By Ivan O’Donoghue
IK Multimedia are respected for their software and hardware products. As pioneers in the nascent iOS audio scene, they innovate and iterate with a wide range of products allowing users to make music on the go, using the iPhone or iPad. Recently however, they’ve been concentrating on a particular PC software offering, and the music community has been buzzing about SampleTank 3.
SampleTank 2 was a staple ROMpler for many musicians including myself, but when the first whispers emerged about SampleTank 3 (ST3), the word was that it would be special. Now ST3 is out, is it everything we hoped for? Let’s find out.
The included sound library weighs in at a whopping 33Gb. On a high speed internet connection, the downloads took a while, and the installation took quite a while on a slightly ageing Windows 7 Laptop. Authorisation is done via IK Multimedia’s authorisation manager and is reasonably straightforward and unobtrusive. The software installs as both a standalone software and as a plugin for your DAW.
33Gb equates to over 4000 instruments, although some of these instruments are based on the same sample sets and are variations on a theme, they are useful, and there’s little if any filler here.
The interface has come on in leaps and bounds since ST2. There are 3 different modes – Play, Mix and Edit. The sampling engine is quite powerful, with round-robin capabilities and key switching, mod switching and velocity switching to change articulations. A skilful player employing the right articulations can coax very believable performances from ST3. The 55(!!!) included effects (more on these later) help to add further sound sculpting abilities, and when combined with the editing capabilities provided by the sampling engine itself, there’s a huge depth of control over the final sound. I suspect most users will be content surfing the mind boggling range of presets, but it’s nice to know that there’s a whole world of possibilities with this instrument once you scratch the surface.
The Play screen is probably where the majority of users will spend most of their time. In this view, you assemble up to 16 different sounds or parts addressable via their respective midi channel. The Mix view allows you to balance the parts, using a mixer display that will be familiar to any DAW user. Here you can set up your effects. Each part can have up to 5 insert effects and 4 sends. The Edit view gives you access to the sampling/synth engine allowing you to set up ADSR envelopes, LFOs, filters and more to mangle the sound to your tastes.
What about the sounds themselves? The acoustic keyboard instruments are almost universally excellent. The guitars and basses sound very well too, especially if paired with the right effects. Some of the electrics sound a little thin in isolation, but the application of some amp modelling fattens them up and makes them sing. There’s a upright bass in particular with slaps, thunks, string noise and all the little grotty nuances that make a live upright bass sound so marvellous. I can’t stop playing with it. Other favourites of mine included some of the gospel voices which sounded well across a number of octaves, and would serve well as credible backing vocals if carefully programmed and treated.
The orchestral sounds provide a great toolbox, and the provided articulations can be used to keep your orchestral parts sounding “human” and realistic. A good cross section of synth presets is provided, with lots of classic sounds, and many of these benefit from some experimentation in the edit page. The wind instruments are always troublesome for anyone like me who doesn’t own the breath controller that would be necessary to get the best out of them. I have to say, however, that the penny whistle (a.k.a tinwhistle) and bagpipes both sounded like pale imitations of the real thing to me. That’s 2 patches out of 4,000, so perhaps I’m being a little petty!
The browser gives you a large panel for each instrument, with a representative image and lots of handy info about the instrument. If you own older SampleTank samples, you’ll be happy to hear that ST3 can import them. You can also import your own samples, and ST3 will help you to map them across the keyboard and convert them into instruments.
Multis are collections of parts (instruments, effects and MIDI patterns), and can be a great starting point for a composition. The MIDI patterns themselves are handy for demoing sounds, although it’s unlikely they will make it into your final opus.
In the Play view, you’ll find the innovative live tab. It’s intended, unsurprisingly, for gigging artists and allows them to manage multis for their gigs. The set list column allows you to set up a number of set lists, each having a number of songs, and each song can have one or more multis. With a little MIDI savvy, a laptop and a couple of MIDI controller keyboards can take you to places a keyboard workstation costing many multiple of the price might never aspire.
The effects range from the usual suspects to the quirky ones. You’ll get a good selection of amp models and distortions to beef up your guitars and add filth to your synths, There are some decent dynamics controllers, EQs. loads of modulators, reverbs and delays (including a convolution reverb), and a selection of weird and wonderful filters, I particularly liked the piano lid which implements tone control by emulating the effect of opening or closing a piano lid. It affects the tone of a piano, but without messing with the essential piano-ness of the sound which is something that traditional EQs can struggle with.
Many of the effects come from IK Multimedia’s highly respected TRacks and Amplitube product lines. The only shame is that they aren’t available as individual vst effects, so you can apply them to other tracks in your DAW. However, at this price point I am completely aware that this is an unreasonable request. Forgive me for liking some of them so much that I want to use them on what I record through a microphone!
Is this the perfect ROMpler? Not quite. Is it a value-for-money mid-range ROMpler that will fulfil the sound library needs of most musicians? Absolutely. Only a curmudgeon could find fault with the package on offer. I’m really enjoying putting demos together with ST3. It’s so refreshing to have all this functionality in one plugin. I’m finding that I’m only straying away from it to record acoustic instruments and vocals. On the rare occasion that the built in effects won’t suffice, every part can output to a separate DAW mixer track, allowing me to add further processing. If your budget is limited, there really isn’t much else out there that covers all the bases.
IK Multimedia are known for looking after their loyal customers. The full package costs €240, but owners of ST2 and some other IK products can upgrade for €120, and owners of competing products can crossgrade for €160.