Studio samplers often use piano keyboards to trigger samples – even for drums. The samples are mapped across the notes of the keyboard (a process known as “keymapping”). For example, if we were playing back a sample of a xylophone, each note would be triggered by its corresponding note on the piano keyboard. Obviously, this approach works well with note-based samples.
Both phrase and studio samplers can recognize how hard the user plays a key or strikes a pad. The harder a person plays (known as the velocity of the note), the louder the sample. In simplistic setups, the sampler simply raises the volume, but more advanced units will recall a separately recorded, louder sample. This is crucial for creating believable sounds, especially for drums.
Hardware-based samplers are stable (especially when compared to their computer-based counterparts), have a streamlined user interface, and are portable. They’ve also been around long enough that most manufacturers have had time to work out kinks and bugs with their systems. Popular brands of hardware samplers are made by Akai, Roland, E-MU, Korg. Yamaha.
With lower prices and increased processing power, it was only a matter of time before computers became legitimate competition for hardware samplers. Today, scores of software applications have the ability to sample, play back samples, or sequence samples (the process of mapping out which sample plays, when it plays, and what it sounds like). Popular software sequencers include Propellerhead’s Reason, Cakewalk Sonar, MOTU Digital Performer, Steinberg Cubase, Apple Logic, and Image-Line Software’s FL Studio.
Of particular note is “hypersampling,” a term Propellerhead coined to refer to the process by which each drum is recorded at multiple velocity levels, from multiple angles, using different sets of microphones. While other sequencers can play only one sample, or stack multiple samples on one key, the Reason approach is closer to the real world. For example, when the command for a snare drum hit is received by Reason’s NN-XT Advanced Sampler, not only will the primary (or close mike) sample play, but the sample collected from each mike during the recording session can play back. This is similar to being in a real recording studio with a real drummer. By routing the NN-XT tracks to different mixer channels, you can blend the sound of the samples as if you were actually using all of those microphones.
In recent years, a completely new approach to sample playback has emerged. Instead of using short samples, and then reconstructing them at playback, each note of an instrument is recorded at full length and stored in high resolution. Known as disc streaming, this process plays actual recordings instead of reconstructed, pitch-shifted, or looped fragments of audio. First made popular by Tascam’s GigaStudio application, the advantages of disc streaming include a level of authenticity never before achieved by a sampler. Instruments that were difficult to sample (such as strings and cymbals) are now fully realistic (Fig. 2).
Fig. 2. Tascam GigaStudio
Consider the low bass notes of a concert grand piano. Some notes take up to 30 seconds to decay. No loop could begin to reconstruct that type of situation. Of course, this fidelity comes at a price. Disc streaming systems require large amounts of hard drive space. For example, a piano on a hardware sampler might require 300KB of RAM space, while the same piano would take over 2GB of space. It also takes a state-of-the-art system to play complex instruments without glitches. In addition to GigaStudio, Steiberg’s HALion and MOTU’s MachFive are two popular applications that support streaming.
Why the science lesson? It’s important to know what type of sampler will be used to playback your drums. Additionally, it’s important to know where the industry is going in terms of technology and practice. In our example, Dan wants to sample his vintage kit so he can use the audio for years to come. Had he done this project a few years ago, he might have taken only a few, short samples. He would be limited in the variety and quality of his sounds, not to mention how unconvincing his cymbals would have turned out. Now, armed with a little background on sampling options, we’re ready to do a better job with this project.