Microdeal Replay Professional
Atari ST Sampler
Turning your ST into a sampler is one way of getting into sampling on the cheap. Ian Waugh sounds out an improved version of Microdeal's successful Replay sampler.
The original Replay turned your ST into a sampler for under £100. Now for under £150, Replay Pro brings improved sound quality and extra features.
ONE OF THE most enduring types of program for 16-bit computers is the sampler. Such programs are bought by musicians and non-musicians alike and if you've ever dabbled with one you'll know why - addictive little beasties, aren't they?
Sampler programs give you an insight into the workings of their mega-siblings such as the Akai S950 and although you can't buy an S950 for 50 or 100 quid (if you can, get me one, please) software samplers can give you a good feel for the business of sampling - the joys and the heartaches.
ST Replay was one of the first samplers to appear for the Atari ST, and has always been regarded as one of the best, both in terms of facilities and quality of output. That early version, however, made little use of the mouse, which didn't sit well with rodent aficionados (me included). ST Replay 4 (£79.95) was released about a year ago and included many improvements on the original package. Now the boys from AVR (neé 2-Bit Systems) have produced ST Replay Professional which far outdoes the other programs.
The package contains a sampler cartridge which plugs into the ST's cartridge port, three disks and three manuals. The cartridge sports Audio In and Out connections (on phono sockets) and although you can play samples from the editor through your monitor, you'll get far superior results if you plug the cartridge Out into your hi-fi or an amp and speakers.
The disks contains three programs - the sample editor itself, Drumbeat Professional and MIDIplay.
THE FIRST NOTICEABLE difference in the new software is the screen display. The program runs in high- or medium-res and has a more "serious" look about it. The sampling rates are preset (as they are in the other Replays) at 5.5, 8, 11, 16, 22, 32, 44 and 48kHz. In practice this is unlikely to cause any problems although a fully variable range would have been nice, especially if you want to lift samples from other sources.
A 520 ST can store 230K of sample (approximately ten seconds at 22kHz) and a 1040 can store 750K (34 seconds at 22kHz). In now-traditional format, the sample appears in the top part of the screen in a choice of three display options - filled, outline and envelope (sounds like a fashion show) and sections of it can be isolated with left and right cursors. The positions are also shown numerically so you always know exactly where you are. A helpful touch is the time display which shows how long the sample between the cursors will last when played at the current frequency.
Two windows below the sample area, a Spectrum and an Oscilloscope display, show the frequency and volume of incoming signals, allowing you to set the optimum recording level. You can set a threshold trigger level for sampling and a pre-sampling option lets you sample a sound after you've heard it - one pinched from the big boys. With so much memory to play with, however, it's generally just as easy to record a chunk and edit out the unwanted bits.
THE SECOND NOTICEABLE difference is a marked improvement in sound quality. Sampling still takes place at 8-bit resolution but the output is 12-bit, resulting in cleaner sound. At the two highest sampling rates, 44kHz and 48kHz, the signal can only be routed to the cartridge output, but the results are very impressive, if a little hungry for memory.
You can play a sample forwards and backwards (without physically reversing the sample) and loop the section between the cursors. All edit operations take place in the area between the two cursors. To help juggle samples, there is a cut and paste buffer with insert, replace, clear and swap commands.
Up to ten sample positions can be stored on the function keys. These can be used as temporary pointers to parts of samples and to remember the positions of samples for use with the MIDI options. These allow you to play the sample or parts of it via MIDI. This is a useful testing ground before using the MIDIplay program.
The edit functions are extremely comprehensive and all are selected from the main screen. They include Fade In and Fade Out, Fill (fill selected area with the sample in the paste buffer), Find (find occurrences of a sample segment held in the paste buffer), Reverse, Shrink (compress a sample to half size) and Overlay (superimpose the buffer on the sample). You can also scale the volume up or down.
The infamous (and subsequently somewhat tired) "N-N-N-Nineteen" effect is easily produced - it's as good a way as any to practice editing.
A Join function helps with one of the most difficult aspects of sampling - locating good loop points. The central display butts the end of the sample against the start of it and you can shift the ends either way until you get a neat join. Very neat indeed.
REPLAY PRO MAKES much of its filters and their use is well documented in the manuals (which also warn that performing a filter operation on a large sample could take hours of processing time). There are fast and slow filter options (fast filtering generally has a wider range of effects than slow filtering but is less accurate - but the processing time is faster).
The range of parameters is quite impressive and includes low, high, band and notch filters, boost, bass, no DC (effectively making a sample appear closer to the central line) and treble settings. You can also draw a graph of the filter response so you can see what is going to happen to the sample.
From the Filter options, you can draw a FFT display (3-D graph) of the sample, although this will typically take about a minute. Again, impressive - just the sort of thing to print out and hang on your wall.
"Although some of the drum samples may lack individual sparkle, the sum of the parts easily rivals certain of the cheaper drum machines available."
An effects section now forms part of the main program. This includes reverb and echo effects with selectable delay times. The effect can be applied to an incoming signal or to the sample.
MIDIPLAY IS QUITE a sophisticated program. It can hold up to 128 samples in memory at once (RAM permitting) which can each be assigned to a different MIDI note number. Playback is only through the cartridge output but you can play back up to four notes at once.
Each voice has its own range of parameters including loop points and tuning and you can adjust pitchbend sensitivity. Initially you may find you have to tune each sample on assignment to a key, but once completed four such keyboard setups can be stored in memory and saved to disk.
You could well record a piece from a MIDI keyboard using the samples created with the program. The quality is certainly high enough.
AVID ST WATCHERS may recall a Microdeal program from 2-Bit called Digi-Drum. Well, Drumbeat is much more sophisticated. In time-honoured fashion, a song can be constructed from up to 50 patterns which are built up on a drum grid which can hold up to 32 steps. The program can store up to ten songs constructed from 99 entries in a Song list. This includes lists of patterns as well as repeats and jumps.
The grid holds 15 samples, which can be tuned instrument samples as well as drum sounds. Complete kits can be saved and loaded and individual drums can be given their own volume level. Like MIDIplay, up to four samples can play at the same time and playback is only through the cartridge output. Each sample can be assigned a MIDI note number and velocity value so you can effectively use the program to construct drum patterns to play on an external drum machine or synth. This is quite a viable alternative to programming your drum machine from its front panel.
Tempo can be set in beats per minute (40 to 239) and the program can sync with an external drum machine/sequencer via MIDI.
There's only one major drum demo on the disks but it really is impressive. Although some samples may lack individual sparkle, the sum of the parts easily rivals some of the cheaper drum machines. Using sync you could well use Drumbeat to lay down a drum track.
I did have one major gripe with this program - and I confess, perhaps I'm being a little picky. Drumbeat doesn't use the GEM menu bar although it has a menu bar of its own. Each selection has its own exit button and, annoyingly, you can't select another option from the bar before exiting the current one.
Other minor gripes about the programs in general concern the inability to play Drumbeat and MIDIplay through the monitor. This would have been useful when setting up patterns and samples in order to save you rigging up your amp and speakers. But hardly a major disaster.
THE DISK ALSO contains a PD sample conversion program which can convert samples from Master Sound, STOS Maestro and earlier versions of ST Replay to Replay Pro format.
The manuals are photocopies (one even had the cover stapled to it upside down) and the pages are numbered consecutively from the first manual to the third - odd. And there's no index. You're probably as sick of reading this as I am of writing it - but why can't developers put an index in their manuals? It may take a day or so to organise but I reckon that for a product in this price range, we deserve it. While that's also a comment on many pieces of software, in Replay Pro's case, perhaps a better quality manual is in order, too.
That apart, the manuals are well-written and comprehensive. They not only cover operation but also include hints and tips and lots of technical data. Once you know what the functions do, you'll have little need of the manuals. Most operations are performed with the mouse although sometimes you have to hit the keyboard (but gently, please) to escape from a playback function.
YES, SAMPLERS ARE fun and with Replay Professional. AVR have improved the quality beyond that which you'd normally expect from a software sampler although, of course, it doesn't match the current crop of professional sample machines. As it is, the 12-bit (scaled) output resolution produces the best quality I've heard from any ST sample program and it is eminently usable for home and even semi-pro use.
The three programs give you lots of sample manipulation for your money although Replay Professional is considerably more expensive than other software-based programs - twice the price in some cases. But quality will out and if you want the best you've got to pay for it. Currently it's the best ST sampler on the market.
Price £129.95 including VAT
Review by Ian Waugh
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