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Instant Sampling

Vesta Kozo Sampler

Another goodie for your overflowing 19" effects ruck, this one offers pitch-controllable sampling and a full-function DDL into the bargain. Dave Simpson grabs a microphone and decides it's worth making room for.

If you have a CV monosynth, the Vesta Kozo DIG420 will give you monophonic sound sampling and a digital delay line into the bargain. But are there too many compromises on what is only a £330 machine?

I remember the day well. It was sometime in 1968, and it was the day my father bought one of the first pocket calculators in the UK. It was a big day for us, because it had taken a lot of organising. First he had to remortgage the house. Then we had to hire a lorry to bring it home. Finally we installed it in the spare room, but managed to leave just enough space to squeeze past it to open the curtains.

It's been a bit like that with sound samplers. Scarcely had I paid the final instalment on the Fairlight, when along came the Emulator.

After a brief trade-in, I pocketed the change and smiled bemusedly as half a dozen samplers subsequently broke the £2000 barrier. Then I laughed (I'd have cried otherwise) when Powertran, Akai and others broke the thousand quid mark. Now, in the autumn of 1985, it's fallen upon me to herald the arrival of the sampler they actually pay you to take away.

Well, that's not strictly true, but the Vesta Kozo DIG420 is certainly the only sampler I know of that falls within just about every musician's budget, and has an output that can be changed in pitch by means of an external keyboard, and has a one-second digital delay line built into it as well. Want to hear more? Then read on, dear reader, and all (or most) will be revealed.

I won't go into great detail about how a sampler does what it does (though don't be surprised if a word or two of explanation creeps in somewhere along the line). What I'll do instead is take a look at this particular example of the species, and give a brief rundown on what it can do.

I've always been impressed by the finish on Vesta Kozo units - high quality, multicolour screen-printing is standard throughout the range - but have always had qualms about the name itself: change a couple of vowels in the last word, and several unpleasant associations spring to mind.

Enough of that, though. Basically, the DIG420 is a one-second, monophonic sound sampler that lets you trigger the sound stored in its memory in one of four ways: a front panel trigger button, a rear panel footswitch socket, or gate and CV sockets. The sampled sound can be edited from one end (the beginning), and different sounds can be sampled separately and connected together in the memory.

But DIG420 can also act as a one-second delay line, with all the functions you'd normally expect to find on such a unit.

The sampled and delayed sounds can be changed in pitch by means of front panel controls, and both sampler and delay line have a frequency response of 20Hz-7.5kHz.

Let's start with what appears on the face of it to be a limited bandwidth. Over the past couple of years, we've all come to expect fully professional bandwidths from even budget equipment, and I must admit that 7.5kHz is far from being a professional spec. That said, it's one thing looking at figures on paper, but quite another to judge a unit's frequency response by listening to it. In that respect, the Vesta handled every instrument I pushed through it well. Even vocals emerged clear and distinct from the machine's processing. Now, there's no way you could claim the sampled or echoed sound was indistinguishable from the original - some of the high transients and harmonics were conspicuous by their absence, even more so when I attempted sampling anything like cymbals, for instance. But used with reasonably undemanding signals, during a mixdown, with just a touch of reverb, you'd have trouble spotting the difference.

When it comes to front panel controls, most of the DIG420's have dual functions — which isn't surprising given the machine's dual audio identity. I'll examine the sampler functions first as they're probably the ones of most interest to E&MM readers, and give a brief rundown of the delay facilities afterwards.

At the extreme left of the front panel is the standard LED column that tells you whether the setting of the Input Gain control immediately to its right is in danger of overloading the unit. If you adjust the input signal level so that the single red LED at the head of the column flashes occasionally, you know you've reached maximum signal-to-noise ratio.

A curious feature of the Input Gain control is that when you play back a sampled sound, it magically becomes an Output Level control. Stranger still is the fact that in this second mode, it functions in the opposite manner to every other rotary pot in the known universe — turn the control anti-clockwise and you turn the level up. I found this rather disconcerting initially when, thinking that the Vesta's output level was too high, I automatically turned the control to what I thought was full off. Reglazing all the cracked windows wasn't too bad, but replacing all the speakers in my monitors was trickier — and rather more expensive. Not a very clever arrangement, then, though doubtless there's some overwhelming technical reason for it.

To the right of the Gain control is one marked Mix which adjusts the balance between dry and sampled signal. This control sees most of its use when the unit is functioning as a DDL, and sets the balance between dry and delayed signal. In sampling mode, it's likely you'd set this control to 'sample' most of the time, which would give you the signal you actually want to hear.

Next in line is the Overdub control, which allows a new signal to be overdubbed onto a signal already in the DIG420's memory. In practice, you can make several overdubs without affecting the sound quality too drastically. The ratio of sampled signal to overdub is user-controllable, and this results in a facility that's as flexible as it is musically useful. Working alone, you could build up a three-part vocal harmony, and then control the pitch using the Multi control (more of that in a moment).

To the right of these three controls is a fairly crucial button — the one that determines whether the Vesta is going to work as a delay line or a sound sampler.

Skipping the screen-printed memory map (which shows how editing can be done), we find two controls under the combined heading of Memory — one labelled Range and the other labelled Multi. Basically, the 420's memory is divided into eight segments, a division that serves two purposes.

First, it allows the sampled sound to be edited from the front. In practice, what this means is that if you sample a word into the Vesta and the start of the word doesn't coincide exactly with the start of the memory (resulting in a slight delay whenever the memory is triggered), you can turn the Range control one notch at a time to reduce the memory space until the start of both the word and the memory coincide. Move the control a little further, and syllables can be isolated and triggered at will. Adjusting the Range control doesn't permanently affect the memory unless the unit is actually in the process of recording a sample, though. When you return it to its original position, the full amount of memory space is restored instantly.

The second function of the Range control comes into play when you use it in conjunction with the Record button. In this context, it allows up to eight different items, each up to ⅛ second long, to be put into the memory one at a time, allowing phrases, arpeggios or anything else to be constructed - providing, of course, that the finished sample doesn't have a total length of more than one second.

"Value - Even in my own 16-track studio, the sampler has found a niche for itself... I liked it so much I nearly bought the company."

During the test period, I built up synth phrases which ordinarily I wouldn't have been able to play, and triggered them during a track at the right time (and in the correct pitch) using a keyboard. Very useful.

The Multi control seems to do two different things. I say 'seems' because the literature that accompanies the DIG420 (I won't pay it the compliment of calling it a handbook) is fairly basic, to say the least. Anyway, during recording the control fine-tunes the memory time, so as well as increments of an eighth of a second, any interval in between becomes possible as well.

It does the same kind of thing on playback, except that if the speed of playback is changed, the pitch of the sampled signal obviously changes too - in practice, then, the Multi control acts as a pitch adjuster whenever you're in the process of replaying sound samples.

The Record button, strange though it may seem, is what you press when you want to record a signal into the Vesta's memory. Once you've pressed it, a red light immediately above the switch indicates the duration of recording, and the amount of signal allowed into the memory is dependent on the input gain and overdub knobs.

Last of all, we come to a switch and two buttons. The switch has two markings (Trig and Gate) and enables the memory to be cued either by triggering it via the playback switch, or by an increase in the gate signal (accessed via the back panel).

The playback button does just that: pressing it causes the contents of the machine's memory to spill out all over your lounge floor. The bypass button, meanwhile, allows you access to the rear panel triggering facilities.

In fact, two types of trigger input are possible from the rear panel. First, any trigger or gate outputs from a synth or drum machine can be used via the Gate In socket. Second, the pitch of the sampled sound can be changed by connecting a keyboard CV output (with a 0-3V range) to the CV input socket. Pitch variation can be by as much as three octaves.

Frankly, this final feature came as a complete surprise to me on a unit of this price; it was only when I plugged a keyboard in that I realised the DIG420 could do it at all. In practice, though, this method of pitch-changing a signal has its limitations. Your first problem is that the higher the playback pitch, the shorter the duration of the note or signal will be. The second hitch is that as the pitch is raised, 'munchkinsation' begins to make its presence felt, making excessive pitch changes sound like Sandra Dickinson impersonations.

Given these inherent limitations, experimentation is the order of the day. Try percussive sounds, like the old standby of a glass bottle breaking. (The only problem with this one is that it can get a bit messy if you don't sample it first time.) You're not going to get polyphonic playback of samples on a machine costing less than £500, but you can get around this to some extent by sampling a full chord, or by overdubbing one in.

The digital delay side of the DIG420 is a fairly straightforward affair, with no complicated modulation facilities. Depressing the Delay/Sample button switches the unit into DDL mode, after which it functions pretty much as a normal digital delay, with a front panel Hold function, control over delay length, and pitch-shifting of the delayed signal via the Multi control. The delay can also be cued via the trigger inputs, and it's worth noting that whenever you send the machine into Delay mode, the Vesta automatically creates a loop, with the loop time equalling the memory time which, in turn, can be lengthened or shortened via the Range control.

You can adjust the echo amount relative to the original signal using the Mix and Overdub controls — which then become effectively a Feedback (or Regen) control, a transformation that lets you feed the delayed signal back on itself.

With a retail price of some three hundred and thirty green ones, the DIG420 is the only commercially-marketed sampler with an output pitch that can be controlled from a keyboard, save Logitech's CSDD1, which is only available direct from the manufacturer. It's also a reasonably flexible digital delay line, and both sampler and delay sections are triggerable in a variety of ways.

There have been compromises, of course. Most important of these are the limited (compared with other DDLs and samplers) bandwidth and the fairly short sampling time of just over a second. Given that Vesta Fire have also just brought out a DDL with a 16kHz bandwidth retailing at under £200, I don't think it would've put the company too much out of pocket to have given the same sort of spec to the DIG420. A longer sampling time such as that on the new DOD RDS3600 would also have been nice, even if it had come at the expense of bandwidth. Still, in the context of current sampler prices, these points shouldn't really be construed as criticisms. They're more like suggestions as to what Vesta could improve when they bring out the MkII version...

The DIG420 represents yet another step on the road to making sampling an affordable musical technique - especially seeing as CV synths like the Roland SH101 are kicking around in the homes of almost every modern keyboard player in the UK. And even in my own 16-track professional studio, the sampler has found a niche for itself. In fact, I liked it so much I nearly bought the company — though if I did, the first thing I'd do would be to change that God-awful name.

DATAFILE - Vesta Kozo DIG420 Sampling Delay

Specification Frequency response 20Hz-7.5kHz, 1sec sampling/delay time

Controls Sampling: Input Gain/Output Level, Mix, Overdub, Memory Range, Multi, Record, Trig, Gate, Play, Bypass.
Delay: Input Gain, Mix, Feedback, Multi, Hold, Bypass

Price £330 including VAT

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Black Box Secrets

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Paradise Found

Electronics & Music Maker - Copyright: Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.


Electronics & Music Maker - Nov 1985

Review by David Simpson

Previous article in this issue:

> Black Box Secrets

Next article in this issue:

> Paradise Found

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