Hybrid Arts ADAP1 Soundrack
Why buy a sampler when you already have one? If you own an Atari ST then you possess one of the major components of any sampling instrument - the memory. With the ADAP1 Soundrack software and processing units your ST can be transformed into a MIDI sampler and powerful post-production tool. David Mellor reports.
Why buy a sampler when you already have one? If you own an Atari ST then you possess one of the major components of any sampling instrument - the memory. With the ADAP1 Soundrack software and processing units your ST can be transformed into a MIDI sampler, not only that but a powerful post-production tool for film or video too. David Mellor reports.
A strange thing happened late yesterday afternoon. As I sat staring muselessly at a MIDI keyboard and a blank sequencer screen, my vision became hazy and I fell into a kind of dream. Waking up - or so I thought - I found myself in an empty room. Empty, that is, apart from a chair with a sort of antenna protruding from the backrest, and several green painted doors leading to who-knows-where? I took a look through the first door. It was a small room containing a piece of machinery labelled 'Thought-to-MIDI Convertor'. Hmmm... The second room contained a 'Sound Field Projector'. The third held a mysterious black box. I could just make out the embossed black lettering, which said: 'General Purpose Musical Processing Unit'. Suddenly I woke up and found myself back at my Atari ST. Inspired, I quickly programmed a major Oratorio for full orchestra, soloists and chorus.
If you see the point to my story you will realise, as you have probably realised already, that the personal computer - whether PC, Atari or Macintosh - has a lot in common with modern musical instruments. Namely, it has the processing power to push music-representing numbers around very quickly, and enough memory to store a hell of a lot of numbers.
We are well used to seeing computer-based sequencers. The December '88 edition of Sound On Sound featured a software-based modular synthesizer (Digidesign Turbosynth). There is also the sampling ST courtesy of Commander Electronics' Lynex system (SOS July '88). Where will it end? (See first paragraph!).
The ADAP1 Soundrack, from Hybrid Arts, is a MIDI sampler and also a powerful sample editor configured around the Atari ST. In addition to its MIDI capabilities, it can function as a SMPTE/EBU timecode controlled post-production tool. If you read 'Recording the soundtracks for TV commercials' (SOS Dec '88), then you will have an idea of the techniques involved.
But first, the ADAP1 as a MIDI sampler. Can an Atari-based sampler compete with the likes of the Roland S550 and Akai S1000? Read on...
Rack-mounting sampler modules generally have a small number of component parts - one. The ADAP1 Soundrack has several, as Figure 1 will explain. The fact that the rack-mounting box has two inputs and two outputs may lead one to think that this is a stereo unit. This thought would be correct. With a 1040 ST, there is enough available memory for a 16-bit stereo sample lasting 3.25 seconds at the CD standard bandwidth of 44.1 kHz - or twice that time (6.5 secs) in mono. Obviously, three and a bit seconds is only marginally viable in today's world of mega samplers. So, although the ADAP1 will work with the 1040 ST (or 520 ST expanded to 1 Megabyte of RAM), the larger capacity Mega ST computers in the Atari range would seem more appropriate. A RAM count of 4 Megabytes works out to 17.4 seconds of stereo sampling time at 44.1 kHz. Reducing the sampling rate to 15.6kHz increases the sample duration to 49 seconds stereo. Other sampling rates available are 31.2 and 22.0kHz.
All this talk of Mega STs is enough to drive anyone to the nearest calculator to find out how much it all costs. Yes, it will cost more than many dedicated samplers. So if it costs more, you expect to get more. Right?
The first extra, and a very considerable one, is the screen display (see Figure 2). Larger than even the large LCD on the new Akai S1000, and more clear than the Roland S550's video display. And all the editing options are right before your eyes.
The right-hand side of the display is the first place to look. Ignoring the overlarge 'About ADAP Soundrack' box, we see the sample-taking controls (ignore also the 'Zoom' box, which is an editing controller that seems to have crept into an inappropriate place). Sampling rate and mono/stereo/left/right selection are self-explanatory procedures which even a mouse could understand. 'Thru' brings us to an interesting point: Thru here is not MIDI Thru, but audio through. Looking back at Figure 1, you may notice the absence of level controls of any sort. The maximum input level allowable is +10dBu, which is about right for line level sources, but to get the best use out of those 16 bits it would be best to sample via your mixing desk - no hardship. With Thru on, ADAP1 digitises the sound as it comes in and passes it to the outputs for you to monitor. If it sounds OK, then it is OK, and you get the chance to assess the effects of different sample rates without actually having to take samples. This is a good timesaver - for both the available sample memory and the operator.
Sampling itself is initiated by clicking on 'Sample'. There is no audio trigger function here, being rendered (arguably) unnecessary by the ease with which unwanted dead space can be removed.
Samples are played back via the 'Play' button on the screen, or from a MIDI keyboard. I found this rather irritating because you have to purposely select MIDI to activate the MIDI keyboard, and then de-select it to continue editing. This also happens on other screens. The MIDI keyboard option has other limitations, too.
"Although ADAP1 acts as a stereo sampler, it can only play back in mono via MIDI. Strange?"
Although ADAPT acts as a stereo sampler, it can only play back in mono via MIDI. Strange? Polyphony is limited, too. Six notes is all you get, 10 notes less than the current crop of dedicated samplers offer.
One of the best features of the ADAP1 is the ease of sample editing. We samplists all know the frustration caused when a sample is almost perfect, but it seems impossible to get it all the way there.
With the appropriate monitor attached, left- and right-hand sides of a stereo sample appear in glorious AtariColor (provision is made for high resolution Mono monitors too). Selecting a Range - part of a sample - for detailed work is a matter of dragging the mouse cursor over the screen, mouse-left for left channel, mouse-right for right channel. Or both if you wish.
The first editing operation, as always, is getting rid of the dead periods at the start and end of the wanted sound. It is child's play to see the sections that fulfill no useful function, change each in turn into a Range, then Cut. Performing a Cut operation places the cut section into the buffer memory, so if by chance you cut just an inch too far, retrieval is possible.
Next on the list is Looping. Choosing 'S/R Loop' (Sustain/Release) calls up a brand new screen. The sample window is there as before, but also appearing is a loop display which shows graphically how well the start and end points of the loop join up. You can see very clearly how well the levels and slopes match. Unfortunately, you can't hear the loop cycling as you adjust, only via a separate mouse click. 10/10 for visual clarity, 3/10 for ease of auditioning.
Auto Looping is included, with options to join either at positive or negative sloping zero crossing points, or positive or negative peaks. But better than that for looping perfection is the 'Amplitude Envelope' feature, where you can use the mouse to redraw the levels before and after the loop point. No more sudden level shifts as the loop cycles. Crossfade envelopes can be drawn using the mouse in a similar way.
Other useful editing functions - there are too many to describe them all in detail - include 'Draw Envelope' and 'Draw Wave'. This shows up the advantages of using a mouse-equipped computer.
Most of us are familiar with envelopes. Some of us remember the glorious days when you adjusted the attack, decay and release times, and the sustain level, with knobs or sliders. How hard it is now with numerical displays and increment buttons. Drawing an envelope has two great advantages, the first being that it is very easy and intuitive. The second, possibly greater, advantage is that you can have a virtually unlimited number of break points. In other words, the envelope can be as complex as you like but still be very simple to create. 20/10 for this!
The 'Draw Wave' function is for getting rid of those little nasties that can plague the samplist - ie. clicks just where you don't want them. I'm not sure why, but whereas I found the corresponding feature on the Roland S550 difficult to use (I couldn't find on the display the clicks I was hearing), this one is very usable. For use with sound effects - some of the best are still only to be found on dicky BBC records - it could come in very handy (more about sound effects later).
A quick mouse click on 'Keyboard', down at the bottom of the screen, and you're onto the keyboard page, where samples are mapped out into playable order. Once again, the advantages of a large video display over a myopic LCD are immense. Figure 3 shows how it appears. There is room on the screen for keyboard maps of seven samples to be displayed. There is also a graphic keyboard, which changes colour from white to black to correspond to the notes selected.
"One of the best features of the ADAP1 is the ease of sample editing."
The six buttons towards the bottom of the screen run the show. 'Load Sound' loads a sample, and you will see the name of the sample at the top of the list. Sweeping the mouse across the display activates all the keys it passes over. If you look closely, you'll see that 'C3' is underlined. This indicates the key which will play the sample at its original pitch. Once again, this can be adjusted with the mouse.
Obviously, with a display like this, multisampling is a breeze. Likewise, assigning samples, or multisamples, to different MIDI channels is easy, too. The only drawback is that you have to click the Play button to do anything with your MIDI keyboard, and hit a key - any key - on the Atari keyboard to continue editing. I find it hard to understand why this should be so.
A completed sample map is called a Preset, as in hallowed Emulator terminology. Thankfully, loading a preset will automatically load the various samples it contains - not all sampler manufacturers understand the benefits of this approach yet.
This is where things get interesting. So far, the ADAP1 has functioned as a conventional sampler with some advantages and some limitations compared to other types. On the SMPTE page (do they mean SMPTE/EBU?), ADAP1 takes us into areas which are otherwise only covered by machinery priced at the eight score-draws level.
Are you thinking about getting into video? If not, think about all the opportunities for musical enterprise that are about to spring up as our rooftops start to bristle with satellite dishes and 'squariels'. I wouldn't be surprised if far away in some back room in a large electronics corporation in Japan, they are hard at work inventing the Porta-Video-Studio, or something like it. In the meantime, we had all better look at what is developing in the audio-for-video field.
Going back to my earlier article about putting music and sound effects on TV commercials, I described the AMS AudioFile - a device for replaying high quality samples according to timecode cues. The AudioFile costs lots. The ADAP1 is much more reasonably priced. And it does, on a slightly smaller scale, much the same thing.
When I checked out the ADAP1 at Hybrid Arts UK's headquarters in London, it was hooked up to a Mega ST with an Atari hard disk unit. But the hard disk is more than just a quick and convenient over-sized floppy. Let me explain...
Figure 4 shows the SMPTE page. As you can see, there are a lot of timecode numbers (don't panic), event names, and descriptions. Imagine the following scenario: You are an industrial video producer, making videos depicting, say, safety procedures in a factory. Not very glamorous, but it is real world work. Until now, you have relied on the recorded location sound and sound effects spun in from a reel-to-reel tape recorder. You would like to be able to produce more sophisticated results, but the costs are prohibitive. Either that, or conventional procedures, such as syncing effects via timecode controlled reel-to-reel, are too slow to use in bulk.
With the ADAP1, adding sound effects is extremely straightforward. First of all, the effects you need will have to be sampled into the ADAP1 and stored in internal memory - and, when that is full, on hard disk.
The next step is to list the timecode locations where each of the effects are to be played (also known as 'cues' or 'hit points'), in order to sync up with the video (which, of course, has timecode striped upon one of its audio tracks). No, you don't have to type in two 10-digit SMPTE values for each cue! ADAP1 has a 'Mark' button; as the video rolls, you just click on this each time you want a cue to fire - it doesn't matter what the cues are at this stage - and the corresponding timecode times will be entered automatically. End points don't have to be entered unless the effect is to be made shorter, to fit the action.
"As well as firing its own samples, ADAP1 can transmit MIDI messages as SMPTE-triggered events, so you could run a conventional sampler in parallel to increase the possibilities."
Once all the hit points are marked, event names can be loaded. These are the names you have given to the samples you are using. (Shown as 'explosion', 'doorslam', etc, in Figure 4.) Typed in descriptions of these events are optional.
Having done all this - it is a very quick procedure - roll the video again and all the cues will play at the correct times. After this run-through, the on and off times can be adjusted to get them dead on.
The clever part about all this is that when you have too many samples to fit into the ST's internal memory, samples will be loaded automatically, as the video runs, ready for firing at the right moment. Of course, if you are trying to cram too much in, ADAP1 might grind to a halt and flash a warning message that there isn't enough time to load samples. One can only do so much...
As well as firing its own samples, ADAP1 can transmit MIDI messages as SMPTE-triggered events, so you could run a conventional sampler in parallel to increase the possibilities. There are additional utility functions, such as sorting of cues according to timecode value, and the possibility of merging two or more cue lists, to make things more versatile.
A very difficult question to answer. It would be easy to say it's a bit of both. Hybrid Arts refer to the ADAP1 as a "project". The idea is that it will be updated continuously to take account of users' requirements. (Standard warning about buying software or equipment for its update potential!) I have to say that I feel ADAP's usefulness as a musical instrument is limited, at the moment. Six voices on a MIDI sampler do not go a long way. No separate outputs either. Stereo sampling could be useful, but it is not usable in conjunction with a MIDI keyboard, only when triggering the sample by other means. The ease of sample editing is excellent, but taking into account the price of the system, I can't help but think there are better alternatives.
As a production tool, however, ADAP1 has immense possibilities. It is probably at the low end of the scale in facilities compared with AudioFile and Synclavier type systems, but compare the price - and it will easily beat any tape-based system for speed. Bear in mind also the upgrade path to ADAP2, which will be able to record audio onto a hard disk when it becomes available.
The moral is that now is the time to start thinking about video. The multi-media environment is just around the corner, and anyone who wants to be involved in it needs to keep track of what the ADAP1 project is doing. This could just be the start.
The ADAP1 Soundrack is available as a package along with a 4 Megabyte Atari Mega ST and 30 Meg hard disk for £3220 inc VAT.
Hybrid Arts UK, (Contact Details).
Review by David Mellor