Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Difference between Synth and Sampler

Hello everyone and welcome to this week's article!
In this article we are going to see the differences between a Synth and a Sampler, since sometimes there's confusion between these tools.

Let's start by saying that both these pieces of software (or hardware) are sound sources, and they can achieve also fairly similar results (e.g. a Strings ensemble sound): it's the process to get to the result that is different.

The earliest synthesizers were first introduced at the end of 19th century, but they got their moment of glory around 60 years later, with progressive bands like Pink Floyd or Van Der Graaf Generator, and they became increasingly popular until the '80s, period in which they were present in almost any music production.
A synthesizer (or synth) generates a noise waveform (there can be several according to their shape: sine, square, sawtooth, triangle..., each one with different characteristics) through one or more oscillators (which vary from synth to synth) and then applies a serie of processors (filters, modulations and so on) to shape it, so that the starting noise is twisted and turned until it sounds like a snare, a violin, any other instrument or a completely virtual sound that has nothing to do with any real world instrument.

Samplers obtain similar results with a totally different approach: instead of taking the original noise and, like a piece of stone, carving it until it sounds similar to the tone we have in mind, a sampler starts from the end: it takes a pre existing sound (a sample, like a piano key) and applies it, through a serie of techniques, to a keyboard or to any kind of sampler device we want.
The first prototype of a sampler was the Mellotron, which was a keyboard with every key tied to a tape mechanism which would reproduce a sound when hit.
Samplers can be considered as an evolution of synthesizers considering that the technology used in the early models were called "sample based synthesis", meaning that they were applying the tone shaping criteria of synths to a sample, instead of a noise.
Samplers became very popular in the '80s, when the producers discovered they could replace a drummer with drum samples obtaining a very fresh and specific type of electronic drum sound that still today dominates in pop and dance music, but it would be unfair to reduce them to that: with the recent technology, samplers are today capable of pre-loading extremely heavy sound libraries (we're talking about hundreds of GB of samples) containing any kind of articulation and variation, allowing us to create for example complex orchestrations to a level of detail that makes them completely impossible to tell from a real one, for an untrained ear.
In conclusion, what started with a single sample (due to the computing restrictions of that time), for example a single piano key that was applied, shifting the pitch, to the whole keyboard, is today a very heavy collection of many samples ("multisampling"), often with different dynamics in order to change sample also according to how hard or soft the key is pressed.

Are today synths still relevant?
OF COURSE THEY ARE! Besides the '80s revival that is dominating today's pop scene, there are certain vintage sounds, certain synthetic textures that can be achieved only by a synth, or if it's in a sampler, the sample is still created obviously with a synth.
The main difference between synths and samplers therefore is the application.
If we need a realistic sound, something that needs to be microphoned in the real world, a sampler is fundamental, while if we need a tone that sounds synthetic, computer generated, good for a science fiction soundtrack, a synth is the right choice, and luckily internet is full of Vst choices for every pocket, both free and paid, with literally an ocean of sounds to dive in.

I hope this was helpful!

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