If You Want to Get ‘Real’, Get SampleTank! My Hands-On Review

When I did my hands-on quickie review of the iRig MIDI hardware and software, my iPad was sitting on top of one of the classic powerhouse synthesizers of the 90s, the Kurzweil K2000R. Aside from the powerful synthesis capabilities in the VAST engine, the system also featured a tremendous sample-playback capability. It cost thousands of dollars 20 years ago, and will still set you back at least a few hundred dollars on eBay now.

Now there is software on my iPad that can replicate the vast majority of that experience for a fraction of what I paid for the Analog Synth Collection add-on for the K2000! The app is SampleTank from IK Multimedia; I have been enjoying it for a few months, but they have recently released a major update so I wanted to highlight that and finish my review of this highly capable music software.

The Hype:
Now make record-ready music on your iPad with hundreds of pro-quality sounds and patterns.
• 4-part multi-timbral live sound workstation
• Over 1 GB sound library
• Expandable sound library with more than 500 instruments in 16 categories
• Over 1,000 melodic and rhythmic patterns for accompaniment or groove creation
• 16 sound categories
• 20 different insert FX
• Master reverb effect
• 4-track MIDI recorder
• Sound and effects editing with multiple parameters
• Support for MIDI Program Change and Continuous Controllers
• The perfect companion to iRig MIDI
• Can be expanded with direct in-app purchase
• Free version also available

The Reality:
While I compared SampleTank to the K2000R, next to the K2000R was an EMU Proteus MPS+ keyboard. And in truth, SampleTank is more like the EMU than the K2000R. That is because the EMU is based entirely around a sample-playback engine, but with a solid set of digital filters to help sculp sounds and provide some distinctive feel to your patches (whereas the K2000R system was called ‘VAST’ with good reason!).

Opening up SampleTank for the first time you will notice the virtual keyboard, a bunch of instrument buttons and a list view with specific instruments. This is the core of SampleTank – the sounds. Let’s save those for last and talk about everything else first.

In terms of technical details, SampleTank for the iPad derives from the PC/Mac version, which is an established and robust digital audio tool used by professionals. You get high quality, optimized samples with extremely high signal to noise, a four channel multi-timbral sound engine to play multiple instruments at once, many notes of polyphony per part, a 4-track MIDI recorder that now fully supports continuous controllers, effects, the ability to output things you record either locally to other Core Audio apps or to desktop apps via iTunes, and much more. It is really worth hitting up the IK Multimedia site to learn all the details since I am just skimming the surface.

To the right of the instruments is a pattern list. This has a load of preset rhythms to play along with using the four channel multi-timbral sound engine – you can load up a drum sound for the backbeat, a plucked bass to lay down the funk, an electronic piano for the harmony, and a muted trumpet to solo on top! It is much more usable and functional than I would have expected – you can edit patterns, save and export your grooves, but honestly someone looking to do serious sequencing work will be in another app such as GarageBand. I view this as more of a ‘scratch pad’ of the type formerly found on synths.

As noted the MIDI implementation is solid and just keeps getting better. From the beginning you were able to hook up a keyboard and play all of the sounds available, but now there is even more – with the latest release SampleTank supports MIDI Continuous Controllers and Program Change. Who cares? Anyone making music, that is who! A Continuous Controller is more or less what it sounds like – it is a device that sends a constant MIDI control stream based on some physical input. These are generally sliders or foot pedals. For example, in the video I adjust the resonance of a filter on a sound by touching the knob on the iPad interface. But imagine that I had a bank of sliders on my MIDI keyboard controller: I could easily modulate resonance with one slider, cutoff frequency with another, attack and sustain with two others, and so on.

MIDI Program Change is a bit more esoteric, but at least as important. It is something I used all the time when sequencing years ago, and allows you to make better use of all of your digital resources. In the analog synth days, you would typically have an individual synth for each sound in a song, perhaps switching programs once or twice. But the requirements of changing tons of parameters from one sound to another were simply too much.

Even digital synths had too many ‘global’ settings as well as presets to navigate to make things simple to do on the go. Imagine trying to do this for several instruments over the course of a song! MIDI Program Change would simply send a message to a specific instrument on a specific channel to make a certain change. It could be preset, global reverb, or something else. Suddenly you could have a complex song full of sound changes going on without having to manage them all.

Before I get to the sounds I want to discuss the sound library and pricing. The app itself comes in two flavors – Free and Full, with Free featuring 20 instruments and Full having 136 instruments. You get some additional instruments and patterns simply by registering the app.

Of course the app info talks about more than 500 instrument sounds available. So how do you get there? In-app purchases, of course! If you want everything available, it will cost $40 (though it has been on sale occasionally for $20). I have dropped in a list of some of the top in-app purchases for SampleTank just to show how they break down. You will note that even just this list of add-ons quickly gets to $55, more than the $40 ‘total pack’ price – and since there are even more in-app purchases available, it is a good idea to look at your potential purchases before buying any single pack.

Top In-App Purchases

All Sound Packs$39.99
Piano Pack$9.99
Acoustic Drums Pack$4.99
Electric Piano Pack$4.99
Acoustic Guitar Pack$4.99
Electric Guitar Pack$4.99
Synth Pad Pack$4.99
Percussion Pack$4.99
Bass Pack$9.99
Synth Lead Pack$4.99

OK, so you thought I would never get to ‘The Sounds’! The bottom line – for a software sample-playback system that gives you more than $500 sounds for under $60 … SampleTank is AMAZING.

Start with the pianos. The first selection is a Rock Piano, with all of the brightness and attack you would expect, but also a clean and detailed fade-out that suggests a careful attention to detail in the sampling and reconstruction process. When I started playing around with SampleTank I went looking for some specs about the sounds – which apparently revealed how old I was relative to sampling technology.

I still have an Ensoniq Mirage in my basement, which was an 8-bit ‘budget’ sampler system released 30 years ago that could sample up to 32kHz but only for less than a second! And I remember fondly all of the advertising of the late 80’s talking about ’16MB Piano’ samples with multi-zone sampling, how that was a sort of ‘holy grail’ that would make the sampler indistinguishable from an actual piano. I think we are all past that now, but what really matters is that even in a relatively small app there is more than enough capacity for robust multi-zone sampling for every kind of instrument.

There are strengths and weaknesses to all music systems, such as the strong bell sounds of the Yamaha DX7 – and the same is true for sample playback systems. In general I have never been overly thrilled with the guitar sounds on any synth or sampler, whereas the bass sounds have generally been quite solid. For SampleTank, guitar sounds remain simply average in terms of usability – you can drop them in the background but they suffer when brought to the front. Since I have incredible string sound packs on my EMU Proteus+ and K2000R, I found the sounds of SampleTank merely serviceable – not bad by any stretch, but overall fell a bit flat based on my experience.

But for those two weaknesses there are more than enough compensating strengths: the acoustic piano sounds are great, and there are a variety of electric pianos to cover the range from early Chick Corea to current pop. Basses are fully represented, as are woodwinds, organs, brass, chromatics and others. The chromatics include xylophone, vibraphone, marimba, kalimba and others – and they are notable because of the fantastic way that the samples separate the metal and wood sounds (also heard in the video).

Drums and synthesizers are extremely well done for a couple of reasons. I had already mentioned that you can edit some of the VCA (amplifier) and VCF (filter) parameters for sounds, and nowhere is this more effective than on synth patches. There are distinct categories for leads and pads, with sounds coming from the analog and digital eras, making it possibly to easily emulate practically any sound of the last four decades. Once edited you can save results for later use.

The drums also take you on a tour of music history, from jazz and rock through all eras of electronic music. The TR808 and 909 emulations are very well done and applicable for techno and house music, whereas any other genre can easily find and appropriate drum kit. And once you choose, you can use the drum pad screen to play the beats with loads of screen real estate.

And ultimately that is where SampleTank shines – making music. It has plenty of other utility, but SampleTank shines brightest for live recording and performance. The sounds are stellar, and the ease of getting up and running and tweaking on the fly make SampleTank a great powerhouse system that rivals what some of the great names of music hardware have put out through the years – all at a fraction of the price. If you make any sort of music you should immediately download the free version and check it out. You won’t be disappointed.

Here is my hands-on video review:

Review: SampleTank

Where to Buy: iTunes App Store for the Free and Full versions

Price: $19.99

What I Like: Fantastic sounds; loads of utility; constant updates and improvements; plays well with other apps and hardware; Did I mention the great sounds?
What Needs Improvement: Relatively weak guitar and orchestral samples; sound packs can add up quickly

Source: Publisher provided review code

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