I Want Your Samples
As sound-sampling becomes accepted as a technique, what will musicians do with their machines after the novelty has worn off? Chris Meyer takes a sideways look.
Thousands of affordable sampling instruments have been sold worldwide in the last twelve months. But once the initial novelty has worn off, what will musicians be doing with them?
YOU JUST GOT YOUR NEW SAMPLER. After taking it out of the box and trying out the factory disks, what's the first thing you do? You plug your cassette deck or turntable into the Mic In and start sampling. At first you're grabbing anything, and looping it just to get Instant Gratification. Listen to that funky rhythm section. Dig that Paul Hardcastle stuttering vocal effect.
Then things get a little more premeditated. You remember a cool bass slap sitting all by itself on one album, or all those wonderful drum sounds on Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel albums just begging to be sampled ('samplability' becomes an additional criterion for each new album you and your friends buy). Then come orchestra breaks off your few token classical albums (even Tomita will do), and valiant searches for sound effects records at your local used record shop. The sophisticates among you who've heard Jarre's Zoolook look for ethnic records, too. Of course, you don't intend to use these sounds - that's illegal, isn't it? They're just for your own enjoyment.
Next step is going down to the music shop where you bought the instrument, and getting more disks. If you have a good relationship with your salesperson, they'll copy whatever disks they've got lying around for you and give them to you. If they're honest, they'll sell other factory and third-party disks to you. If they're dishonest, they'll charge you for other customer's stealings from albums. (Time to expose a sham right now, and make myself some enemies in the process — some salespeople have and will make bootleg copies of both illegitimate and legitimate factory/third-party disks and sell them at up to list price to unsuspecting customers. If it doesn't have a professional, typeset label, don't fork out over a quid. On the other side of the coin, some manufacturers more or less expect stores to buy only one copy of each factory disk, and freely hand out copies to customers - it's what sells their hardware. Buyer, beware.)
Still hungry for sounds (and not being in possession of a Sony F1 or a recording Walkman), you now seek out friends with other brands of samplers, and start sampling their factory sounds (even some manufacturers have been accused of doing this). If you both have plenty of money stashed away in a Swiss bank account (and Macintoshes, and Digidesign's Sound Designer), you start copying digital files back and forth.
And the point of all of the above? Simply that, inevitably, people are going to copy each other's sounds. Quite often, manufacturers even encourage them to. So, why shouldn't manufacturers make it even easier to do so? Well, some have. It's called the Sample Dump Standard.
The Sample Dump Standard is a MIDI protocol approved by the MMA (MIDI Manufacturers' Association) and the JMSC (Japanese MIDI Standards Committee) for exchanging digital samples between machines. It's designed to handle up to 16,384 individual sounds, a maximum length of two megasamples (independent of format), and resolutions from eight-bit to 28-bit linear. An extension proposal is also in the works to expand the number of loops handled from 1 to 128. It also has some other nice technical gaga features like error recovery and a wide, accurate range of sample rates.
The first two sampling keyboards to feature the Standard are the Sequential Prophet 2000 and E-mu's new Emax sampler (fitting, since these are the two companies that started development). With luck, it'll appear on the new Korg and Roland samplers, too.
WHAT DOES THE SAMPLE DUMP STANDARD BUY YOU? Well, it transfers samples in the digital medium, so essentially there's no generation loss between the two machines (no added noise and distortion from going through one machine's output section, to and through the second machine's input section). According to the Standard, each machine translates from its own internal format (linear, COMDAC, PCM, delta, or whatever) to linear, so incompatibilities there are wiped out (for the record, the EII, Prophet 2000, and Mirage versions of Sound Designer all use the same Mac file format, which Digidesign have also made public - more compatability). It does not transfer any analogue settings (such as filter and amplitude envelopes and so on), since these are different from machine to machine. However, loop points are transferred.
So what? You and your friends own the same brand samplers, and you just swap disks. So why should you care?
OK, try this for size. Boxes that burn EPROMs for drum machines are starting to support the Sample Dump Standard, with the Oberheim Prommer being the first to do so. With that, you can blow chips for your Linn, DMX, or Drumtraks from samples on your Prophet 2000 or whatever. Simmons are also looking into receiving the Sample Dump Standard for their own EPB EPROM burner. The potential these two devices offer (not to mention the potential threat to custom drum chip manufacturers) is pretty powerful in itself.
Generic waveform editing programs are another possibility. Virtually all synthesiser voice configurations are different in one way or another, making a generic synth patch editor program impractical. However, when it comes to editing loop points, merging, layering, truncating and the rest of it, digital samples are essentially the same. I wouldn't be surprised to see the appearance of some simple waveform editing software from some of the smaller software houses. Use of the Sample Dump Standard is a boon to these software companies, in that their package immediately works with a new sampler. And believe me, manufacturers would certainly approve of software support for their new products the instant they hit the market, too.
Of course, the individual peculiarities of analogue parameters and the like are still different from machine to machine, but they could be added as simple extension modules - this is how Sound Designer is actually set up. And by the way, mapping may be something ripe for a standard, too.
The Sample Dump Standard also opens up some other unique possibilities for software packages. Who says that a 'sample' has to start on the other end of a microphone? Sounds can, in fact, be created in software. Digidesign's new SoftSynth additive synthesis program is one toy that makes this idea a reality. Entire new sounds can be created from scratch, and then downloaded to a sampler for playback (not to mention further mixing with other samplers). Alas, the first version of SoftSynth has to have three different output drivers to send samples individually to the Prophet 2000, EII, and Ensoniq Mirage (and in all fairness, the EII and Mirage were created before the Standard was adopted). If a new machine came out with a new standard, the owner would have to wait until Digidesign could write and release a whole different driver for that (assuming it even looked in their best financial interest to do so). With the Sample Dump Standard, it could work right now.
Moving outside the realm of samplers, some wavetable-based synthesisers such as the Kawai K3 and Prophet VS have the ability to store user-created waveforms in RAM. With careful use, a sampler can become a new source of 'natural' waveforms for such beasts (the Prophet VS does, indeed, use the Sample Dump Standard).
Guilty as charged - I have been SHAMELESSLY RAVING about why everyone in the world should adopt the Sample Dump Standard. OK, let's be fair - why not? And, to be more specific in some cases, why won't they?
Case 1 Manufacturers spend a lot of time, money and nervous energy creating their factory libraries. Many people just aren't adventurous enough to sample on their own (at least, not initially), and to these people the quality and quantity of the manufacturer's factory disks are a major factor behind quite a few purchases. If a manufacturer has a killer piano, and has spent ten grand to get it to boot, he's not going to want competitor XYZ to have it too, not to mention in first-generation digital quality.
"I wish it was made legal to copy any sound... then maybe we'll all hear the same sounds so often that we'll just burn out that much sooner — and do something original with our machines."
A subset of the above case is third-party vendors. Given the free-copying climate of today's music shops, it would be devastating if all a vendor could sell was one copy of a disk for one sampler per store. Many companies and individuals will not enter the sample disk market because there are such small quantities to be sold - and therefore, little profit to be made.
Case 2 Some companies have spent quite a bit of time and money on making their sampling input sections as clean and as accurate as possible (something in the order of the Synclavier's 16-bit sampling input is distinctly non-trivial - call them up and ask). To the manufacturers who take care, the prospect of the Sample Dump Standard means their competitor's samplers don't even have to sample - as long as they can digitally transfer the sound from something that does, many won't care.
Case 3 All money issues aside, every sampler's playback section sounds different. Different sample encoding schemes - eight-bit linear, 12-bit linear, eight-bit COMDAC, Delta modulation, 16-bit linear - all sound different. And each make of sampler has types and qualities of analogue electronics after the digital-to-analogue conversion. This is no theoretical joke - people who have exchanged Sound Designer files between different machines have noted that the end result sounds different (oddly enough, they also tend to note that the sample sounds the best coming out of the machine it was sampled on - probably because the playback circuitry is optimised for the vagaries of that particular input section). Are you trying to get an exact copy? Too bad - you probably won't.
Case 4 What about all these threats of lawsuits for copying other's sounds?
SO THERE ARE SOME LEGITIMATE MINUS POINTS to the existence and widespread adoption of the Sample Dump Standard. But overall, I still think it's a good idea.
To handle Case 1, manufacturers could explore copy protection, just as the personal computer industry has. Now, I'm not advising the revival of Ensoniq's ill-fated policy of forcing the user to buy formatted blank disks from the factory, making the user pay for everything. However, manufacturers can protect their important factory disks, and can give third-party vendors the ability to do the same. This goes for both disks and transfers via MIDI. If this is done, the sound disk business would become more lucrative, and more would enter it. Sure, you may have to pay for some sounds, but at least more of them (and higher-quality ones, too) would be available.
To handle Cases 2 and 3 in one fell swoop, I submit that the way samplers sound different is a feature, and not a liability. I'm willing to bet that any reasonable musician or engineer can tell the difference between an EII, a Prophet 2000, a Mirage, a PPG Waveterm, a Fairlight Series II, a Synclavier, and a Prommer that have recorded and are playing back the same sound. I'm even tempted to contend that the more accurate samplers become, the less they become a 'musical instrument' (don't get me wrong - 16-bit linear sampling makes for great studio production tools, but who would want a Fender Strat to sound like a Gibson Les Paul?). Fairlight Series IIs are often revered for the character and colouration they add to a sound. As soon as a programmer releases a program to make a Prophet 2000 sound like one, let me know - I'll buy it.
And as long as I'm inflicting my personal opinions on the defenceless reader, let me tackle Case 4. Frankly, I wish that it was made legal to copy whatever sounds you hear. Technically, we have here a reducto ad absurdium - what's the difference between recreating the effects setting that gives Bruce Megastar's drum sound, or sampling it off his album? Is it the thought that counts? In response to a complaint that Depeche Mode stole a Frankie Goes To Hollywood drum sound, Frankie's engineers replied that the Frankie drum sound was actually a Linn - itself a recording! As a matter of fact, it's common practice for engineers to exchange sounds (whether or not their clients realise it).
But none of that is why I am in favour of unlimited copying. What I hope is that we will all hear the same sounds so often that we will just burn out that much sooner - and then take our F1s, Walkmans, and SoftSynths merrily in hand, and do something original with our machines.
To wind down on the subject of standards... MIDI is a standard, and see what it has done for the music industry as a whole. I feel the judicious adoption of other standards can only do the same.
Another standard on the horizon is the Sequence Dump Standard. This will be a way of transferring raw MIDI sequence information between machines more quickly than live dubbing. I'm a member of the camp that does not trust using personal computers on stage for critical timing situations, but loves them for graphic editing. Such a standard would allow a user to live in both worlds (hardware live; software off-line). This concept has been kicking around a few American manufacturers for a while, and now I'm told that the JMSC is working out a formal proposal.
Speaking of other standards, a quick update on MSMPTE (MIDIfied SMPTE), which I reported on last month. This proposed standard for the transmission of SMPTE timecode and setup information over MIDI continues to gain enthusiasm and support, and I feel it inevitable that it will be adopted in some form.
In all fairness, though, my original feature took a swipe at the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers for supposedly trying and failing to adopt a similar standard. Well, their standard is alive and well, and is apparently near adoption too. I'm still learning more about it, but initially it seems (from talks with other people more familiar with it) that there is even room for coexistence, overlap, and possibly logical connections between the two standards (at least in a high-end/low-end sort of context). I certainly hope so.
In the meantime, I apologise to anyone I may have offended in my flip closing to my last article, though I still feel the same about committees and standards that take years to adopt - the marketplace tends not to wait.
For those still interested in obtaining copies of the SMPTE Tributary Standards documents, I have some updated numbers and prices. The main document is SMPTE 207M, and costs $6.
Appendage documents are RP113, RP125, RP138, and RP139, costing $3 each. SMPTE's new US - phone number is (914) 761-1100. And the documents really exist - I know, I have my copies already.