Sam­ple-based syn­the­sis


The elec­tron­i­cally-gen­er­ated wave­forms from an ana­logue synth (sine, saw, square etc) pro­vide a ba­sic pal­ette of raw sounds to sculpt, but these prim­i­tive tones limit the sonic range of a tra­di­tional sub­trac­tive syn­the­sizer. See­ing as the os­cil­la­tor is the raw sonic ma­te­rial of any synth, it’s no sur­prise that in­ven­tors have sought to arm in­stru­ments with more tim­brally in­ter­est­ing, es­o­teric wave­forms from other sources.

Al­though crude by to­day’s stan­dards, the Mel­lotron (1963) was the first com­mer­cially-af­ford­able ‘sam­ple-based synth’: press­ing each of its 35 keys would trig­ger a sep­a­rate mag­netic tape player con­tain­ing a record­ing of a ‘sam­pled’ note. Over a decade later, 1979’s leg­endary Fairlight CMI was the first poly­phonic dig­i­tal sam­pling syn­the­sizer – sam­pled wave­forms could be pre­cisely ma­nip­u­lated, looped, re­versed and edited with its fa­mous QWERTY key­board and ‘light pen’. This deep level of sam­ple ma­nip­u­la­tion set a prece­dent: al­though the Fairlight’s as­tro­nom­i­cal £12,000 price tag put it out of reach of the ev­ery­day mu­si­cian, it was a huge hit with Pop acts of the day, and so the tech­nol­ogy went on to trig­ger the ’80s ex­plo­sion of af­ford­able dig­i­tal sam­plers and sam­ple-based synths. Sam­pler in­stru­ments such as E-mu’s Emu­la­tor (1981) and Akai’s S900 (1984) al­lowed users to load in sam­ples and ma­nip­u­late them with syn­the­sis-style fea­tures; while syn­the­siz­ers such as the En­soniq Mi­rage (1985), Roland’s D-50 (1987) and Korg’s M1 (1988) pack­aged pre-loaded dig­i­tal sam­pled os­cil­la­tors within tra­di­tional syn­the­sizer de­signs. Iron­i­cally, while 100% ana­logue synths are fetishised in to­day’s ocean of dig­i­tal synths and plug-ins, this ’80s dig­i­tal sam­pling tech­nol­ogy was con­sid­ered far su­pe­rior to the ‘prim­i­tive’ ana­logue synths of the era!

As com­puter pro­cess­ing power and dig­i­tal au­dio tech­nol­ogy ma­tured through­out the ’90s and 2000s, it be­came fea­si­ble to per­form the ma­jor­ity of dig­i­tal sam­pling tasks in­side a com­puter. Vir­tual sam­plers such as NI’s Kon­takt were able to han­dle huge multi-sam­pled col­lec­tions of clas­sic synths, re­al­is­tic in­stru­ments and even en­tire or­ches­tras, com­pletely blur­ring the line be­tween sam­pling and syn­the­sis while pro­vid­ing the home user ac­cess to near-in­fi­nite sound-shap­ing pos­si­bil­i­ties at a frac­tion of the cost of hard­ware equiv­a­lents.

To­day we’re in­un­dated with synth/ sam­pler hy­brids within the dig­i­tal do­main. On the most ba­sic level, vir­tual ROM­pler work­sta­tions such as ReFX’s Nexus 2 and Lethal Au­dio’s Lethal pack­age up be­hind-the-scenes sam­ple li­braries within syn­the­sizer in­ter­faces, al­beit with limited edit­ing ca­pa­bil­i­ties – ideal if you need quick ac­cess to a wide se­lec­tion of ready­rolled sound sources with­out get­ting bogged down with end­less edit­ing. How­ever, this barely scratches the sur­face of sam­ple-based syn­the­sis: the lat­est gen­er­a­tion of power synths such as Spec­tra­son­ics’ Om­ni­sphere 2, Ap­ple Alchemy and UVI Fal­con all al­low you to load in your own sam­ples and blend/ma­nip­u­late these wave­forms with ‘reg­u­lar’ ana­loguestyle os­cil­la­tors, as well as ap­ply unique pro­cesses such as resyn­the­sis and gran­u­lar pro­cess­ing. These can be used to marry tex­tured field record­ings along­side solid tones, for ex­am­ple, or build up and restack your own lay­ered, sam­pled wave­forms for end­less sonic po­ten­tial.

These vir­tual pow­er­houses en­cour­age you to tear apart and man­gle your cho­sen sam­ple-based os­cil­la­tor/s in fu­tur­is­tic new ways. One stand­out in­stru­ment is iZo­tope’s Iris 2, a four-layer sam­pling synth that uses ad­vanced spec­tral edit­ing and fil­ter­ing tech­nol­ogy to fa­cil­i­tate in­ge­nious sound de­sign and weird­ness. It plots your sam­pled wave­form over a large spec­tro­gram dis­play; with time plot­ted across the X-axis, fre­quency across the Y-axis and am­pli­tude across the Z-axis. By draw­ing in shapes, lines, curves and pat­terns on this main dis­play, you iso­late spec­tral char­ac­ter­is­tics within the sound over time, trans­form­ing even the most mun­dane au­dio files into shim­mer­ing pads, talk­ing synths, odd FX and more – a par­tic­u­larly fun and fresh method of syn­the­sis if you’re look­ing to de­sign unique sounds from scratch, or gen­er­ate in­spi­ra­tion dur­ing a cre­ative lull.

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