IK Multimedia originally released SampleTank in 2001. It quickly became a popular choice among music producers and keyboard players who were jumping onboard with using computers to replace hardware synths on stage and in the studio.
Since that time, a number of competing products have entered the market, and technology has marched on. Accordingly, IK has updated SampleTank to keep pace with current computer hardware and software trends. Now at version 3, SampleTank offers some compelling new features for existing users and adds a whopping 25GB of sample content, expanding the total footprint to 33GB. The question is: Does this new version represent more than simply maintaining status quo with the competition?
Conceptually, SampleTank 3 (ST3 here after) is essentially a 16-part multitimbral sample-based software instrument intended to provide the same breadth of sounds offered by hardware synth workstations and “ROMplers.” As such, its sounds are organized into 21 category folders such as Organ, Electric Piano, Acoustic Guitar, and so on, making it easy to drill down to find the kinds of sounds you’re after. You can also use search terms, which is helpful considering that ST3 includes over 4,000 instrument sounds and more than 2,500 audio loops.
ST3 now runs as a 64-bit app, either in stand-alone mode or as a plug-in, which means you’ll be able to load more than 2GB of samples into the software (a limitation of the previous version). Functionally, this is a big deal as there are now many more RAM-hungry instruments on hand, including some nice acoustic grand and upright pianos.
IK has made other big improvements with version 3, most notably with the user interface, which has been streamlined and simplified. Whereas the previous user interface felt cramped and cluttered, ST3 is clean and laid out in a very user-friendly way. Many functions have now been spread across three main tabs: Play, Mix, and Edit.
From the Play window you can browse and load instruments, organize them into multi (i.e., “stacked”) and multitimbral setups with sounds assigned to unique MIDI channels, adjust volume and pan settings, and more. Clicking the Info button (only available in the Play window) will switch the multi view to a single-instrument view that provides details about the currently selected sound, including info about the source sample material and the macro control assignments.
The Mix page looks and operates much like the mixer you’d find in any DAW. Each instrument/part is given its own channel strip, complete with five insert and four send effects, plus a master bus that also features five inserts. What about effects? There are 55 built in, many of which have been brought over from IK’s excellent AmpliTube guitar amp modeling and T-Racks mastering software. The quality is top-notch, adding polish and punch to many of the instruments.
Along the bottom of every window is a panel that can be toggled between the Macro assignments and Effects tabs. When you click on the any of the effects from the Mix window, the selected effect is automatically shown in the effects tab, which makes it easy to jump from effect to effect, making mix tweaks as you go.
Preset sounds are called Instruments, and they come in three varieties. There are “standard” instruments, such as organs, synth pads, and pianos, which are based on single multisamples. Then there are “multi-articulation” instruments that allow you to switch among different articulations using the modulation wheel, key-switching, or velocity switching. Lastly, there are looped instruments (audio loops, really), which I won’t spend much time on other than to say there are some fantastic acoustic drum grooves that I could imagine kick-starting new tracks.
Most of the instruments are of the “standard” variety, with a wealth of gig-ready and go-to sounds such as Hammond B-3, Rhodes, Wurly, and acoustic pianos, along with a nice selection of synth pads and orchestral strings that, while not perhaps up to par with dedicated orchestral libraries, would work very nicely either layered with other sounds or on their own, depending on the setting.
I spent a lot of time auditioning each category, and to my ears ST3’s strength seems to be in the quality and variety of bread-and-butter sounds that are on offer. In addition to the musically useful collection of keys mentioned above, there’s a lot of solid material to be mined. Everything from dynamic acoustic drum kits, tuned percussion and synth basses, to punchy pop brass, delicate acoustic and convincing electric guitars (made ever more impressive thanks to judicious use of AmpliTube amp simulations). I encourage you to check out IK’s site where you’ll find a list all of the factory presets along with audio demos of many of them.
For existing users there are several upgrade paths that make the point of entry to ST3 very affordable, and if you have older projects that use SampleTank sounds and you’d like to carry those forward with a DAW and/or computer that’s been updated to 64-bit operation, purchasing ST3 is probably a no-brainer. That said, there are a lot of choices for high-quality software instrument in the $300 to $400 range, including many third-party library options available for NI’s Kontakt and even full-fledged DAWs that come with plenty of great-sounding instruments (e.g., Logic Pro X and Reason).
From this point of view, ST3 seems somewhat behind the curve compared to the competition. In particular, the sound design is rather “safe.” There are no multi-stage envelopes or arpeggiators, for example, and as a result there aren’t many rhythmic, pulsating synths (though there are MIDI patterns that can be applied, but these aren’t an equivalent replacement).
And while there might be release samples included with some of the instruments, I couldn’t detect them in the context of the acoustic or electric pianos. We’ve come to expect all the noise “in between the notes” to add a level of realism with sampled instruments. Related to realism, we’ve also come to expect the use of many velocity-switched layers, but in this regard ST3’s instruments seemed not to be too deep.
Ultimately, however, SampleTank 3 is a successful step forward from the previous version. It’s certainly a worthy upgrade for existing users. Thanks to its dead-easy interface, well-rounded library of sounds and killer effects, ST3 is a good choice for those who prefer simple setups onstage or in the studio, or for those who’d prefer a one-stop shop over investing in various third-party libraries for a software sampler.
Solid bread-and-butter sound set. Quick sample load times. Simple interface. Great-sounding effects derived from AmpliTube and T-Racks.
Some instruments don’t have all the realism they could. Sound design and programming is basic by today’s standards.
No frills or hype, just a well-rounded library of sounds for the stage or studio.
$399 list | $349 street | $199 upgrade from SampleTank 2XL | ikmultimedia.com