Sound engineer David Mellor checks out the most boring Compact Disc in the world: Korg's first digital collection of sound samples!
David Mellor assesses Korg's first 'Sound Sampling Collection' compact disc.
What would you say to a person who paid £25 for the most boring compact disc ever produced? Before you answer, I should mention that I am 7 foot 6 and 300 pounds of solid muscle!
There I was in London's Charing Cross Road with a few quid in my pocket so I wandered into a music shop and asked what's new?
"The Korg Sound Sampling Collection CD," answered the seemingly knowledgeable assistant. Unfortunately, there was no compact disc player available for me to play it on, and those pound notes were getting a bit heavy so I decided to buy it. Nothing ventured, etc, etc.
As far as I am aware, there are already several sampling cassettes on the market but this is the first CD. The advantages are that the sound chain can be kept almost totally digital between mixer and the output of your sampler, preserving optimum sound quality. Also, if you have a more modern CD player than mine (the original 1897 wind-up model), it should be easy to set the player to continuously repeat the particular sample you want without any tedious rewinding.
This Volume 1 CD (which suggests more might be on the way) contains a range of useful instrument sounds, including drums and percussion, string bass, cello, violin, trumpet, trombone, flute, clarinet and piano. This, of course, saves instruments like the serpent and contrabass sarrusophone for Volume 2! The recordings are very high in quality, as they should be, and were made on a Sony 1630 digital system in mono. The accompanying booklet includes useful information on the frequency ranges of the instruments concerned so that you can set the bandwidth on your sampler to the most economical figure. For example, the booklet's note about the bass drum says that the fundamental tone is in the 50Hz region, with overtones two to three octaves above that. Above 5kHz there is percussive noise rather than a musical tone. This is interesting stuff and well worth a read.
There are thirty-four tracks on this CD, not the most tracks on a CD ever but nineteen more than my player can programme - it was one of the pair that Noah took on the Ark so I mustn't moan. Index points are also provided for each sample, so with a capable player it should be a doddle to make the transfer from CD to sampler. To give a quick idea of what you get for your money I shall list the percussion section:
5 timbales, cabasa, 2 tambourines, 2 cowbells, 2 guiros, woodblock, 2 vibraslaps (ouch!), belltree, sleighbells, 2 triangles.
These are all good, usable sounds-which sustain longer than those you find on percussion 'drum' machines like the Roland TR727.
The orchestral instrument samples each play fifteen or so notes covering their most useful ranges, while the piano is particularly well covered by a total of thirty-five samples. The booklet gives a full list by instrument, note, track, index and time on the disc. An interesting point is that the notes don't just go from A to G, as we are used to - they go up to H!
Fortunately, many, many years ago I had a music teacher who had the knack of making you remember useless information. The Korg CD is produced in Germany and H is the German term for our note B. Their B is our B flat. Confused? Well, at least you'll know it's not a misprint.
It's difficult to tell how useful samples are going to be until you actually get them onto a keyboard and try them out. The first problem I found was that the samples (other than drums and percussion) were too short. Yes, I know you can loop them, but it all takes time and if you are trying to achieve the sound of a real instrument it is never quite convincing. Most of the sounds last between one and two seconds. I found this to be a problem. Depending on the way you work, you may not.
Another snag is that the sounds are variable in tone quality. I multi-sampled the flute and tried to make it sound like a flute playing from the keyboard. I'm a big fan of DX-type flute sounds which can be played in a very expressive way. The multi-sampled flute was a dead loss, even after a good deal of experimentation with filter and touch parameters on my Akai sampler. It was the same with the strings. They feature the occasional 'bum note', which may add authenticity in real life but when you hear the same mistake transposed up and down it doesn't sound too good.
I found it best to pick three or four good, consistent, notes to multi-sample, which seemed a much better way of working. There is also the advantage that on the next track you record, you can use three or four different notes off the CD to prevent the 'sample-boredom' effect from setting in. I must say here that I do appreciate the difficulty in recording consistent, even notes. Taking this into consideration, Korg have done very well.
I suppose it all comes down to the moral issue. Should a sampler be used to imitate real instruments? In an ideal world the answer would be no - use a real instrument instead. For a variety of reasons, with which any composer or producer will be familiar, this is not always practical. So samplers are here to stay in this application.
A more 'honest' use of a sampler is to produce new sounds and textures. Real instruments can be the starting point for these and the Korg CD is a useful source. What I would have preferred, instead of lots of notes for multi-sampling, would have been a selection of the extraordinary range of different sounds that orchestral instruments can produce. Different attack, bowing technique, vibrato - the possibilities are endless. Since the Korg disc only lasts 35 minutes in total, there is plenty of space on the CD for more variation - come on chaps, take a few chances!
As an aside to the moral issue, I noticed the copyright warning on the CD: "All copyrights in the recorded works and in the recorded performance reserved - No lending!" It would have been nice if there was a notice saying what we were legally allowed to do - like sample the sounds and include them in commercial recordings! I'm currently awaiting a knock on the door...
Despite my criticisms (constructive, I hope), I think Korg have a good product here. Will I buy Volume 2 when it comes out? I think I probably will. Hurry up!
Available from most music stores. Distributed by Korg UK Ltd, (Contact Details).
Review by David Mellor
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