The Regeneration Game
Leading the battle against planned obsolescence are the sampler manufacturers, whose machines receive updates almost monthly. We re-test three samplers to find out how they've changed.
As new instruments become based in software rather than hardware, designers are starting to protect their brainchilds from obsolescence by devising updates for them. We look at three such revisions in the world of sampling.
IF WE WERE asked, off the cuff, whether we thought synths or samplers became obsolete more quickly, we would have to say the latter. Every few months, new samplers are announced that are leaps ahead of the previous generation - witness the likes of the Casio FZ1, whose arrival will almost certainly lead to a preference for 16-bit machines, and perhaps a bloodbath for 12-bit instruments.
But one advantage that samplers have over synths with regard to obsolescence (which, in fact, may be due to the current state of affairs) is that synths don't seem to get updated very often, whereas virtually every sampler currently available has received (or is receiving) both software and hardware updates - from facelifts to overhauls. The capabilities of the updated instruments are generally much greater than the originals and, consequently, deserve a second look.
So here are a few of the most recent revisions, to keep you up to date.
CONSIDERING THE POPULARITY of rack-mounted MIDI equipment, it's surprising that the Sequential Prophet 2002 and Akai S900 have been the only fully-featured 12-bit samplers available for the past year and a half - though Roland's new MKS100 has changed that. Although the Akai lacked some of the features of the Prophet (and the sound quality issue between these two is strictly a matter of subjectives - do you want accuracy or bite?), its friendlier modus operandi and individual outputs have given the S900 an edge over the 2002 in the marketplace.
Well, the Prophet's indifferent accessibility is the same as always, but Sequential have finally addressed the output issue - and a few others - with a pair of updates and the release of the Prophet 2002+.
The 2002+ is essentially a Prophet 2002 with eight additional ¼" jacks on the back (one per voice), a new keyboard mode called "fixed output" to address these outputs, the addition of a crossfade-looping option, and a script "plus" added to the front panel.
"Fixed output" gives a fairly basic, non-editable voice-to-output assignment - samples 1 and 9 always go to voice 1; 2 and 10 always go to voice 2; 3 and 11 to 3, and so on. This is not as fancy as it is on some other units (such as the S900, or even Sequential's own Studio 440), and requires a little bit of forward planning (to make sure that two sounds which may be playing at the same time are not sharing the same voice and therefore cutting each other off), but to be honest, it actually does what is needed most of the time.
The crossfade-looping feature also picks certain defaults - linear crossfade, length as long as possible - which again is not as comprehensive as some, but ends up being the best solution 90% of the time. Crossfade looping works for both sustain and release loops in either a unidirectional or bidirectional format. The effect sounds a little rough for fades under 1K or 2K in length, but otherwise, it's very smooth.
Other features in this update which should be of interest to Prophet 2000 owners include the ability to transmit from the local keyboard and wheels in Mode 4 (Mono mode), and the ability to assign and transmit the second release pedal on the same MIDI control number as everyone else's hold pedal. This hardware and firmware update is available for all Prophet 2000s and non-"plus" 2002s.
The second update expands the memory to 1Megaword of 12-bit samples. This is not continuous memory, but acts as two banks of 512K (as on the EII+). This second bank is just like the first - it can be loaded and sampled to, played from, and remotely edited (via Sound Designer software or similar) just like the first one. Studio users may be disappointed at not getting double-length samples out of the bargain (only one bank is active at a time), but on stage, it's nice to be able to load up two disks' worth ahead of time (nearly a two-minute proposition) and have them instantly available for performance.
Having more RAM on hand also makes it nicer to do raw sampling - twice as many samples can be taken before saving to disk or resorting to the terminal support package. This update also consists of both hardware and firmware, and is available for all three variations of the Prophet sampler.
The Prophet 2000 and 2002 are already out of production, and the 2002+ may be out of production by the end of this year. Yet although their 2½-digit LED display looks even more frugal now than it did back in 1985, they still sound as good as any other 12-bit machine, and will no doubt one day be looked back on fondly as good examples of the firsts in their field.
Given that, and even though the updates have the same "here's all that you really need - now come here and figure it out" feel as the original machines, it's nice to see Sequential making some effort to keep their samplers (and their owners) current before they're gone.
OBERHEIM HAVE ALSO been busy adding features. We now have the version 1.3 software release for the DPX1 (which came out very quickly, I might add), that adds a whole group of features, plus hardware modifications that add individual outputs and provide the ability to use Optical Media International's CD-ROM unit.
Before going any further, I have to admit to being among the first to knock the DPX1. I mean, who needs playback only? A living, breathing, creative musician needs to be able to sample, and to edit those samples, in order to survive. Or so I reasoned, anyway.
However, here in the real world of trying to do MIDI sequencing with a sampler, I often find that I could use more than one disk's worth of sounds to pull things off - and I certainly didn't need to spend extra money on features that my existing sampler would make redundant (ie. sampling and editing).
The DPX1 sounds better than an EII or a Mirage on their own disks, and almost as good as my Prophet 2002 (honestly, I wanted it to sound just as good, but it falls a hair short). It is also rack-mountable, and sells for quite a bit less than another identical 2002. So, I was curious to see whether the new batch of improvements would be enough to sway my vote.
The most eye-raising software change in version 1.3 is the ability to write your own disks. Oberheim claims this is just to ease archiving of sounds. What you (and I) the user are more anxious to learn is that the DPX1 now loads its own disks faster than the source disk (since some of the conversion to its own internal format has already been done - particularly significant in the case of the EII, which took some 10-15 seconds to convert).
The new software also makes the DPX1 "more compatible" with the samplers it emulates (no pun intended). For the Prophet 2002, it now also supports Fixed Output mode and alternative release on envelopes; for the Mirage, it now implements looping and fading of samples more accurately; and for the EII, the hold pedal now reacts as it would on an EII itself. There are also a handful of other small but useful additions, such as the ability to have single samples requested and received via the MIDI Sample Dump Standard.
The individual outputs modification was something that was requested from the very day the DPX1 was announced, and users will be glad to see it finally there. And yes, it works just as it would on the source sampler - with a few enhancements. For one, the base channel may be rotated around if using a 2000 disk in Mono mode. Second, pitch-bend and modulation may be received per sample in Mono mode, which the 2000 could not do. Since I intend to get into guitar synthesis, I was particularly excited about this one - Mono mode operation, including individual articulation per string/voice, is all but essential to most guitarists. However, there is a slight bug in the current software revision concerning this feature - it's possible for the voices to become confused and to start getting detuned from each other if they are stolen while being bent. Thankfully, Oberheim are already working to cure this one.
And finally, the CD-ROM interface. For those who do not know, Optical Media make a CD-ROM unit (the CDS3) for the Emulator II that allows about 500 disks' worth of information to be held on a single CD. (They now have two disks in this series.) It transfers sound via the RS422 port on the back of the EII, and the DPX1, with this revision, also sprouts such a port. This means that "disks" get loaded faster than a normal floppy would, and handling them is much easier - just call them up on the CDS3's handy-dandy hand-held remote.
Load time with the DPX1 is not quite as fast as it is with the EII, since it must spend the aforementioned 10-15 seconds converting the special EII format into a 12-bit linear arrangement. The DPX1 loads all of the OMI banks correctly, but there seem to be problems with some of the banks that have positional crossfades - holes are left in a couple of keyboard maps. And if you attempt to abort a transfer in progress from the OMI hand-held remote, the DPX1 locks up the system and both units need to be switched on and off again. Finally, the CD-ROM system is pricey - £2050 for the player, remote and first CD, and £795 per CD (both prices exclusive of VAT). However, if all you intend to do is play back presets (and that is what the DPX1 is all about), you can buy a DPX1, a CD-ROM, both CDs, and a mother keyboard for what an EII costs - and have a smaller, better-feeling, better-sounding system, with 1000 disks thrown in. It'll lack any editing features, of course, but it's still an angle worth thinking about.
Along with the DPX1's current updates there are some newly announced ones (built-in hard disk and the ability to read Akai S900 disks), which make it clear that Oberheim are committed to keeping this child updated and healthy.
Will I buy one? A very strong "maybe", leaning towards "yes". Will you? Well, as I've been heard to say before about Oberheim's slightly oddball offerings, "if you need one, it's great". You decide.
WHEN ROLAND FIRST released the S50, they made a point of explaining that the system would be upgradable, and that updates would be occurring in the not-too-distant future. Like other available samplers, the internal configuration is basically a computer which can be made to perform different functions depending on the software which is loaded into it. (The S50's operating system is stored on each data disk, so updates can be done with software only - thereby eliminating the need to make hardware modifications or to replace EPROMs.)
Well, the not-too-distant future has arrived, and with it has come version 2.0 of the S50. The new software adds a number of functions (including the ability to convert version 1.0 sound files into the new format) and some refinements to existing functions. The best part about it, though, is that it is free to existing S50 owners. There's not even a minimal update fee. Needless to say, this is an encouraging sign, and there is the promise of even more updates to come.
Probably the most important new feature implemented in version 2.0 is the ability to operate on multiple MIDI channels. What this means is that four different patches can be played simultaneously (with the full keyboard range) on four independent channels. In other words, the S50 can function as four independent instruments, one of which can be played from the keyboard itself, if you so desire. Each of these patches can have a certain number of voices allocated to it, and can then be assigned to one of four multiple output jacks. A patch can only be assigned to a single output, however, and as a result, the multiple outs can only be made use of via MIDI. So unless you assign the different patches to the same MIDI channel and plug the MIDI Out of the S50 into its MIDI In, you can only use one output when you play from the keyboard. (Roland claim that you'll be able to use multiple outputs from the keyboard with the next revision, but this should have been taken care of in version 2.0.) The new multiple channel operation is not the same thing as Mono mode, but it is a vast improvement over the original.
Another nice feature included in the update is support of Roland's optional DT100 digitiser tablet, with which you can perform free-hand wave editing, wave drawing, and envelope breakpoint manipulation. (Hand-drawn waveforms don't always give the most impressive results, but they can be a lot of fun.) To be able to change the shape of the envelopes, you obviously have to be able to see them and, not surprisingly, the new software also offers just such a graphic display - on the connected monitor, of course.
The number of available memory locations for tones has been doubled to 32, even though the total memory inside the S50 remains the same. How come? Well, Roland have simply increased the control you have over available memory by allowing you to split it into finer divisions, something that's now true for a number of features.
And speaking of finer divisions, version 2.0 also introduces the idea of "sub-tones", which use the same wave data as a regular tone, but have different parameters (such as loop points, envelopes, and so on). The benefit of sub-tones is that they don't store the wave data a second time, thereby saving precious memory.
Looping functions have also been given a facelift with the advent of version 2.0. The S50 now has two types of automatic looping, and three types of loop displays. In addition to the original display, you can now view the entire wave at once to ease the setting of rough loop points, and also fine-tune the loop by means of a highly specific, oscilloscope-type display.
And the sampling process itself has been simplified, too, with the addition of pre-trigger and previous sampling functions. The pre-trigger option allows you to start sampling 10-100msecs before the threshold point, so that you can be sure you capture a sound's entire transient, while the previous sampling option actually records the sound prior to your hitting the Enter button. The latter might sound like magic, but the way it actually works is this: the S50 starts sampling continuously as soon as the "previous" function is engaged, and constantly updates the memory location that you've chosen, so that when you hit Enter the sampling process stops and the previous 1.2 seconds (or whatever length you chose) is stored. This clever little feature can be particularly useful if you sample off CDs or tapes, because you no longer need to rewind the CD (or tape) and then guess when you should hit Enter on the S50. Instead, all you have to do is hit Enter after you hear something you like and it's been sampled.
The S50's direct monitor connection has already been the recipient of much praise in these pages and in others. But now Roland have increased the usefulness of the video display with a tone map feature, which allows you to display parameters (one at a time) for all 32 tones at once. With it, you can easily keep track of, compare, and edit the various tones from both the Tone Play and Patch Play modes.
Other newly arrived and helpful features include the ability to perform a variety of SysEx wave and patch data dumps, combine waveforms, truncate samples with finer resolution, label each disk and add a 48-character note, control pitch-bend via aftertouch, and finally, enter parameter values with the 10-key pad as well as the alpha dial.
With version 2.0 software, the S50 finally does what Roland's initial hype claimed it would and, on paper, it certainly appears impressive. Not many manufacturers are willing to give away anything, particularly something that adds this many new facilities, so Roland deserves special praise for offering the update at no charge.
The S50 is a powerful instrument, and with new software revisions (or perhaps completely new applications) already in progress, it promises to be an important contender in the sampling marketplace for quite a time to come.
Prices Prophet 2002+ £2095; Outputs/crossfade £275; 1 Meg memory £390 plus cost of fitting; all prices inclusive of VAT
More from Sequential, (Contact Details)
Prices DPX1 £1695 including VAT; Version 1.3 software update - free to existing owners; Hardware modifications - price to be announced
More from Sound Technology, (Contact Details)
Prices S50 £2200 including VAT; Version 2.0 software - free to existing owners; DT100 £225 including VAT
More from Roland, (Contact Details)
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