If you’ve read our guide to the most important hardware samplers in history you’ll know that just 20 years ago you still had to pay an awful lot of money to get access to a relatively small amount of sampling power.
Things have changed now, though: today’s software samplers do everything that their hardware forebears were capable of and much, much more - you might even be lucky enough to have one included in your DAW. Others, though, have to be purchased separately, so we’ve rounded up what we think are the nine best software samplers in the world today so you can decide where your money is best spent (or whether you actually need to spend any more money at all).
First up, a sampler that definitely harks back to the past: 112dB’s Morgana.
Morgana is a slightly different proposition to the other samplers on this list - in fact, at first glance you might wonder why anyone would bother with it. Its factory patches aren’t anything to write home about and its editing/processing options are nowhere near as comprehensive as some of its rivals, so what’s the attraction?
The answer is its sound: Morgana emulates the circuitry of old-school hardware samplers, which were known for delivering gritty, lo-fi results. Even today, this rough ’n’ ready tone remains popular; Morgana gives it to you but also sports an interface that makes the whole editing process far less painless. It won’t be for everyone, but if you want to go back to what samplers were originally about, Morgana will take you there.
READ: 112dB Morgana review
Steinberg HALion 3
HALion has found favour with sound designers and musicians who prefer an elegant, clutter-free sampler that gets the job done quietly, easily, and with grace and aplomb. It has comprehensive import options, takes a no-nonsense approach to patch building and offers myriad options for fiddling with your patches and finessing them into shape.
On the downside, we haven’t had a full update for some years now, but we do know that it’s in development (you can follow progress on Steinberg’s HALion 4 blog).
Propellerhead Software NN-XT
The NN-XT is Reason’s advanced, fully-featured sampler unit. It’s been around for a while, having been added to the software when it reached version 2 back in 2002. Fire it up and you’re presented with a small, unassuming interface that gives hands-on control over the global parameters for a patch, while the more detailed Remote panel, which contains the keymap display and the rest of the controls, can be ‘unfolded’ when you need it with a single click.
Patch building is a breeze - it’s so easy to take a collection of multisamples and quickly mould them together. This is testament to Propellerhead’s devotion to making Reason easy to use, but like so many other elements of the software, NN-XT still offers enough to keep even pros happy.
Apple EXS24 mkII
Once an optional plug-in, the EXS24 sampler has long been included in the flagship Logic package. Since it was originally designed to stand (and sell) on its own merits, it doesn’t seem like a pared down afterthought, but rather a fully-featured, fleshed-out sampler with all the trimmings.
You can, of course, roll your own instruments with the built-in editor, and once you’ve got your samples edited, mapped and ready to play, you can treat them with the EXS24’s supply of synthesis functions, which include a killer multimode filter, two envelope generators and three LFOs. If you buy Logic Studio, you may well find that it gives you all the sampling power you need.
READ: Apple Logic Pro 9 review
Structure is a full-on sampler that integrates seamlessly with your Pro Tools software. It comes with an excellent library of sounds, and is also compatible with most native sample libraries. On top of this, it enables you to drag and drop regions directly into it from the Pro Tools arrange page for immediate playability.
There’s also an integrated sample editor, while the inclusion of six Smart Knobs that can be freely assigned to your favourite parameters makes it a much more immediate and playable instrument.
In summary, Structure is both a simple, easy-to-use sample player and a mind-bogglingly complex sound processor with a huge range of expression options.
READ: Avid Pro Tools 9 review
Unlike some other DAWs, Ableton Live doesn’t come with its own dedicated sampler as standard - users have to buy one as an optional extra. Fortunately, if you opt for Sampler (as it’s known), you’ll be getting a tool that’s inspirational, fun and intuitive.
Sampler integrates directly into Live’s interface, and samples can simply be dragged and dropped into it. It makes easy work of pitching, looping and crossfading tasks, and there’s also a pitch envelope, oscillator section and filters. The excellent zone mapping section enables you to apply settings to multisamples within a zone individually. Sampler is particularly good for sound designers, but all Live users should try it.
READ: Ableton Sampler review
Yellow Tools Independence Pro
The Independence sampler forms the centrepiece of the Independence Pro bundle and comes with a superb 70GB sound library. Updates to the latest version include a better audio engine with time-stretching and pitch-shifting options, the ability to host VST plug-ins and multi-core CPU support.
Also in the bundle are Independence Live (for live performance, obviously) and Independence FX (a virtual effects rack). It’s the sampler, though, that steals the show.
E-MU Emulator X3
E-MU made its name in sampling - the very first hardware Emulator appeared in 1981 - so you’d expect its software version to deliver. And it does: it’s a brilliant sound design tool, and even comes with a feature (called Synthswipe) that automates the process of sampling your favourite instruments. There are some great-sounding filters, plus the expected collection of LFOs, envelope generators and effects processors.
E-MU is also famous for its sound modules, which found particular favour among ‘90s dance musicians. These are represented in X3’s library - you get the full bank from the classic Xtreme Lead module. Shop around and you can pick this up for much less than the list price, making it even more attractive.
READ: E-MU Emulator X3 review
MOTU MachFive 2
MachFive 2 keeps everything in one single window, with the keygroup window expanding downwards, if required, over the synth controls. In addition, there’s a full-screen edit window that makes sample and keygroup editing easier.
The sample-level processing features, the Loop Lab for slicing and manipulation, and the huge library are just a few of the factors that place MachFive 2 right near the top of the league. Above all, though, the quality of the sample playback is fantastic, and with a new version on the way, MachFive’s future looks bright.
READ: MOTU MachFive 2 review
Native Instruments Kontakt 4
Kontakt 4 is probably the most powerful sampler ever created: it can deliver everything from simple mapped hits to full-on multilayered, modulated, filtered and effected patches.
It’s worth noting, too, that Kontakt 4 comes with a 43GB sample library, which means that it’s also an extremely versatile and comprehensive sound source out of the box. Performance Views give you dedicated interfaces and controls for the type of sound you’ve loaded, and the software’s Authentic Expression Technology even lets you morph between sounds.
More user-friendly than ever, this is the ultimate sampling workstation, and one that will keep you busy for months.
Liked this? Now read: The 11 best DAW software apps in the world today
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