Sound Module & Sampler Topics:
» Who Samples Anymore, and Why Do I Want A Sampler?
» Sound Modules, The Songwriter's and Composer's Tool:
» Synthesis Basics: What are all those knobs for?
» What to look for in a pro keyboard
A main-stay of music creation, Sound Modules and Samplers are useful devices that add color and spice to your art and craft. This Sweetwater Buying Guide includes tips, hints and other informative insight into how to get choose one that's right for you. With so many options, be sure to call us at 1-800-222-4700 so we can help answer any additional questions you might have.
Who Samples Anymore, and Why Do I Want A Sampler?
With all of the Sound libraries available from so many companies, recorded in world class studios, why would anyone want to take the time to sample, and who does?
If coming up with sounds that are unique and completely original is your passion then sampling capabilities are necessary, especially if you work as a sound designer in film or TV, or hope to one day. Not all sounds that are currently available in sound libraries will work for your specific needs. You may also be asked to come up with something no one has hear before, or you budget will not allow the purchase of additional sound libraries. Besides, who has the time or money to buy every available library and go through the sounds, one at a time? It's easier and more rewarding to create your own.
You've spent hours upon hours recording
that drum kit; tuned the heads, found
the right combination of mics, placed
just the right distances, through the
right combination of preamps, compressors
with just the right settings for each.
You've got your signature drum sound.
be great if you could sample the kit
and trigger the sounds anytime you wanted,
or sell them to others as your sample
Electronica / Groove Production:
Composers of electronica will find samplers useful, especially if they have created a big, lush layered sound with a number of synths, and would like to be able to free up some sound processing by sampling the entire combination and save it as a patch. Again, the concept of being completely original figures in greatly in this genre. The same holds true for groove production, where it is essential to come up with signature sounds, like a big phat kick drum that no one else has. Usually, it's customary to layer up to five (or more) kick drums or snares with different EQs and effects for each. The easiest way to reproduce that sound while saving voice allocation and disk space is simply to sample your unique creation and use it as easily as you would any patch sitting in a beat box or synth.
Sound Modules, The Songwriter's and Composer's Tool:
If you already have a good keyboard controller or workstation and you'd like to add to your sound library without taking up the space another keyboard (which you don't need) would, then sound modules are the way to go. A good example of this would be a Triton
Extreme 88 owner who wants the sound of the Roland
Fantom X, but doesn't need two big workstations; the rackmountable Fantom
XR is the solution.
The sound module is useful for expanding your
sound library, but why is it of particular
use to songwriter's and composers? This answer
rests in the following question; "How
do you want to spend your time, programming
synths or writing music?" With all of
the options and features the average synth
now offers for sound creation, it's easy to
get lost in a sea of options, especially if
you factor in the myriad options that a software
DAW such as Digital
Performer have to offer. The choices can
become downright immobilizing. In order to
get to the business of writing music, it's
best to set limits; Spend your time where your
strengths are. It's easy to spend hours fiddling
with knobs and soft keys while bent over the
rack trying to scroll through all those sub-menus
in that little display in order to create a
sound that ultimately winds up not being that
much different from the one you started out
with, or one that you simply find yourself
erasing and starting over. In the meantime,
that hit song or film score remains unwritten.
With sample players, you can set up your sounds
in a way that will enable you to get to work,
and leave the programming to the tweak-heads.
Often times, sounds created by people with
a knack for it can be downright inspiring and
will spur you to creativity. Sometimes a sound
alone can suggest a piece of music, or a musical
direction for the composer or songwriter to
explore. On the other hand, if you feel that
you're music needs a truly unique sound and
you haven't found one in the hundreds of thousands
of available patches out there, your synth
module will grant you access to more than enough
of its inner architecture to create one based
on the many resident samples, waveforms and
other sound-manipulation functions within it.
Synthesis Basics: What are all those knobs for?
If you are considering a Table
Top synth or analog modeling synth (the two are often combined), then you're already interested in tweaking sounds, since the point of Table Top synths is to out the controls of an analog synth right in front of you, or setting comfortably on your DJ coffin. If you are new to synthesis, you may wonder what all those knobs and sliders are for. There are a number of terms you will hear and see in synthesis that can be quite confusing, such as LFO, which means Low Frequency oscillator, not UFO's that have landed, ADSR, Envelope, Cutoff Filter, Resonance, and more. Rather than write a book on the origins and development of synthesis, we have compiled a handy little glossary of terms and controls of analog synthesis.
Oscillator: A function generator whose output is a periodic waveform.
An oscillator operating at sub-audio frequencies
is often referred to as a low-frequency-oscillator
(LFO). Analog oscillators generate an electrical
function or waveform. These are typically approximations
of simple trigonometric shapes such as sinusoidal,
(sine wave) square, triangular, and pulse.
More sophisticated synthesizers will permit
the user to mix different waveforms and to
process them in various ways such as modulating
the pulse width or altering the shape in some
other way, Digital oscillators can generate
these same shapes using mathematical descriptions
or look up shapes from a table and generate
arbitrarily complex shapes.
Oscillators can be used to generate a wide range of frequencies including the audio spectrum. These can be combined together to create more complex timbres (additive synthesis) and can be used to modulate other parameters such as another oscillator's frequency (frequency modulation) or amplitude (amplitude modulation). A digital oscillator may use a portion of sampled sound as a waveform.
Waveform: The waveform of a signal is a graph of its instantaneous voltages versus time. In audio, for example, we are always dealing with periodic waveforms that make up what we hear. These periodic waveforms can be plotted on a graph and will show up as some type of squiggly (how's that for a word?) line. From left to right is time (usually a very short slice of time) and from top to bottom is the amplitude of the sound (or relative voltage) at those instants in time. The familiar sine wave is an example of this.
Waveforms, or Waves (a Wave File, for example) are also the names sometimes given to samples or snippets of sound that are used in various electronic sound generating or playing instruments. The usage of the word comes from the definition above and has become commonplace in the modern day era of audio production where one is often looking at waveforms on a computer screen while editing sounds.
Sine Wave: a continuous, cyclic waveform in which the amplitude (or instantaneous voltage) varies according to the sine (a trigonomic function) of the time. It is unique in that it has no overtones whatsoever. Since it contains only the fundamental pitch it gives a smooth rounded tone. Test tones used to calibrate tape machines and other equipment are generally sine waves. In acoustic instruments a flute sometimes has a nearly sinusoidal output. On an oscilloscope a sine wave looks like a symmetrical wavy line.
Triangle Wave: Like sine waves and square waves, triangle waves are commonly found and used in audio production, and they are a common waveform source on synthesizers. A triangle wave's shape is characterized by a linear increase or decrease in amplitude over time, followed by a linear change in amplitude at the same rate in the opposite direction. As indicated by its name, this wave has a triangular shape when viewed on a plot referenced to time. Sonically triangle waves exhibit a strong fundamental with relatively weak, odd numbered harmonics.
Square Wave: A waveform shape with squared corners. Unlike the continuous nature of sine waves, square waves have very fast (infinitely fast in theory) rise and fall times with periods of steady state voltage at the top and bottom.There is no way for a theoretically perfect square wave to exist because in practice it always takes some amount of time for the voltage swing from the bottom to the top (and top to bottom) to occur. A waveform shape does not have to be a perfect geometric square to be considered a square wave, but in general they do approximate the shape. In practice we tend to call many waveforms that have really fast rise and fall times with roughly equal periods of steady state between them square waves, though there are some other more specific (and correct) names for a few of the variants. Square waves are used in all kinds of digital equipment because they are ideal for representing the ones and zeros of digital. They are also used for clock and other data signals as well as certain types of audio signals. In audio, square waves have a very specific type of harmonic structure and thus a very distinctive sound to them. An instrument such as the clarinet naturally creates something very close to a square wave, and in synthesizers square waves are used to emulate clarinets. Also, a sine wave that is in severe clipping begins to take on a square like quality. In fact, most waveforms (even very complex ones) begin to exhibit some of the characteristics of square waves under severe clipping.
Pulse Wave: A waveform type that's similar to a square wave. Pulse waves are more rectangular and tend to be more "tall" than "wide," which is why they are called pulse waves; they are more like a series of pulses. Pulse waves have a very high degree of harmonic content and have a characteristically "hard" sound.
VCF (Voltage Controlled Filter):
A VCF is a filter in an analog synthesizer
that changes the cutoff frequency (in
a low pass filter or high pass filter), or
frequency (in a band pass filter) according
to the amount of a control voltage. Controls
may include cutoff or center frequency
(depending on filter type), slope, bandwidth
or Q. All or some of these may be voltage
Cutoff Frequency: In a filter,
the cutoff frequency is the point where the
response is 3 dB down in amplitude from the
level of the passband. Beyond the cutoff frequency,
the filter will attenuate all other frequencies,
depending on the design of the filter. On a
sweepable shelving EQ or filter, what you are "sweeping" (or changing) is the cutoff frequency. To our ears, this changes the point at which the filter is operating.
Resonant Frequency: The frequency
at which resonance occurs. The resonant frequency
determines the pitch of things like recorders
and other musical instruments that rely on
resonant columns of air. It also determines
the pitch of feedback, another form of resonance.
And it is the pitch or frequency the port of
a loudspeaker may be tuned to.
Q: The resonance of an electronic circuit;, "Q" actually refers to quality factor. Q is a measure of the sharpness of a resonant peak. The term Q is often used interchangeably with "bandwidth". This is not entirely correct. It is more accurate to say that Q determines bandwidth (a subtle but distinct difference). Q is most often used in reference to synthesizer filters (sometimes referred to as resonance) and equalizers, but it also applies to capacitors (a measure of efficiency, the ratio of capacitive reactance to resistance at a high frequency) and speakers (a measure of directivity). In speakers, a Q of 1 means the system sends out energy equally in all directions; a speaker with a Q of 2 radiates in a 180 degree hemisphere; higher Q's correspond to smaller angles. In EQ circuits Q is defined as the center frequency divided by the half power bandwidth. On a 1/3 octave graphic equalizer, for example, the half power point at 1 kHz is 232 Hz wide. The Q is thus 1000/232 or 4.31.
VCO (Voltage Controlled Oscillator):
An oscillator in an analogue synthesizer
which changes its frequency according
to changes in a control voltage.
Standard is usually 1 volt = change of one
octave.VCOs may have:
- Outputs: various waveforms: sine, pulse, triangle, sawtooth
- Output controls: for coarse and fine frequency, wave shape (such as pulse width) and output level as well as
- Inputs: synchronization to another oscillator, pulse width (for pulse width modulation) and frequency modulation
- Input controls: for control voltage attenuation, synchronization to another oscillator, and frequency modulation
Envelope: In sound and synthesis,
the envelope is the variation that a sound exhibits
over time - basically how a sound starts, continues
and disappears. It is comprised of concepts
such as attack and decay, but other sonic distinctions
such as transient and sustain may also be applied
in some circumstances. Pitch, timbre, and harmonic
content (which is basically timbre) can also
change over time and in some cases are considered
part of the overall envelope making up a sound.
VCA (Voltage Controlled Amplifier): A VCA is an amplifier in an analog synthesizer that changes its amplification according to the size of a control voltage.
0 volts = no signal,
10 volts = maximum amplification of the signal.
ADSR (Attack, Decay, Sustain,
Release ADSR): A simple reduction of
what is generally
a more complex dynamic envelope. In synthesizers
or samplers it may be used to control
amplitude, filter cut-off, or tuning (to
name a few likely
parameters). In older analogue synthesizers,
the ADSR created a transient control voltage,
which was used in conjunction with a voltage
controlled amplifier, filter or oscillator.
It required a trigger to turn it on. In
more contemporary models it often refers
the envelope and the process. In most
applications the attack, decay and release
preset durations while the sustain segment
gets its duration from the trigger. This
is based on the model of an organ which
as long as the key is depressed.
- Attack: in audio terms, the beginning of a sound. What type of attack a sound has is determined by the sound's attack time, or how long it takes for the volume of the sound to go from silence to maximum level.
- Decay: the rate at which the maximum level
goes to a steady level.
- Sustain: the duration
of the steady level.
once the key is released, the time it takes
for the 'sustain' or steady level to decrease
to a zero level.
Sound Modules and Samplers
Does the module have sound sets or produce sounds that you presently don't have. For example: While each synth has its own "idea" of what a piano sounds like, unless you hear a sampled piano that truly removes your knit-wool foot coverings, there isn't much point in having two units that have mainly the same sounds with only a few exceptions. This may go without saying, but make sure that the sounds inspire you, unless, you are doing Karaoke sequencing and require the sounds that are showing up on records, even if you have similar ones already.
If your plan is to compose with MIDI sequencing, a multi-timbral is necessary. This directly relates to its polyphony, or the number of voices the synth can play simultaneously. The more voices (greater polyphony) the better. Be careful here, sometimes the word voice is used to describe patches. If you see a synth that says it has 256 voices, such as the case of the Yamaha Motif Rack, they refer to patches as voices. In that case, look for the word polyphony (notes) with a number like 128, which is a good number to have if you are doing orchestral music or using complex combination sounds. Otherwise, you can run out of sound fairly quickly. It's common to see synths with 128 voices these days. Don't go under 64, unless you are buying a specialty synth, such as an analog-modeling synth, where multi-timbral capacity is not needed. The basic rule of thumb is the more the merrier.
Ease of Connectivity:
Since this is going to be more of a permanent installation, having all of the unit's connectors on the back panel will be fine, so long as we're talking about a sample player, or "ROM-pler" as they are sometimes called. If you are choosing a sampler, having a mic or line input on the front panel will add some convenience.
Type of Connectors:
Consider your applications. A sample player can get away with unbalanced 1/4" stereo outputs, but balanced XLR would be better for longer cable runs and recording. It should of course have MIDI IN and OUT, as well as some form of digital out such as ADAT lightpipe, AES/EBU or S/PDIF for direct digital recording. It's also important to have USB connection in order to bring sounds in and out of your computer for archiving or editing. The other advantage of USB is that you can import sound files from sample CD collections as well as download sounds from the Internet. Inputs are not an issue, unless you are buying a sampler. For a sampler along with the usual output connectivity, Line/Mic stereo analog inputs (usually 1/4") and a digital input such as S/PDIF (coaxial) is necessary. Again, make sure you have USB connectivity.
Since the primary function of the unit is to provide sounds, via a controller keyboard, it should have MIDI IN, OUT, and THRU, plus comprehensive MIDI implementation. Also, if you are going to be accessing the front panel a lot, as in a sampler like the Roland Fantom XR, you'll want large back lit controls and LCD screen. A definite plus in this regard is to choose a sound module with editing software that enables you to view and adjust parameters from your computer screen. The same holds true for rackmountable analog synth modules. Controls should be easily accessed on the front panel and easy to see, as well as having the ability to be edited via computer. If not, a table top synth is a better choice since it puts all of the controls and knobs right in from of you, thus avoiding the need to lay on the floor while you tweak your synth.
Like their keyboard counterparts, sound module upgradeability is essential when it comes to samplers and ROM-plers. Remember, the more RAM, the more sample-time you have. The more ROM you have, the more samples you can load. As we stated earlier, since the purpose of these modules is to increase your sound library in a space-saving box, so the more RAM, ROM and sound cards you can add, the better.
The big two here are .wav and AIFF files. Your sampler should be able to handle one or the other. The ability to handle both is best. Again, the more types of files your system can handle, the more access to a greater variety of sounds you have.
This is also important for sound storage. A PC card slot allows you to save patches and load them conveniently, while keeping the patch set already resident in your module intact. Having to stop work and load a new sound set from the computer can be disruptive, especially if it wipes out a sound set you wish to continue working with. The PC slot allows you to switch back and forth easily.