A bit about software samplers

I’ve mentioned in past articles literally having thousands of sounds at my disposal; this is made possible through what is known as “sampler technology” (or more specifically, software samplers). A sampler is software that manages, well, sound samples! For example, a piano has 88-keys, so a sampled piano consists of a recording of each key on the instrument. Each key is recorded with different variations such as velocity levels (playing soft or hard), as well as other nuisances such as staccato, legato, pedal on, off, etc. So you can imagine that you end up with literally thousands of possibilities for a single instrument.

That’s sampling in a nutshell, and software samplers manage all of this, and can be triggered directly by a keyboard or thru a digital audio workstation just like any other connected instrument.

I use dedicated computers for this function… actually two dedicated samplers. The first one is a high-end PC configured to run a leading product known as Tascam GigaStudio. The second sampler is a purpose-built Linux server called a Muse Receptor that can run a wide variety of “virtual software instruments” that conform to industry standard VSTi format. In fact, the piano sound I used on the most recent tune, Seduction, was courtesy of a virtual instrument known as Ivory that runs on the Muse. It’s worthy to note that a virtual instrument is not the same as a sampler, but often provides for similar functionality (I’ll go over this more in a future post). Regardless, there are literally thousands (several gigabytes worth) of sample files organized into “sample libraries” on these boxes, and the sampling software makes them accessible as instruments – just like dedicated outboard gear! And, we’re not talking about “synthesized” sounds here… rather, samplers play back professionally recorded “samples” from real instruments. The sounds/samples of $250,000 Bosendorfer concert grand can be acquired and placed into your recordings for a fraction of the cost! So it goes without saying that sampler technology is a key component in most studios – particularly if your music incorporates acoustic instruments.

Even when you use a self-contained “digital keyboard”, it most likely uses built-in samples to play back acoustic instruments. The difference is that these samples are compressed into relatively small storage mediums such as on-board ROM chips; where as a true software-based sampler can take advantage of today’s low-cost/high-capacity disk drives and provide for virtually unlimited storage. The depth of a sample library is kind of like pixels on a television; the more you have, the higher the resolution… so think of software samplers as a bit like HDTV on steroids! Commercial sample libraries designed for software samplers often require GIGABYTES of storage, just for a single instrument, and from this density comes the authenticity. One well known professional orchestral library requires nearly 60 Gigabytes just for its baseline package… so we’re talking server-grade hardware and performance requirements, but the results are well worth it.

All but the most well-budgeted of films these days use sample libraries to some extent. You can literally be a one-person band, so to speak, if you know what you’re doing. Obviously, the technology doesn’t write the music for you, AND there is an equal craft in knowing how to “articulate” the sound so that it comes off authentically. In the end, technology will never 100% replace a real orchestra, but it comes pretty damn close these days, and for literally pennies on the dollar. I’m not sure if this is a good thing or bad thing in the grand scheme because there is truly a special magic to the “real thing”… but no question that more can be done for less, and I believe that benefits everyone in the long run.

Click here to Expand/Collapse a picture of the setup…

One Response to “A bit about software samplers”

  1. VST Says:

    Great!! Best regards, Age.

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I am a professional hobbyist when it comes to this.   Though my relationship with the piano began at a young age, I only recently pulled off the gloves to rekindle it and haven’t looked back since.   This was partly inspired by huge advancements in music production technology now available to all  – and from the comfort and privacy of your home!   I’ve never subscribed much to job titles so I won’t attempt to label my genre.  Besides, composing music mirrors life in that there are really only two ways to write a song: your way, and the wrong way. 

Thank you for your interest and encouragement.