When composing a song using all virtual instruments, I try to keep things simple at first. I like to sketch things out using just one software synth that provides support for multiple sounds playing on multiple MIDI channels through multiple audio outputs. This is especially true if I'm away from the studio and working with a laptop. Some synths, like the Cakewalk TTS-1, are okay for simple arrangements but usually don't provide enough power. Other synths, like Native Instruments KONTAKT, provide plenty of power but lack the interface simplicity for quick and easy access to parameters. After a bit of searching, I found a product that provided everything needed for this type of situation: SampleTank 2.5 XL from IK Multimedia.
SampleTank Sample Workstation
SampleTank is a software sampler, synthesizer, and effects processor all built into a single virtual instrument. Its architecture provides sixteen parts, each of which can be assigned its own individual Instrument (patch or sound), MIDI channel, polyphony limit, panning, volume, and stereo output. This means that you can effectively create a song with sixteen different sounds all playing at once from one instance of the SampleTank plug-in. The only limitations are CPU power and a polyphony limit of 256 notes per SampleTank module. Although, polyphony isn't really limited because you can just open multiple instances.
Surprisingly, all of this power is housed within a single-window interface. In many ways, this is good because you have access to all parameters and sounds with one or two clicks of your mouse. However, the text in the interface is very small and can sometimes be difficult to see. Unfortunately, you can't change the size of the interface. You can change the color though using the COL (color), LUM (luminance), and SAT (saturation) knobs to create a better contrast for a clearer view of the text and parameters. Most parameters are accessed via buttons and knobs with the knobs changing their assignments according to what buttons are pressed, thus using a minimum of screen real estate for maximum parameter access. This is one of the things that makes SampleTank so easy to use and accessible. The included printed, 94-page manual also helps when you want to dig deep and start creating your own sounds.
SampleTank 2.5 XL includes more than 1,800 sounds totaling over 6.5GB of samples. The sound library is very extensive with categories including: Bass, Brass, Drums, Ethnics, Guitars, Orchestra, Organ, Percussion, Piano, Synths, Strings, Vocals, Woodwinds, and Loops. Overall, the quality of the included sounds is excellent. This was a bit surprising since SampleTank doesn't support disk streaming so all sounds must be loaded into RAM for playback, thus limiting their file size. Because of this, some of the sustaining sounds are a bit weak—you can hear the loop points when holding long notes. However, most of the sounds don't betray any lack of quality and could easily be used in a final production. As a matter of fact, many of my SampleTank scratch tracks are kept for the final mixdown.
In addition to the included sounds, SampleTank supports all "Powered by SampleTank" libraries and you can also import sounds in the AKAI S1000-3000 and SampleCell formats. You can create your own soundbanks by importing audio files in WAV, AIFF, and SDII formats. Importing is an area that I would like to see expanded upon though. Other sampling products (such as Native Instruments KONTAKT) allow importing for a vast number of sample formats, although this could be because they also support disk streaming, which may be a requirement for some formats.
Accessing sounds in SampleTank is very easy. Simple select a part, and then double-click any sound in the Instrument Browser to load it into the part. All sounds are grouped by category, and you can easily search for a sound by typing in keywords. You can, of course, also organize the sounds to your liking by renaming, editing, deleting, etc. In addition, SampleTank provides support for Combis, which are created by loading sounds into multiple parts and then saving the entire configuration under a single name. You can then access a Combi from a quick menu click (although I wish this were a scrolling pane since accessing Combis in the bottom part of the list can be cumbersome). Combis are great for multi-instrument setups or for layering multiple sounds to create new instruments altogether.
SampleTank Synth-Sampler Engine
Of course, you can also create new sounds by loading up a current sound and then tweaking the many available synth-sampler parameters. SampleTank provides no less than 50 adjustable parameters divided into nine categories including Synth, Envelope 1, Envelope 2, Filter, LFO 1, LFO 2, Velocity, Range, and Macro. Clicking on a category button brings up the parameters for that category, which you can then tweak with a simple click and drag of the mouse. Most of the categories provide parameters that you would expect according to their names. The Envelope categories provide envelope parameters that can be used to change amplitude, pitch and Filter parameters over time. The LFO categories allow similar parameter modulation. The Velocity category controls how MIDI velocity affects the current sound. The Range category controls the key range and velocity range of a part. The Macro category is unique in that its available parameters change according to the current sound. Different types of sounds sometimes require unique parameters and these show up in the Macro category.
The Synth category allows you to choose the type of synth engine to be used by the current sound. SampleTank provides three different synth engines: Resampling (Resamp), Pitch-Shift/Time-Stretch (PSTS), and STRETCH (Sampletank Time Resynthesis TeCHnology). Resampling provides the same engine as most conventional samplers in that it changes both pitch and tempo of a sample by playing it at different rates. So if you play a low note, you'll hear a low-pitched slow tempo sound and vice versa for a high note. PSTS allows the changing of sample tempo without affecting the pitch. And the STRECH engine provides the most power allowing tempo, pitch and harmonics to be controlled independently. One very nice use for this is harmonizing sampled vocal phrases. If you load up a sound that contains a recorded vocal phrase, you can use the STRETCH engine to play that phrase as a chord without affecting the tempo so both low and high pitches will play the phrase with the same timing. And of course, SampleTank can be fully automated via its MIDI CTL feature.
One of the most spectacular aspects of SampleTank is its arsenal of effects. SampleTank provides 33 high-quality DSP effects including some from IK Multimedia's other software such as AmpliTube, T-RackS, and CSR. This is an incredible value in this type of package. SampleTank lets you apply 5 effects per part as well as use 5 send effects and 5 master effects simultaneously. The types of effects provided include a variety of categories such as EQ, delay, reverb, filter, wah-wah, modulation, chorus, distortion, amp simulation, compression, and just too many to list here. Believe me when I say, you will not be wanting for lack of available effects. Also nice is that CPU usage is quite low in many cases. You'll probably end up using the SampleTank effects for the SampleTank sounds most of the time rather than applying external effects. They really are that good.
Superb Software Synth-Sampler Solution
While there are a few things I would like to see added or improved (such as disk streaming, the ability to resize the interface, and more sample format support), none would prevent me from using SampleTank on a regular basis. Not only is it perfect as a synth-sampler for sketching out whole arrangements, most of the sounds and effects have a level of quality that allows their use in final productions. SampleTank sports a very easy-to-use environment that encourages even beginners to tweak their own sounds, but also provides plenty of power for seasoned synthesists.