Samplers As Synthesizers

For any of you who read my blog religiously (yes I know who you are and thanks Jim for always stopping by LOL) you know I have a bit of an obsession with trying to get my digital synths to sound like analog synths. This is not an uncommon obsession as many share it so I present my “findings” as I come by them. This latest one takes me right back to my roots and in what appears to be the wrong direction altogether.

Samplers as synthesizers

Yep you read that right: using Samplers as synths and getting them to sound Analog. Now I don’t mean wholesale sampling of a Minimoog and playing back a whole patch like a Mellotron. This is exactly what ROMplers do. Downsides with this method are twofold:

  1. You need a truckload of RAM for even one simple patch as anything much less than a 5 second sample for every 3 semitones sounds clunky. Making those samples is a chore and hoping someone else has made samples of the sounds I want is far too hit & miss. Buy a $1,000 ROMpler just in hope it has a sample of a brass patch to my liking is crazy time.
  2. Even if you sample the perfect sound and have the RAM to store it the sound is pretty well stuck that way. That isn’t synthesis but recycling. Now I know recycling is trendy but I am a synthesist and not a recycler.

What I mean here is starting with simple oscillator waves and using the sampler architecture like it was a synth.

Emu Emax
Emu Emax

This is how it came to be: I had an Emax sampler with 512Kb of RAM and would sample a basic waveform from my CZ-1000 and use that to build a patch. The architecture of the Emaxes was simple but they did sound nice, the filters were very musical (something Americans excel at generally). My simple Sawtooth sample would turn itself to Bass, Brass, Strings, Pads, SFX and even Drums. I didn’t find Square or Sine waves as useful but I’d take em anyway. Occasionally I’d get carried away and sample a more complex wave, but because space was at a premium, and they weren’t always as useful, they weren’t my target.

The sample was almost always made on Middle C and stretched over the whole keyboard. Completely not what everyone else was doing but it worked for me. Because the sample is a simple(ish) Oscillator source the transposition artefacts were allowable. Allowable to me at least.

I made lots of albums this way and while I fussed about tone, the records generally sounded warm and organic. However once I made it to VST land it seemed a sampler was a bit of a poor solution so I focused on synths and struggled to feel that the sounds I was making were as alive as those I made on my simple sampler. I tried just about every VST for a while and sometimes I heard things I like and sometimes they got on my albums but something was always missing.

Lately in emulating the sound of the King Korg and Doepfer Dark Energy I have learned a thing or two I had right (without knowing it) but lost. The Oscillator is a really important part of the sound. Ok so laugh, a synth without an Oscillator isn’t a synth, it’s silence. How could I be so silly? Well I think it is because in the 90’s everyone became obsessed with Filters and Oscillators took a back seat. I chased filters but forgot Oscillators. In watching how real and simple Analog synths were programmed, it dawned on me that a lot of effort was put into building waveforms that were a lot more complex than a simple Sine, Pulse or Saw. These beefy waveforms gave the (admittedly good) Filters something to bite into.

Think of it this way: a good looking woman with no character is always a poor second to an ordinary woman with a great character. Unfortunately Weird Science was a fantasy so I took to what I could do and that is build more interesting Oscillators.

I have Reason so I have worked my way through Thor, Subtractor (Maelstom doesn’t float my boat) and more lately the Pulsar LFO building fat sounds. I have spent time making modular synths and some are good but the problem is they are not easy to use. I kept wondering how to make these ungainly contraptions simple to use. As simple as my Emax… Eureka!

I figured I’d try it, make a synth sound I liked and then pull back the Envelopes, LFOs and Filters to a point where I had the main tone alone, sample that and see how close I could get using an NN-19 or NN-XT Sampler as the actual synth. My focus went to making the raw tone great and sampling that. The samples don’t have to be long as it is better to do all the chorusing etc later. This is easy for me as it is a method I perfected in 1990.

The samples are still one note for the whole range but at 24/96 there is a lot more to start with so transposition is really rather good. Besides the artifacts make the sound what it is. If I really need to focus on bass or treble sounds I can always sample the source an octave or so up or down. Having one sample means no clunking from one sample to another and the ability to use Portamento.

First sound I tried to school myself to emulate the original synth sound but that was no longer the point as immediately even in a simple NN-19 sampler the whole thing is alive. It is as though I have an SH something or other under my hands. The sounds are like they are being made with a proper retro analog synth and I’m not even programming in “drift”.

That kids is a great secret right there.

Leave a Reply