Software for the Atari ST
Sampling is the name of the game, but without the equipment you can't play. Simon Trask investigates a unit that wil turn your Atari into a sampler for under eighty quid.
FANCY TAKING YOUR first step into the world of sampling but short of the readies that would otherwise secure a Fairlight, Emulator or S1000? If you already own an Atari ST, Cornish company Microdeal offer a relatively cheap alternative you might like to take advantage of. Their Replay sound-sampling package uses the computer's memory to store samples, and costs a relatively modest £80.
The package consists of Replay sampling software, Drumbeat rhythm-sequencing software, and real-time Effects processing software (for adding such effects as echo and distortion) together with a plug-in sampling cartridge. These programs can't be held in memory at the same time, however - so you can't sequence as you sample as you process.
The Replay cartridge, which plugs into the ST's cartridge port, has an audio input for sampling and an audio output for replaying samples (although the system offers the ST monitor's inbuilt speaker as an alternative). Replay can hold up to ten samples in the ST's memory, but can only play back monophonically - although you can rapidly switch from one sample to another.
Replay uses eight-bit resolution with anti-aliasing filters on both the input and the output stages, a 48dB S/N ratio, and 5, 7.5, 10, 15, 20, 30, 40 and 50kHz sample rates. As with any sampling system, you offset sample quality against sample time. So the higher the sample rate, the higher the sound quality - but the shorter the available sample time becomes. Replay will sample into as much memory as you have available, so if you own a Mega4 ST, you've got roughly 40 seconds' worth at the highest rate.
The Replay software samples via the cartridge input into an area of memory which you define using two block markers. When you're satisfied with the result, you can store the sample into one of ten Presets (and save it to disk). The currently selected sample can be looped at any time simply by selecting the Loop function, and replayed by selecting the Replay button.
The block markers also identify a sample area for such features as sample copy, insert, delete and overlay. Using copy and insert you can splice samples together, cut-up style, and then adjust the markers to label the result as one sample if you want. Other features include sample reversal and sample fade-in/out, sample magnification and a realtime spectrum analyser (which tells you the frequency content of any input sound - not very useful day to day, but certainly of educational value).
Your ten Preset samples can be played from a MIDI keyboard or the ST's own keyboard. There are two options: either assign a sample to each MIDI note, or select any one of the ten samples at a time and play it back at different pitches over an eight-octave range. The advantage of MIDI control is that you can sequence your samples from an external MIDI sequencer though obviously if you ordinarily use a sequencing package which runs on the ST, you've got problems here.
Incidentally, computer programmers should note that Microdeal provide technical information which will allow Replay samples to be incorporated into other software - interesting for games programmers, I'd have thought.
Drumbeat software allows you to program rhythm patterns using samples created with Replay - in other words, it creates a sampling drum machine. Up to 16 samples can be used within a pattern, but the software can only play two at any given moment: that's one up on Replay itself. In order to be able to do this, sample resolution has been reduced to seven bits. You should also bear in mind that samples must be recorded at 10 or 20kHz to be usable in Drumbeat, and can have a maximum length of 1.64 seconds (10kHz) or 0.82 seconds (20kHz) neither of which is really long enough for, say, cymbal sounds.
You can assemble your own custom drum kits of samples off disk, and then save the resulting combination back to disk as a Kit. Microdeal provide you with a default sampled drum kit which includes bass and snare drums, open and closed hi-hat, cowbell and bongos. They also have disks of sampled sounds ideal for use within Drumbeat, which at £9.95 each (plus a quid for p&p) are real value for money. Disk 1 contains 44 sounds, including a good range of Latin percussion and such delights as cuckoo, dogyap, saxophones and record scratches.
The program presents you with a grid onto which you record your patterns in step-time or real-time (the tempo for record and playback is programmable). You can record up to 99 patterns, and then chain them together to form a song consisting of up to 70 steps. At each step, a pattern can be repeated up to 99 times.
Possible improvements? Not many. I'd like to see Drumbeat responding to MIDI sync information but overall, Microdeal have to be congratulated on providing a cheap introduction to sampling which is also flexible enough to have more than just novelty value.
If you're looking for a cheap sampled alternative to an acoustic piano so that you can play Chopin etudes all day long, forget it. Microdeal's package is best suited to sampling percussive sounds, speech, sound effects and recorded music. As such, it opens a window on the most creative (as opposed to recreative) aspects of sampling.
There are even ways of getting around the software's voice limitation - by using a Portastudio, or even a stereo reel-to-reel with sound-on-sound facilities (such as the venerable Akai 4000DS) to build up parts one after another on tape. Be resourceful and inventive, and who knows what you might achieve?
Price £79.95 plus £1 p&p.
Review by Simon Trask
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