Akai S900 Editor for the Atari ST
This comprehensive visual sample-editing package from America could be the answer to many S900 owner's prayers. Vic Lennard says: have ST will travel.
Visual sample editors: necessity or luxury? The price of Drumware's Soundfiler takes it out of the "luxury" range but do its facilities justify its cost?
OVER THE PAST two years or so, samplers have come into their own within the semi-professional music market. From the relatively humble origins of the eight-bit Mirage to modern 16-bit machines like the Prophet 3000, Emulator III and Casio FZ1, "affordable" sampling has ensured that there are now few eight- or 16-track studios without it.
However, one side of most samplers still leaves much to be desired. While a Fairlight III (big bucks) or a Synclavier (mega bucks) has an integral visual display, most samplers make do with a minimal display. OK, the FZ1 actually draws waveforms on its screen, but this is no substitute for a full-blown visual editor on a computer monitor.
Many people still regard the Akai S900 as the flagship of 12-bit samplers having a sound quality practically comparable with many 16-bit machines due to restricted linearity in the A/D and D/A converters of the latter. Although it has a user-friendly display ("Oops, bad data on disk"), an editor is particularly necessary for accurate looping. (See The Art of Looping in December '87 and January '88 issues.)
Until now, visual editors for the S900 have been rather thin on the ground. Steinberg's SoundWorks doesn't, in my opinion and that of most of the people with whom I have worked, really deliver the goods. But Drumware, an American company, have brought out Soundfiler for the Atari 520/1040, which follows hot on the heels of their much-acclaimed S700/X7000 editor, and provides many facilities not available on the Akai.
WHAT'S IT DO? Soundfiler can deal with all standard S900 sampling and programming functions with the exclusion of certain v2.0 facilities like active VCF and crossfade time skew. Six voice buffers exist (although one is kept primarily for undoing edits); waveforms and ADSR envelopes can be drawn freehand with the mouse; complete or part samples an be saved to Atari disk, amplified, attenuated or normalised to give optimum signal-to-noise ratio; there are five different types of digital equalisation, and S900 samples an be converted into Sample Dump Standard format allowing transfer of sounds over MIDI between Prophet 2000/2002, Emax... Still interested? Read on.
SOUNDFILER USES DISK copy protection without a dongle and boots up to confront you with the Loop/Draw page. Dropping the Akai menu and clicking on Sample Catalog will open a window showing all samples in S900 memory, which has - of course - been turned on and set to omni on. A click on any sample will bring up sample details including sample rate and bandwidth, length of sample and most importantly, how long the sample will take to transfer. Problem one - data transfer is ssslow. As MIDI operates at a fixed baud of 31.25kHz, moving samples between S900 and computer takes about six minutes for a full disk - so make a cup of tea and watch the latest episode of Neighbours.
A click on Get Sample will transfer the chosen sample to the Atari and the waveform is actually drawn in the lower (memory display) window as the data enters the computer. Once loaded, the sample is in One-shot mode. By dragging the pointers above and below the memory 'display window, new start and end points can be set. Now click on either Looping or Alternate modes and the bottom (end loop) pointer will position itself backwards to set the point from which the loop will start. At the same time as these pointers are being dragged, the larger upper (magnification) window is continuously scrolling the waveform, either in two halves, to display the end of the loop on the left-hand side and the start of the loop on the right-hand side (Looping/Altemate modes), or as a single window (One-shot mode). Magnification is possible in any mode from a ratio of one sample up to 64 samples per screen pixel. There's another small window between the memory display and magnification ones which displays the number of sample points from the start of the sample along with the time elapsed in milliseconds. This window will alter its information depending upon which mode you happen to be in - start/end point in One-shot or start of loop/end in looping modes.
To the right of the magnification window is the tool box - a variety of windows and toggle switches allowing the user to process the currently displayed sample. A waveform can be drawn from scratch or an existing curve slightly redrawn by using the Draw function - useful if no convenient loop point can be found.
Ah yes, looping - the principal reason for the existence of visual editors. You'll find four arrows at the bottom of the tool box which allow the start and end loop portions displayed in the magnification window to be moved either left or right, and above these are two smaller arrows which will zoom in or out. The following procedure will usually give good loops: move the pointers on the memory display and find a loop which sounds about right, ignoring any glitches. Zoom out to a factor of 5 or 6 and get a picture of the general waveshape around the prospective looping point. Now zoom back to 1 to see specifically where the sample is crossing the middle line - the zero crossing point. Moving the two loop halves will allow a good loop to be formed most of the time. All these procedures will have been sent in real time to the S900 so long as the sample in the Atari is also the selected sample in the Akai. To hear the edit, either press Play on the S900 or click on the quaver icon on Soundfiler. If the loop on the original sample is better than after editing, a click on Recall Loop will do just that.
Visual editing is particularly useful when setting an alternating loop. Two loop points exist in this case, one where the sound reaches the tail end and reverses, and another where the sound comes back to the start of the loop and then reverses. Now, as long as the loop portions either side of the central vertical line match up, a normal loop will probably be glitch-free but with an alternating one, the two portions must meet in a horizontal line so that there is no sudden change of direction. Visually this can be achieved with a relatively high rate of success. I do have three gripes in this area - first, the central line is too thick making loops difficult to see at times; second, the lack of a vertical scale makes comparison of amplitudes awkward; and third, the inability to zoom vertically makes the setting up of short, low amplitude end loops impossible - you have to rely on the S900's autoloop.
Crossfade looping and linear fades are also implemented from the tool box. On the S900, crossfade looping is possible up to 32,000 points, while with Soundfiler the number of possible points is limited only by the length of the loop. Of course, as a portion before the start loop is taken, if the start of the loop is near the beginning of the sample, this presents a further limitation. It is quite amazing how easy it is to eliminate a loud glitch by using between 200 and 1000 points, so long as the sample sounds as if the loop is right. Linear fading is a technique which is not available on the S900 - set up looping points, click on Fade and a linear fade is performed, particularly useful in One-shot mode when a sample ends either abruptly or noisily. As most S900 users are aware, samples with long release times prior to v1.2 are inclined to be extremely hissy - these can now be edited.
In both of the last two cases, the samples have actually been altered and so must be sent back to the sampler to be heard. This can be a tedious affair, and I would definitely advise that crossfade looping be carried out on the Akai itself, having set up the start and end loop positions on Soundfiler. If the edit is unsatisfactory, the Undo function on the Atari can be used to get the sample back prior to the last edit. Soundfiler achieves this by always placing a copy of a sample prior to an edit in voice buffer six and can then recall it if asked to undo the edit.
With regard to sending samples back to the S900, here come another two gripes: first of all, as the sample is being returned, a small window in the top right-hand comer of the tool box counts through in blocks from 0 to 127 continuously until the transfer is completed. Now, I realise that this is supposed to represent the packets of sample data, but surely it would have been more sensible to have used a timer to show the amount of time still to go until the end of the transfer. Also, Soundfiler cannot change the length of a sample - if the start or end points have been altered then the Discard function on the S900 has to be used after transfer, a small point perhaps but as the Akai automatically resets to sample 0 when transference is complete, mistakes can easily occur if there are a lot of samples in memory.
Warnings - for heaven's sake, don't erase samples in the S900 memory without then clicking on Sample Catalog to inform Soundfiler of the changes otherwise disasters will occur. Each sample in memory is assigned a number between 0 and 31 by Soundfiler and if one is then erased the rest move up one to fill the space left. Unless Soundfiler realises this, it will continue to edit the sample number which will now be a different sample - ouch. Even worse catastrophies will follow - on a permanent basis - if a sample is then transferred to the wrong memory location.
NEXT ON THE guided tour comes the Envelope page. This comprises four principal areas - the memory display, now renamed Workspace, the envelope drawing window, the tool box including the clipboard which is a buffer for temporarily holding part of a sample, and a viewing window located in the top left-hand comer which displays the same information as the magnification window but without the zoom facility.
Basically, this page allows you to draw the required amplitude for a sample and to then combine this new envelope with the original sample. To hear this new sound means transferring the sample back to the S900 - again tedious, but very useful for evening out poorly sampled sounds as well as allowing slow attacks and non-linear fades to be set up as part of the sample.
Using the clipboard, cutting and pasting together of samples is possible. The part of the sample between the start and end pointers can be copied to Atari disk (or RAM disk) and the rest of the workspace cleared. The saved portion can now be replaced or inserted back into the workspace from the start pointer position and, if necessary, copied to another voice buffer to allow a similar process to be repeated with a different sample. This manner of splicing is far easier to perform than the splice page on the S900, and more flexible. Phase inversion and sample reversing are also possible by using the relevant functions.
Samples can be normalised or cut/boosted by 6dB. Normalisation is a process whereby the largest amplitude through a sample is extended to the limit of the memory display, and every sample point is then proportionately increased, thus maximising the S/N ratio. This process is particularly important due to the fact that the record meter in the S900 is crude and rather inaccurate. A cut/boost of 6dB doubles or halves the amplitude of the waveform which leads to the final clipboard function - Merge. One severe drawback of the S900 is the lack of facility to properly mix two samples. Anyone who has tried to do so by using the splice page with both samples commencing at the same time will have found that unless both samples are of exactly the same length, weird things happen. The second sample is stretched or compressed to fit the space available for the first, resulting in the second sample's tuning being affected. Merge allows two sounds to be mixed in equal amounts, each sample having been first normalised and one of them saved to the clipboard. Clipping shouldn't occur as the overall amplitude is automatically reduced.
...THE EQUALISER. This page facilitates five different types of digital EQ coupled with the ability to keep the final amplitude from clipping. The different EQ's are: high and low shelf with a 12dB/octave butterworth response which act as treble and bass controls respectively; peak equaliser which is a single-band parametric; notch filter which allows a chosen frequency to be cut by a selected amount; and bandpass filter which will cut/boost frequencies outside a selected band. This process is very slow - it took over five minutes to process a 12-second gong sample and over two hours elapsed before I had achieved the required result. Why? Because if the sample is mit hiss, the process is rather hit miss! Remember also that after each edit, the sample has to be transferred back to the S900 before you can hear it. Surely some sort of spectrum or fast-fourier analyser could be included, otherwise this page will always have untapped potential due to the lack of enough hours in the day.
SOUNDFILER WILL ALLOW program alterations on four different pages. The first of these is obtained by clicking on Program Catalog from the Akai menu which will display the programs resident in the S900. A click on any particular program will obtain the necessary data from the Akai and display it in a window from which either soft or loud samples may be assigned. Unless v2.0 software is loaded, loud samples will usually not be acknowledged and even with the v2.0, software, there appear to be problems. The S900 will allow velocity cross-switching but not velocity crossfading because it doesn't really set up a crossfade sample acceptable to the S900. Instead of crossfading, an echo appears. Also, the S900 had problems giving the note at which a sound had been sampled on page 7 of Edit Program.
OK, now for creating the range for each sample within a program. The Keymap page shows the keyboard horizontally at the bottom of the page and the samples in two columns vertically on the left-hand side. Ranges can be set by double clicking on the lowest or highest note of the range and then, holding down the left mouse button, moving the cursor to the other end of the range and releasing the mouse. In practice, this is rather cumbersome - I found myself selecting keygroups with Soundfiler and then setting their ranges on the S900. What a pity that Drumware didn't implement the grid style of the Fairlight III where the keymap page is made up of small squares and a click in a square places the sample at that note.
There are also two pages of "knobs" which allow all programming information to be seen, altered and played real-time with the software keyboard along the bottom of the page. The VCA envelope takes the form of a line jointed at three places to create four line segments - for attack, decay, release and sustain. Dragging the joints alters the envelope, easy.
The Output/MIDI page allows each sample to be assigned to any output/MIDI channel as required - really useful because the names of each keygroup can be seen at the same time.
SOUNDFILER DOESN'T HAVE processing "toys" like FM or additive synthesis but in all honesty, it's a long time since I've found a piece of software as indispensable as this one. Simple to work with and extremely powerful, Soundfiler is an absolute necessity for any S900 owner.
It isn't cheap, but then again quality software rarely is, and make no mistake - this is a well-thought-out piece of programming, despite the odd gripe. See it demonstrated - you'll be as convinced as I am.
Price £229.95 including VAT
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Review by Vic Lennard
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