You’re tired of using the same worn-out sounds. In the same way that poor ingredients affect the food on your plate, boring samples will shape the tracks you compose, too. What tools can music producers, composers, and sound designers use to bake creativity into their tracks?
Today’s post shares top sound-shaping tools: software samplers, sample players, and software instruments. They’ll share a broad mix of app choices, their highlights, and help you choose what’s the best plug-in for your workflow.
It’s common to confuse samplers, software instruments, and sample players. What’s the difference?
Even in the days of hardware synthesizers and samplers, it wasn’t easy to tell. Each dabbled in the other’s territory to some extent. Now, the comparative ease of creating features for standalone software and plug-ins allows coders pick and choose elements from both samplers as well as sample players, blurring the line further.
Generally speaking, software instruments play existing sounds. These can range from piano notes, kick drum hits, sound effects or others. Sample players are similar but tend to draw from large libraries of samples and feature synthesis and a bit of editing. In contrast, samplers capture audio (e.g., a riff or beat from another song) edit it, and manipulate it extensively to create new clips.
Each of them allows the sounds to be tweaked with synthesis, LFOs, envelopes, pitch-shifting and more. All are meant to be triggered or played back by pressing a keyboard, hitting an electronic drum pad, or clicking on-screen buttons. They appear in two flavors: standalone applications that work independently or plug-ins that are meant as add-ons for more powerful, flexible editing apps.
As mentioned, there’s a lot of crossover between software instruments, sample players, and samplers, as you’ll see in the examples below. Overall, they are tools meant to either record, play, or warp sounds (or any mixture of the three) with various degrees of sophistication.
Let’s take a look at your options for adding color to your sonic palette.
We may as well start with one of the godfathers of this list: Native Instruments’ Kontakt 6. The go-to for sampler players, it includes over 50 gigabytes of sampled instruments with support for the massive ecosystem of Kontakt sound libraries appearing in every corner of the Web. It allows the ability to program users’ own virtual instruments, create complex scripts, and shape sound with modulation, wave tables, envelope, and effect tools.
Released in 2017, Serato Sample was intended as a way for DJs to find song cue points, identify the key, change the tempo, shift the key, and chop and export clips. A highlight is the technology behind Serato’s leading time-stretching and pitch-shifting plug-in Pitch ’n Time, which allows samples to be transformed extensively. While not as full-featured as other samplers on this list, Sample wins points from fans for its intuitive interface, sample detection, key ID, and pitching power.
Designed as a “one-shot” sample player for drums and synth, VPS Phalanx from Vengeance Sound comes with a library of 3000 dance-focused drum samples (6000 with the Premium version). Any of these can be tweaked with pitching, filtering, panning, re-triggering options, and more. Each of the 16 available pads can load 2 samples, and every instance of Phalanx can handle 256 simultaneous notes. Those who invest time into Phalanx will be rewarded with powerful customization and ample creativity.
At first look, you may think the TAL Sampler (Togu Audio Line Software) is merely a software synth; it doesn’t pack in every feature found on more popular samplers on the market. However, a deeper look shows that isn’t the point of this community favourite. TAL Sampler emulates the sound of many classic hardware synths with a cool, vintage tone. While most modern samplers host endless samples and aim for absolute sonic clarity, the developers of TAL Sampler have a different goal, to “bring back the fun sampling was in the good old times.” The plug-in is simple and conveys sonic character found in few other plug-ins.
iZotope’s sample-based “visual instrument” Iris 2 adopts a novel approach to creating samples: load and layer up to four samples then “paint” their spectrum to focus on the sound you want to hear. Tweak it further with filters, envelopes, LFOs, pitching, looping, and others. There are packaged effects to draw from, or you can use your own. Iris 2 has a bit of a learning curve, however once you’ve wrapped your head around this unique workflow, you’ll find you will be creating samples few other apps can produce.
TX16Wx Software Sampler
In a market led by sample players that feel like an editing app and bundle thousands of samples, underrated TX16Wx Software Sampler by CWITEC is cherished for its focus on straightforward sampling instead. Highlights include a wave editor and beat slicer, trigger switching, sends and inserts, automation, an arpeggiator, and more. It’s packed with filters, envelopes, modulation, time stretch, pitch shift, and other creative tools. There’s a paid version that unlocks more advanced features, however many fans claim the free version is powerful in its own right.
Steinberg’s HALion 6 is a beast that blends a synth, sample player, and sampler into one impressive plug-in. It has a 30 gigabyte library of samples to play with. Or, you can record new audio directly into HALion itself, complete with sample slicing and mapping. It warps audio with wavetable, granular, and virtual analog synthesis, filters, oscillators, “AudioWarp” time stretching and pitch shifting, and more. There are options for scripting and library creation. While some mention a comparatively high price and steep learning curve, most will admit they struggle to exhaust all the creative options in this mammoth plug-in.
Not every sampler user is a composer. Glitchmachines created Polygon for the sound designers in the crowd. It provides four sampler slots, each of which can be warped with LFOs, envelopes, filters, a meaty sub oscillator, stutter effect, ring modulation, and others. The UI takes some getting used to, however since Polygon is accented with a sample library and over 100 presets, it’s easy to get started creating otherworldly sound effects right out of the gate.
Of course, that’s not all. There is an endless amount of sample players and samplers on the market. The ones listed above are just the beginning. Use them to start exploring and begin injecting creativity into you the samples you use.