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SampleTron's user interface is clear and easy to follow.
SampleTron's user interface is clear and easy to follow.

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IK Multimedia SampleTron
By Mike Metlay
Date: May 2009

SampleTron is the latest in IK Multimedia’s ongoing series of software synthesizers based on the engine of their flagship sampler, SampleTank 2 XL. It offers a highly configurable and flexible set of sounds, sampled from a collection of vintage keyboards that delivered “realistic sounds” in the era before digital sampling became all the rage.

So what is a Tron?

Among vintage-gear fans, the term “Tron” has come into favor as a generic nickname for any keyboard or rhythm machine that used recorded sounds that weren’t digital. The original example was the Mellotron, developed in the UK in the early Sixties, popular on tracks by everyone from the Beatles to the Moody Blues, and progenitor of many descendents, imitators, and competitors, each with its own unique sound.

SampleTron has a wide variety of Tron sounds, sampled from machines owned by or borrowed by Dave Kerzner, CEO of Sonic Reality (the team that developed SampleTron’s sounds) and a bit of a self-admitted Tronaholic, over the course of 10 years’ research. There are 17 instruments in the collection, digging deep into two of the pre-sampling era’s best-loved technologies, with a few nifty surprises thrown in. These are all brought into the 21st Century by meshing them with the SampleTank engine’s power.

The SampleTank engine

SampleTron uses almost the same SampleTank 2 XL playback engine as SampleMoog, reviewed April 2008. Here are the basics if you don’t have that review handy.

SampleTron has a single programming screen (see the screenshot) with multiple tabbed pages of controls. It can play back Combis of up to 16 individual parts which can be distributed to 256 different outputs (!), with each part having its own Instrument preset, MIDI channel, level, pan position, mute/solo status, and output pair assignment. Each part can have its polyphony set to anywhere from 1 to 32 voices—each instance of SampleTron can generate 256 voices in all, and each part can have up to 32-voice polyphony.

Each Instrument contains a sample set chosen from the patch browser in the upper right part of the display, with synthesis parameters set on nine tabbed pages, each with up to seven parameter knobs. There are two Envelopes, two LFOs, a multimode filter, modulation controls (with up to four user-settable Macro controls on their own tab), and three different sample-playback algorithms vs. SampleMoog’s two.

There’s Resample, which speeds up and slows down samples depending on the desired pitch—it’s the simplest and cleanest-sounding algorithm for standard keyboard playing. There’s IK’s proprietary STRETCH algorithm, which allows for independent control over speed, pitch, and formant content of each sample—it’s not as clean as Resampling, but allows for really funky twisting and mangling of the sample content. Finally, SampleTron introduces an engine called Pitch-Shift/Time-Stretch, which allows for independent tempo/pitch control of looped audio. Since SampleTron’s content has a lot of old rhythm machine loops in it, this engine sees a lot of use and works very well.

There are up to four effects in sequence for each Part; the first is always an eq and compressor, and the other four can be chosen from 32 different effect types from delays and modulation effects to autopanners, amp simulators, special effects like slicer (rhythmic gate) and phonograph simulator, and a fine collection of reverbs.

Over all, this is a very comprehensive, powerful, and flexible engine, and it’s light on CPU load—in standalone mode on my 2 GHz MacBook with 2 GB RAM running OS X 10.4.11, a six-part Combi playing back eight notes per part barely touched 25% CPU load, and more conservative two-part Combis sat at 3–5%. IK’s philosophy seems to be that once a user gets comfortable with the engine, all he or she needs to do is decide on the bundled content desired—or alternatively, buy SampleTank 2 XL itself and load these libraries in as raw material. There’s no need to relearn all the instrument parameters when you load up a new set of sounds!

Speaking of content...

So how did you play back sounds back in the day, if you couldn’t sample them digitally? Well, 14 of the 17 instruments represented in the collection actually play back analog recordings of instrument sounds, and of those, 11 of them used tape recordings.

The original Mellotron (briefly renamed the Novatron) and the Chamberlin used strips of tape, one per key; press a key, hear the tape recording. Some instruments offered multiple sounds per tape, by spooling to a preset spot on each tape when a preset was selected! There are three Mellotrons, a Novatron, the Mellotron Powerhouse 8-track rhythm machine, five Chamberlins, and the Chamberlin Rhythmate rhythm machine. The collection of sounds is marvelous, including some real rarities and some sounds recorded through Ampex tube gear for a warmer timbre (the “Tube Tron” folder). There’s a large connection of one-off sound effects recordings accessible as a separate subfolder, with everything from broadcast-friendly sound bites like gongs and train noises to humorous effects like cackling chickens.... all wonderfully lo-fi, of course.

The other “analog sampler” technology in the collection is represented by the Mattel Optigan and Chilton Talentmaker and their professional-market descendant the Vako Orchestron, which played back sounds by optically scanning waveforms off spinning plastic discs that looked rather like translucent LPs. You can learn a bit more about these rare and wonderfully bizarre instruments at the museum/resource website optigan.com, which has photos, historical timelines, audio samples, and more.

These instruments are fabulously rare; they never worked particularly well, and only a few famous players ever tried to make significant use of them. Optigans are usually found in the back rooms of thrift stores and pawn shops for little or nothing, because they’re so rarely in good working order and sound terrible (in a good way) even when they work. Orchestrons, despite their “pro” design, were equally unreliable. Patrick Moraz had a custom 3-manual Orchestron soon after his brief stint with Yes, but it’s unclear how much he used it; Kraftwerk’s choral sounds on their popular album Radio-Activity were from an Orchestron. These optical Trons have a wonderfully crackly sound, as if the sounds are being played back from old vinyl, because of basic flaws in the light-detection systems—and it’s virtually impossible to find their sounds anywhere other than in the SampleTron. In my opinion, they’re worth the cost of the whole darn program, because of their obviously “vintage” character that is equally obviously not a conventional Mellotron.

Finally there are three instruments that have nothing to do with this technology, but seem to have been included for a common “goofy factor”. First, there’s the 360 Systems Digital Keyboard, an early digital sample player that cost thousands of dollars and had a limited but pretty sound set. Arguably it was the first digital Tron, bridging the gap from analog machines to the Emulator and other digital keyboards that could actually sample.

There’s also a choir sound from the Roland VP-330, a vocoder/keyboard whose basic sound was used on many records in the late Seventies and early Eighties. This is actually a string ensemble rather than a Tron, but it seems to be included here because its sounds were often used in the same general way as Tron choirs. Finally there’s a sample of the Dubreq Stylophone, a handheld musical toy played by touching a stylus to a metal keyboard—fun, but non-essential.

There are also a few folders of extra treats, including some pre-processed Tron sounds to approximate the sorts of effects one heard on records from the Sixties. Not all of them are instantly usable, but they’re great source material for the SampleTank engine, and lend themselves to tweaking and twisting.

Conclusions

These sounds are lovingly recorded, impeccably presented (given their flaws), and will fire all sorts of memories in players’ brains. You’ll hear “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Daniel” with the flute, “Watcher of the Skies” and “Nights in White Satin” from the violins, and who knows what other magical tracks of yesteryear... not to mention many modern tracks that have revisited these sounds. Better yet, thanks to the underlying playback engine you can mix and mash and mangle them with a whole slew of modern sample manipulation processes, save and load the results easily, and carry them all around with you under your arm—and nary a tape head to clean or clutch wheel assembly to tighten in the bunch!

As was the case with SampleMoog, SampleTron comes off not so much a perfect re-creation of vintage keyboard sounds, but as a powerful and flexible sample player plug-in that happens to use a huge collection of vintage sounds as its source material. One small complaint I had about SampleMoog was that its sound library, large as it was, was still just a set of “snapshots” of the infinitely variable sounds of Moog synthesizers. By contrast, SampleTron gives you exactly what the original keyboards sounded like, minus a few subtle quirks that aren’t yet reproducible in software, so they’re as “authentic” as any sampling of a vintage keyboard can be—perhaps more so, since the originals weren’t velocity-sensitive, so playing a note was playing a note, period.

If you’re the sort of person who goes nuts for these old Tron sounds and dreams of being able to either play them back with full authenticity or massage them into something entirely new, you’ll want to take SampleTron out for a spin. For its content, its flexibility, and its lean use of processing power, it gets a big thumbs-up from this old Tron-lover.

 

Delivery Medium: One CD plus one DVD—2.5 GB of content

Format: Standalone, VST, and RTAS for Mac OS X 10.4/10.5 or Windows XP/Vista, plus AU for Mac OS X

Copy Protection: Serial Number/Authorization Code/Digital ID, three installs allowed

Licensing: single user, networked install okay, no royalties on music using it

Documentation: full paper and PDF user manuals, PDF installation/authorization manual

Price: $229.99

More from: IK Multimedia, www.ikmultimedia.com.

 

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