From the primitive hardware instruments of the late '80s to the in-the-box multisampling behemoths of today, digital samplers have revolutionised composition. Thanks to digital technology, any audio file imaginable - the tiniest snippet of YouTube audio or an entire collection of orchestral recordings - can be instantaneously played back up and down the keyboard. Entire genres are based on this single premise, and sampling has now transcended the functional, becoming a complete culture of its own.
Sampling was once a more long-winded process: you had to physically record a source sound into your instrument’s inputs before playback, then edit it using only a tiny LCD display. Today, this is no longer an issue, of course, as all virtual samplers allow you to drag and drop audio files straight in, and offer intuitive, synthesis-like controls for speedy editing. Every DAW comes packaged with at least one native ‘vanilla’ sampler, which is enough for basic tasks; and then there are the big boys, such as NI’s Kontakt, Steinberg’s HALion and UVI’s Falcon, which let you fill your project with giant multisampled libraries captured from the world’s greatest orchestras, pianos, choirs, drum kits, analogue synths and beyond.
So basic audio manipulators and sizable multisamplers are obviously now ubiquitous, and producers take the technology for granted. Yet an interesting middle ground has emerged between stock and super-samplers: tools created by imaginative software developers looking to fill the gaps in the electronic musician’s arsenal of do-it-all virtual instruments. Here are half a dozen of our favourites…
Sugar Bytes Egoist
Available as a VST/AU plugin for PC/Mac and an iOS app, Egoist is an unconventional sample-slicer with a 303-style sequenced bassline synth, drum machine and seven effects.
Togu Audio Line TAL-Sampler
This four-layer virtual sampler emulates the signal paths and associated artefacts of several hardware samplers.
Chop, loop, pitch and stretch a sample into up to 16 segments, then jam in your cuts, MPC-style. It’s basic, but the stretching and shifting algorithms are some of the best.
New Sonic Art Nuance 2
Bored of overcomplicated, bloated samplers? Check out this CPU-friendly, streamlined plugin, which offers unison, quick drag-and-drop modulation, an XY pad and more.
Native Instruments Flesh
Designed by Tim Exile, this one's not a sampler as such, but instead lets you load in a rhythmic sample then play back the slices as it drives four engines: a mono-, poly- and sub bass synth and effects.
Audio Damage Quanta
A granular synth breaks a sample into grains, then recombines them. This one has a uniquely intuitive interface, visual feedback, a synthetic oscillator and breakpoint modulation.