You've got the perfect S900 snare sample and you've just bought an Emulator III - you either start again or buy Avalon. Vic Lennard looks at a program which could become indispensable for sample editing and management.
Between them, samplers and MIDI offer immense power over sampled sound; all that's needed is software smart enough to take advantage of the situation. Steinberg's Avalon aims to be that software.
ALTHOUGH THE MIDI standard was set up some nine or so years ago, certain grey areas in its implementation still exist - particularly where system exclusive information is concerned. One application of this is the transfer of programming parameters to and from a software editor of some description. Although the MIDI Manufacturers Association defined a sample dump standard as long ago as 1986, various samplers have entered the market not adhering to it.
The situation is further confused by the differences between samplers - specifically, some are of 12-bit, others of 16-bit resolution. The number of bits determines the fidelity of the sampler; it also complicates the task of transferring a sample from one machine to another.
Basically there are two problems facing anyone writing sample editing software. Firstly, a different piece of software would seem to be required to work with each sampler. Secondly, a system must be developed to transfer samples between machines of different resolution.
The answer is to have a generic sample editor, and one or two companies have ventured into this area, the latest of which is Steinberg with Avalon.
AVALON CAN BE divided up into three areas; the Mapping page, where data can be transferred between samplers (Avalon will read and write Sound Designer files), the Atari ST and disk; a Time Domain editor which displays the sample waveform and allows you to edit it in various ways; and the Frequency Domain Editor where sounds are broken down to their frequency components and can be altered and then resynthesised.
The Mapping page presents itself on booting up and looks like a standard GEM desktop with different icons. Samplers are shown by keyboards and various are displayed, lettered from "A" onwards and identified by the sampler's name. At present, nine samplers are catered for, with more being planned for the future. Avalon can hold up to 32 samples in memory, subject to available memory space, and these are divided into four banks of eight samples (shown as empty windows). Floppy and hard disk icons are shown according to your system configuration, and should you be fortunate enough to have the Steinberg D/A board installed, this will also be shown.
The remaining icons are a clipboard, for storing samples to while editing (as edits are generally made to the original), an edit icon for moving to the next page, and an information question mark. This last icon is part of Steinberg's "software manual" philosophy - simply point to anything onscreen and a dialogue page appears explaining it. It certainly beats hacking through a manual. Unfortunately there appeared to be a bug on the review software because, once a sample had been loaded from disk, it was impossible to re-access the manual - it kept telling me to insert the disk with the manual on.
A double mouse click on any of the sampler keyboards shows the MIDI setup information with the sampler ID letter, name, MIDI channel and input/output ports being used (ST or SMP24). Not all samplers are automatically displayed, instead they can be added to the Mapping page as required. This prevents the page being cluttered with devices you don't own.
Avalon offers various options intended to help make time spent editing easier: the Atari's Undo key can be used to undo the last edit; Normal/Expert mode gives you the option to change your mind after selecting any function; Screen Settings determines how the screens fade, whether a clock is displayed and whether screen black-out will automatically occur after a number of minutes to save you burning a permanent image into your monitor. There is the standard Steinberg Mouse speeder and the visible keyboard for playing back samples from modular samplers. All settings, including the map, can be saved to disk and automatically loaded at booting. though Avalon requires a full Meg of RAM in which to work.
"The question mark icon is part of Steinberg's 'software manual' philosophy point to anything onscreen and a dialogue page appears explaining it."
Before you can edit a sample, you have to Get one from your sampler. This is achieved by dragging the sampler icon onto one of the sample windows. The Get Sample Data box opens and allows you to select the sample number to obtain the required sound. It then tells you the name and length of this sample. A data flow chart fills up as the sample makes its way into the ST's memory, and a dialogue box opens at the end of the transfer to indicate success - or otherwise. The sample window also changes to show a waveform and incorporates the name of the sample. As transferring sample data over MIDI is a slow process, it is worth saving data to Atari disk if future editing is envisaged - this is achieved by dragging the sample window onto the disk icon.
The number of samples which you can save on a disk will depend on their length, but if you are in possession of an orderly mind (unlike me) you may like to group samples together in folders. Disk Scan mode lists all samples on a disk, irrespective of how they are filed. If you drag the disk icon onto a bank, the first eight sounds will be loaded into the respective sample windows for that bank. A double click on the disk icon will prompt a display of the used and free disk space (both in numbers and as a graphic column indicator), and dragging a sample/bank to the question mark icon will call up information on the sampling rate, time, length and loop points of the sample. You can even type in up to five lines of details to be saved with a sample. Nice touches, all of these.
DOUBLE CLICKING ON either a sample window or the edit icon takes you into the first editing page. This is split into two parts: the sample waveform window(s) where you can display up to eight waveforms on screen at the same time - and the toolbox - which houses the editing functions. The icons are reasonably self-explanatory.
The sample display is of a black waveform in a white window and while I'd rather work with a white-on-black display, the layout is very clear. The X-axis of the display (time) can be scaled in milliseconds or in the word length of the sample, and the Y-axis may either show the sample amplitude as a percentage of its maximum or in numeric form between -32768 and +32767 (16-bit format). One of the menu options is Show X-position. and this gives you the precise current position of the mouse on the display.
Before any editing takes place, it is very likely that you will want to look at a particular region of the sample more closely. Zoom lets you grab a section of the waveform and then fills the entire sample window with this area - displaying the zoom factor in an information box just below the toolbox as it does so. You can then scroll along the sample using the scroll bar beneath the sample window. Unfortunately the scrolling is very jumpy and could really do with being smooth, as the sample appears to be visually disjointed. There is a quick zoom where you hold down the Atari's "shift" key and position the mouse on screen at approximately the correct position within the sample.
The resolution of the sample window is rather important here. If the zoom factor is 1:1, this means that 512 sample points are being displayed on the screen. Factors less than this (1:2, 1:3 and so on) mean that not every sample point can be seen, and as this could lead to an incorrect display of the sample (for instance if the first point from a group was always displayed) Draw All Samples checks the group of points and selects the highest value. A nice idea. Zoom factors of greater than 1:1 show less than 512 sample points, and so you can decide whether you wish to see the points as vertical lines, linked dots or as filled areas. I found the latter two preferable when attempting to visually loop a sample.
There are also occasions when vertical enlargement is useful, like when a sample has been recorded at a low volume and needs to be looped. The Y-Zoom feature deals with this; here you'd be well advised to use the vertical scale in the percentage mode unless you really want to work in fractions of 32768.
Once a part of a sample has been zoomed in on, you're confronted with the problem of seeing this portion in the context of the complete sample. Overview Mode displays the entire sample in a smaller window above the main one, and has the enlarged area shaded in a lighter grey. You can also select a new area to inspect from this window, otherwise you have to exit from Zoom mode to the whole sample each time you want to define a new area. The Playback facility lets you select whether you are playing the entire sample or just the zoomed part.
"Scroll bars allow you to move two parts of the sample until the loop appears to be visually correct you can audibly monitor the sample as you do this."
One of the principal uses of a sample editor is to help you set up loops (so that the sound gives the aural illusion of never ending). Avalon has two looping facilities. The first of these is Set Loop Points which allows you to select the start and end of up to eight loops simply by clicking with the mouse on the screen. This is a very quick way to achieve approximate loops. Split Loop Points is a little more complicated but far more powerful. The loop is set in the same manner as for the first method, but the overview window shows the complete sample with loop pointers marked on, while the main window splits into two halves. The left-hand of these has the area of the sample approaching the end of the loop while the right-hand one displays the start of the looped portion. This lets you see the actual point at which the loop is spliced, and using the scroll bars beneath the windows it allows you to move the two parts until the loop appears to be visually correct. You can audibly monitor the sample as you are doing this as all edits of this nature are sent to the sampler real-time. A feature called Zero X-Snap is useful here as it automatically moves you on from one zero crossing point (where the sample waveform cuts through zero amplitude and where most loops are set) to the next one.
One of two situations may arise within the Split Loop mode. The first is that a loop may sound correct apart from a slight glitch which cannot be eradicated by marginal movement of the loop points. This is where the Loop Crossfade function comes in. An area of the sample outside the loop points is mixed into the loop to create a smoother crossover from end to start. This can give good results if used intelligently. The application of this within Avalon works well, especially with samples that rapidly die away (like a piano note). It sounds as though a degree of modulation has been introduced into the sound and is certainly an effective way to create a loop where one wouldn't normally exist.
The second situation is one where no loop point can be found. Some samplers have an Autoloop feature in which points having approximately the same level and gradient are found. Avalon has this facility - called Find Loop Point - and it has one rather useful refinement. It informs you of how well the loop points match up as a percentage figure.
That covers most of the functions in the first two sections of the toolbox. The third section deals with editing the envelope and shape of the waveform. Fading in and out, reversing and truncating (cutting off an area at the start and/or end) can all be achieved as you would expect. Another important feature is Optimize - a percentage optimising value can be set such that the sample point with the highest amplitude is set to this value and all others are increased proportionately (the linear option) or with a bias towards smaller amplitudes (the Squareroot option) or larger amplitudes (the Square option). This function can also be used to slice off parts of the waveform which are not part of the original sound (perhaps caused by a spike in the mains), after which the sample can be correctly optimised. You may want to add your own dynamics to a sample by drawing the envelope - which is what Re-envelope will allow you to do. Similarly, you may have a glitch which you can identify visually on the waveform display - Draw lets you adjust a small part of a waveform by redrawing it with the mouse.
Digital equalisation is to be found under FiIter (you can't miss this icon - it's an old fashioned oil spout), which gives you options of Lowpass, Highpass, Notch and Peak filtering with the relevant choices of cutoff frequency and bandwidth (Q). This is a little drastic as no control over the amount of filtering is offered, and has to be used very carefully because any edits made here are irreversible.
Resample is a facility which few samplers can deal with because of the degree of number crunching involved. The length of a sample can be changed by selecting the factor by which it will be resampled - for instance, 0.5 will give a sample one half of its original length. It does this by using one of two methods: the standard method is to change the pitch of the original by an equivalent, inverse amount so that our example will now be pitched an octave higher. Alternatively, by using Adjust Sampling Rate, the pitch can be kept the same but the sampling rate is reduced to half of the original. This would be extremely useful for converting samples from one machine to another because few of them use the same sample rates. Converting from an Akai S900 at 40kHz to a Roland S550 at 30kHz would entail a reduction factor of 0.75. A conversion in the opposite direction would involve using a factor of 4:3, unfortunately this gives an indeterminate decimal value (it goes on forever) so a small amount of retuning will be necessary.
If the sample has been taken from a stereo unit you can work with it as a stereo entity. The two parts are displayed one above the other and you can edit each side separately, erase either side or copy across from one side to the other. All other mono editing functions still apply.
"The two parts of a stereo sample are displayed above one another and you can edit each side separately, erase either side or copy one side to the other."
There are many situations when dealing with a complete sample is not what the doctor ordered. For instance, there may be a vocal sample where you want to repeat a single syllable. Here you need to repeat a part of the sample - which, in Avalon parlance is referred to as a Block. In Block Mode, then, you can grab a section of a sample (in the same manner as zooming) and edit it in a variety of ways. There is a Copy Block facility which acts like a clipboard buffer and allows you to insert a block into it, overwrite it and add or subtract to/from it. The block can be duplicated and then re-inserted into the original sample and edited in much the same way as is possible for the complete sample - fade in/out, reverse, digital equalise and optimise. The final option is to Analyse Block which breaks it down into its component frequencies by running it through a fast fourier analyser and then automatically puts you into the Frequency Domain Editor.
THE FREQUENCY DOMAIN editor opens with a main window showing the waveform in three dimensions. If you imagine a tabletop then the frequencies plotted against time are lying on the table and the amplitude of these frequencies is rising above the table. The toolbox contains various options, the first of which repositions the 3D display to whatever angle you prefer.
Displays generated from a fast fourier transform tend to be used to pick out dominant frequencies for boosting or cutting, and for general viewing of frequency components at any particular point. From these perspectives (sorry about the pun), Avalon's display leaves much to be desired as the resolution is simply not high enough.
However, by using the mouse you can position the cross-cursor in the display and pick out a moment in time with its respective frequencies and also a frequency with its respective envelope through time. This then gives you two different two-dimensional displays, the first with frequency against amplitude for that moment in time and the second with amplitude against time for the selected frequency. High level stuff.
Edits can only be made to the 2D displays: the first lets you change the comparative frequency levels at a given time while the second gives you the power to vary the envelope of a frequency with time. You can zoom in and out on both of these 2D graphs, using the Next and Previous icons (scrolling isn't possible) and view them so that the amplitude is given either as a percentage of the sample's maximum, or in dB's with 0dB referenced to maximum.
To edit these windows, a "rubberband" has to be set up in the display. Initially this is shown as a line with a small box at each end but you can grab any part of this line and move it up and down, at which point another box is drawn. The maximum increase available is by a factor of two. When completed, this envelope can be used to shape the amplitude accordingly.
The other type of editing possible is by using what are termed Macros. These are programmed functions which can be selected to achieve a specific job. The 3D Filter uses the two rubberbands that you have defined, the one for frequency letting you filter out the same frequencies throughout each time slice, and the one for time changing the envelope across the entire time of the sample. Alternatively, if you have defined both rubberbands, a rather complex process will take place with both envelopes and frequencies being altered. The Threshold function is used to eliminate frequencies with small amplitudes (Such as noise at the start of a sample), and the Enhancer adds frequencies to create a more present, resonant sound - much in the same manner as a psychoacoustic enhancer. Spectral Dynamic acts as a compressor and expander, while Spectral Animation acts on a selected frequency range and varies the intensity of it. Finally, Pitch Shift changes all frequencies by a selected pitch without changing the length of a sample. Using Akai's S950 and S1000 as references, my conclusion is that Avalon creates a more accurate shift than the S950, but falls well short of the S1000 in terms of accuracy.
I can't help but feel that Steinberg will come up with more Macros as the new versions of Avalon appear - word has it that the next update will include peak limiting, frequency mixing and time plexing functions.
Once editing is complete, the sample has to be Resynthesized before you can go back to the Time Domain editor and, more to the point, before you can hear the edits.
THERE'S LITTLE DOUBT that Avalon offers an impressive array of editing functions - probably more than any other current generic sample editor for the Atari ST. However, the procedures which have to be followed in the course of editing are often time-consuming. Consequently this software is not for those wanting to make relatively simple edits like looping, fading and digital equalising. Instead it's the tool of the patient and the adventurous. If you are prepared to spend some time in order to get the samples you want, you'll find Avalon a powerful tool.
Price £200 including VAT.
Review by Vic Lennard