NemeSys Technology GigaSampler 16 Virtual Sampler

NemeSys Technologies has made the virtual sampler a reality with its GigaSampler software, creating a power tool of interest to those working with music recording, sound-for-picture, live sound, live theater and other applications. A recent price cut, to $299, makes GigaSampler all the more attractive.
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Now that recorders, effects, synthesizers and mixers have gone virtual by way of the computer, it makes sense that the sampler wouldn't be far behind. NemeSys Technologies has made the virtual sampler a reality with its GigaSampler software, creating a power tool of interest to those working with music recording, sound-for-picture, live sound, live theater and other applications. A recent price cut, to $299, makes GigaSampler all the more attractive.
Product PointsApplications: Studio recording; sound-for-picture; live sound; live theater

Key Features: 64-voice polyphony; 16 outputs; hard drive spooling; virtually unlimited sample length; Akai sample library conversion

Price: $299

Contact: Nemesys Music Technologies 512-219-9181

Plus

+ 64 voices on 16 outputs

+ Virtually unlimited sample length/size

+ Vast expression capabilities

+ Great value

Minus

- Player and editor applications should be integrated

- Somewhat crash-prone on Micron test system

- Documentation and help files out-of-date

The Score: GigaSampler virtually redefines sampling with its 64-voice-on-16-outputs capabilities, unprecedented editing control and real-time expressive power.
Features

GigaSampler is a software-based sampler that runs on PC computers with Windows 95 or 98. The software requires a processor speed in the 300 MHz range, with a healthy dose of RAM (128 MB optimum) and a fast hard drive. Although GigaSampler is technically a hard drive-based sampler, it preloads some sample data into RAM for speed. The system will run with as little as 32 MB of RAM, but this limits the number of samples that can be queued and ready to play.

GigaSampler will provide stereo playback with some less-expensive DirectSound cards (from Creative Labs, Turtle Beach and MidiMan, for example), but users will enjoy much more flexibility running GigaSampler with a card that offers multiple outputs. Such professional cards currently supporting GigaSampler include those from Aardvark, Frontier Designs, Soundscape, Echo, EgoSys and others. I tested GigaSampler with the Frontier Designs Dakota card and Tango 24 converter interface.

The software delivers 64-voice polyphony on computers meeting the minimum system requirements. According to NemeSys, latency doesn't increase with the number of notes sounding, which is something that can't be said of many hardware samplers. Resolution is either 24-bit or 16-bit (with optional dither); sample rate is 44.1kHz or 48 kHz. If your soundcard is up to the task, GigaSampler will provide up to 16 discrete outputs.

GigaSampler is really three pieces of software in one. The actual sampler application handles all playback functions, leaving instrument editing to the GS Editor software. Wave editing, looping and audio processing are handled by Dissidents' SampleWrench XE, which is bundled with GigaSampler. GigaSampler also includes NemeSys' excellent 1 GB sampled piano.

In addition to the full version of GigaSampler, a less-expensive LE version is available for $99. GigaSampler LE doesn't include the GigaPiano or SampleWrench software; and it offers 48-voice polyphony on just two outputs. An LE version with GigaPiano is available for $199.

In use

The main GigaSampler interface looks something like a piece of audio hardware, with virtual rack ears, large buttons and LED-style meters. Its screen shows you which instruments are assigned to which MIDI channels, which hardware outputs are enabled and how much RAM your current setup is using.

Three buttons fire up your sequencer of choice, wave editor and patch editor, respectively. Loader and Mixer buttons reveal additional rack modules for file management and audio level control. The latter screen allows you to adjust the audio output level for the instrument(s) in each MIDI channel.

The GigaSampler loader allows you to manage your GigaSampler files (called gigs) and performances, which are full configurations of the sampler. This window also allows you to import files from GigaSampler and Akai CD-ROMs. The Akai conversion utility works like a charm, is very fast and will do batch processing to expedite the process. Converters for E-MU, Roland and other libraries (see below) are available or in development from third-party developers such as Rubber Chicken (www.chickensys.com).

For all its power, the main GigaSampler interface is very easy to use. With all your gig files visible in the loader, you can double-click on an instrument to load it into the first available MIDI channel. You can also drag-and-drop instruments into empty MIDI channels, and even stack up to four instruments on each MIDI channel.

Where the software support can become extensive is in the GigaSampler editor application. GigaSampler lets you divide up each MIDI note to hold literally dozens of sample segments, each with its own unique settings for volume and filter envelopes, LFO, filter, resonance and many other parameters. One instrument can have more than 4,000 of these segments, each with a full set of discrete parameters.

The key to switching between these samples is the GigaSampler dimension. A dimension responds to numerous different things: note range, MIDI controller, velocity, aftertouch, release trigger and many others. An instrument can have multiple dimensions, which explains why many large GigaSampler instruments contain 300 or more samples.

One novel approach to switching samples is called a key dimension, which uses silent MIDI notes (usually at one end of the keyboard or the other) to change the samples played. Hitting notes C1, C#1 and D1 in a string instrument might switch between legato, marcato and pizzicato samples, respectively. Key dimensions function almost like instantaneous program changes within the same instrument.

Thankfully, the editor software does a good job taming and clarifying GigaSampler's power. An 88-key keyboard graphic makes it easy to assign mono or stereo samples to any size regions, and also allows you to select a contiguous or noncontiguous range of samples for editing.

You can display and edit one sampler parameter at a time on this virtual keyboard, dragging small sliders in each region up and down to alter its value. Assign filter cutoff to the graphical interface, for example, and you can easily tweak its value for each note or region.

Three clever drag modes affect values in all selected regions, moving them in absolute, linear or proportional relationship. The parameters that really matter are available in graphic form -- the only one notably lacking was the pan control.

Though this graphical approach is nice, I appreciate the fact that one can edit samples in numerical parameter window as well. Some editing tasks are best performed with numbers and pull-down lists; others benefit from the graphical approach.

Even with a well-conceived editor interface, all the available options make creating a complex GigaSampler instrument a little daunting at first. GigaSampler's instrument wizard comes to the rescue, making quick work of velocity splits, controllers and key dimensions. If you name your samples and folders intelligently, the wizard will do most of the work for you. GigaSampler will even assign pitches based on note names or numbers it finds in the sample filename itself.

With velocity, aftertouch, numerous controllers and key dimensions acting on an instrument, the expressive power of GigaSampler is nothing short of amazing. GigaSampler's own sample libraries utilize all this power the best -- several of its instruments use complex layers, splits and dimensions to live and breathe like the real thing. Release triggers add even more realism, allowing instrument resonance or room ambience to continue after the note is released. Finally, GigaSampler's ability to store the natural decay of an instrument like piano or harp -- without looping -- is amazing.

While it is ultimately at the mercy of its samples and the installed soundcard, GigaSampler does sound very good. The playback engine preserves sample integrity to a very high degree, resulting in a clean, open sound. The sampler's pitch interpolation is excellent, and its filters (low-pass, high-pass, bandpass and band-reject) are flexible and very musical. Give it good samples and a good soundcard to work with and GigaSampler holds its own with the best of the hardware samplers.

It takes a little time for a sampler, be it hardware or software, to fire off a note. GigaSampler claims to perform the crucial deed in a scant few milliseconds, but I found a bit more delay than this with my 500 MHz Micron Max system and Frontier Dakota soundcard.

In my sequencer, I had to advance GigaSampler tracks about 12 milliseconds to get them to line up with tracks going to outboard tone modules and synthesizers (even after optimizing Frontier buffer settings). According to NemeSys, the culprit is the latest batch of Dakota soundcard drivers -- they're causing roughly twice the latency they should. Other cards reportedly deliver latency in the 7-10 ms range.

GigaSampler was relatively stable on my system, but I did experience glitches. Even after some fixes from tech support, GigaSampler would crash any time I loaded too many large instruments, would warn about a half-full 18 GB drive lacking space, and would resave all samples after only a few instrument parameters were changed. The interface between editor and sampler seemed prone to problems. NemeSys points at the Micron test computer as the source of the problems and asserts that its software is very stable on the majority of systems.

Being a stickler for documentation, I have to cry foul where GigaSampler's documentation is concerned. The printed manual omits some key information about building instruments, relying instead on tutorials on the CD-ROM. The tutorials are nice, but not real comprehensive and no substitute when you need reference-type information. The manual doesn't include many new features and editing parameters, which were added with the latest software version, and the software's help files come up empty as well. Here's hoping the next version of GigaSampler comes with an updated manual. (According to the company, the manual has recently been updated--Ed.)

Summary

GigaSampler is an incredibly powerful sampling tool. Thanks to hard drive spooling, deep editing functions and impressive 64-voice polyphony, GigaSampler imposes virtually no limits on your creativity. Control, power, flexibility -- they're all here.

In use, GigaSampler is intuitive and straightforward once you grasp a few key concepts of its operation. If you want to stay simple, you can map some samples and be playing in no time. If you like to control every aspect of your sounds, GigaSampler is a tweaker's dream come true. Stability and latency are GigaSampler's only real issues, though these may be limited to my computer system and soundcard.

As with most pieces of equipment that make the move from hardware to software, GigaSampler uses the power of the computer to strip away many of the limits of traditional hardware sampling. When converters for Akai, Roland, E-MU, Kurzweil and other sample libraries are readily available, I have a feeling many folks will be hocking their hardware samplers as soon as they get a taste of software sampling.

At $795, GigaSampler was a bargain. At $299, it's a no-brainer.

GigiSampler 1.6 Libraries

Here's a quick sampling of a few of the libraries currently available (or soon to be available) in GigaSampler format.

NemeSys Technology Libraries

Gary Garritan's GigaHarp; Peter Ewers' Symphonic Organ Samples; Larry Seyer's Upright Acoustic Bass; and GigaPiano from NemeSys Technology (www.nemesysmusic.com).

It figures that the makers of GigaSampler would really know how to make it sing. Its sample libraries use multiple layers, release triggers and key dimensions to deliver striking realism and playability. The GigaHarp and Symphonic Organ libraries are impeccably recorded and programmed, the latter offering release-triggered reverb from the Paris cathedral where the organ was sampled. The organ's 32' stop alone is a religious experience.

Larry Seyer's Upright Acoustic Bass offers release-triggered resonance, fast and slow slides (in both directions), clicks, mutes and more. One particular instrument makes all these available at once, through a combination of controllers, note ranges and key dimensions. Thanks to great-sounding samples and expression galore, this may be the ultimate upright bass sample library. NemeSys' own GigaPiano (included with GigaSampler) is no slouch either, offering loop-free sustain, soundboard release resonance and great playability. If you like NemeSys' recording approach to this Yamaha concert grand (I did), you'll love this freebie library.

Best Service

Sample Professional Sound Library from Best Service (www.bestservice.de).

This nine-CD set offers a diverse -- but not comprehensive -- mix of instruments. The Xsample set uses GigaSampler key dimensions and controllers extensively, though not quite as effectively as NemeSys' own libraries. Xsample instruments tend to be quite large, but Best Service still manages to pack roughly three dozen instruments into nine CD-ROMs. Within a given instrument, Xsample offers a good variety of different sounds and dynamic levels as well as stereo and mono samples.

The selection of instruments represented in the Xsample set is a bit quirky, and seems targeted primarily at the classical/soundtrack composer. There are a few notable holes in the library, including tenor sax, baritone sax and upright bass; the real head-scratcher is the lack of any sustained violin, viola or double bass. Quality of recording and programming is quite good, with only a few clunkers. Standout instruments include Rhodes Mark I piano, oboe, English horn, vibes and several other mallet instruments.

Sampleheads

Real Bass -- The Will Lee Bass Library; Peter Erskine -- Living Drums; and New York City Drumworks from Sampleheads (www.sampleheads.com).

Though these libraries have been around for a while, Sampleheads recently ported them over to GigaSampler format. Other libraries in its collection include Pocket Syndrome Guitar, Dave Samuel's Marimba and Vibes, Whole Lotta' Country, Mark Walker Latin Drums and others.

Of the three discs tested, Will Lee's Real Bass was the standout. This library includes 11 different instruments recorded cleanly, yet with plenty of attitude and grit. Peter Erskine -- Living Drums is a worthy representation of this fine drummer and should be of interest to those into fusion, jazz, swing and pop. Programming and sound selection is good with scant few exceptions. Erskine's loops are on the tame side, but groove nicely.

Not so stellar is the New York City Drumworks' two-disc set, which captures the sounds and grooves of six New York players. Recording quality is just fair, sound selection is limited (no sidestick with some kits; only one crash on others) and some loops stray considerably from their stated tempos. Drumworks aside, Sampleheads seems to have a batch of GigaSampler libraries well-worth listening to.

Other sample libraries available for GigaSampler include those from Miroslav Vitous, Conexant and QUp.

--Loren Alldrin