Sampling on the Cheap
A new British company, Logitech, have just announced the world's cheapest pitch-tracking sampler. If you've a CV synth you'll be quids in — or will you? Paul White reports.
Until something else comes along, sampling looks like being flavour of the month for some time to come. Which explains why British newcomers Logitech have decided to produce what must be the cheapest tracking sampler currently available.
You might choose to take issue with me on this one, but it seems the Art of Sampling is now divided into three specific product areas. At the highest price level, we have the dedicated computer music systems, pioneers of sampling but now acquiring dinosaur status as lower-priced, better-specified systems evolve around common or garden computers. They still serve a vital role in today's contemporary music industry, but their heyday is coming to a close.
One rung down, we have the home computer-based systems just alluded to, and self-contained samplers such as the Ensoniq Mirage; it's the middle area, and the one most likely to expand rapidly over the coming months.
But under all that, there are the machines that give all musicians - even the most impoverished ones - a small insight into what sampling can do, and how it does it. The Logitech CSDD1, a monophonic sampling delay being produced by a small company new to the musical instrument world, falls into this third category. At the time of writing, it's available only direct from its manufacturers, so you won't find it at your High Street music store; that, in my view, is a pity.
It's a relatively unsophisticated device, of course, but it's still viable musically, and gives just about anybody a chance to get into sampling providing that they have access to a monosynth with a one-volt-per-octave CV output.
Housed in its conventional rack case with off-the-shelf colour-coded knobs, the sampler looks neat but hardly inspiring, though the designers would argue that it's there to be used, not looked at. Its input sensitivity can be switched to match 0dB or -20dB line levels, and a conventional gain control works in tandem with a four-section LED meter to ensure optimum drive levels, an important consideration when a system relies on an eight-bit digital delay line, as this one does.
As this sampler is a dual-purpose device also capable of providing ordinary delay effects, there's a Feedback control which in essence varies the decay time of repeat echoes. A Balance control is used to regulate the ratio between delayed and direct signal levels, while the Delay time is divided into six steps ranging from 66mS to 2 seconds, with a continuous Delay Time control offering fine adjustment; a further control enables the maximum delay time to be doubled at the expense of reduced bandwidth - a not uncommon ploy used on delay lines of all prices. Normal bandwidth is 15kHz, but this is reduced to 8kHz when the double-time setting is in use.
The Logitech's operating mode section consists of two switches, the first of which selects Delay or Sample mode. Once a sample has been recorded, the next switch, Hold, is used to freeze the sound in memory, where it remains until either it is overwritten or the unit is switched off.
"Performance: The Logitech suffers from reduced dynamic range — a side-effect of using eight-bit linear sampling."
One of the major drawbacks of budget samplers, and one made more acute in this instance by the lack of editing facilities, is the difficulty of loading a sample so that it starts exactly on cue when retriggered. To do this, you have to push the Sample button (or whatever the machine in question uses) at the exact instant the sound being sampled starts, which isn't easy, even for an experienced pro like myself. But Logitech do at least give you a choice of three methods of loading sounds. These are Internal, Manual and External, a three-way rotary switch being used to select the desired option.
The first mode (Internal) is probably the most useful, as it enables the sampling process to be initiated by the start of the sound being sampled. This method of sampling works extremely well in the context of percussive sounds, but is easily caught out by sounds with a soft attack, which it can miss entirely. In the event of this occurring, you can resort to Manual mode - but this means polishing up your reflexes in order to press the Trig button at exactly the right moment. If you miss-time your sample of a Rembrandt canvas being slowly ripped in two, you could have problems.
The final mode, External, allows the sampling process to be triggered by a positive-going trigger pulse such as chose provided by most synths (except those with S-triggers). This way, you can use the synth output to operate a relay to switch a solenoid to drop the Ming vase onto the concrete block next to the mic and... well, it was just a thought.
The last control is the Single/repeat switch, which can be used to inhibit further triggering until the sample has finished; in its alternative state, retriggering occurs whenever a new trigger pulse is applied.
As a straightforward digital delay, the Logitech suffers from reduced dynamic range, an inevitable side-effect of using eight-bit linear sampling - though I reckon some form of pre/post emphasis is being used to get a decent signal-to-noise ratio, given the sampling limitations. But compared with many budget DDLs that do nothing but act as DDLs, the Logitech's noise levels are still on the high side.
As a sampler, these shortcomings are less noticeable but a low-frequency pure tone quickly shows up the quantisation noise. Samples with lots of upper harmonics work best, as these tend to hide these noise effects. Noise levels are also very low when no sample is being played - but then, that in itself is nothing remarkable.
Pitch-tracking is reasonably accurate over an octave or so and is certainly good enough for most applications, but as the review sample was a prototype, production models might track even better. Outside that octave range, however, things go very wrong very quickly. Shame.
A year or two ago, I'd have hailed the Logitech as a major breakthrough. It's probably the cheapest tracking sampler on the market, and used with care, it's capable of producing artistically pleasing results.
But there are omissions that limit its usefulness. For instance, the sample always plays to its end once triggered unless you play a new note, so you can't cut a note short by releasing a key early. The lack of editing facilities isn't surprising at this price, but the use of linear eight-bit encoding means that all-too-noticeable noise will form an inevitable part of each and every sample you make.
More positively, the existence of a machine such as this means you can create echoes, synchronised delays and tuned samples for little over £200 — which has got to be good news for anybody unable to contemplate more upmarket devices - and the sound quality is fine for live use.
But if you have your own studio, you want a digital delay that isn't unacceptably noisy, and you want a decent amount of control over your sample once you've recorded it, you're better off leaving your wallet where it is.
Gear in this article:
Review by Paul White
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