So many samplers, so little time

This was not meant to be a sampler blog. In fact, I used to really dislike samplers. I thought they were rather crass tools for the unimaginative. For the philistines out there, a sampler is a piece of equipment that lets you record a short sound and then play it back on the keyboard at any pitch. Voila, you are now an accomplished saxophonist!

Tonight I had to start clearing everything out of my room with all my equipment so that some insulation could get installed in the attic. I don’t really like calling it “the studio”. That word seems a bit pretentious when you consider that I’ve completed a big-whoop of about two minutes of music this summer. So I’ll just keep calling it “the room where all my equipment is sitting” instead.

I’ve accumulated a lot more music equipment than I need, but that fact took particular pleasure in demonstrating itself to me as I began carrying all the samplers out and stacking them together. Yes, they are now quite a large family. How did this happen? The answer is two traits that mix dangerously within myself. I like collecting new things, and I have a difficult time letting old things go. So I basically create cesspools wherever I go. Stuff comes in, nothing goes out. The reasons behind my attachment issues (or detachment, to be precise) shall not be publicly explored until the day I decide to launch a psychoanalysis blog. But I thought that perhaps it would be therapeutic to explain how all these samplers came to be sitting in my room (or rather, just outside it).

Like children, each of these samplers is special and valued. Also like children, some of them just happen to be a lot cooler and more interesting to be around. I need to let some go. Perhaps this narrative exercise will help me feel more free to begin the process of detachment. I’ve lined the samplers up (top to bottom) sequentially. The first one I ever bought is the E-mu EIIIXP on the top. Let’s begin now:

E-mu EIIIXP, circa 1992

This sampler started it all. In retrospect, it’s funny that the purchase was actually a mistake. I saw someone list this sampler (in pristine shape and with accessories!) on eBay with a buy-it-now price of about $200. I vaguely knew that people thought this was a hot sampler for some reason, so I decided to go for it. It was in the dead of winter and life was rather dull. Please cut me some slack.

E-mu was an American company that broke into the niche sampler market in the early 80s. They undercut the competition by thousands of dollars. They called their first product the Emulator. It looks reminiscent of an early Apple computer. Allegedly the same design folks worked on both products. Next came the Emulator II. Also a classy look, with updated abilities. By the late 80s, E-mu kicked out the Emulator III, or “EIII” to those of us in the know. I think it looks awful compared to the first two. It’s big and bloated. It looks like it got in a terrible car accident and the entire thing had to be placed inside a giant plastic cast. But it apparently had a sound people really liked: digital sampler combined with analog filters. And people LOVE those analog filters. E-mu also made a rack-mount version of the EIII, but it was pretty rare. These days, it’s tough to find either versions and prices are high.

So these are all things that I learned after I had won the auction. It turns out that E-mu was slumping in the early 90s and decided to squeeze a little more profit out of the EIII. Technology had improved and E-mu thought they could make the equivalent of an EIII for a lot cheaper by using various digital microchips. Hence, the EIIIX was born. Very similar name, totally different guts. And also, people couldn’t care less about them. $200 is a pretty average price. I thought I had just won the auction for Rachel, but Leah showed up in the mail. But it gets better!

There were two basic models released. The EIIIXS was your normal run-of-the-mill sampler. The EIIIXP (which I nabbed) lacked any analog audio inputs. That meant I couldn’t easily sample new sounds into it. (Technically, it had digital audio inputs, but that’s useless to me.) So I had the ugly duckling that I couldn’t really use. Also, it sounds like a hurricane inside when I turn it on. It has a 20-year old SCSI hard drive that sounds angry to still be alive. It works, but it leaves the impression that it’s about ready to fly apart into a flurry of shrapnel at any moment. There there, little sampler, back to eBay you go! After all this research, I settled on a better model:

E-mu E4XT Ultra, circa 1999

As I read about the various E-mu samplers, a particular model kept popping up as the top-of-the-line. “Ultra” was even in its name! After E-mu got serious about moving beyond the EIII they finally kicked out (surprise) the E4 in the mid 90s. And then they spent the remainder of the decade tinkering with it, adding little features here and there. Like collecting honorary degrees, the models kept getting more and more letters added to the end of the name. I forgot what the E4X stood for, but the E4XT meant it was a “turbo”. It could accept the much-more-common IDE drives (no hunting around for antiquated SCSI stuff anymore!). I’m not sure what the addition of “Ultra” designated. I think that means it was decked out with internal effects or something.

Anyway, I decided to lean on the wisdom on others and just get it. I was tired of trying to get the EIIIXP to work right. I couldn’t sample my own sounds, so I was limited to loading samples into it. No big deal, right? It has SCSI! Like trying to breed pandas in captivity, it is exceedingly difficult to find any SCSI equipment that the EIIIXP will mate with. I finally had to buy an ancient AppleCD drive and an army of various SCSI cables and connectors. To the untrained eye, this just looks like junky old computer equipment that you can find in any neighborhood thrift store. It’s not. Believe me, I went to a lot of thrift stores searching. I was also fed up with the loud SCSI drive in the EIIIXP. Again, it only accepted SCSI drives (not the sort of drive in your average family computer), and it had to be of a certain 1989-1991 vintage. Newer drives didn’t work. Oh, and the backlight was starting to go out on the sampler.

In comparison, the E4XT had none of these problems. IDE drives? No problem! Easy compatibility with other sampler standards? Check. Backlight brightness? A veritable Lighthouse of Alexandria. It was supposed to be the perfect sampler.

I’m sure that it’s a swell sampler. It’s got immense capabilities. The amount of sampling time is measured in minutes, not seconds. It can sample at several bitrates. It can re-sample itself. It’s got tons of effects. The effects engine is supposed to be very flexible, with folks referring to it being “like a modular synth” inside. All in all, it’s great. But I just didn’t find myself using it. It was too nice, too powerful, too big. It’s like when the boxcar children moved out of the boxcar and into the rich nice man’s big mansion. I immediately lost interest in the series after that. Come on, Gertrude, it’s only interesting if they stay in the boxcar, sipping out of their chipped cups! I played with the E4XT on and off, but meanwhile another sampler had started catching my eye, and it wasn’t made by E-mu.

Roland S770, circa 1990

Roland is a legendary synthesizer company that has made some truly amazing synthesizers over the years. Perhaps it’s a downside of that success that some of their epic products drown out the interest for some of the minor-league successes. The S770 is playing in Roland’s minor leagues, but it’s a great product.

A (relatively) large Japanese corporation, Roland got into the sampler business in the mid-80s, which was about the time every manufacturer was piling on. As already told, E-mu had driven the price into the $10k range. But then Ensoniq’s Mirage emerged a couple years later and totally blew open the market by bringing the price under $2k. At that point, technological advances and the critical mass around sampling combined, and just about every synthesizer company introduced a sampler.  The legendary American companies from the 70s (Moog, Arp) were mostly gone, but California’s Seqential Circuits squeeked out the Prophet 2000 just before folding. Oberheim managed to produce a sample-player, the DPX-1. Kurzweil had its high-end K250. Yamaha began pumping out some crap. Korg had the DSS-1. Akai got busy with the S612 and then the great S900. Even Casio (yes, Casio!) got in on the actual with the surprisingly advanced FZ-1. In other words, everyone was making samplers. And Roland’s first attempts were nothing noteworthy at first.

The reason the Japanese synthesizer companies triumphed over the Americans has been explained (per a thesis of Vintage Synthesizers) primary by their size. They were simply bigger and better diversified, and they had the ability to continue to refine their products through several iterations even when profits were initially in the dumps. The American synthesizer companies all fell one by one, but comrades from other industries eventually learned that trick from the Japanese.

Anyway, Roland kept working on their samplers and started adding some interesting tricks. The day I first started getting interested in Roland samplers was when I stumbled across a random video on Youtube where a guy was drawing waveforms on a computer screen with a mouse, using the lowly Roland S330. External monitor? Mouse? Drawing waveforms? This was the stuff of the uber-elite Fairlight synthesizer! And here Roland had snuck it in for a rock-bottom price just a few later! And now they sell for $50 on eBay! In a super-strange moment of coincidence, my pal Jacob emailed me with the same link to that video a day or two later. Fate had struck. I was thoroughly intrigued.

Tame as it may sound these days, Roland samplers introduced two great features that in retrospect seem kind of obvious. You could hook up an external monitor (TV, rather) to get a bigger screen, and you could plug in a mouse. For mid-80s, this was cutting edge stuff! Only the ultra-expensive synthesizers (New England’s Synclavier, Germany’s PPG, and Australia’s Fairlight) had such luxurious expansion accessories. Quaint as Roland’s “me too” features seemed, it probably wasn’t enough to make me decide to get one. But then I kept reading about their analog-to-digital converters.

Roland had been busy and released another set of samplers in the very late 80s. The S750 and S770 were its zenith, and they had a small cult status. “Best converters in the industry,” supposedly. “They used Apogee converters,” folks rumored on the internet. Could high-end converters really make a sampler sound better? I had to find out. So I kept my eye open for the semi-rare S770. One finally showed up on eBay the day before my birthday. At $150, the price was right and I considered it a birthday present.

So what’s the verdict? I played around with it a little but I haven’t done any sort of close comparisons with the other samplers. It’s a little tricky to get a good monitor for it. An old analog TV will work, but it’s not very crisp. As far as the sound, I confess that I haven’t actually sampled very much with it. I saw it, got excited, bought it, and before I could really dig into it very much, something else showed up on eBay…

E-mu EIII, circa 1987

This is it. This is The Big Boy. This is what I had originally set out to buy. E-mu’s classic Emulator III, of Violator fame. Physically, its stands taller than any other sampler. It is truly a monster of steel and legend. E-mu had advanced the digital side to a modern 16-bits and some rather advanced transposing algorithms. But it was still old enough to retain analog filters with roots reaching back into the 70s. It was a rare junction, the best of the new and old world. It didn’t hurt that Depeche Mode decided to make some classic albums with it.

Right…but how does it actually sound? I’ve already told the sad tale of my EIII. By this time I had four samplers and was starting to feel like things were getting excessive. Before I started to thin out the herd, I thought it was the perfect opportunity to do some rigorous scientific comparisons, testing the quality of their AD converters and judging the nuances of their filters. I started in on the project, intending to record the same basic waveform from my Minimoog into each sampler and then lining up the achievements of each sampler side by side. I got samples recorded into the E4XT and S770. I was having some trouble with the EIII and put it up for the night. A week or so later I returned to the task but found that the EIII had decided to not return. It wouldn’t power up successfully, lost in some isolated world of electronic malfunction.

The EIII repair went on my to-do list. The 2012 Ultimate Sampler Showdown went into hibernation. And in this state the samplers sat idle, sweltering through the summer. And then an autumn surprise…

Ensoniq ASR-10r, circa 1994

Why, after all this pain and misery, add another sampler to the legion? Ensoniq’s ASR-10 is full of intrigue and has been eluding me for years. I had won it twice on eBay but each transaction had fallen through. Why the persistence? Just like Roland’s inclusion of a mouse and monitor had aped the groundbreaking interfaces of the Fairlight synthesizer, Ensoniq had scioned a unique feature of the great PPG lineage: wavetable synthesis. In my thoroughly off-the-cuff definition, wavetable synthesis combines a sequential chain of short samples (the wavetable, in place of the traditional voltage-controlled oscillator) with the rest of the traditional synthesizer.

At the time, it injected a new sound source into a rather traditional synthesis method. When Herr Wolfgang Palm released this in the early 80s, it was revolutionary (and expensive at $10k). He was an electronic engineering genius moonlighting as the technical muse for none other than Tangerine Dream. He pioneered a cutting-edge idea, and it eventually spread to America and was drawn up into Ensoniq’s designs.

Ensoniq, as you will recall, produced the third wave of samplers. The first wave (Fairlight, Synclavier) were children of the late seventies and had no limits to their cost. Their primary costumers were pretty much the mega-successful musicians. Then E-mu brought out their Emulators (second wave), and the price dropped. Samplers still cost more than the average car. Actually, they cost many times the cost of the average 80s car. But it was potentially within the price range of bands that hadn’t quite hit Van Halen-type stardom. But then came Ensoniq in 1985. The third wave. Their sampler was less than $2000. Yes, that’s certainly not chump change, but it completely reshuffled the market. During the next several years, Ensoniq tore up the market with a string of greats: the ESQ-1, VFX, and EPS-16. While not as purely devoted to wavetable synthesis as Wolfgang’s PPG Wave synthesizers, Ensoniq neverthless demonstrated a consistent propensity to the technique.

With each model it grew closer to realizing the vision of the PPG synthesizers: independent sampling, wedded with wavetable synthesis and combined with the full palette of traditional subtractive synthesis techniques. And thus a decade later, Ensoniq produced the poor man’s version of the great PPG synthesizers. It wasn’t heralded as such, but that is what was actually under the hood. So despite the rich menagerie of samplers that I had already amassed, the ARS-10 stood apart, unique among the others. It was more of a synthesizer than a sampler. I had been thinking about it for a couple years, and I finally found one on Craigslist. The end.

Epilogue

Seriously, this is out of hand. Too many samplers. I’m going to pare this down. Take this as no judgment, but I decided to expunge the EIIIXP and E4XT.

I will still have one E-mu synthesizer left, and it’s the one that everyone drools over. Eventually I’ll have it working again and will start using it. Then maybe I’ll see what all the fuss is about.

Meanwhile, I’ll have Roland’s best-in-show. It’s older than the E4XT and certainly not as powerful, but I think that I can get it to function as my general go-to sampler.

And then I’ll have Ensoniq’s wizard of sampler/wavetable synthesis hybrid. I need to spend some time with it to determine whether it is actually anything revolutionary. Who knows, maybe I’ll eventually realize that the idea of sampling your own wavetables sounds great in theory but bad in practice?

The EIIIXP and E4XT both have their charms, but five is too many for this room where all my equipment is sitting.

4 thoughts on “So many samplers, so little time

  1. Dude, I LOVE this entry. The writing is hilarious while perfectly capturing that gear/ebay/internet/minutiae/apocrypha obsessive’s mindset. We have all been there more times than we’re comfortable with – and we’ll all be there again… next payday if we’re lucky.

    David, I’m currently telling my similar story of the SP-1200 over at privateprogram.blogspot.com if you want to check it out. I’m also totally going to start linking to this blog from mine.

    • Thanks Horton! I think I should add some links to other blogs on the side of mine too. We’ll have a good ol’ fashion webring! Anyway, looking forward to checking out your blog too. I was seriously running out of stuff to do on the internet. Crisis averted!

  2. So how this hold up along the years?

    My guess is you still have the ASR10, S770 (or 750), EIII and maybe you bought some other akais in the meantime…

    I myself am in the same route… s950, s750, s760, soon to come an eps16+… a S6000 i have as a librarian…

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