There’s no question that the iPad has become a superb tool for artists of all kinds, including professional musicians, who have been spoiled by the presence of robust apps for audio development.
As the iPad becomes increasingly powerful, developers are becoming more ambitious with their designs, as evidenced by the realtime sample manipulation app, Samplr. But does their reach exceed their grasp?
For those unfamiliar with the notion of sampling, it involves taking recordings of audio — whether from an instrument, a song or a random sound — and manipulating it in various ways in order to fit it into a new musical context.
Samplr is something of a toolbox; it is a collection of sample manipulation tools packaged together in the form of an integrated kit with effects, layers and a basic envelope system. While it attempts to remain accessible even to those who are just looking for something to play with, Samplr offers enough tinkering capabilities to serve more advanced digital audio professionals as well.
Before you can do anything with the app, Samplr will walk you through its functionality in a brief and informative tutorial. It aims to explain what each component of the interface is responsible for, and while the visual hierarchy of elements could be clearer, the interface is easy to navigate once you get a grip on things.
Along the top, you have buttons for accessing project settings (opening, saving, etc.), adjusting tempo and volume, as well as activating the helpful tutorial again. Immediately below that are the sample tools.
The largest portion of the interface is of course the visual waveform representation and the slightly smaller effects circle in the upper right. Finally, along the bottom are the sample “tabs,” which function like layers in Photoshop.
The bottom row also contains the main Play button and a button for the Master Out, where you can configure the effects that will pertain to all layers at once.
With the power of apps like Animoog or Auria, it’s unsurprising that Samplr is deeper than it looks on the surface. The layer tabs mean that you can make use of any of its seven tools to perform live or recorded manipulations on up to six layers of audio simultaneously for a rich soundscape.
Each of Samplr’s tools offers a different form of inspiration, so let’s take a moment to walk through them.
The first of the tools is known as the Slicer mode, and it allows you to set up markers that define slices of a sample. These slices can then be played with a tap or set to auto-trigger at the project’s tempo. There’s also a handy shuffle button that allows you to have the auto trigger pick slices in a random order instead of in sequence.
Also note that tapping higher on the slice will trigger it at a higher volume, similar to the way Animoog’s keyboard works.
Easily one of the most entertaining tools, the Looper is a multitouch function that requires you use two fingers to define a range of audio that is then looped. You can stretch and shrink with pinching gestures to alter the loop length, cross one finger over the other to have the loop reverse and use the quantize button to adjust loop lengths to your project tempo.
One other button to note in Looper mode is the Ping-Pong button, which will cause your loop to play forward and then backward alternatingly — awesome for eerie effects, especially with vocals.
Similar to the Looper, E-Bow also works with looping segments of your sample, but instead of defining the range by pinching with two fingers, you activate the loop with a single finger and adjust its size with a slider on the interface.
This allows you to define a range and then use two (or more) fingers in the sample area to play several looping segments simultaneously on the same sample. It’s unfortunate that you cannot activate Ping-Pong mode here, as it would allow for even crazier effects.
One of the simplest modes, Tape allows you to slide your finger to the left or right of the sample area’s middle line in order to control the sample playback. Slide toward the right to play it forward; the further to the left you pull, the faster it will play, looping from the start once it reaches the end.
Slide to the left and you’ll play the sample in reverse. Here again, the higher you place your finger, the louder the playback.
In Scratch mode, you still slide your finger over the sample to trigger playback, but now the playback follows your finger in realtime. If you prefer, you can lock it to original sample speed, allowing you to simply play the sample from wherever you place your finger, forwards or backwards.
There’s a Mute functionality that can be used in this mode to produce interesting stutter effects, though it must be done manually and cannot be locked to tempo or automated.
As you’d expect, the keyboard mode maps the loaded sample across a virtual keyboard, allowing you to play it like an instrument. The same control of volume via tap height is in place, and there’s an Attack Quantization button to help fit the sample start more cleanly to your tempo.
While a Legato button is provided, it can be difficult to perceive its effects unless you turn the Release slider of the envelope down.
The final tool is the most basic: a loop player. It has almost no controls and will simply loop the sample over and over again — useful for a backing track or drum beat.
Layers & Effects
Samplr’s output really begins to shine when you start using several tabs at once. By loading up multiple samples (or the same sample multiple times) and creating loops, you can make use of the tools extensively to sculpt and design fascinating soundscapes out of even the most mundane of sources.
To help glue everything together or mangle it further, there are five available effects: Distortion, Filter, Amplitude Modulation (essentially a Bandpass Filter or EQ sweep), Feedback Delay and Reverb. The effects all make use of an X/Y pad for control, and the fact that they can be activated on a per-sample basis as well as on the Master output makes them tremendously powerful.
Room For Improvement
While largely successful as a musical playground and sample manipulation toolkit, there are some areas in which Samplr fell below my expectations. Specifically, the interface seems so determined to remain consistent that it sacrifices usability in perplexing ways. There is poor differentiation between sections of the interface, the icon labels for the effects buttons are unintuitive at best and instead of focusing on making the most common controls for each mode easy to use and access, the focus seems to have been on making sure they fit into the same cramped column.
Similarly, for more serious tweakheads like myself, a bit more control over certain aspects of the tools would have been much appreciated. For example, having a Decay and/or Sustain slider in the envelope section would have been useful, as would the ability to perhaps flip the Effects circle around to adjust settings for each effect and then flip back to the X/Y pad to actually control them.
Likewise, the inability to reverse samples on a per-slice basis in Slicer mode is an unfortunate ommission since you can only have all the slices reversed or none, and must therefore load the same sample into two different tabs if you want to alternate.
One final idea for improvement is the ability to tap the tempo icon to define the project tempo. It’s relatively rare that a musician will know the precise tempo they want to work with if they’re just sketching an idea, so the ability to simply tap along to the beat in their head would make it quicker to set things up.
Overall, Samplr is certainly one of the most capable, enjoyable and rewarding audio tools to hit the App Store in recent memory, and will serve most users perfectly well in its current form.
As more tweaks and updates are made, the app can only get better, and despite my reservations and wishes for deeper tweaking power, the fact that it’s so easy to make something and save it (via iTunes) for further use is extremely compelling.
As an audio scratchpad and sound design tool for the modern digital musician, Samplr gets a glowing recommendation.