Review – SampleRobot 5 Pro by Skylife
Sampling made easy? That’s what SkyLife is promising, and we take a look at how it all works in this review.
by Rob Mitchell, Nov. 2016
If you aren’t up to date with everything that music technology has to offer, you might ask yourself: What is sampling? In its basic form, sampling is the art of recording audio and being able to play it back in a musical/melodic way with a keyboard, or it might be triggered in a percussive way using pads. It has been around for many years in one form or another. The Chamberlin was introduced back in the 1950s. It wasn’t an actual “sampler”, but it did let you playback pre-recorded instruments from tapes in a musical fashion. Some years later, the Mellotron was introduced. It used another method similar to the Chamberlin to reproduce instruments such as choir, violins, and brass. It was used on many recordings during the late 1960s and the 1970s. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, digital sampling started to emerge. This was a huge advance in the technology, as tape was becoming a thing of the past. As time went on, and home computers became more powerful, it was possible to sample audio right on to the computer itself. You didn’t need an expensive hardware sampler anymore, and the quality of sound from these home sampling methods was just getting better with time.
Now that we have little history behind us, we’ll fast-forward to the present day. The product we shall check out for this review called SampleRobot 5 Pro. It is a software sampler that lets you record a musical instrument into the PC or Mac in the easiest way possible. This can also relieve you from the chore of lugging many expensive keyboards and/or other instruments with you to live gigs or recording sessions.
SampleRobot 5 Pro is a standalone application. To install it on the PC, you’ll need one of the following operating systems: XP, Vista, 7, 8, or 10 (32/64 bit). The CPU requirements are easy to take, as they say it just needs a minimum of a Pentium III or AMD running at 667 MHz or higher (I wonder if anyone uses a Pentium III-based PC these days?). To install it on a Mac, you’ll need OS X 10.6.4 or higher operating system, with a minimum 1.8 GHz CPU. The manual states that the SampleRobot Mac OS X installation is based upon the Wine framework. I am not a Mac user, so I’m not even sure what this means. However, if you have a Mac yourself, you probably know exactly what this entails.
SampleRobot uses the Challenge/Response method of copy protection. Normally this works fine, as long as your PC or Mac is connected to the internet. Thankfully you are able get the response on a different computer that is connected to the internet, so your DAW can still be offline.
Once you run it for the first time, it starts what they call the Project Wizard which gets you going in the right direction. The “Automatic” setting will use MIDI to trigger the device for you, so you don’t even have to play a note. “Semi-Automatic” means it will use some automation, but you have to play the notes yourself. This works great with non-MIDI instruments. For the people who would like a complete hands-on approach, it is possible to totally disable this Project Wizard in the preferences.
The Project Wizard lets you name your project, choose the audio inputs, sampling frequency and bit depth, and choose whether you want totally automatic or semi-automatic recording. If you set it up as semi-automatic, you must start/stop the recording yourself for each key selected. As I mentioned earlier, this could be used for non-MIDI instruments where you would play each note yourself.
You also select the MIDI out device, MIDI channel, and program number. It then asks you what key range you’d like sampled (37 to 128 keys). Once that is all set, you pick how many velocity levels you’d like, as well as the Key-Step amount. “Velocity levels” is a self-explanatory term, but what about the “Key-Levels”? This setting determines how many steps there will in-between each sampled key. Using “1” would mean that every single key will be sampled, while “6” means that every sixth key is sampled. Note Length and Release Length can be chosen, and the Looping settings can be switched on or off, depending on whether or not they are needed. There are different percentage settings for the looping, which include 30%, 50%, and 70% for the choices. This just means that it will wait until it reaches the 30% mark (for example) in the sample before it looks for a loop point. They recommend 50% for most situations. Release-sampling is supported as well.
Though SampleRobot can sample at up to 192KHz/24-bit in mono or stereo, I ran into an issue when trying to choose 24-bit for the sampling format. It seems it wasn’t communicating with my Focusrite audio interface correctly, as it popped up an error when I had it set to sample using the 44.1 Khz/24-bit mono setting. However, I know the audio interface is capable of that setting, so I contacted the SkyLife support. They mentioned I could still manually switch to any other sample bit rate once I went through the steps of the wizard, and then start the automatic sampling afterwards. All’s well that ends well, as it did work the way they said. I was glad when the workaround fixed the problem, as I nearly always work with 24-bit audio whenever possible.
Before you hit the “Start Recording” button, you can make changes to the other settings as well. This gives you a chance to look over what you selected from the wizard, and make any adjustments if you had mistakenly selected something by accident. You might also want to use the included Peak Meter to check the levels once more before you hit the “REC” (record) button.
Other displays on the screen include the MIDI Monitor display, which shows you important MIDI input and channel selection information. When you play notes on the connected instrument, it will display the MIDI notes and their velocity amounts. Towards the bottom is a virtual keyboard where you can see the range of notes that will be sampled from left to right, and you can adjust the range using the buttons on the left side (37, 49, 61 keys, etc.). You could just choose to select all the keys by clicking the “All” button, but that would take up a lot of disk space and will take longer to sample all of those notes. After you’ve made your selection, the notes that will be sampled are shown as highlighted keys on the keyboard.
After the automatic sampling session has finished, the samples can be edited from within SampleRobot. The Note/Loop/Release Editor lets you view the individual waveforms for editing. If you click and drag the waveform over to the left, it will reveal useful information pertaining to the audio sample itself. Note-In/Note-Out and Loop markers, as well as X (Crossfade-Loop) and BFX (Crossfade Backward/Forward) settings can be adjusted easily from here. “Autogain” is a useful feature, especially if you notice a drop in volume during a crossfade.
Clicking the “WaveRobot” button opens up a larger and more powerful editor than the Note/Loop/Release Editor. The regular editor is great for quick changes here and there, but you’ll probably be using this one more often while editing. Its large display makes it easy to use. Automatic Loop recognition is available, and it finds the best duration and loop settings for you.
Instead of starting out with the wizard, you might want to use the built-in Preset Manager. To get there, you click the File menu, and then click on “Preset Manager”. It lets you select from various templates for the settings which match up with the type of sampling project you have in mind. For instance, if you know you are going to be sampling a bass sound, you could select from the four “Bass” presets available. Each of these bass presets are the same, except for the amount of layers in each. After you’ve made your choice, you select the other settings you’d like manually, such as MIDI Out Device, Audio In Device, the directory to save the samples, and you have the chance to change the audio format. Some of the other presets include settings for organs, pads, pianos (in low, medium, or high quality), and drums. If you have setup a project and it is “just right” for use on another sampling session, you can save that same project as a preset for later use.
Besides the sampling from within SampleRobot, you’re also able to load in pre-sampled audio files in WAV,AIFF, or AIF formats. After you have them all set the way you’d like (and edited, if needed), you can export to a variety of formats. Some of these are various SFZ types, and they can be output to Cakewalk’s Dimension (*.sfz or .prog), Alchemy, and RGC:Audio. Other export formats available in the dropdown menu include several versions for the *.sf2 format, plus Wusikstation (*.SND), Steinberg HALion (*.xml), and many others. You’re also able to export the sounds themselves as WAV or AIFF files, and you have the choice of either the full sample or Loop-only.
After loading up my test-run SFZ file that SampleRobot created into Dimension Pro, it worked like a charm. The looping seemed to work well with the setting I picked from the wizard, and I was able to start using the other settings available in Dimension Pro itself. I proceeded to throw together those settings in the plugin that worked well with the imported sounds, and I added some effects to give my new preset some tasteful ambience.
One more thing I wanted to add: Under the “Help” menu they have included a list of keystroke shortcuts which can help you get to certain functions in a speedier fashion. You might be using some these more often than others. If you ever forget which one does what, it is always there under “Help” as a quick reminder. They’ve also included references for the many functions located in the Note/Loop/Release Editor.
One feature I didn’t have time to explore for this review was the sampling of a virtual instrument. To do this, you have to acquire a virtual MIDI cable to make the connections that are necessary for it to work. There are a few of these freely available on the internet that should work for this purpose. It seemed a bit complicated to me, but it is possible, and the manual walks through the steps to get it working. I am not sure I would use it much though, as I can just load up whichever software synth I want anyway. On the other hand, one way that I thought this could be useful is for the sampling of a monophonic softsynth, as you could then play it polyphonically.
If you don’t have a sampler, basic sampling can done by recording whichever instrument into your DAW, and then you’d edit those audio samples as needed. In addition, you could use another audio editing application to further edit all of those samples. Of course, this can take a long time if you want a large number of samples and they are at various velocity levels. Setting loops points also takes a good deal of time when done manually. SampleRobot 5 Pro takes away the tedious part of the sampling process, which at times can be very repetitive and a bit labor intensive. With SampleRobot it is far from that, and actually it is quite simple and fun to work with. As they say; “time is money”, and it definitely can save you a lot of time. I really enjoyed using SampleRobot, and I also believe anyone that is into sampling will find it interesting to work with and easy to use.
SampleRobot 5 Pro (with Wave Robot) is available for $349 USD, and it’s also available with some extra applications for $439 USD. They have recently released a down-sized version of SampleRobot 5 Pro called SampleRobot 5 Multi-X, which is a more affordable version if you only do sampling only from time to time. WaveRobot can be included as an option as well. SampleRobot 5 Multi-X retails for $129 USD, and if you add WaveRobot to your order, it is $199 USD.
Skylife also included 1,080 MB of downloadable instruments in SF2 format. These were sampled from various well-known synthesizers. The SF2 files can be used in most software samplers. For more information you can check out their website here:
A free sample pack for SoundBytes readers – classic shooter game effects set taken from a vintage SH101 synthesizer.
Click to download Free Sample Robot Pack