Volume 1 - Drums
If you're bored with your sampler's factory disks or simply can't find a decent snare drum to sample, then Syndromic Music's 'Star Samples' may well prove the ideal solution. Mark Jenkins assesses their range of sampled sound cassettes.
Bored with your sampler's factory disks? Looking for a new source of sounds to expand your repertoire? Mark Jenkins spools through the current range of Star Samples cassettes to see what they offer...
It's in the very nature of sound sampling that some people have access to better sound sources than others, and pinching the sound of a full 96-piece orchestra from a compact disc is less likely to be successful than hiring one to play to order for you. The number of open chords played in your average symphony is annoyingly small anyway, but there ought to be some middle ground, which until now has taken the form of a very active market in factory sampled disks.
These tend to be expensive, however, and teach you nothing about using your sampler other than how to push the 'Load' button. Much more educational and better value for money is the idea of the sampling tape, which has (after a period of experimentation with reel-to-reel and PCM tapes) settled down into a mainly cassette-based medium.
Most of the business done with Star Samples is on cassette, albeit by far the best example of that medium - the TDK Metal MA-XG with Dolby C encoding and real-time copying from the digital master. If your cassette deck lacks Dolby C noise reduction, you can use Dolby B to play back Star Samples cassettes, but inevitably there'll be a little more hiss than you may desire.
So far there are four volumes available:
(2) Orchestral/Tuned/Latin Percussion
PIANO This cassette consists of only one sound - the Steinway grand from London's PRT Studios. Each note of the keyboard is played at 'ff' (loud) and 'mf' (medium) levels, and 88 are recorded on each side of the cassette, with a close-miked sound available on the left and a more ambient version on the right channel.
Each sample is played twice after a count-in of three rimshot clicks, so you know when the sound is coming and have a chance to set the sampling level. Obviously the Piano tape's approach is ideal for multisampling, but it's left for you to decide which notes you sample, and whether you sample both levels for a velocity-based volume response, for example.
The cassette inlay includes a chart relating sample number on the tape to actual notes, though each note is announced on the tape before being played. Some of the Star Samples sounds are over twenty seconds in duration, which you won't be able to sample fully with some machines but which will make looping easier. There's also a 30 second 1 kHz tone recorded at the start of each tape to help in setting levels.
DRUMS On to the Drums tape, played by Gary Wallis and consisting of 56 samples divided between eight kits:
(1) Close-miked, medium tuning
(2) Small ambient room, medium tuning
(3) Large ambient room, medium tuning
(4) Electronic kit, no effects
(5) Electronic kit, medium ambient effects
(6) Stacked acoustic/electric kit, close-miked, no effects
(7) Stacked kit, ambient effects
(8) Effects-hi-hats, acoustic and electronic crashes, rising and descending cymbals, etc.
Each sample is played three times with a count-in click, and each sound has medium tuning with additional gating recommended for best results. There's an admitted lack of hi-hats and other cymbals as these are extremely difficult to sample, although I don't think owners of Drumtraks and other decent drum machines would feel obliged to (quote) "overdub a live hi-hat/cymbal if what you require is any more than basics"!
ORCHESTRAL The Orchestral Percussion tape by Stephen Henderson continues the theme with different beats on snares, bass drums, tam-tams, hand cymbals, sizzle cymbals, pitched percussion (such as timpani, vibes, marimba and tubular chimes) at half or third octave intervals, maracas, claves, sleigh bells, congas and much more.
Again, you can choose a clean or ambient sound from left or right channels - there are two identical versions of each orchestral sound and three slightly different versions of each Latin sound, which makes for some variation. Like the Drums and Brass tapes, this one was beatifully recorded at John Foxx's Garden Studio in Shoreditch, London.
BRASS This consists of mainly orchestral as opposed to pop sounds, with most notes pitched at C, E or G. There are several useful 'falls' but no brass stabs, which you're expected to derive yourself by playing the samples for a shorter time. 135 samples are included and all are in mono with no significant ambience - trumpets, whole orchestral brass sections, trombones, French horns, euphoniums, soft brass and pop brass trumpets with falls and very high E and G notes are all supplied.
There's no arguing with the quality of the Star Samples cassettes - they've been superbly realised and are technically faultless. Those who feel that the cassette system has inherent limitations can always opt for the considerably more expensive Sony PCM-F1 versions, but the approach does differ from one tape to another, meaning some represent better value for money than others.
I can't believe, for instance, that there isn't by now a decent grand piano disk for most samplers, and to pay the price for the Piano tape and then sift through 176 pitches to create your own multi-sampled, piano seems like pretty hard work. Still, if you insist on creating your very own mix of velocity response, ambience and timbre, this is obviously the way to do it.
The Drums tape has more obvious applications, and will make it relatively easy to mix and match kits as opposed to having to tear apart the (sometimes very good) multi-split kits supplied with the Mirage, Prophet 2000 and other samplers.
The Orchestral/Latin Percussion tape represents possibly the best value for money since it offers a very large number of sounds, some of them unavailable in any disk library or on any drum machine I've heard. For true originality, nobody minds paying a few pounds.
The Brass tape is the hardest to assess because it's limited in some ways but useful in others - more emphasis should have been given to the pop side, and brass stabs would have been appreciated because as far as I can see, the start of a long sampled brass chord will not sound the same as a chord which is briefly blasted out in the first place. But if you want to create powerful, multi-layered brass superior to most library disks, this is the tape to use.
Overall, Star Samples cassettes don't appear cheap, and I'd like to know how many copies are being sold in the PCM-F1 format, but they certainly work out cheaper than the same number of sounds bought on library disks, which at £10-£15 a go seem to have a rather large mark-up considering the fact that blank disks only cost about £2 each.
There are a few competing tapes already on the market - the poorer quality Korg cassette offers a wide range of interesting sounds for a few pounds, and there's now a CD version available - but the most important point about Star Samples is that they'll give you a high quality end product, and you'll have learned something about your sampler on the way. It's worth the cost just to help you go through such an educational process.
Prices of the metal cassette versions are as follows: Drums, Piano £25 each; Brass, Orchestral £35 each (inclusive of VAT and delivery). Prices for the PCM-F1 format are available from the distributors: (Contact Details)
Review by Mark Jenkins
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