Lynex 16-bit Sampler
It's British, it works with an Atari ST computer, it gives very high quality sound and it won't break the bank! Ian Gilby presents a sneak preview of this forthcoming 16-bit stereo sampling machine.
Ian Gilby presents a sneak preview of this forthcoming stereo machine.
The heart of the Lynex system is the 1U 19-inch rackmount case, which houses two high speed signal processing computers that operate in parallel. On the rear panel are two sample input sockets and eight jack outputs, two of which may be used as the main stereo outputs or one as an overall mixed mono output, depending on the selected configuration. In addition, there are two digital ports - one connects directly to an Atari computer, either the 520ST or 1040ST model, the other is the high speed expansion bus for the planned sample-to-hard disk option.
Lynex offers a 50kHz sampling rate on each of its two input channels (the Prophet 3000 offers 48kHz). These are totally independent, each having their own 16-bit linear (ie. non-companding) analogue-to-digital convertors (ADCs). The output conversion is of similarly high quality - Lynex uses the same digital-to-analogue convertor chips found in CD players.
The basic system comes with one megabyte of RAM as standard and can be expanded up to 32 megabytes by adding a second 1U rack expander. This comes with an additional three megabytes of RAM already installed and sockets for up to seven more four megabyte plug-in cards. This should offer a flexible and cost-effective upgrade path for most users.
Two Lynex systems can be controlled from a single Atari ST computer and the software automatically senses this, as well as the amount of RAM it has at its disposal, and treats them as one integral instrument.
The polyphony is defined by the sampling rate you choose: it is either 8-note polyphonic at the default 50kHz rate or 16-note polyphonic at 25kHz. Depending on which you select, Lynex automatically configures itself to provide you with the facilities of an 8- or 16-channel real-time digital mixer on the output stage. You can either mix the voices down to stereo, down to mono, or independently set the level of each voice assigned to the eight individual outputs. On the machine I tried, it was not possible to assign a voice to both the stereo or mono outputs and have it feed a separate output as well, but it is technically feasible and the Lynex designers hope to incorporate this feature within a future software update. A small point.
Up to 61 separate samples can be held in memory and these can be either dynamically assigned to any one of the separate outputs or allocated to a fixed output, or any permutation of the two - a very flexible arrangement.
One of the things that is unique about the Lynex hardware is that it always samples the input signal at 50kHz, irrespective of whether you specify the 25kHz rate for 16-voice operation, and then in the digital domain it converts that down to give the effect of a lower sampling rate (but without introducing any discernible noise or aliasing effects - even on a sample that has been transposed down three octaves. You've really got to hear this to believe it!). The technical term for this is downsampling. Thus Lynex overcomes the inherent limitations of other more expensive sampling systems like the Prophet 3000, which still use analogue filters with movable cut-off points.
So why has nobody else thought of taking this approach? Well, probably because the Lynex has been developed by a group of clued-up Cambridge University-based engineers whose expertise lies in the fast-moving digital signal processing field. It is also very different from other mid-priced samplers in that it uses two 16-bit signal processing computers of its own (Hybrid Arts' ADAP sampling system, for example, does not - it uses the Atari's internal 68000 processor) and you have to have that sort of power available before you can even contemplate doing downsampling in the digital domain with digital filters.
Since the operating system program is stored in its own memory, there is no tedious loading from disk required. This has the advantage of freeing up all available disk space on standard double density 3.5" disks, which can then be used to save your precious samples via the Atari's internal disk drive. Any Atari-compatible hard disk could be employed instead, if desired.
All functions on the Lynex software are controlled on-screen with the Atari's mouse, apart from the ('if all else fails') Escape function, which is activated by holding down both the Atari's SHIFT keys, and the initial naming of sounds.
To help learn the software, there are three different 'levels' of instruction manual built into the program in the form of GEM dialogue boxes (help, information, safety) which pop up on-screen and tell you what you can/should do next - very handy. Once you are proficient, these help functions can be turned off.
The screen layouts are very clear and uncluttered. Lynex allows you to simultaneously view two sounds on the Atari monitor-left and right inputs. These appear as waveforms across the top half of the screen. Various control functions are listed below these such as ZOOM, SHRINK, EXPAND etc, which allow you to define how much of the waveform you want to view/work on, and at what resolution. (The Atari's high resolution monochrome monitor is essential here.) Two markers, in the form of thin vertical lines, are used to define the extent of the 'work area' of your sound and their position is always shown at the top of the screen in milliseconds as M1 and M2.
Other functions include VOLUME, which lets you increase/decrease the level of the sound within the aforementioned two markers; 3-D gives you an on-screen waveform plot against time (just like the famous Fairlight display) so that you can see how the sound is constructed; while SUSTAIN SET and SUSTAIN CLEAR are for setting up and erasing sample loops (forward loops only at present); PLAY triggers the sound within the marked area. Equally useful is the SAVE function, which lets you save the marked section only and give it a different name from the main sample without exiting the current operation (great for isolating specific drum strikes or groups of notes, etc). There is also the facility to cut and paste parts of a sample temporarily into a memory buffer (the Clipboard) then use INSERT or COPY to place them where you like. REVERSE does exactly that - it plays the marked portion of the sound backwards; RENAME lets you alter the original title you gave your sound; and RESTORE returns the screen display instantly to the 'top' level when finished with a close-up zoom, say. Incidentally, when specifying splice points or markers etc, Lynex can operate to an accuracy of one sample - that's one 50,000th of a second! This resolution really comes into its own when butting two waveforms together by eye on-screen, or re-drawing part of a waveform to smooth out undesirable spikes and glitches.
Lynex provides a real-time, ie. continuously moving, waveform display of what you are sampling and what you hear is monitored through the sampler as you record. In other words, to use a studio analogy, you always hear the processed 'off-tape' signal rather than the source.
Sampling a sound into the Lynex is pretty straightforward: you set the sample frequency; define a trigger threshold value (as a percentage of the input signal level) so that Lynex will automatically begin sampling as soon as the input level rises above 4% say; then click on the SAMPLE button to get things going. While sampling is taking place, the upper half of the screen reverses to give a white-on-black readout.
A waveform synthesis editor comes as standard with the package and this allows you to draw your own waveforms or build them up using a choice of sine, square or triangle waves, which can also function as LFO modulation sources. Additional software is planned to allow both Additive and FM synthesis, I was told.
The MODIFY function works on the whole of the sample and can be used to add a non real-time echo, mix two waveforms together, and perform that well-known Fairlight showstopper - merging two different sounds together over time. You can also draw any amplitude envelope and filter response you like for post-sample processing of your sound - much more flexible than a set of VCA and VCF controls.
With the power of two 16-bit signal processing computers at their disposal, the Lynex designers recognised that by writing specific software routines they could apply said power to areas other than purely sampling. Thus, forthcoming system disks will enable the Lynex to be reconfigured to act as a high quality real-time digital effects unit, 64-band real-time spectrum analyser, or high speed oscilloscope. Such flexibility!
Clicking the mouse on the MIDI button takes you to another screen where you can assign any MIDI channel to a sound and set an individual pitch transposition, if required. Since Lynex can hold up to 61 different samples in memory simultaneously (the length of each sample being dependent on the total amount of RAM your system has and the number of samples you choose to have), you'd expect there to be some way of allocating each sample to different keys on your MIDI keyboard. There is - and it's very easy to set up. You select the SPLIT KBD option from the top menu, select your sound, move the mouse pointer onto the 128-note (1O½ octaves) keyboard that appears on-screen, then mark out the required zone by dragging the mouse across the keys (the zone is highlighted as a black bar, like on the Prophet 3000). It's simplicity to do and very quick, though a permanent on-screen indication of Middle C would help matters. You can map out individual keyboard splits for all 61 samples if you so wish and even overlap them. In fact, that's how you 'stack' samples with Lynex.
Further options allow you to echo MIDI data or not, set the basic command channel, sync to an external MIDI clock, select a MIDI mode (including Mono mode for multitimbral operation), as well as set the MIDI 'm' number - this defines the maximum number of voices you are allowed to play on each MIDI channel.
Finally, you can draw your own velocity and aftertouch response curves on-screen for each sample. This allows you to set up any type of velocity key crossfade, velocity controlled panning of stereo sounds or straightforward fading of one or more sounds into others. You can do the same on aftertouch, or any combination of velocity and aftertouch. Incidentally, all custom parameters you set up on Lynex can be saved to disk as part of the CONFIGURE function and instantly recalled the next time you use the system.
Unlike the ADAP sampler from Hybrid Arts, Lynex doesn't use the Atari's memory for sample storage. It loads as a 'desk accessory' and sits in memory alongside any other program you care to load - such as a sequencer or patch librarian. By clicking on the SEQUENCER button you can jump straight into your sequencer program, rearrange and edit your tracks, say, and then use them to trigger the sampled sounds you have created with Lynex, as well as trigger other MIDI instruments in the normal way.
As the magazine went to press, it was known that Lynex would run successfully in this co-resident form with the System Exclusive Iconixor Steinberg Pro-24 sequencers. Other Atari sequencers, including those from Hybrid Arts, were still being investigated for any compatibility problems.
Well, no doubt the question you all want to ask is 'How much does all this cost?' Not a lot, actually - it is anticipated that the basic one megabyte Lynex will sell for £1599 inc VAT. Of course, you'll need an Atari computer as well, but the 520ST is going for a song these days and plenty of people already have them. The fact that you don't need two Atari's to use Lynex and run your software sequencer at the same time is a considerable advantage over the more expensive Hybrid Arts' ADAP system, which does!
I was very impressed by my brief encounter with the Lynex system - it is much, much more than a sampling instrument and I can see it being well used in many a studio installation for flying in stereo sub-mixes or spot effects even. The built-in digital mixer and flexible output arrangement is very useful, though each output channel could do with a dedicated pan control.
Since nobody appears to buy samplers without a sound library these days, the final production model Lynex will be capable of reading Emax, S900 and Prophet 2000/2 disks inserted into the Atari's own 3.5" drive. This will then give prospective owners access to a colossal back catalogue of good samples. An enticing thought.
To have 16-bit high quality stereo sampling and such extensive features at this price is truly remarkable; for it to be a home-grown British product is even more remarkable and only to be applauded. I think I know what I want for Christmas now!
We'll bring you a full hands-on review of Lynex in a future issue.
Price £1599 inc VAT (anticipated).
Contact Commander Electronics, (Contact Details)
Review by Ian Gilby
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