Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Tips for Sampling Analog Synths

Nowadays it might seem odd, but even with the glut of cool software synthesizers being released  constantly, there are those of us who, for whatever reason, still really love hardware... especially old, analog synths.  I've actually only got a very small number of them myself (at least that is how I rationalize it to my wife...), but I already have a mental list of stuff I want to acquire once finances allow.  

As great as these classics sound, it is a reality that even stuff made in the 80's is already almost 30 years old.  Some gear holds up better than others, but sooner or later, an old analog synth will stop working or at least stop working in a predictable manner.  Yeah, you can find a tech and hope they can fix it, but anyone who has sent stuff away to techs will tell you, it can sometimes take months upon months before you get your synth back.  So whenever I pick up a new piece of gear, I sample the hell out of it.  Yeah, you lose some of the 'impurity' that makes analog sound so great, but if your gear goes tits up, you'll be glad you did it, if only to have access to the sounds while your synth is being repaired.  It's also great for writing or demoing on your laptop while you are traveling.  Having done this a bunch myself, here are a few tips and things to keep in mind if you've never done this sort of thing before.  This is by no means a complete, end-all, be-all guide to the topic, but hopefully this will get you started with a minimum of pain.

1.  Let It Warm Up
I'm relatively young (*cough*), but I still got into electronic music during the time when true analog synths were not all that uncommon (although the age of the DCO was taking hold...).  If, however,  you've only ever dealt with soft-synths, this might be a weird thing to consider: analog gear can take a while to 'warm up'.  Nothing horrible is going to happen if you don't allow it to warm up, but be aware that your tuning may drift, and when you're multisampling (building a sampled instrument by sampling numerous notes instead of just one), this can become a nightmare.  Different synths take different amounts of time.  My Roland SH-101 is amazingly stable and is usually ready to go as soon as I turn it on.  But my Sequential Circuits Pro One takes about 20 minutes before the tuning levels out.  Just plan ahead.  Flip on the analog synth you want to sample, go work out, take a shower, have lunch, etc.

2.  Setting Levels
There are two important places to make sure your levels are right before you record.  The first is within the synth itself.  If the sound is supposed to be clean, make sure you aren't overdriving the AMP section.  Overdrive sounds great in the right circumstances, but for sounds that are supposed to be clean, it might not be what you want.  Play the sound on your analog synth a bit and listen for pops or unwanted distortion carefully.  If you hear them, simply cut back on the levels within the synth patch itself.  If it still sounds dirty (in a bad way), make sure that the levels on your mixer and/or soundcard are set correctly.  Old analog stuff is noisier than the new stuff, so it is important to make sure you are recording at the highest level you can without introducing distortion so you don't increase the amount of noise in the signal.  Conversely, you want to have the cleanest recording you can, so don't set it so high that it is clipping the signal.  (That said, if you want hard, distorted sounds, there is nothing wrong with recording them that way too.  It's just generally easier to add those types of effects later than it is to remove them...)

3. Multisampling
Some synth sounds are simple enough that you could technically get away with building an instrument from just one sample, but these are analog synths, and part of what makes them great is that each time you press a key, the sound is a little different.  And if you have time-dependent components to the sound like LFO or envelope modulation, the sampled sound is going to be scaled across the keyboard with just a single sample in a way that doesn't match the original.  So it is best to take samples every few notes for a more accurate representation of the original sound.  Generally, I sample every fifth interval (every F and C across the keyboard, for example), but depending on the type of sound, you might want to do it more frequently.  Indeed, if you really wanted to get anal about it, you could record several takes of each note, and have them cycle round-robin style if your sampler of choice allows that. But that is getting a bit extreme for non-acoustic sounds. 

4.  Naming Coventions
My general way of working is to record all the notes I want to record as a single sound file.  I then bring it into an audio editor and break it into the individual samples, re-saving each note as its own sound file.  When I do this, I include the name, a short description of the sound, and the note sampled.  For example: Pro1SyncbasF1, Pro1SyncbasC1, Pro1SyncbasF2, etc.  At the very least, this reminds you of the root key of the sample when you bring it into your sampler of choice, but even better than that, many modern soft-samplers can read the root key from the file name and automatically map your samples across the keyboard for you.  Some programs, such as Redmatica's KeyMap (for Apple's ESX24 sampler built-in to Logic), will detect pitch from the sound itself, making this unnecessary, but it is always best to use this naming convention anyway, because you never know what future sample formats might be like, and it's nice to be able to have your sample library migrate with you to a new sampler.  Better to be over-prepared than to not be prepared at all.  If you're sampling drum or percussion type sounds that don't have a specific pitch, try using the naming convention of: the synth model, a descriptor, and the type of drum sound it is supposed to be (ie SH101LongKick, SH101HardKick, etc.)

5.  Tuning Issues
As I mentioned before, the tuning of analog synths can drift.  This can happen even if you allow it to warm up.  If you are able to, try to have a recent, digital synth (since these have stable tuning) to use as a reference to tune your old analog to.  Depending on how stable your vintage synth is, you might even want to reference before each note you sample just to be safe.  You don't need another synth, though... many DAW's these days have guitar-style tuners built-in that you can reference, and if you want to go old school, you can just buy a hardware guitar tuner and use that.  But what if you got lazy or simply forgot to keep track of tuning?  Of course you can fix this within the sampler itself by adjusting the fine tuning of each sample individually.  But if you're lazy (and since you are a musician I will assume you are *rimshot*), you can also feed the file into a pitch-correcting program such as Celemony's excellent Melodyne.

6.  To loop, or not to loop?
Back in the days when hardware samplers ruled, you were limited  as to how long your samples could be by how much memory your sampler had (4-8 megabytes wasn't all that unusual way back when...), and thus the idea of 'looping' the sustained portion of a sample to save room made a lot of sense.  But modern software synthesizers generally allow you to 'stream' sounds direct from disk, so the memory restrictions are largely a thing of the past.  When I sample my analog synths these days, I just record really long notes and don't bother with looping.  If you need a sound that can sustain to infinity, then looping becomes an issue, but otherwise, I don't think it is worth the time and effort if you can just take a longer recording of each note to begin with.

7. Possibilities within the sampler itself
Once you've imported your multiple samples and mapped them into a full-fledged instrument, you have some other possibilities.  Consider using something like the 'Random' pitch function in EXS24 to subtly change the pitch of each note to bring back a bit more of the 'analog' feel of the original equipment.  If your soft-sampler of choice doesn't offer anything like this, try using a slow LFO to modulate the pitch a bit.  The key here is being subtle.  But why stop at just trying to emulate the original?  Part of the appeal of sampling is that it can let you do things the original could never do.  For instance, I love my Oberheim Xpander, but it doesn't have the tightest envelopes, so punchy basses are hard to achieve on it.  By altering the sample start of each sample or using the filters on the sampler itself, I can make it sound punchier.  Try transposing samples out of their original range as well.  A synth bass that sounds flabby in the bass end, might make for a tight and punchy 'sequencer' type sound played in the upper range.  Finally, take the time to sample each individual waveform your analog synth offers with the filters wide open and all modulation removed.  You can use these to build sounds within your sampler that wouldn't be possible in the original equipment by using your sampler's envelopes, filters, modulation & layering possibilities, etc.  


Smalldot said...

Interesting idea about looping (or not looping) your samples. I've taken long samples of my custom patches from Absynth 3 for the sole purpose of being able to find a suitable loop point in Peak LE. Then I import them into Reason. Sadly, I tend to find inaccurate loop points and have to spend a lot of time readjusting the point in Reason. I think I'll try your idea. Thanks for the tip. :)

Tom said...

Yeah, I can imagine trying to loop a sound out of Absynth could be difficult. My way is lazy and sloppy, but I'd rather spend my time making music than trying to find loop points all day...

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