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Lynex 16-bit Stereo Sampler

The division between sampler and digital recorder has grown even narrower with the release of the Lynex, a sophisticated manipulator of high quality, 16-bit stereo sounds that piggybacks onto any Atari ST computer. Ian Gilby takes the mouse by the horns...


The division between sampler and digital recorder has grown even narrower with the release of the Lynex, a sophisticated manipulator of high quality, 16-bit stereo sounds that piggybacks onto any Atari ST computer. Ian Gilby takes the mouse by the horns...

At the heart of the Lynex digital sampling system is a 1U high, 19-inch rackmount case which houses two high speed signal processing computers that function in parallel. All connections to this are made on the rear panel, which sports two sample input sockets, eight voice outputs, and a sustain footswitch socket - all quarter-inch, unbalanced jacks. Outputs 1 and 5 serve as the main left/right outputs for replaying stereo samples and Output 1 doubles as the mixed mono output, depending upon the selected configuration. In addition, there are two digital communication ports - one connects directly to the Lynex interface via its metre long, flying ribbon cable, the other is a 50-way high speed expansion bus for connecting to one or more optional 1U RAM expansion boxes (in a daisy-chain) and to Lynex's planned sample-to-hard disk unit.

The interface box is roughly the size of a paperback book and plugs into the cartridge port of an Atari computer, on its left side - the 520, 1040 or Mega ST all being suitable candidates. If you want to run a software sequencer on the Atari at the same time and are wondering where you can insert its copy-protection 'key' or 'dongle' now that the Atari port is occupied by Lynex, don't worry; a duplicate cartridge port is available on the interface itself.

Like most good samplers, the Lynex's operating system comes on a 3.5" double-sided floppy disk. It takes about five seconds to load from the Atari's internal disk drive and, rather cleverly, is installed into the Lynex's own memory not into that of the Atari. This has a two-fold effect: firstly, the Atari computer acts purely as a 'host' and its memory is free to run other programs; secondly, new Lynex features can be added as and when they are developed simply by providing a new system disk to existing users. This reduces the chances of the product becoming obsolete and, as far as hi-tech equipment is concerned, is the best form of investment insurance going!

A maximum sampling rate of 50kHz is available on each of Lynex's two input channels, giving a truly 'full bandwidth' frequency response well in excess of 20kHz. These inputs are totally independent, each having their own 16-bit linear (non-companding) analogue-to-digital convertors (ADCs). The output conversion is of similarly high quality - Lynex uses the same digital-to-analogue convertor chips found in high spec CD players ('oversampling' is not employed at present but is planned). This combines to produce supremely high quality sound that cannot be matched by any other sub-£2000 sampler I have heard and places Lynex unequivocally in a class of its own.

The entry-level Lynex system comes with 1 megabyte of RAM installed as standard and can be increased to 32 megabytes by adding a second 1U rack expander. This comes with an additional three megabytes of RAM and sockets for a further seven plug-in 4 megabyte cards, making 32 meg in total. The beauty of an expandable system like this is that the basic model offers many more people access to high quality 16-bit stereo sampling than was previously the case, whilst offering a flexible and cost-effective upgrade path for those 'power users' whose applications warrant greater memory capacity.

SAMPLE RATES



The standard Lynex offers 8-voice polyphony at its default 50kHz maximum sampling rate, although 16-voice operation is available at the reduced rate of 32kHz (this has been uprated from 25kHz since my initial preview of the machine back in January). However, it is possible to control two full Lynex systems from a single Atari ST computer if you require 50kHz, 16-voice, stereo sampling (or 32-voice at 32kHz!). The software automatically senses such a configuration, as well as the amount of RAM it has at its disposal, and treats the two machines as one integral instrument.

Although Lynex defaults to its highest sample rate of 50kHz whenever possible, to obtain longer sample times you need to reduce the sampling rate and so six lower rates are included to choose from. With the standard 1 megabyte machine, the maximum sample times are very respectable and there are no hidden restrictions on how the memory can be divided, unlike the Roland S550 and Yamaha TX16W. For mono and stereo sampling, the times are roughly as follows:

Maximum Sample Time (secs)

RATE MONO STEREO
50kHz 10.4 5.2
48kHz 10.8 5.4
44kHz 11.7 5.8
33kHz 15.7 7.8
25kHz 20.8 10.4
16kHz 32.4 16.2
12kHz 43.2 21.6

One unique aspect of Lynex (in this price range at least) is that it always samples the input signal at a sampling frequency/rate of 50kHz, irrespective of whether you specify one of the lower rates. Then, in the digital domain, it converts down to give the effect of a lower sampling rate but without introducing any discernible distortion or aliasing effects - even on a sample that has been transposed down several octaves. You really have to hear this to believe it - it's impressive! The technical term for this miraculous technique is downsampling, and it overcomes the inherent limitations of other samplers that still use analogue antialiasing filters with movable cutoff points.

So why has nobody else thought of incorporating this approach? Well, partly because Lynex is very different from other mid-priced samplers in that it uses two 16-bit signal processing computers of its own (Hybrid Arts' ADAP sampling system, for example, does not - it uses the Atari's internal 68000 processor which is much slower) and you need that degree of processing power available before you can even contemplate downsampling in the digital domain with digital filters. Waveframe's much talked about AudioFrame digital audio workstation employs this same downsampling technique.

SOFTWARE



Since Lynex's operating system is stored in its own memory, this has the advantage of freeing up both the Atari's memory and all available disk space, which can be used to save those all-important samples via the internal drive or, alternatively, onto an Atari-compatible hard disk.

All functions on the Lynex software are controlled on-screen with the Atari mouse, apart from the (if all else fails) Abort function which is activated by holding down both the computer's Shift keys.

To help learn your way around the program, there are three different levels of screen instructions built into the software in the form of GEM 'dialogue boxes' (help, information, safety) which pop up onto the screen and tell you what you can/should do next - very handy. Once you become proficient, these help functions can be turned off.

Operations are divided into screen 'pages' (Sample page, MIDI page, etc) which have uncluttered layouts and are thus very easy to comprehend. On the main Edit page, when sampling in stereo, Lynex allows you to simultaneously view your sound sources on the Atari monitor. These appear as waveforms across the top half of the screen like on an oscilloscope. Various control functions are listed below these. Zoom, Zoom Y, Shrink, Expand etc, to enable you to select how much of the waveform you want to view/work on and at what resolution. You can view waveforms right down to their component sample level by continuously clicking on the Zoom box - the screen quickly redraws itself each time. A high resolution Atari monochrome monitor is advisable here, though Lynex will run on a medium resolution colour monitor.

Two movable markers, in the form of thin vertical lines, are used to define the extent of the active work area of your sound (shown in reverse video) and their position is always shown at the top of the screen in milliseconds as M1 and M2. Markers can be repositioned by dragging them with the mouse or by holding down the Atari's Shift key and clicking on the new location. Long duration samples are not displayed in one go on the screen, you have to click on the left/right arrowheads on the far sides of the display to scroll the screen backwards or forwards respectively, and a 'jump to end of sample' function would have been handy here. Clicking on the Sound box shifts the markers to the start and end points of the sample and permits operations on the whole sample rather than on individual segments. A useful Clipboard function is included which remembers the location of a marked area in memory. When you replay a sample there is currently no on-screen indication of where you are in the sound; the waveform display is static. It would help if the waveform itself scrolled in accordance with the sound, relative to some form of position indicator, to expedite finding a particular sound region when editing long samples. This will become of greater necessity on expanded Lynex systems that have sufficient RAM to sample whole verses of songs - I'm sure few users will want to scroll through a minute long sample too often.

A Fast Fourier Transform plot for a chosen segment of the sample.


Other Edit functions include Volume, which lets you increase/decrease the level of the sound within a marked areas; 3D and FFT (Fast Fourier Transform) respectively plot waveform amplitude and frequency changes against time on-screen, just like the famous Fairlight 'mountain' display, so that you can see how the sampled sound is constructed. Play triggers the sound within the marked area according to the chosen note release defined in the toggle box marked 'Rel:Im/Rel:Fu'. This cryptic description is shorthand for Release Immediate and Release Full. The latter causes the whole sample to play in full when triggered by a mouse click, the former plays the sound until the mouse button is released whereupon it ceases.

Equally useful is the Save function, which lets you save the marked section of a sample and give it a different name from the main sample without exiting the current operation (great for isolating specific drum strikes or groups of notes etc). There is also the facility to cut and paste parts of a sample temporarily into a memory buffer (the Clipboard) then use Insert or Copy to place them where you like. Reverse does exactly that - it permanently reverses the marked portion of the sound, though you can restore the original by reversing the reversed sound. Rename lets you alter the original 8-character name you gave your sound (eight characters is a bit restrictive); and Restore returns the screen display instantly to its top level when finished with a close-up zoom, say. Incidentally, when specifying splice points or markers etc, Lynex can operate to an accuracy of one sample - that's one 50,000th of a second. This resolution really comes into its own when butting two waveforms together by eye on-screen, or redrawing part of a waveform to smooth out undesirable spikes and glitches.

SusSet sets up a sustain loop, while SusMrk indicates the loop area and lets you clear it if you change your mind. Only forward looping is permitted at present but crossfade looping is available and works well enough. You can mark loop start and end points with the mouse and manually adjust them with supreme accuracy to find a suitable splice point or, better still, use the Autoloop option which finds zero-crossing points and does all the hard work for you. There were very few sounds it didn't loop to my satisfaction.

Setting a loop point for a sample.


A Waveform Synthesis editor comes as standard with the package and this allows you to draw your own waveforms on-screen or build them up using a choice of sine, square or triangle waves, which can also function as LFO modulation sources. The most common use for the Wave Synth, however, will be to remove unwanted spikes from samples. To this end, a comprehensive range of controls are supplied to govern amplitude, phase, harmonic number and frequency, and you can copy a portion of the sample into a separate window, smooth out the spike by redrawing it with the mouse, then copy the modified waveform back into the original sample or mix the two together. In short, there's plenty of scope for those with imagination and time to experiment.

The Modify page acts on the whole sample and can be used to add a non real-time echo (max. 9999 milliseconds) with control over amplitude, delay time and feedback parameters. You may also mix two waveforms together to create one new sample, and perform that well-known Fairlight showstopper - merging two different sounds together over time. Using the mouse, you can also draw any amplitude envelope and filter frequency response you like for post-sample processing of your sound - more flexible than a set of VCA controls, though dynamic filtering is not possible. At present this digital filtering is done in the computer, which takes an inordinately long time to calculate a new response (you can make yourself several cups of tea whilst waiting!) and some form of flashing screen indicator to warn you that filtering is still being calculated would be helpful here. For as it stands you aren't quite sure whether the Atari has locked up or is still working. I was told the designers were busy transferring this function to run on Lynex's own high speed processors instead. A wise move...

With the power of two 16-bit signal processing computers at their disposal, the Lynex designers recognise that by writing specific software routines they can apply this power to areas other than purely sampling. Thus, system disks are planned that will enable Lynex to be reconfigured to act as a high quality real-time digital effects unit, a 64-band realtime spectrum analyser, or a high speed oscilloscope. We wait with bated breath.

MIDI FUNCTIONS



Mouse-clicking the MIDI box takes you to another screen page, where a rather neat matrix arrangement lets you assign each sample to one or more MIDI channels. You can also set up individual pitch transpositions for each sound over a staggering +/-10 octave range in semitone steps, and have different pitches of the same sample on different channels.

Since Lynex can hold up to 55 different samples in its memory simultaneously (the length of each sample being dependent on the total amount of RAM in your system and the total number of samples you choose to have), you'd expect there to be some way of allocating each sample to different note ranges on your MIDI keyboard. There is - and it's very quick and easy to set up. You select the Split Kbd option from the MIDI page menu, highlight a sample in the displayed list and move the mouse pointer onto the 128-note (10½ octaves) keyboard that appears on-screen. Then you mark out the required zone by holding down the left mouse button, dragging the mouse pointer across the desired keys and releasing the button. Simple. Up to 128 zones (one per key) can be freely defined, the only proviso being that only one sample (or sample pair if stereo) can be assigned to a particular note or key range.

The onscreen indication of middle C that I suggested they add in my preview has since been added, proof indeed that the Lynex designers are willing to listen to feedback from users!

Further MIDI control options allow you to echo data at the Atari's MIDI Out port or not, set the basic command channel, sync to an external MIDI clock, select a MIDI mode (including Mono mode for multitimbral operation) as well as the MIDI 'M' number, which defines the maximum number of channels Lynex will receive on when in Mono mode. Reception of System Exclusive and MIDI Controller data can both be switched on or off.

Finally, you can draw your own velocity and aftertouch response curves on-screen for each sample. This allows you to set up any type of velocity key crossfade, velocity controlled panning of stereo sounds or straightforward fading of one or more sounds into others. You can do the same on aftertouch, or any combination of velocity and aftertouch. Amplitude can be controlled from either velocity or keyboard aftertouch (both channel and polyphonic types), and aftertouch and pitch wheel can currently affect pitch bend, velocity cannot. Incidentally, all custom parameters you set up for each sample can be saved to disk on the Configure page and instantly recalled the next time you load that sample.

CONCLUSIONS



So how much does all this cost? A bit more than I reported in my preview, sadly. The current worldwide shortage of RAM chips which has forced chip prices up and caused companies as large as Amstrad and Atari to up the price of their computers has also affected Lynex - the standard 1 megabyte machine now retails for £1899 inc VAT, £300 more than originally anticipated. That may well have pushed the machine beyond the present reach of some users but it still represents good value for money in my book. The sound quality is impeccable and rivalled only by the Emulator III, which costs £6000 more but does have the advantage of an integral keyboard, onboard hard disk storage, sequencer, SMPTE etc).

If you don't already own an Atari computer then you will obviously have to count that in the final equation as well, but the 520ST is going for a song these days and plenty of musicians and studios already have an ST they could use. The fact that you don't need two Atari's to run Lynex and your software sequencer at the same time is of considerable significance.

I was very impressed by my brief encounter with the Lynex system last December, and having now used one for several weeks I am still impressed. It is 'deep' and offers much more than we have come to expect from traditional samplers. Furthermore, the increased sampling times offered by the 3 meg RAM expansion box take Lynex into the realms of the 'digital audio workstation'. The standard 1 meg RAM allows 5.2 seconds of 8-voice stereo sampling at 50kHz; 4 meg raises that to over 20 seconds - enough for flying-in stereo submixes of a whole chorus, guitar solos, or spot effects in the studio. It may be extravagant, but imagine what could be achieved with an expanded 32 megabyte RAM system! The built-in digital mixer is very useful, though the addition of a software pan control would complete things nicely and provide all the essentials of a mini digital studio in one convenient package.

It is still the case these days that few musicians appear to buy samplers without a sound library, and at the time of writing no Lynex sound disks were available for the machine (they're working on it). The proposed facility to read Emax, S900 and Prophet 2000/2 disks from the Atari's own 3.5" drive has been temporarily placed on a backburner, although I was informed by the manufacturer that MIDI Sample Dump had just been implemented as we went to press. Although a useful feature, it is not as enticing as the ability to read other machine's sample disks directly from the Atari, which would give prospective Lynex owners access to a colossal back catalogue of good samples. Next update perhaps?

These days, any purchaser of a sophisticated instrument like a sampler is buying what amounts to a constantly evolving system that will have further features added as they are developed. Therefore, the decision to invest or not should always be based on whether the machine does what you require at this point in time. Lynex is well-conceived, easy to use, and has many valuable features, including expandability and co-resident operation on the Atari. But at the end of the day it offers something no other sampling device can match for the money-superb quality, 16-bit stereo sampling. And for many people that will be the deciding factor.

Price £1899 inc VAT.

Contact Commander Electronics, (Contact Details).

SEQUENCING

Unlike the ADAP sampler from Hybrid Arts, Lynex doesn't use the Atari's memory. It is intelligently configured to automatically load as a GEM desktop accessory and can thus run alongside any other program you care to load, such as a sequencer or patch librarian. You activate Lynex by pulling down the Desk menu with the mouse, highlighting 'Lynex sampler' in the list, and clicking. Up pops the Lynex opening screen and away you go. It is that straightforward.

If you have a sequencer program running on the Atari at the same time, by clicking on Lynex's Exit/Sequencer box you can jump back into your sequence where you left off, rearrange and edit tracks and then use them to trigger the sampled sounds you have created with Lynex, as well as triggering other MIDI synths and expanders on different MIDI channels in the usual fashion.

I tested Lynex in this co-resident form with System Exclusive's iconix sequencer and it worked fine. As to other models, check with your dealer first.


SAMPLING

On the Sample page Lynex provides a real-time, continuously varying, waveform display of the sound source you intend sampling. An especially valuable feature here is that you always monitor the input signal after it has been processed through the Lynex. To draw an analogy, you are always hearing the processed 'off-tape' signal rather than the direct source. Why is this valuable? Because you can choose different sample rates and hear what effect each one has on the audio bandwidth of your sound source before actually sampling it! It can help save memory in situations where you think a 50kHz rate is required when, in fact, a 33kHz rate will more than suffice. Surprisingly, when sampling individual sounds such as a lead vocal, a drum, or a guitar, the 33kHz sample rate proved ideal. With the added reproduction accuracy of 16-bit resolution it appears that a very high sample rate is not so crucial. I found the higher rates to be necessary only when sampling complex composite sounds such as bits of a song on CD or a miked up drum kit.

Sampling a sound into the Lynex is a straightforward and fast process, as there are sensible 'default' values preassigned to all the necessary functions which save you having to set them up each time. You might perhaps wish to increase the sample length, to record a longer sample for instance, in which case Lynex automatically selects the best possible sampling rate for that particular duration. If you're not happy with the default values then you can quickly alter the sample time, choose a different sampling frequency, and define a new trigger threshold value (as a percentage of the input signal level) by clicking the left/right mouse buttons over the appropriate function box and increasing/decreasing the relevant parameter value. Clicking on the Sample button then arms Lynex for sampling. Provided the input signal is loud enough to pass above the programmed threshold, Lynex will display a 'triggered' message on screen to inform you that sampling is taking place.

During sampling the scroll bars on either side of the Scope (the upper waveform display area) turn into vertical VU meters, providing a guide reading of the average left and right input levels. There is no calibrated scale as such on these meters, you have to ensure that the levels are kept below the top of the meter to prevent input overload. A bit rough and ready, but it works.

Clicking on the >OK< box calls up the main Edit page, where you must click on the Play box to hear your newly recorded sample played back in all its 16-bit glory. Alternatively, if you have a MIDI keyboard connected and set to MIDI channel 1 (the default), you can simply press a key. Middle C replays the sample at its original pitch.

If you are unhappy with your recording and wish to have another bash, things couldn't be easier: just click again on the Sample button. If the threshold is set too high or too low, with a mouse click or two you can easily adjust the trigger level then take another sample.


MIXING VOICES

Lynex incorporates a simple 8-output, real-time audio mixer whose controls are accessed from the Mixer page. This plays a dual role in that this is where you assign sound samples to voices, and voices to the audio outputs.

Lynex's built-in digital mixer with on-screen movable faders.


The screen looks and operates like a conventional mixer. It has eight level faders, each with a very useful Mute and Solo button, and you adjust output levels with the mouse. Holding down a mouse button with the pointer on the fader knob allows you to 'drag' that fader up and down and effect fairly smooth level changes. Alternatively, for instant changes, you can click directly on the fader scale. The lag time between moving the fader and hearing the level change is negligible. There is no subgrouping facility, but this is only of importance if you are relying totally on Lynex's mixdown features instead of feeding the outputs into an external audio mixer, which most studio users would want to do. Since the mixer is passive, ie. has no means of amplifying sounds, with the fader on maximum the output level is the same as at the input. The faders correspond to the eight jack sockets on the rear of the Lynex mother unit.

Although considerable flexibility is offered by this page, there are nevertheless some restrictions. Three mixdown modes are available, Separate, Mono or Stereo, and a choice of Dynamic or Fixed voice allocation. Somewhat confusingly, the screen refers to the number of voices as 'Tracks', offering 8 or 16-voice/track selection.

The way things work is that you click the mouse on the title box above the fader to generate a list of your samples. Double-clicking on the required name then enters that sample into the fader box and lets you adjust its level. Whenever a new sound is called up the fader setting of the previous sound is stored along with the sample. Clicking the right-hand mouse button on the title box lets you scroll through all samples assigned to that particular fader. A nice arrangement.

In Separate mode, with Fixed allocation selected, each voice is dedicated to a different audio output and its level controlled by the corresponding fader. You are free to assign as many different sounds as you wish to a particular voice and to assign a sound to as many voices as you like. You may also assign each sample its own MIDI channel number (on the MIDI page). Thus, by assigning ten different samples with the same MIDI channel number to one voice, you could create a huge, stacked sound which could then be played monophonically from a MIDI keyboard. If you wanted to play the same sounds polyphonically instead, you would need to assign all ten samples to however many voices/notes you wished to sound. When controlling Lynex samples from a sequencer, each different sample should ideally be on its own MIDI channel and have its own sequencer part. In this case, it would be better to select Dynamic voice allocation so that samples would use voices as and when they needed them.

In Mono mix mode, all voices are automatically assigned to Output 1 but you can still play polyphonically. Stereo mode has one important restriction: only Outputs 1 (left) and 5 (right) are used and four voices are assigned to each side. With Dynamic allocation also selected this unfortunately reduces polyphony to four notes maximum (or eight at reduced bandwidth), though you can have more than one stereo sample playing simultaneously. I don't really see the point of including the Fixed Stereo allocation option when Dynamic mode is available, as Fixed allocation reduces simultaneous note playing of stereo samples to a monophonic state (!), leaving three voice 'pairs' unused. Strange.

Also, when 16-voice operation is selected Fixed allocation is not permissible, only Dynamic. This is due to the fact that there are only eight faders on screen! There is no stereo pan facility for positioning mono samples across a stereo spread, and there ought to be.


Also featuring gear in this article



Previous Article in this issue

The Professionals: APRS

Next article in this issue

Animal House Studios


Sound On Sound - Copyright: SOS Publications Ltd.
The contents of this magazine are re-published here with the kind permission of SOS Publications Ltd.

 

Sound On Sound - Jul 1988

Gear in this article:

Sampler > Lynett Systems > Lynex


Gear Tags:

16-Bit Sampler

Review by Ian Gilby

Previous article in this issue:

> The Professionals: APRS

Next article in this issue:

> Animal House Studios


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