Can a virtual warehouse full of instruments maintain quality along with quantity? Even the free version?
SampleTank 4 is a 16-part multitimbral sound/groove workstation for the Mac and PC that improves on a respected legacy. It delivers a formidable collection of high-quality instruments and loops comprising pro samples processed through a versatile synth engine and top-notch effects, rounded out with a full complement of mixing and performance controls.
ST4 is available in four editions, differentiated only by the included library size and pricing. You can even get into the world of ST4 for free with the recently released SampleTank 4 CS. It features 50 instruments adding up to 4GB. The paid versions are SampleTank 4 SE ($150), SampleTank 4 ($300), and SampleTank 4 MAX ($500). All editions work as plug-ins or in a standalone player that’s handy for fast inspiration or live gigs. I worked with the flagship SampleTank 4 MAX edition. You can expand on your ST4 edition’s core instruments by purchasing additional collections in a variety of categories and genres. Miroslav Philharmonik 2, for example, is highly recommended.
The line’s fourth incarnation brings welcome improvements that make the entire experience more elegant and powerful. The reengineered sound engine facilitates faster loading via disk-streaming, and it has a powerful modulation matrix. IK has increased the sound library in every edition by an approximate factor of four. A refined instrument browser also lets you find what you’re looking for faster.
Greater than the Sum of Its Parts
The Parts page is the hub for assigning instruments. You can layer as many as 16 parts or use them as sources for DAW tracks. Each part has controls for MIDI channel, transposition, solo, mute, pan, volume, and meters. The sister Layer Editor page lets you restrict each part to a desired key and velocity range.
ST4’s refined browser helps navigate a sonic embarrassment of riches, narrowing instrument searches down by selecting multiple categories, genres, styles, and moods. Clicking a result presents the related details in the right pane, complete with a 3D thumbnail of the instrument and effects. You can star your favorites to make them easier to find later.
ST4 saves all current settings in its environment and recalls them as multis. Though ST4 comes with dozens of multis organized in a handful of categories, I find them most useful as points of inspiration and departure for my own layered explorations.
Power of the Elements
ST4 is largely about using and manipulating the included instruments. The new standalone SampleTank Editor app (just out of beta) does allow you to create your own instruments. However, the workflow is much more involved than quickly sampling something for instant gratification.
The Edit panel for ST4 instruments has everything you would expect in standard subtractive synth architecture, and then some. Note that ST3 legacy instruments have a different edit panel to match their native architecture, and it’s not possible to convert ST3 instruments to ST4 format.
One or more elements—collections of samples all governed by a common set of synth parameters—make up instruments. A piano might have one element for the primary sound and another for the key release stage. Stringed instruments rely on them for multiple articulations. Drum kits are typically built with individual drums in different elements. MIDI note/velocity zones can also contain specific samples.
Each element can have up to six sample-based oscillators, each with its own pitch, pan, and level controls. The original sound designer has defined the number of elements, oscillators, and zones, as well as their sound sources, and other users can’t modify them.
Remarkably, very few synth sounds I auditioned use more than one oscillator. So, while you might see a graphic of a Minimoog and hear a 3-oscillator beast of a sound, it’s likely a sample of a 3-oscillator Moog patch sampled wide open and processed live through the rest of ST4’s synth engine. (That’s not a judgment, just a clarification.)
In addition to the common sample-playback mode in which the engine adjusts sample rate to vary pitch, ST4 has two additional resynthesis playback modes that provide separate control over pitch and time, plus grain or formant (depending on the mode). These can sometimes yield instruments that sound more natural…or sonic surprises when you intentionally push them to the limits. Switching to a resynthesis mode invokes a pre-analysis pass that can take significant time on more complex instruments.
Entering the Matrix
ST4’s powerful modulation matrix provides for up to 32 routings. In addition to the requisite source, destination, and amount, each entry has parameters for curvature, polarity, and more, including a subsection to set up a modifier for scaling the modulation. When the mod matrix is hidden, much of the Edit panel’s screen real estate is dominated by four X/Y displays that facilitate both setting and visualizing four mod sources at a time.
The multimode filter is quite versatile and sounds great. A pull-down menu selects the overall type, including modeled analog classics as well as phaser and formant filters. Options then present to switch between contextually viable lowpass, highpass, bandpass, peak, and notch designs.
The ubiquitous bottom display in ST4’s interface switches between macros, virtual keyboard and virtual pads—the latter represented in eight rows of eight, one row at a time. The eight user-assignable macro controls provide immediate access to the most important parameters in the current instrument and its effects. You can map macros to external controllers via the MIDI learn function, as you can with the virtual pads and most other ST4 parameters.
The 32-step arpeggiator player provides everything you’d expect, including step transposition, velocity, and mute. You can even vary a given step’s length to anything from a choppy 32nd note up through ties across multiple steps. You can also specify that a step plays all the notes being held. This combination alone significantly adds to the potential for endless experimentation in syncopated melodic rhythms. Surprisingly, I couldn’t find a way to assign the arpeggiator to modulate non-pitch targets such as filter cutoff.
In manual mode, the Strummer resembles the arpeggiator, strumming your held notes to the defined pattern(s). Each step is assigned a strum direction or individual string. In auto mode, a set of keyswitches selects from pre-assigned chords you strum by pressing other keys mapped to either different strum patterns, directional single strums, or individual strings.
The Phraser player triggers discrete MIDI sequences assigned to individual notes. ST4 comes with a number of preset percussive and melodic phrases with which you can trigger the current instrument. You can roll your own phrases, but you have to do this by creating a Standard MIDI File Type 0 outside ST4 and placing it in the appropriate drive folder.
Selecting a loop-based instrument invokes the Loop Manager, in which associated loops map onto different notes. Although you’ll find basic sound-shaping controls, ST4 doesn’t provide for creating or editing via slicing and dicing.
The Live Performance page lets you assign instruments and multis to songs, in which all the required samples are preloaded for instant switching using specified program changes. You can further organize songs into sets, giving you a great deal of flexibility.
ST4 has a full-featured, 16-channel, 4-buss, 16-out mixer incorporating most of the functionality found in DAW mixers. All channels and returns, as well as the master, sport five effects slots.
ST4 supplies 70 studio-quality effects sourced from IK’s well-regarded T-RackS and AmpliTube lines, presented with hardware-style graphics in a 5-space, 500 series-style virtual rack. They sound great, and you’re likely to find anything you need here short of exotic boutique fair.
Speed Bump on the Road to Happiness
One of the few negatives is IK’s installation process. ST4 divides its library into numerous ZIP files. You must download, unzip, and install more than 90 of them for MAX. You can find plenty of examples in the wild of more elegant installation and management. In the case of the standard and MAX versions, consider paying a bit more to get the files on a USB stick containing all the core instruments, ready for much simpler installation.
Also, IK gives you only 180 days to download your purchased ST4 files, after which they require $10 for a Sound Reactivation Credit. While not a large sum, this seems unnecessary and even insulting for a non-subscription product that isn’t straightforward to install.
One Thing to Rule Them All
The SampleTank 4 line is a “go-to” sonic tour de force for songwriting and production. I found most mainstream acoustic, electric, and electronic instruments I could think of—plus plenty of rare ones—in the MAX version I worked with. Although you might find that some other virtual instruments dedicated to specific instruments outshine their ST4 corollaries, the sheer volume, convenience, and overall quality in this unified environment is undeniable. IK has given great attention to detail in designing ST4’s architecture, UI, and sounds.
Since the distinction between editions is solely in the library, the choice between them comes down to balancing budget with the genres you work in and the sounds you need. The bottom line is that SampleTank 4 is sure to give you inspiration in any edition, along with the option to expand when you want more.
Supported platforms: Mac/Windows; VST2, VST3, AU, AAX
Price: SampleTank 4 CS (50 instruments, 4GB free), SampleTank 4 SE (2,000 sounds, 30GB, $149), SampleTank 4 (6,000 sounds, 100GB, $299 or $329 USB stick), SampleTank 4 MAX (8,000 sounds, 260GB, $499 or $529 USB stick)