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.