Greengate DS3 Sampling System
the cheapest sampling keyboard?
IN recent times the music biz seems to have gone completely overboard in praise of sound sampling. Before diving off meself I'd like to consider the possibilities in a bit more detail.
At first glance it seems to be the bee's knees — record a sound digitally and reproduce it at will — Magic! Instant piano, bass, strings, drums, shattering glass, your mate Spod exhaling into his Y-fronts (a popular option), etc.
What isn't immediately obvious is the severe limitations of the technique. Sampling is the digital equivalent of the Mellotron.
Sampling works in a similar manner. The characteristics of the sample are as fixed as its taped equivalent. The most you can do is vary the volume for an impression of dynamics, loop the sound for longer duration, add a bit of pitch bend/vibrato and replay the note slower or faster to spread the sound across a keyboard/SynthAxe/whatever, resulting in a certain cobbling of the sound quality and a tonality and character out of keeping with the original instrument. You could sample every note each way it can be played but that's distinctly dodgy due to memory, timing and control problems.
So samples are best kept close to the original frequency using sounds that are useful at their simplest. Good for drums/percussion/silly noises, bad for melodic expression and sound creation/variation, not to mention cost!
Bearing in mind the ginagerous prices usually associated with sampling — currently 20-30 grand for a Fairlight and around seven grand for an Emulator — it's a bit of a stunner to fall over this offering from Greengate Productions which promises and delivers a 4-voice, high-quality digital sampler (sample rate 30kHz, bandwidth approx 14-15kHz, maximum single sample duration 1.2 secs, up to 10 short sounds in RAM at once) plus a sequencer of sorts for a staggering £250 +VAT!
Well, you do need an Apple II+ or IIe computer system too, but if Santa couldn't fit one of these in your stocking Greengate can supply the whole kit and caboodle for £1250/1400 + VAT for, respectively, single and dual disk drive systems.
The Apple systems will, of course, also carry out the more usual business/hobbyist/games functions so you get lots for your money.
"How he do this," you chorus. Well, vaguely known technoprog band Mainframe had a chance meeting a year or so ago with digital design engineer Dave Green and computer graphics expert Colin Holgate. They bemoaned their lack of finances for the purchase of a useful drum machine and Dave promised to give the problem some thought. Some months passed and Dave reappeared waving a hand-wired board suitable for plugging into an Apple computer (of which MF had several), and the single voice forerunner of the DS3 was born.
This was no particular trick for a design engineer, the clever part was coming up with a means of playing four samples at once for the production model DS3 (seeming to make the Apple do at least four things at once which it shouldn't be able to do).
The technique is being kept highly secret but it involves the misuse of a mystery chip. Many expert minds have tried to figure how it's done at low cost but no-one has put their finger on it yet — hail the inventiveness of Mr Green.
As given above there are six system options and we'll have a look at all the bits currently available. The Apple II computer system needs little introduction. It is arguably the most versatile, best understood and heavily supported (with hardware and software) middle to low cost microcomputer system around.
Although now considered outdated by some, the sensible inclusion of eight expansion ports has allowed the simple standard Apple to keep pace, at a lower cost, with newer and better equipped rivals. The recently modernised IIe version is supplied with 64K of RAM as opposed to the 48K of RAM standard on the original II+. If you already own an Apple II+ the DS3 system allows longer sample times if RAM is expanded to 64K (bear in mind that you must have a set of 'Paddles' — two potentiometers with associated switches. The DS3 uses them a lot).
The sampling PCB supplied is computer designed and beautifully made. It fits into the Apple's expansion buss in slot five. Audio signals are taken in and out of the PCB via a nine-way cable and connector to a hobbyist-type metal project box fitted with four mono jack line output sockets (one for each voice), one mono jack line input socket and a four channel/mono output switch (mono sends all voices to each output).
The optional five octave, C to C keyboard is a robust, metal clad Jen model that feels a bit like a Juno 60. Unlike most synth keyboards it works on a digital scanning system, the same as a standard computer QWERTY keyboard, mirroring the Apple's own. A future software update will allow sounds to be split across the keyboard. At the back are three jack sockets, one for a sustain pedal and two for future pitch bend, vibrato and paddle controlled sample selection options. Next to these is a multiway socket that connects the keyboard to the sampling PCB via a tough five metre shielded cable.
This is the nitty gritty of the system and where we judge if the criterion is music/computers or computers/music.
Supplied with each system are three 5¼in floppy discs. These are the DS3 System Master Disk (the controlling programs), Data Disk 1 (23 drum/percussion samples and eight standard instrument samples — all full, clear and interesting) and Data Disk 2 (demonstration sequence and example drum kit).
After connecting everything together you pick up the innocent looking DS3 user guide and you begin to read it. Then you stop, shake your head a few times and start again. A few pages later you feel like throwing it at the nearest wall.
This is simply the worst manual I have ever seen. It is a masterpiece of pomposity, high pretension, leery patronisation, confusion, farcical grammar, ludicrous layout and clumsy construction. In comparison, most Japanese efforts read like a novel. Never have so many words been used to say so little.
Worse, you are presented at every opportunity with a hard sell promotion campaign of a cloying, gut-turning nature concerning Mainframe. I won't tell you the author's name but guess what band he's in? Oh well, attempting to use the manual for reference you stuff the System disk in one of the drives and switch on.
Immediately the Apple loads the operating software into memory and the main system menu appears on screen giving eight function options — sound sample, waveform edit, sound play/sequence, sequence develop, keyboard set-up, create song file, create performance file and exit to Apple soft. Selecting one of these options gets you into smaller sub-menus of a more specific nature.
This lets you sample a sound, rough trim it to size, play it and, if you're happy with it, save it to disk. Connect a line input to the audio box input socket (if you use a mike for silly noises, don't forget the preamp). Select sample and you are offered 127 threshold levels to cater for different levels of background noise. This done, press (RETURN) and a line appears across the screen. This is used as an oscilloscope display to check for 'clipping' of the signal input. If you make a noise into the mike the line will leap about. A nice jaggy line means no clipping — squared off jags mean too much level, back off.
Happy with the signal you can either auto trigger the sample (sampling begins on occurrence of first noise — good for mike input) or manually trigger it (sampling begins immediately — good for tape input).
So, select trigger, make noise — sample complete. Easy. The program then allows you to play, trim or save the sound. Select play to check the sound. This is where you get excited over the DS3 as the sample quality is really excellent and you're soon 'helloing' all over the keyboard (the sample at the correct speed appears at A above middle C).
Sound OK? Go for trim. It's likely that the sound made (almost everyone says 'Hello'!) is shorter than the maximum of 1.2 secs so this option lets you roughly trim off sampled silence before the start of the sound and any unwanted noises at the end. Very easy.
Happy? — save the sound to disk with the name of your choice. This is a breeze. An example of good program construction. Bad points — no filtering to clean up speeded up or slowed down samples, and no looping of samples (a free software update will provide this with pitch bend and tremolo shortly).
This gives a fixed oscilloscope display of a sampled waveform for 'fine tuning' of the sound — editing out clicks and buzzes from an otherwise OK sample and making it start and end smoothly. Using the paddle controllers you can either scan the waveform for the most suitable points to start and finish the sample and specify them exactly or (tricky this, because of clumsy paddle operation) draw in, one dot at a time, portions of the wave you wish to change. This is handy for rounding off slight 'clips' from an otherwise perfect signal. Again, apart from paddle juggling, a doddle.
This is where the DS3 falls down. Select this feature and further options allow you to load up to 10 different sounds from disk (individually or as a prepared group) and assign them across the computer keyboard on keys 1 to 8 to prepare for real-time input of sequences. The sounds also appear on the three rows of keys immediately below so if you load a bass drum as sound 1, it can be played by pressing keys 1, Q, A & Z to account for the four available voices.
Sound 2 appears at keys 2, W, S & X and so on. This seems fine for playing drums/percussion but if you need to sequence melodic parts you can assign a sound to the optional keyboard.
If you don't have the optional keyboard you must return to the main menu and select Keyboard Set-Up (confusing, isn't it?). The computer keyboard can then be configured to play the sounds in semitone steps as required (for a complicated, melodic piece, the same sound can be loaded 10 times to be played all across the computer keyboard). Lost? I am. The worst is yet to come.
Now you have the sounds you want, you're ready to record your sequence. Let's take the simplest option and record a drum track. A couple of key presses starts the metronome. First problem, the resolution of the sequencer corresponds to the beats of the metronome (provided by the Apple internal 'beeper'). This seems fine as the metronome can be made to go so fast that the beeps run into each other — but there is no indication whatsoever as to your position in a bar, so at the higher resolutions you have to guess where the end of a bar is to enable you effectively to quantify and repeat sequences.
The only other option is to slow the metronome right down, work out the number of beeps between the notes you want to play, count them out as the sequencer records (yes, you count them!) and stop the recording at the required point.
The sequence can then be speeded up on playback and hopefully will be usable. There are various options to merge sequences into more complex patterns and then save them to disk but you must remember which channels you recorded which beats on as there are only four channels overall, and no two notes can appear on the same channel at the same time (it doesn't remember for you).
Once your drum track's recorded, it's not too bad recording a melody line if you remember the channel limits. Me, I think this sequencer's as near as dammit unusable but I'm assured that you can 'get used to it'! Well, I suppose you can get used to the loss of both arms, but who wants to?
The DS3 is a strange mixture. Brilliant sampling facilities plus one of the poorest attempts at a sequencer I've ever come across. By adding MIDI composition/sequencing capabilities the DS3 would find a place in most small to medium sized studios as a powerful tool.
DS3 sampling software: £288
DS3 sampling system: £1438
Review by Liz Coley
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