Dynacord ADS Sampler
The ADS sampler has the look and feel of a German sports car - expensive, no-nonsense, and high performance. Craig Anderton takes it for a test drive.
Dynacord has made quite a name for itself in Europe as a manufacturer of fairly costly, high quality gear. Their new rack-mount, 16-bit stereo sampler, which is also available in a keyboard version, fits right into that tradition. It offers the goods but requires a bit of work to get them.
Like any digital sampler, the ADS includes both a digital recorder and signal processors (although not effects processors). As a recorder, the 16-bit linear ADS offers two sampling rates: 44.1 and 22.05kHz. Onboard memory is two megabytes as standard (expandable to 8Mb in 2Mb increments), yielding almost 23 seconds of mono sampling at 44.1 kHz and half that for stereo. The disk drive uses HD (high density) disks to store 1.64 megabytes of data - more than the average sampler. The drive can also read Akai S900 disks - a smart move that provides an instant sound library.
A high speed SCSI (Small Computer System Interface) port transfers data to and from hard disks (check with the distributor for recommended types) and offers the potential for attaching CD ROM drives, as well as fast data transfers to and from sample editing software - SCSI is essential with multi-megabyte samplers. The ADS also supports the MIDI sample dump standard.
Sixteen dynamically allocated voices are supported, and the two-times oversampling D/A output convertors are 20-bit. This provides the additional 'headroom' (furthermore, the internal processing is 24-bit) to let all voices play back with 16-bit resolution.
So how does it sound? Unfortunately, the unit initially sent for review had a problem in the right channel that caused intermittent crackling noises. A second unit was sent amid profuse apologies, and it delivered what was expected: a clean, punchy sound with a good deal of dynamic range. In other words, well designed, 16-bit linear sampling.
Unlike some samplers that seem to colour the sound in some way, the ADS is very neutral - no zingy high end, no thin or boomy bottom. Some may find the 'processing' introduced by other samplers to be more subjectively pleasing, but with the ADS, what you get out is, within the constraints of 16-bit sampling, what you put in. I noticed no 'wandering' in the stereo field of mono signals recorded in stereo, which implies excellent phase coherency between channels.
I do miss a choice of sample rates; using 32kHz is almost like expanding the memory by 15%, since many sounds are not compromised by this sampling rate. The 22.05kHz option is okay, but limits the number of sounds you can record with satisfactory fidelity.
Speaking of recording, the ADS boasts an unusual feature called 'fusion' that resamples whatever appears at the output. For example, you could sample eight different snare drums, play them all at once, do the fusion shuffle, and end up with a monster snare sample. Or, you could use fusion to sample chords. While not the feature to end all features, for percussive sounds it's welcome and valuable.
There's also a primitive additive synthesis function, where specifying levels for up to 64 harmonics creates a two-cycle loop. This is useful for generating harmonics, transients, and other special purpose waveforms that you can 'fuse' with existing sounds. Need more of a snap on a snare hit? Create a snap sound with additive synthesis and combine it with the snare sample.
The ADS's looping is fairly standard: two loops (sustain and release) are available, with forward and bidirectional looping, as well as a non-undoable crossfade function (so remember to back up your sample first!). Not having an undo function is a bit of a pain, because if the loop doesn't work out you'll need to reload the sample from disk. You can move loop points one, 100, or 10,000 sample points at a time, or invoke an 'auto' function that doesn't provide autolooping perse, but restricts sample movement to only those samples on zero-crossings.
Recording a sound into the ADS creates a sample - a raw recording without processing. Up to three samples (triggerable by soft, medium, and loud velocities if desired) can be combined to form a sample group. Spreading up to 20 sample groups across a keyboard and editing the combined groups in various ways creates, what Dynacord call, a sound. Each sound is assigned to one of eight 'mixer' channels, which (when set for panning, level, amount of aux send, and so on) creates a mix.
All of these are stored independently on disk, a time-saving and logical approach. Suppose you have a bunch of drum samples and various mixes of these samples. You needn't load a new set of samples from disk, just mixes. Although you can't load while playing - a real pity - you can use the substantial amount of memory to hold all the samples you need and just pull different mixes from disk (a fairly fast process).
The ADS user interface is a no-frills, two-line, 16-character backlit LCD; don't expect graphic editing screens or other goodies. Parameters are selected by choosing a function (from one of 10 front panel buttons), choosing a page, selecting a parameter, then adjusting the value of the parameter. Unfortunately, the buttons are packed together so tightly that it's easy to hit the wrong one. The ADS uses a stepped 'encoder' knob for parameter selection, but I found the alternate method of holding a button and typing in a number to be faster - scrolling from 00 to 99 takes many, many turns of the encoder.
There are a lot of pages with a huge number of parameters but, unfortunately, no 'macros' that let you jump instantly to often-used pages (a la Ensoniq EPS or Roland W30).
The ADS lacks some things I've come to expect from samplers. For example, there is no analogue or digital filtering, which is a disappointment; I really rely on filters. On the other hand, this is what accounts for the degree of freedom from phase problems, so you give up one thing to get another.
The ADS also doesn't respond to polyphonic aftertouch, nor is positional crossfading between sample groups easy to do. The highest note of one sample group is automatically the lowest note of the next highest sample group; so those who use positional crossfade to 'fudge' multisample break points will need to layer sounds and use the tracking generator to create the desired crossfade curve.
As for what the ADS does have, like most modern samplers you can set (for each sample) upper/lower note limits, levels, names, forward/backward playback, tuning, and original pitch, as well as velocity thresholds for when you want to trigger different samples in a sample group at different velocities. The amplitude envelopes are ADSR-based (Attack/Decay/Sustain/Release), although the sustain can be set to decay over time. Most parameters can be modulated, and you can set a gate time so that the sample plays to its end even if you lift your finger off the key.
The really interesting portion of this instrument is its modulation system. This clearly takes a page from the venerable Oberheim Xpander, whose matrix modulation scheme set a standard back in 1984 that most other manufacturers are still trying to reach.
Let's start with the eight assignable modulation paths. For each sound (remember, a 'sound' is comprised of up to 20 sample groups with three samples per group) you can modulate pitch, panning, volume, send 1 and send 2 volume (part of the mixer module), sample start point, or the attack/decay/sustain decay/release amplitude parameters for each of three envelopes. You can also select between samples. Modulation sources are MIDI note number, velocity, release velocity, pressure, mod wheel, bend wheel, sustain pedal, any of the three envelopes, any of the two LFOs, four assignable MIDI controllers, note triggering rate, ramp generator, tracking generator, or random generator.
The ramp generator is simply an attack time generator - like the 'A' in 'ADSR'. The tracking generator accepts any modulation source and lets you bias the shape or curve along five points. For example, you can shove a linear velocity function into the tracking generator and generate an exponential velocity curve, or one that's very sensitive to notes with soft velocity, and so on.
This is not all. There are also fixed modulation paths, such as pressure (aftertouch) to LFO speed or amplitude, velocity to sound amplitude, and the like. Samples can be selected according to velocity; effect send 1 or 2 levels can be modulated by velocity or pressure; pitch responds to note number, pitch wheel, envelope 1, and/or LFO1; and panning to pressure, envelope 2, and/or LFO2. All in all, we're talking flexible, and powerful as well.
Sampling works as you'd expect: play the signal, look at the meter, set the threshold, record, listen (you can monitor while hearing the results of the A/D-D/A conversion), and resample if necessary. Normalisation, truncation, and other standard editing functions are supported.
The disk functions are also standard: format, load, save, delete, name, etc. With an expanded ADS, you'll need to save sounds on multiple disks. The ADS generates a 16-bit random number and assigns it to each disk set so that the unit 'knows' if disks are part of a set or not.
Regarding MIDI, there's a 'chain' function (what the rest of the world calls 'mapping') that lets program changes call up different mixes - handy. More importantly, each mixer channel can be assigned to its own MIDI channel and provide polyphonic information to the individual audio outputs. And speaking of polyphonic outputs, it's finally time to address...
In some ways the mixer is the heart of the ADS, but I've left it for last because it ties together everything discussed so far. Imagine assigning each sound to a mixer input module (out of a total of eight) that includes two effects sends (with controls for amount, bus select, and pre/post fader), panning, volume, mute, pitch control (octave, transpose, detune), MIDI channel and note response limits, and two different key modes (polyphonic, where playing a new note doesn't cut off existing notes - within voice number limitations, of course - and mono, where new notes cut off old ones). Note, however, that the key modes can be modified with an overlap function, which works with voice reassignment to allow such things as having old notes decay faster when a new note is played. There's even a way to crossfade between channels. Up to 50 mixes can be defined, saved, named, and loaded.
Two master stereo output sockets are located on the back panel, as are six auxiliary output jacks; any individual effect send can be assigned to any individual aux output. You could treat the six aux outs and stereo outs as eight individual, polyphonic, dynamically allocated outputs; or set up a complex mix on the stereo outputs, but also feed some signals to the aux outs for external signal processing, or quad/hexaphonic playback systems! If you send this through a stereo reverb or some other such digital wonder box, the ADS thoughtfully provides stereo return jacks and an effects return control.
So what does this mean to musicians? Let us first consider the concept of distributed mixing, where satellite mixers accept groups of sounds (keyboards, drum machines, etc). You would feed, say, a half-dozen keyboards into the keyboard mixer, set up a stereo mix (possibly with processing), then send just two lines containing the stereo premix to your main mixer. Level control is, naturally, handled by sequenced MIDI volume messages.
Normally, distributed mixing requires buying an outboard mixer, but the Dynacord ADS sampler already has one, and a digital/programmable/flexible one to boot. Because you can call up different mixes under MIDI control, you can perform snapshot automation (as well as the automation that comes from feeding MIDI volume messages to control levels - see 'Mixing in the MIDI Age' article). It seems the mixer would be particularly handy 'live', since the more stuff you can cram into a box, and the more you can programme presets within that box, the better that box is to take on the road; and in terms of effects, well, having modulatable effects sends allows for extremely dense and interesting effects.
For drummers, the ADS seems close to ideal. The expandable sample memory has room for cymbals and such, and the self-contained mixer lets you call up different 'kits' with ease. The phase coherency is crucial with splashy, high frequency sounds like cymbals and also keeps kick drums centred, where they belong. Also, the triggering time of samples is very fast, and the unit is compact enough to take on the road.
For studios, the digital recording aspects are the most important considerations. This is a good sounding sampler with (even in the unexpanded version) enough memory to fly in vocals and do other tricks; a few extra megs let you do even more. The ability to read Akai S900 disks is a big plus, allowing studios to trade up from an S900 without having to consign their sample library to the dustbin. The built-in mixer also takes some of the pressure off MIDI studios that never seem to have enough inputs. In terms of price, the ADS costs less than the S1000 or Emulator III, its main competition in the true 16-bit sampler arena.
For live oriented keyboard players, the ADS may not justify its expense. There are a lot of good samplers (albeit not all 16-bit) at the £1,500 to £3,000 price point, and some folks might be happier with a CD ROM-equipped Emu Emax, fully loaded Ensoniq EPS, S950 or second-hand Akai S900 with a Marion Systems 16-bit upgrade [see review: SOS December 1988]. The ADS also lacks some features that would be helpful to gigging musicians, like play-while-load. On the plus side, MIDI guitarists can take advantage of the multiple channels and retrigger modes, and the sound quality of properly implemented 16-bit linear sampling technology is a powerful lure to all musicians.
Sampling 'tweakers' who enjoy the art of making samples may miss features like fade in/out, wide choice of sample rates, detailed supertwist display for sample editing, and more complex envelopes that improve on the ADSR concept; but the modulation options are undeniably nifty, and there are enough parameters to have a field day bending sounds into different shapes.
But all is not totally rosy. The owner's manual is terse to a fault, and the ADS is very time-consuming to programme if you want to take advantage of the many special features. If you play a note and want to edit it, just finding out which sample you're hearing out of the various sample groups and sounds is quite an effort; I often found myself going to the mixer to mute and unmute channels just to find out exactly what I was hearing. Of course, simpler sounds are easier to programme, but if simple sounds are all you want, why bother with an ADS?
There are few parameter selection shortcuts (eg. macros, double-clicks, etc), and the method of selecting parameters, while workable and clear, appears clumsy in light of other recent products. Had this sampler appeared a year ago, I probably would have considered its user interface as perfectly acceptable, but compared to some other samplers on the market, it seems that Dynacord assigned the user interface a lower priority than sound quality.
It would also be very helpful if some software manufacturer developed editing software for ADS samples and parameters, like the early Sound Designer did for the Emulator II. Even just being able to print out all the parameters would be helpful, so you could know what's going on.
Some people will need exactly what the ADS has to offer - high sound quality and the ability to come up with some wild new sounds (even if it does take some work) - and fall in love with the unit, electing to pay the price required for uncoloured 16-bit sound. Others will seek more cost-effective solutions to their sampling needs, or higher-end machines (such as the Emulator III) in order to gain access to features like triggering samples via MIDI Time Code. Once again, here we have a product that may not be the 'ultimate' sampler, but one which addresses a specific niche - and does so in style.
© 1989 Electronic Musician, (Contact Details). Reprinted with the kind permission of the publishers.
Review by Craig Anderton