Virtual Instruments — Samplers

What’s a Sample?

The first section on audio explained that sampling occurs when a waveform is recorded, bit by bit. As far as samplers are concerned, a sample is the entire waveform (usually in .wav format). A sampler is a program that creates and plays back audio samples; they could be a single note of an instrument, a sound effect, or a lengthy loop.

Originally, samplers were hardware units that played back recorded audio. They were built into instruments, like the Mellotron, put into synths for extra sound sources, employed as drum machines, or to trigger production foley.

Today, a sampler usually refers to a piece of software that runs within a DAW. They usually come with many tools to affect samples. The most basic is a keyboard mapper to choose which ones are triggered when a specific key is pressed on a keyboard MIDI controller. You can trigger any number of samples in any order, based on the key and velocity ranges. You can also have the sampler pitch shift a sample to correspond with every note on an 88-key controller—a process known as “Tracking.” Any one of multiple samples of the same note can be played sequentially or randomly with each key press, known as a “round robin”; velocity layers allow for a different tone for louder notes than quieter ones.  Both of these options allow for a more realistic performance. 

Another common tool is the ability to specify a loop point, which repeats a portion of the sample a number of times, or indefinitely. There are also tools to slice audio into samples, transpose, tune, and effect in various other ways. Groups of samples are organized into instruments, which are organized into virtual instrument libraries. Often, the final software instrument owes more to the way the sampler was programmed than to what was sampled.

What Samplers are Available?

The TX16Wx is the sampler recommended at Southern Utah University. Its layout is modeled after the Yamaha TX16W synth from the 80’s. The free version has enough features to allow students some experimentation in creating their own instruments. Other free samplers include Vember Audio Shortcircuit, Sonic Charge Cyclone, and others.

The No. 1 sampler in the world is Native Instrument’s Kontakt. It’s a good choice for professionals because practically every major virtual instrument library is created to run in it, there are custom keyboards to work with it, it has advanced scripting functions, and it’s not tied to a DAW. The limiting factor for students is, if you only have access to the free version, students can’t open non-licensed libraries or learn how to build their own instruments with it. There’s also no educational discount for students, just institutions. If you’re considering Native Instrument’s main library anyway, Kontakt comes with it.

Kontakt 5 Sampler

Five samples tracked to most of a keyboard, triggered in a round robin, and tuned in Kontakt 5.

HISE may end up being a real game-changer in the sampling world. It’s an open-source sampler that’s regularly updated based on community feedback. The developer has included a lot of the same features that people love in Kontakt, with an even more robust scripting engine that uses Javascript. The UI editor is also drag and drop WISIWUG, and anyone can download it and use it for free. The main limitation is if you want to compile an instrument to be used without the sampler (in a DAW or as an iOS app), in which case purchasing a license is in order (since the compiling engine wasn’t made by the sampler creator. Still, it’s not a limitation for learning on or selling libraries to use in HISE.

Most commercial DAWs include a proprietary sampler. A few notable alternatives to Kontakt are MOTU’s MachFive, AIR’s Structure (the full version of Structure Free from Pro Tools), Steinberg’s HALion (comes with Cubase; contains both Kontakt and synth-like features), and Ableton Simpler (one of two that come with Ableton).

Three synth-style samplers are UVI’s Falcon, Togu Audio Line’s TAL-Sampler, and 112dB Morgana.

Resources for this Section

A beginner’s guide to creating a software instrument in Kontakt from ASDR (with minimal ads).

Mark Ronson talks about how sampling changed music, specifically how people inject themselves into the past.