the Dynacord samplers) does not allow dynamic filtering. This indicates a major difference in philosophy between Dynacord and Roland or Emu (to name but two examples), for whom filtering is an important feature. In those manufacturers' products, filters can produce timbral changes based on note number, velocity, or other factors, and when they are used intelligently it can mean that fewer samples are needed to create high-quality patches over a wide dynamic and pitch range.
SampleCell's approach is quite the opposite: to get the best range, use lots of samples. It is not an absolute position — you can, for example, change a sample's Start Time with velocity, which is a highly effective way of relating attack time and timbre to loudness, and the previously mentioned envelope tracking is good for extending pitch ranges — but it indicates that the unit is more oriented towards 'realistic' sample playback than the more creative, 'synthetic' sound modification that samplers with filters can accomplish. A reasonable trade-off perhaps, but it's unfortunate that the only way you could get SampleCell to produce those ethereal filter-swept voices that come with the Roland S770 would be to sample the S770.
All samplers have to deal with a vast amount of data, and how well a sampler handles this task contributes significantly to its usability. The SampleCell Editor's approach to this is, like the rest of the program, logical and well thought-out.
Instruments and banks are merely sets of parameters, and take up very little room in storage — the samples themselves are what you have to worry about. When a new instrument is saved, or an old instrument is saved in a new location, the samples are not saved with it — they remain where they were, and the instrument 'remembers' the file path it took to load in the sample the first time.
Similarly, a bank remembers the location of all of its constituent instruments, which are treated as separate documents. If you make changes in an instrument and then save the bank the instrument is in, the program makes sure you save the new version of the instrument as well. There is a flaw in this scheme, however, which becomes apparent if the instrument was originally loaded in from CD ROM: should you make a change in an instrument and then try to save the bank without first saving the instrument, you will get an error message explaining that you can't save the instrument because the disk is locked (CD ROMs are, by definition, locked), and the entire operation will abort. The program should instead allow you to specify a different location for the new version of the instrument.
The process of loading samples into SampleCell is not blindingly fast, especially from CD ROM. An 8Mb bank containing about 30 samples takes about three-and-a-half minutes to load from CD ROM, and even from the Macintosh internal hard disk it takes over two-and-a-half minutes. Compare this to an S770 (admittedly, a very fast-loading machine), which loads a 16Mb patch containing over 40 samples from a Syquest drive in 40 seconds. I suspect this relative sloth is due to the way the Macintosh passes data to and from the SCSI bus, and therefore speeding things up may not be easy — although Digidesign says they are working hard on it. This is still a good deal faster than using the MIDI Sample Dump Standard, but then again a drunk turtle is faster than the MIDI Sample Dump Standard!
One feature that helps ameliorate the speed problem is the facility to audition a sample without actually loading it. In addition, you can edit instruments and even save and load them while a sequence is playing them, which is not something most samplers can do, especially not while in multitimbral mode.
When you are done creating a bank, you can close the SampleCell Editor application, and the card will stay configured just as you set it up. You can then use it as a MIDI instrument with a sequencer or any other application, and it will continue to perform until you turn the power off. If you want to make adjustments in the bank or the instruments, you can re-load the Editor program, and it will pick up just where you left off.
If you want to create your own samples for SampleCell, you need some additional hardware to do it. You can use a MIDI sampler, in which case the samples have to be transferred into the Mac using Sound Designer II SC, or you can use one of Digidesign's recording systems: Sound Tools or Audiomedia.
If you have Sound Tools, all the functions you need to record, edit, and play back samples are in the version of Sound Designer II that comes with that system (you use the Sound Accelerator card to listen to the samples as you edit them), and you don't need to use the SC version of the program that comes with SampleCell at all. If you have Audiomedia, however, you will need Sound Designer II SC, because the Audiomedia software has no provisions for creating loops. Thus you would record samples in Audiomedia and immediately open them in Sound Designer II SC for editing. If you're using an external sampler, Sound Designer II SC will happily deal with MIDI, RS422, or SCSI transfers.
Alternatively, you can create files with Turbosynth or Deck, Opcode's Studio Vision, or Passport's Alchemy, or you can even use Macintosh .SND resources created by Farallon's MacRecorder or the recording hardware built into the newest Macs. All of these files can be edited in Sound Designer II SC, and that program contains a driver for playing the edited sounds directly from the SampleCell card.
"One feature that helps ameliorate the speed problem is the facility to audition a sample without actually loading it."
If you're not inclined to record your own samples, the CD ROM library that comes with SampleCell could keep you busy for a good long time. There are some 617 instruments on the disk, comprising over 2000 samples (don't do a 'Get Info' on the Samples folder on the disk, or you'll lose the use of your computer for half an hour), and they range from orchestral winds and strings, through a number of grand pianos, electric guitars and ethnic percussion, to a set of StarWars/Robocop-style sound effects. They were created mostly by Prosonus, and are uniformly excellent in quality (but no, I didn't check all of them).
You should be warned, however, that some of them are very, very big. Multimegabyte instruments abound, and one Bosendorfer grand piano takes up nearly 8Mb. If this is a ploy to get you to buy more SampleCell cards, it's pretty effective. Many of the instruments are also provided in 'Lite' versions, which use fewer samples and sound very nearly as good, but are still not all that small. To those of us who used to load entire orchestras from floppy disks, it's remarkable to think that you could easily use up a full eight meg of RAM long before you're finished designing the 16 instruments in a bank.
Digidesign concede that portions of their library could be considered overkill, and tell me that other libraries for SampleCell, available soon from various third parties, will make more modest demands on memory. In the meantime, having an extensive library all ready when a new sampler is introduced is an excellent way to make sure people are able to put the sampler to good use right away, and makes for very happy users.
The audio performance of SampleCell is superb. I didn't carry out any formal tests on it, but I did record 20 seconds of a Telarc CD of a Beethoven piano concerto on to hard disk using Sound Tools, and then loaded the file into SampleCell. When I started both sample and CD simultaneously, and A/B-switched them in the monitors, I could hear absolutely no difference in terms of dynamic range, noise, distortion, or stereo separation.
I did manage to find a few bugs in the software, none of them particularly serious. Digidesign took them seriously, however, and as I reported them, they quickly sent out new versions to me with fixes — in one case, I received an update 15 hours after reporting a bug, and that included time for a transcontinental flight! The documentation is quite good, although like most manuals it could use more tutorial material, especially concerning the Modulation Matrix.
The software runs acceptably fast, except when loading samples, although screen updates seem to take a long time — something that Deck, which the main screen bears more than a passing resemblance to, is also guilty of. Since there is no external connection for passing MIDI to SampleCell, when you play it from a sequencer you must use Apple's MIDI Manager system software, which does slow things down, but only from a display standpoint — the actual MIDI response seems just fine. However, if you're using SampleCell concurrently with playing or recording hard disk audio (for example, with Studio Vision) — that is, using all of the parts of the Digidesign 'workstation' — you might actually run into trouble, depending on what computer you are using.
My results with a IIex were less than satisfactory: there were constant disk errors when playing audio, and the program frequently stalled. Opcode has plans to introduce an alternative operating system to MIDI Manager which may well solve these problems, but it wasn't available for testing at press time. With a IIci or another faster machine, I am told by reliable sources, performance with Studio Vision is fine.
On the subject of older, smaller machines, there is a lot of confusing information floating around about expansion chassis that will let you mount multiple SampleCell cards into a 3-slot Mac. Apparently the only such device that works for sure is from a company called Second Wave. Some of the first SampleCell cards produced won't work with it, but Digidesign is offering an upgrade to those early buyers at a nominal fee.
SampleCell is most definitely a worthy companion to Sound Tools, and it represents a big step towards fulfilling the promise of a true Macintosh audio workstation at a low price. It sounds great, is a joy to programme, and provides nearly all the flexibility you could want from a high-end sampler.
It should find itself equally at home in both music and post-production applications. Since the number of tracks available from a Macintosh hard disk system will always be a limiting factor, it makes perfect sense to 'offload' one-shot or repeating sound effects into a sampler and trigger them via MIDI, thus leaving the hard disk tracks free for dialogue and acoustic music, and this is something that can be done extremely simply and quickly with SampleCell.
SampleCell is certainly the most expandable, and at the same time the most integrated sampler ever. The beauty of having a mega-sampler inside a computer is that you have a common source of samples — on hard disk, CD ROM, or whatever — that can be freely exchanged over a large network without shuffling floppies, disconnecting SCSI cables, and all the other silly things that many hardware samplers force you to do when you're using more than one unit.
Putting the user interface on a Mac screen is also a major plus, in that the operating system becomes as fast and simple to use as any other Macintosh application. Although there are samplers out there whose operating system can be considered to be in the same league as SampleCell, there aren't many of them, and they are very expensive.
Should you get it? That depends. If you already have a fast Mac II which you are using for audio, SampleCell is an incredible bargain, even after you add the price of a CD ROM player, especially considering that you get Sound Designer and a large, useful library thrown in. If you don't need a zillion voices right away, you don't have to pay for them, yet the system is expandable more easily and cheaply than any conventional sampler could ever be.
On the other hand, if you've already invested in a high-end sampler, such as an S770, Emu EIII, or Akai S1000 or S1100, and you like it, have plenty of voices for it, and have it well integrated into your system (and especially if you don't have a Mac II), then there are no compelling reasons to replace it with SampleCell. You could sell the sampler, but you won't get enough cash for it to buy everything you need: besides the computer (already overpriced), you have to pay for the monitor, keyboard, hard disk, recording hardware, and CD ROM player. On the other hand, if you're willing to take the short-term loss (not to mention the time to transfer your sample library to Mac disks), it might put you in a good position for expansion in the future.
Finally, if what you really want is a 48Mb sampler with 96 voices and 48 discrete outputs, integrated with a hard disk digital audio system and running from a single graphic-oriented front-end, you simply have no choice other than SampleCell — unless you're prepared to spend an order of magnitude more money. And that other system won't let you play Crystal Quest.
Paul D. Lehrman is a composer, author, and teacher in Boston, Massachusetts, and a regular contributor to Sound On Sound and Audio Media.
SampleCell (0 Mb version) £1495 inc VAT. 8 Mb version £2150 inc VAT.
Sound Technology plc, (Contact Details).
Review by Paul D. Lehrman
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