Review – SampleTank 3 from IK Multimedia

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The much-delayed SampleTank 3 has finally arrived.  Was it worth the wait?  We take a close look at the instrument in this review.


by David Baer, Sept. 2014


Better Late Than Never

We will look at SampleTank 3 from IK Multimedia in this review.  IK Multimedia originally announced its availability for the latter part of 2013, but that date continually slipped, occasioning a lot of very negative commentary in the music forums.

The public seems to have a love/hate attitude toward IK Multimedia.  Not all that long ago, IKM brought two new compressors to the market: the White 2A Leveling Amplifier and the Black 76 Limiting Amplifier.  The launch was accompanied by a group buy that got you both for the price of one if a certain subscription level was reached (and it was reached).  The excitement was evident in the Cakewalk forum that I frequent.  Chatter like “Ooh, I’m going get the White … which one are you going to pick?” was common.

Things were not so rosy when it came to SampleTank 3.  Not only were numerous comments negative toward IK, many were downright spiteful.  People were angry about the significant delay.  They were angry about the fact that IK had been devoting a lot of energy releasing products for mobile platforms.  It wasn’t pretty.  I could understand the level of frustration but not the degree of outright vitriol in evidence (although the owners of IK might be forgiven for being steamed about how much the slip in availability was costing them in real money).

But it’s finally here.  Was it worth the wait?  Read on.


SampleTank Evolution

SampleTank 3 (hereafter ST3) is a top-to-bottom rewrite of its predecessor, SampleTank 2 (2.5 to be more precise).  The earlier version was serviceable but had several significant deficiencies: the user interface was far too tiny for modern high-resolution screens.  It was 32-bit only and was widely reported to be unstable with 64-bit bridging software.  SampleTank 3 not only corrects those two problems, it has many new features and a vastly upgraded factory sound library. 

Significantly, ST3 is 64-bit only.  This is probably the start of a trend that other vendors will start to embrace.  IK clearly has made the assessment that the loss of potential buyers due to the lack of a 32-bit version would be favorably offset by the reduced costs of not having to test and maintain an extra version which had limited market potential.

SampleTank 2 had a number of sibling sample playback devices: SampleMoog, SonicSynth, and Miroslav Philharmonik to name three.  So, 64-bit-based musicians who had acquired the sibling instruments were stuck.  Over the years, IK had some impossible-to-ignore sales on these instruments, and they were widely acquired.

Furthermore, IK offered a sizeable number of quite-good expansion packs for SampleTank 2.  There was a grand group buy in 2010 in which these could be acquired at ten dollars apiece.  Thousands of customers bought into this sale.

So with all that content out there looking for a 64-bit playback capability, it was vital that IK supplied a forward migration path.  They did just that with ST3.  Both the factory libraries for the SampleMoogs, et al, and the expansion packs can easily be imported into ST3.


Installing, Authorizing and Importing

Before we look at the instrument, it’s worth briefly discussing what it takes to get ST3 up and running.  There’s a lot of sample content that comes with ST3 – 33 GB after unzipping it. Although many customers will opt to wait for the boxed version, others will go for the (slightly less expensive) download.  With a fast internet connection, the eight file download took me approximately one hour.  If your ISV doesn’t give you at least 3.5Mb/sec download speed, your mileage may vary to a frustrating degree.  Then each of the eight files needs to be unzipped.  This took another hour for all eight.

I did encounter one glitch in the unzip phase.  Two of the instruments in one of the download files had errors when unzipping – not a big deal and quite possibly corrected by now.  The outcome though caused all the synth pad and lead sounds to be skipped.  I unzipped the problem file a second time, simply clicking “Ignore” on the error notifications, and all was well in the synth category department.

Other than that installation was a breeze.  I’ve had some frustrating experiences in the past getting some IK products to properly get authorized.  I’m very happy to say that whatever issues with which I might have wrestled in the past were not in evidence this time.

Importing all the old sounds (SampleMoog, expansion packs, etc.)  was an important milestone.  Once again, this proved to be accomplished without incident.  One tip I can offer is this.  After each import, ST3 will rebuild the database, a process which takes some time.  If you are importing multiple sound collections, you may cancel the database rebuild on all but the last, and you will avoid a lot of waiting.


 What’s in Your Tank?

Let’s look now at what ST3 is (and what it is not).  Most features of the previous version are present.  One notable exception is the inability to import samples to create velocity layers.  I would expect a considerable majority of ST3 users are not interested in other than the factory and/or expansion content in the first place, so this is probably of minor significance.

ST3 is a very capable multi-timbral rompler, accompanied by basic synth accoutrement like filters, LFOs, etc., sporting an impressive collection of on-board effects like delays, distortion, etc. and offering an abundance of mixing tools such as compressors and EQs.  ST3 comes loaded with extensive and diverse sound content.  Its interface is for the most part clear and intuitive.  It has some features that should delight musicians wishing to use it in live performance.  For those who care about such things, it has some very capable loop and pattern playback capability and a wealth of preprogrammed content in that area.  Finally, the documentation is clear and comprehensive.

What ST3 is not is a challenger to Kontakt, and I don’t believe IK ever intended it to be such.  If your requirements include setting up elaborate sample-playback scenarios that include such things as velocity layers, round-robin sample selection, articulations and the like, ST3 will not fit your needs.  That’s not to say that the factory sound content does not offer such things – it does and those nuanced capabilities are all represented.  But end-user definition of these more advanced features does not seem to be an option.  These observations should not be taken as criticism.  ST3 is positioned as a primarily as a playback instrument, and as such appears to adequately deliver the goods.


The Big Picture

ST3 has two a two-tiered structure.  The Multi is the higher level in which sixteen separate Parts exist into which Instruments can be placed.  Each Instrument in a Multi can respond to its own MIDI channel, but stacks of Instruments responding to a single MIDI channel are trivial to set up.  The Instruments can be mixed into a single stereo output or can be routed to up to sixteen different outputs.  The on-board mixer includes effects insert slots (five per instrument) and there are four send busses which can accommodate five effects each.  All in all, the mixer is powerful and provides much the same functionality as a DAW mixing panel.

The lower-level tier is the Instrument.  Here things are a little different from what you might expect.  There is a one-to-one correspondence between an instrument and a sample set.  There is no place in the Instrument definition panel to specify a set of samples.  An Instrument has a set of synth-like controls for LFO modulation, filter application, and so on.  If one needs different filter/modulation versions for an Instrument, the Instrument can be saved under a different name.  It’s my understanding that when saving multiple versions of an Instrument, ST3 is smart enough to retain only one copy of the sample data.  One piece of advice: if you save a custom version of an Instrument, don’t call it something like “My Friday Experiment”, or the next month you won’t have a clue as to what that saved Instrument is all about.

The Multi is defined and maintained in the Play tab shown at the top of this article.  It’s mostly very straightforward and intuitive.  The left hand panel is a browser in which Multis can be selected.  Instruments and Patterns (more on this later) can be selected for loading into a Multi.  The middle list shows the Instruments currently in the selected Multi.  For the selected instrument, the effects and macro controls assigned to that channel can be seen.

Although effects are assigned on a per-instrument basis, the effect settings are also part of the Multi definition.  This may be a little confusing at first, but it’s actually quite logical.  Effects that are inserted into an Instrument remain part of that Instrument definition.  If you change the effects in a Multi and save the Multi, the modifications are remembered and loaded with the Multi.  In other words, effect inserts in a Multi override effect inserts in an Instrument.  Multi effect overrides are done in the mixer.  Let’s move on to that.


The Mixer

The mixer has a channel slot for each of the sixteen Instruments, the four send busses and the master output.  At the top of each (including the master channel) five effect inserts are available.  This means that any single Instrument can have fifteen consecutive effects in the chain, far more than would normally ever be needed.  Anyone familiar with a DAW software mixer interface will probably feel immediately at home.  Like so much else in ST3, the interface is so intuitive that you could easily dive right in without first reading the documentation and accomplish most of what you wanted without further ado.


The Editor

The Edit tab exists for setting up individual Instruments.  Here we have a suite of controls, most of which will be familiar to anyone who is a synth sound-tweaker.  We have a modest but serviceable collection of filters, two envelopes, two LFOs and some modulation routings.  The modulation possibilities are limited to what’s on the panel.  For example, Envelope 1 has a Level knob that specifies how strongly the envelope affects amplitude – that’s it; you cannot use Envelope 1 for anything else.

The LFOs can be routed to amplitude, pitch, filter cutoff and pan, in pretty much any combination.  There are five LFO waveforms (a sample and hold is one of them but a gradual random drift is not present).  Note that the top three waveform buttons have their images backwards.  The first two are shown 180 degrees out of phase, and the ramp is an up-ramp, not the one shown (tsk, tsk, IKM for this embarrassing oversight).

Velocity can be routed to six destinations shown in the screen shot above.  Other than what you see, that’s all there is in modulation options.  There is no mod matrix in ST3.  Mod wheel control of modulation levels is done via MIDI-learn and probably best accomplished using the Macro knobs (more on these a bit later).

The modulation capabilities are mostly quite adequate.  One important absence is key-tracking.  This can be useful in controlling envelope behavior.  But it’s indispensable for modulating filter cutoff in my judgment.  Key tracking would be at the top of my feature requests for improving ST3.


Effects Bonanza

IKM has a wealth of effects processing code in-house, courtesy of their TRacks mixing/mastering suite and Amplitube guitar effects collection.  They were not reluctant to spread that wealth around when it came to outfitting ST3 with such things.  There’s pretty much everything you’d need at hand, too many individual effects to enumerate.  In fact, there’s almost an overabundance.  How many onboard compressors does a playback instrument really need?  Remember me mentioning the White 2A and the Black 76?  Yep, they’re there along with two other compressor models.  We’ve got multiple EQs, a limiter, six different reverbs … you get the idea.  What, no gate?  I’m shocked!

Seriously, the only problem a user is going to have in sculpting sounds via effects is the number of such things to choose from.


The Macro Mystery

The Macro strip, which can be seen on the Play tab image and the Edit tab image above, provides eight “quick controls”.  These controls can pass through to any control on the Edit page or on an insert effect.

Any knob on the edit page or within an insert effect can be MIDI-learned, so for control of ST3 parameters from your MIDI keyboard, you are fully covered even without the specifically chosen Macro controls.  But for DAW automation, you don’t get as much flexibility.  For each part, automation is limited to volume, pan and the eight Macro controls.

Here’s the problem.  IKM for unknown reasons does not offer user control over which eight knobs.  These are assigned as part of the factory supplied Instrument definitions and cannot be altered.  IKM’s reasoning behind this design decision is hard to fathom.  Technically, it cannot be all that challenging.  I can only hope that the deficiency was due to pressure to get the release out the door without further delays and that subsequent release will include this valuable capability.

One final point involves programming both Macro controls and MIDI-learned controls.  A MIDI Control panel is provided so that you can specify lower and higher limits to the controls and can denote controls as “latched” for switches.  So, for instance, if you want the Mod wheel to influence vibrato, but only to 25% of the available range, just set the Max value to 25%.  Easily accomplished.


Content is King

IKM went to great lengths to provide a cornucopia of sound content in ST3.  We have them arranged in the following categories:

  • Acoustic Guitar
  • Electric Guitar
  • Piano
  • Electric Piano
  • Organ
  • Strings
  • Brass
  • Woodwinds
  • Synth Lead
  • Synth Pad
  • Voices
  • Ethnic
  • Percussion
  • Sound FX
  • Loops
  • Synth FX

The quality ranges from good to excellent.  The grand piano, for instance, may not be of caliber of a dedicated piano VST instrument (probably costing as much as ST3 in the first place), but for most musicians, it will be all you ever need.  It’s sounds wonderful (and loads fast as well).  The Ethnic offerings are abundant, diverse and sound mostly fabulous.  Under each major category are subcategories.  The Electric Piano, for example has fifteen subcategories, each having several models to choose from.  There are eight acoustic guitar subcategories.  Most of the content might be regarded as “bread and butter” sounds, but there certainly is a lot to choose from.

In general, I think it’s fair to say that ST3 will hold its own against any general-purpose rompler instrument with respect to factory content.  It won’t be competitive against dedicated string libraries, for example, but then that’s true of all general-purpose romplers.  If one could have only one general-purpose rompler, ST3 would be on a lot of short lists.

Many instruments are simple single-purpose sounds, but a number of them have multiple articulations (such as legato, sforzando, pizzicato, etc. for strings).  Some have round-robin backing samples.  Some, no doubt, have velocity layers, although there’s no visual clue when this is being employed.  I should note here that it does not seem to be possible for user-supplied sample data to take advantage of these advanced features.

What’s especially gratifying is how good the legacy content sounds.  I imported my old SampleMoog library (from IK’s SampleMoog 32-bit instrument) and it sounds splendid.  While ST3 sounds are mostly newly recorded high-def content, it’s rewarding to discover just how good some of the old 16-bit sample data sounds in ST3.

A few of the categories are not well served.  Voices, in particular, seem a bit deficient.  On the other hand, I can’t imagine a useful voice sample library that is other than massive.  Also, remember the stacked Instruments I mentioned earlier.  Some of the legacy choir sounds may not be much use on their own, but they can certainly add to the majesty of a stack of strings, synth strings … oh what the hell, let’s throw in a pipe organ.  Now add the chorus “ooh” and be prepared to smile.  So, don’t dis the vocal content outright.

There’s every reason to expect additional libraries to come from IKM.  In fact, I’d be surprised if they weren’t working on a synth expansion library at this very moment.  If the pricing proves to be attractive, then ST3 owners probably have much to anticipate.


Patterns and Loops

ST3 has a generous content of MIDI patterns for a variety of instruments, not just drums and percussion.  And there are plenty of loops in the factory content as well.  I don’t want to get too deep into a discussion of these here for two reasons: I never use loops or patterns myself, so I don’t feel qualified to comment.  Furthermore, to do the pattern capability justice would double the length of this review.  Suffice it to say that I found this implementation to be impressive.   Learn more about patterns in the following YouTube video:

Another feature of note, one that I only have time to mention in passing, is the Live tab (shown below) on the Play page.  Musicians using ST3 for live performances are going to love this capability.  With it one can organize play lists for a gig, then each Song in the play list can name one or more Multis to call up.  Both Songs and their Multis are addressable using MIDI program change commands.  The Multis do not switch instantaneously because it takes a few seconds to load sample data into memory, so we cannot use program change in the same way you might switch between synth patches.  But apart from that minor limitation, Live will take a lot of potential error out of live performances.


Is SampleTank 3 for You?

ST3 is available as standalone and 64-bit plug-in for AAX, VST and Audio Units platforms on Mac OS X and Windows.  Remember: no 32-bit version is available.

IKM pricing is a moving target.  The current street price for an upgrade is (depending on where you look) around $120 USD, a cross-grade (from any other IKM product) is $145 USD, and the full price is $240 USD.  But IKM is known for frequent sales.  And then there are Jampoints for IKM customers that can also be applied toward purchase if you buy direct from the company.

If you are the owner of previous IKM sample content, especially SampleMoog and/or SonicSynth, purchasing the upgrade is a must (provided that you liked that content in the first place).  Those of you who also bought into that 2010 sale of ten-bucks-a-library expansion packs have good incentive to seriously consider resurrecting all those sounds in the new world of 64-bit music production.

For the rest of you, the degree to which ST3 will be attractive may depend on what’s on your DAW already.  Owners of Kontakt, Halion (and probably Mach 5, but I’ve never owned that one) will find spending $240 or so less compelling.  On the other hand, musicians who do a lot of live work may be interested in spite of already owning Kontakt, Halion or Mach 5.  ST3’s friendliness to live performance is not something to lightly dismiss.

For me, I’m delighted that IKM has finally delivered the goods.  I didn’t need the general content or more rompler instrumentation, already having Kontakt and Halion (not to mention Dimension Pro) on my DAW.  But I’m thoroughly pleased to have a rompler instrument that’s easier to program than any of those other instruments.  That’s reason number one ST3 puts a smile on my face.  Reason number two is: welcome back, SampleMoog!

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