Dr T's/Virtual Sounds Samplemaker
From the American Dr Ts comes an Atari ST program capable of additive, FM, AM and multiwaveform synthesis as well as sample editing. Chris Meyer asks if facilities are everything.
Over two years in the making, this program for the Atari ST boasts some of the most powerful synthesis features currently available.
AN ANALOGY: WHAT if someone offered you more money than you could imagine, but at a slower rate than you're making it now? Would you take it or turn it down? Would you wait for the next revision? Such is my dilemma in this review.
BRIEFLY, SAMPLEMAKER WILL run on any Atari ST (from 520 upwards, with colour or monochrome monitor) and has two main purposes in life: to create sounds using a "modular" combination of additive, FM, AM, waveshaping, and multi-waveform synthesis techniques; and to function as a medium-complexity sample waveform editor. The samples analysed or created with SampleMaker can be up or downloaded to or from Prophet 2000/2002, Akai S900, Ensoniq Mirage and EPS, E-mu Emax, Casio FZ1, and any sampler supporting the Sample Dump Standard. One sample may be used alongside SampleMaker's synthesis techniques in the creation of a new sound.
When I first caught wind of SampleMaker back in 1986, I was so enthused by the possibilities of unlimited synthesis capabilities that I wanted to purchase it sight unseen on the spot. Unfortunately, it wasn't available. And it remained unavailable, until I saw an ad for it just before the June 1988 NAMM show. I went to NAMM, cheque book in back pocket - this time my overloaded credit cards stopped me. However, as luck would have it, a review copy landed on my desk a few months later.
By now, most of you have probably jumped to the last paragraph to read the conclusion. For those who stuck around for this one, I'll give you a clue now: SampleMaker is indeed an extremely powerful synthesis program and rudimentary sample editor that can create unique sounds and download them into any of several sampling keyboards. However, this version of the program is painfully slow to work with, with a 1986-standard user interface. The bright side of the coin is that the potential is there, and Dr Ts (along with the program's author, Bill Rosenkranz) seem extremely honest and open-minded about improving and speeding up SampleMaker. In fact, an incremental revision that might see some user interface polishing should be out by the time you read this.
SampleMaker comes on two single-sided disks - one with the program (copy-protected) and desktop; the other with a number of demo files. Most of the demo files (over 40) are encoded with the ARC data compaction utility; a copy of the utility and clear instructions on how to use it are included. All in all, you get four single-sided disks-worth of sounds for free (good move). The manual is typical Dr Ts small-format (fatiguing to read, if your contact lenses are giving you trouble), with the front fifth dedicated to an addendum for changes between versions 1.5 and 1.51. The addendum is very well written, and aside from feature changes, mentions such helpful things as tricks to speed up operation, how to deal with each sampler, and even a short section on how to protect yourself from computer viruses. The main manual also starts off well at holding your hand, but quickly moves to assuming too much knowledge (and anticipating too few questions). Back in its favor, there are a number of extra useful tables, such as the frequencies of musical pitches and what sample rates were best to choose to loop these.
SampleMaker is not yet MPE (Multi Program Environment - Dr Ts "switcher" for the Atari ST) compatible, but it does have the usual Dr Ts touch of the whole screen becoming a virtual MIDI keyboard for trying out sounds on the sampler. All communications are done via MIDI - no RS422 or SCSI yet (however, this too may change).
BILL ROSENKRANZ DECLARED his original intention was to start with something that imitated a Yamaha DX7's FM synthesis, and then tried to expand it (I'm also reminded, to an extent, of Buchla's Model 400). What he ended up with was a grid of 60 "operators" (self-contained sound-producing modules, akin to the DX7's six operators - Casio CZ users should think of "lines" and Kawai K1 people, "sources") that can be interconnected in a number of ways. The structure of an operator is shown in Figure 1.
SampleMaker gives you five common waveshapes to play with, along with a noise source and a sample (the manual also suggests that you can create an arbitrary waveshape in the sample editor portion of the program and use that via the load sample option). The sample may play through once, or repeat over and over. The basic pitch of this oscillator may be set to 0.01 Hz precision (a sample plays back at its original pitch; noise is noise). You may also start a given percentage of the way into a sample, if you don't want to use the attack portion and so on.
The frequency of the oscillator may be changed by an envelope (any one of nine in the program; each has ten points that you may position yourself), an LFO (again, the program has nine; each one may have one of five typical waveshapes plus noise, and has a frequency range of 0.01-9.99Hz), and, more importantly, three FM (frequency modulation) inputs. You can "plug" any of the 60 operators (including the one you're working on) into these inputs. The input level (modulation index, for FM devotees) is scaled from 0.01-99.99. An input level of 100 corresponds to a modulation level of several hundred on a DX7, which normally only goes up to 99 - this is one of many instances where SampleMaker gives you considerable parameter control.
"The sounds I've heard come out of SampleMaker offer a welcome alternative to the polished sheen of typical additive and FM sounds."
The loudness of the operator may also be changed in several ways. First, there's an AM (amplitude modulation - very similar to ring modulation) input, that should be familiar to those who have worked with the Kawai K1, Roland LA series, Ensoniq ESQ1 or SQ80, and Casio CZ or VZ series. Essentially, the level of the signal coming out of the oscillator at any given moment is multiplied by whatever is plugged into that input (again, any of the 60 operators). The results are very distorted or bell-like sounds. A loudness envelope and LFO follow, which live by the same rules as the pitch modulations. The output gain is adjustable (again) from 0.01-99.99. SampleMaker automatically scans the sound for the highest level and scales it so it doesn't clip - a sensible precaution, but being a rock 'n' roll type, I wished it had let me overload from time to time.
One element you may not recognise is the Waveshaper (see Figure 2). Essentially, this is a little table of numbers that takes the incoming waveshape, and remaps it to a waveshape that you draw (with up to 20 points, the two endpoints are fixed). So, for example, if you feed a ramp wave into the waveshaper, you can remap it so that a signal level of 10% of the full scale comes out at 50%; 20% input comes out as 40% and so on. This feature (first seen on the similarly-configured Buchla 400) facilitates considerable modification of the sound. Again, you can define up to nine waveshape tables, and any operator can use any ane of the nine tables (in the case of the waveshaper, LFO, and EQ, number "0" means no effect at all).
All in all, SampleMaker gives you more power than any other currently available synthesis program. Still, it has a couple of frustrating shortcomings: there is no gain control for a signal going into the waveshaper, for one (although Rosenkranz has mentioned the possibility of adding another input before the waveshaper). Another problem arises when you have an operator frequency modulating itself (feedback, a la the DX7) as it too is neither dynamic nor filtered. Again, Rosenkranz is considering having a generalised element for enveloping signals in version 2.0 (along with delays and any number of DSP functions). Finally, you'll run out of the ten envelopes in a complex patch faster than you'll run out of operators. I'd hope to see the number of these increased in the future.
Now to the real question: how does all this sound? Well, you have enough operators to experiment with additive synthesis, the controlled "dirtiness" of AM, and the chance to play with waveshaping. And from these different elements you can create some very complex sounds. The sounds I've heard come out of SampleMaker (Dr Ts examples and my own work) have a hazier, dirtier air, which offer a welcome alternative to the polished sheen of typical additive and FM sounds.
THE OTHER GREAT attraction of SampleMaker is using it as a generalised sample editor. The package is fairly workmanlike. You can see the whole sample, or zoom into a smaller portion of it by adjusting the sliders along the bottom of the screen and hitting "set zoom" (see Figure 3). The sliders also tell you how far (time- or sample-wise) you are into the sample. You can then move along the sample by increments of the zoom you've selected. To see a larger portion, you have to "unzoom" and start again (not as flexible as other editors; again, more flexibility is promised in version 2.0). At the higher degrees of zoom, you can edit the sample point-by-point by grabbing a spot and moving it around. I found this a great way of performing micro-editing - better than using the mouse to redraw a waveshape.
From this point you can perform all the usual operations involved in sample editing: set loop points, cut and paste, scale the amplitude (including using an EG to re-envelope a sample), merge two samples together, and reverse or invert a section of the sample. You can't perform crossfades or a crossfade looping directly - to execute this, the manual takes you through how to alter two different soundfiles and then merge them together. As I said, this isn't a full-featured editor, but it does contain most of the essential functions.
SampleMaker does have FFT (Fast Fourier Transform - a convenient way of looking at the harmonic spectrum of the sound over time), which I found particularly handy for seeing what sort of bandwidth my sound was taking up, and therefore how low a sample rate I could get by with to conserve memory. The viewing bandwidth and angle are fixed, however, meaning that you don't get a lot in the way of resolution.
"The Waveshaper is essentially a little table of numbers that takes an incoming waveshape, and remaps it to a waveshape that you draw."
In practice, I found the sample editing portion of the program useful in only basic ways. I was able to get a glitch out of a sound by dragging an errant point around, and I was able to impose a new envelope on an overly-compressed electric bass sample. I was also able to trim silence off the attack of a sample, and look at a waveform and accurately guess good loop points. But when it comes to heavy-duty (or even slightly above medium-duty) sample manipulation, I found myself without the proverbial free lunch - it isn't a replacement for dedicated sample editors.
ASIDE FROM THE above facilities, SampleMaker has other neat touches, such as copy utilities, help screens, and even the ability to format a disk from inside the program. On the other hand, I have numerous bones to pick about using the program overall. It is s l o w - both to find your way around and in number-crunching time.
The "novice" mode of the program is the best example of the former. In this mode SampleMaker gives you a help message before every action - great for steering around for the first time. However, the default option after accessing a function or encountering a dialogue box is Cancel instead of the normal OK, which means the program is always trying to turn you back instead of urging you forward. This is the usual way SampleMaker treats you. It may change by v1.52, and will change by v2.0 (where a window-based, random-access user interface is intended).
Other disturbing quirks to the user interface exist as well, such as after you have synthesised a sample on the main screen, you can't hear it on the Atari's eight-bit speaker or download it to your sampler until you move to the Sample Editing screen. You also can't edit any part of a sound or synthesise your sound from the Sample Edit screen - the two are frustratingly mutually exclusive. Similarly, whenever you edit an envelope, LFO, or wavetable, you have to exit to the main screen before you can edit another, instead of moving sideways. All in all, I was making far more mouse strokes and clicks than I was expecting.
SampleMaker also takes a long time to turn your doodlings into a sample - I was working on a sound that used just three of the 60 operators, was at a sample rate of 31.25kHz, and was three seconds in length. It took just short of two hours to calculate the sound. Re-enveloping a four-second bass guitar sample took over 15 minutes.
The manual suggests using shorter sample lengths for experimenting, and then going to full length for a final crunch (sample rate, length of sample, and complexity of patch all contribute to making the crunch time longer or shorter). However, the envelopes are always scaled over the full length of the sample - so, if you change the length of the sample, you change the rates of your envelopes (thereby changing your sound). The envelopes are also always made to fit on one screen, so when you have a three-second sound, just a few pixels on the screen mean tenths of a second - making it nearly impossible to accurately dial in a complex attack. Again, Rosenkranz and Dr Ts are working on ways of speeding the number crunching up.
On the other hand, that two-hour sound I created above sounds good, is unique, and happens to transpose cleanly over the entire transposition range of my sampler. In other words, the time was in no way wasted.
SO, THE FINAL to buy (or not) is fairly simple; SampleMaker is very powerful, and allows you to create sounds you won't get any other way but the program (as it now stands) is very slow to use.
The next update will be a little quicker to use, and version 2.0 should make SampleMaker world-class. Do you wait, or buy and play now? Your decision - but I'm glad to see software like this even exists. If we don't keep coming up with new sounds for our samplers, everybody's gonna get pretty bored sooner or later...
Price £249 including VAT
More from MCMXCIX, (Contact Details).