Chicken Systems Translator Pro Software Interview
Return of the ASR-10 part III
words by Drew Spence
Still rocking a hardware sampler and want to increase its palette? Ever wish you could expand your library by using the soundbanks of other samplers? Enter Chicken Systems with their Translator Pro software that converts across numerous formats. Let’s dig in and get the full story.
Drew Spence: Although music, both sonically and production-wise has changed significantly in recent years, the hardware sampler still get used in some important ways in the studio. What do you attribute its staying power to?
Garth Hjelte: I think in many ways, the dedicated hardware sampler “feels” more like an instrument than a systematic software sampler that integrates perfectly with modern recording systems. The sound that comes out often feels like it was manufactured AS a music instrument, not merely imitating one. And I’m saying this in regard to all types of sounds – not just imitative sample sets but also synthetic textures or even drum and percussion sounds.
Right now I put hardware samplers in three categories: first you have the real old stuff circa late ’80’s early ’90’s where even if the sampler was 16-bit linear, the sound was hardly that. Listen to a hi-hat on one of those machines – it’s much trashier and not as transparent. Other sounds have that “rounding” and slippery feel to them. Pads and strings can have this special thickness to them.
Second, you have the samplers built in the mid/late ’90’s, like the Akai S5000/Z-series, or the MPC1000 series, or even the Emulator 4. These were attempts to get better sound quality and generally they succeeded. Although at the time they were (and should have been) highly regarded, this is only because no computer-based system truly existed yet. After the software revolution (starting with Giga) got started, time passed those units by. Most of them just didn’t have the trashy charm the older stuff did.
The third category is the new workstations (Motif, Kronos) that have a fairly solid sample-playback engine in them. These are worthy of note because they allow live playing to included user-contributed things in addition to the solid ROM packages they offer. Not only that, in recent years they are innovating past the “loading on startup” things. The Motif XF can hold 2GB of flash memory – wow! The Kronos can stream from SSD hard drive. The Kurzweil PC3K has 128mb of flash.
So, back to using older hardware samplers, I think artists are looking for that more organic approach and they are finding it with the older samplers.
Chicken Systems has been around for a while. How did you get involved in the translation process and why?
We started out in 1988 doing only Ensoniq things – selling sample sets, hard drives, consulting, writing. In the 1990’s some DOS programs came along that could read and write Ensoniq floppy disks AND the SCSI drives. That was nice – it helped us duplicate the floppy sets we sold – but we wanted the authors to improve their programs, like make Windows versions of them, add features. They refused, so we wrote our own. These are the Ensoniq Tools programs and we even sell them today. These were the first computer programs we ever wrote and although they were innovative, we made our share of mistakes writing them.
The Ensoniq ASR-10 was out for quite a long time before a successor came out – the ASR-X in the mid-1990’s, and since the Tools programs were doing well, we decided to write Ensoniq ASR-X Tools too. One big problem with the ASR-X was that although they included the ability to read EPS/ASR disks, they didn’t read the envelopes correctly. The ASR-X did not have a initial level parameter – it assumed zero – where as the EPS/ASR did, and they didn’t compensate for it. So any sounds – even to this day, they never fixed it – where the initial level was pretty high or even greater than zero, and the attack time was greater than perhaps 50ms, came out as a slow or fluffy attack on the ASR-X. Plus, the ASR-X wasn’t truly programmable from the front panel – it needed a computer program to get at things to truly program it.
So, in Ensoniq ASR-X Tools we wrote our own converter that did a better job, and we called it… Translator. It still exists in the program.
Anyway, a couple years later, I think around 1997, I attended the NAMM show in Nashville upon the urging of Robin Boyce-Truitt of Keyboard magazine. The question in my mind was “what should my company do next?” Ensoniq had been purchased by Creative Labs and it was clear that the company was just hanging on. The ASR-X wasn’t really a true sampler, it was a groove box. Plus, for some reason, samplers were not good sellers back then. I think it was because no more innovation was taking place. I didn’t know it at the time, but most professionals were still using Roland S-760’s and Akai S3000’s created in the early ’90’s.
So I remember thinking that if my main market was Ensoniq’s, one thing I could do was to really start making more sounds for it. Unfortunately, I had to admit I had limited resources in which to do this. Paying full orchestras or going heavy programming my own sounds wasn’t truly in my wheelhouse anymore, although I liked doing it. But after programming a couple successful Windows programs, that’s what I enjoyed doing. So I had the idea of combining the ability to read AND write Ensoniq disks and expanding that to read other samplers disks, like Akai and Roland and Emu etc., in order to allow people to have infinite libraries, because there were untold thousands of Akai titles out there. Why program your own libraries when you can allow people to convert existing ones? The ultimate leverage!
Currently the ASR-10 allowed reading Akai S1000 and Roland S7x programs and patches. Not S3000, and plus the import was so-so. Since I noticed the EPS->ASR-X problem, I thought I could do a better translation PLUS add a great interface and supply even more formats. So I started programming the program, which I remember naming it at the 1997 NAMM show, walking along the sidewalk next to the convention center, as TRANSLATOR.
I spent the following months getting better at reverse-engineering foreign disk and file formats. I had some great help along the way with old Ensoniq people helping as well as some brilliant German engineers. I figured out AKai’s, Emu’s, and Roland’s formats alongside Ensoniq’s. The dream was being realized! The program was coming along nicely but was not released as yet.
Then it all started spiraling, and I was the right person (now as the corporation called Chicken Systems, I added several partners at this time) at the right time. During the next year, the first software sampler appeared – Seer Systems Reality. That was our next destination format. The Seer Systems guys helped me figure out more formats, as well as theirs. The more we worked on it, the better we got.
However, the real big thing was coincidentally in the same city – Austin Texas. This was were Nemesys started and Gigasampler was born. At first I considered them a competitor with Reality and I liked the Reality guys. But Giga had this new thing called disk streaming which allowed extremely large sample sets. Based on the advertisements and the external press, it was impossible to ignore.
I can’t remember at the time if we initially released Translator with conversion into Gigasampler, I don’t think we did, but it came out shortly afterwards. Sales then exploded. It was the perfect product to support, as it was Windows only, and we were only programming for Windows. Perfect.
So Chicken Systems had to start adjusting not only to a lot of money rolling in, but also how to keep up with the huge demands of better import coding and more formats. SampleCell, Kurzweil had to be supported. Plus, we were looking into new destinations. From the beginning, we committed ourselves not just to read all formats but to write to them. Plus, the new formats drew in the market of Mac users, and how were we going to make a Mac version?
I’ll leave the explanation of the 2000’s for another time, but basically that’s how we started innovating our core technology, which is translation instrument formats between each other.
I figure with your experience under the hood and behind the code with all these samplers, you could give us a few recommendations for a hardware sampler for someone who is new to production…
Well, it’s hard to recommend a hardware sampler, as the needs for it are so limited these days. Back 10-15 years ago, a hardware sampler would be for the true task of sound emulation in a studio or live. But not anymore, software samplers are ALWAYS much much cheaper – even free! – plus they are always better in most every way.
Hardware samplers haven’t gone away though. There are three types of markets I can count:
1) Nostalgic people who desire or appreciate the sound of older samplers
2) People who like the tactile response of something other than a computer
3) Workstation users (Korg Kronos, Yamaha Motif, Roland Fantom, other) who want to use the sampling sections to augment their ROM sets
The first set of people still use their Ensoniq’s, or old Akai MPC’s, or Emu Emax’s or Emulator III’s. Those were samplers that were here before the really pristine 16-bit samplers that sounded PERFECT. (Mostly those samplers are less desired because although they usually have more memory and features, there’s nothing unique about the sound. You might as well use a cheaper and better software sampler.)
The second type of people appreciate any hardware piece, and I think as far as true samplers go, really the Akai Z4/Z8 were the ultimate in that regard. Up to 512mb of memory, 24-bit, and you can use the akSys software to remote control it from a computer.
The third type of people at least have the modern era on their side. The Yamaha Motif XF and MOXF have flash memory, so you can actually create sounds and instruments and save them to the flash memory, so you don’t even have to load them or wait for them to load. Plus with the workstations, you can gig with them within hesitation.
What about software? If I use something like Kontakt, does it still make sense to acquire the older sampler disks and translate them or should I just focus on newer libraries?
Completely up to the user! I don’t think a blanket statement can be made like “the newer things are best”, although newer libraries really are excellent and hard to beat. But older libraries – even going back to Roland S7x libraries recorded in the 1990’s built for 32mb – have a excellent charm to them. I remember reading something about the band Heart, early in their career when they did lots of experimenting in the studio, that “everything comes out of only 2 speakers with other instruments ultimately anyway”. That’s true, so often the old sampling/old recording almost serves the purpose of what tube preamps and modeling plugins do today.
I would advise anyone to take advantage of the large availability of sounds and choose what’s best for you, plus do not discount older sounds, they often are free to little investment, yet you’ll be very surprised at how they sound. And, although there were garbage sound sets made in the past, it wasn’t so nearly prevalent as today, where the 40GB sound sets you get with a sampler often are fractionally usable.
How do I know what older formats hold up best? Is there any difference between these formats or any sampler’s library I should avoid?
They all are good. To be precise, we are talking about Akai, Roland, Emu, Ensoniq, Kurzweil, SampleCell; plus SoundFont. All pretty much share the same program structure. Akai by far has the greatest selection – there probably 25x as many Akai titles than the other formats. And with the other formats, they tend to revolve around what the manufacturer produced, there are few 3rd-party libraries. The people that broke the mold on that were primarily Spectrasonics/Ilio and East/West, being the largest producers. And regarding SampleCell, for years the Bob Clearmountain drums were the best selling sample CD library.
Can I use Translator as an instrument and play my samples from its interface or should I get a VST sample-host or program like Kontakt or Reason… or…? Are there any ideas to just making a VST version that loads everything?
Translator can audition instruments but it’s just to “see what they sound like generally”. It’s not for playback or performing.
Right now, I’m interested in the full bundle, but I read that soon they will all be merged into a single workstation. How is that coming along and how soon do you project it might be available?
SamplerTools is a bundle that includes the full versions of Translator, Constructor, and Instrument Manager. It doesn’t eliminate the selling of the three products, it’s just an extension of them. SamplerTools also includes 2 extra features: more features in each separate program that include the capabilities of the others, and a integrated interface (think new application) that includes all three features of the bundled programs in one interface. The two things are not complete yet, but we are shooting for a 4th quarter 2014 release. SamplerTools is being sold now, just with licenses to all three bundled programs. Registered owners will get the two additional things when they are released.