My Sample-Libraries of Choice
Following my recent Blog about Hardwave Vs. Software, I thought it was a good time to discuss sample-libraries, what I use and why I consider them to sit outside the Hardware/Software debate.
Unlike software, sample-libraries can't be made redundant by software updates. Sure, samplers can, but the sounds they sample have much more permanence to them, as worst case scenario, if your sampler becomes defunct, you can use a different or updated sampler and load your samples into that*.
*Some sample-libraries have bespoke software instruments, which may prove problematic if they become defunct by software updates, as the samples will be encoded for that software instrument and not in universal WAV or AIFF formats - something to keep in mind. Side-note to that is, sometimes, clever people on the Internet find ways to convert bespoke sample library codecs into WAV/AIFF formats and a little research can (in some instances) go a long way ;-)
Unlike hardware, sample-libraries can be extremely cheap, even free, and there is an enormous slew of brilliant, free sample-libraries available. Furthermore, they're digital/virtual and so you're only limited by hard drive availability, unlike keyboards that need stands, cables, audio interfaces and physical space in your studio. All you need for a sample-library is some hard drive space (I opt for an external (USB3) hard drive and keep backups on further HDDs).
My "Paid" Sample-Libraries
Logic Pro - I'll include Logic Pro in this write up, as whilst being a DAW, it comes with somewhere in the region of 80+GB of royalty free samples, which is a great educational tool and/or very helpful when it comes to brass, strings, drums, percussion, etc. I periodically use some of Logic Pro's sample-library for percussion and some drum samples. I also like Logic's fairly new Studio Strings which I tend to layer with either strings from my Jupiter-50, strings from The Piano Book and/or LABS (more on that below).
Native Instruments Battery 4 - For a very long time, because Logic's only meaningful drum-orientated sampler was Ultrabeat (which I can't stand), I used Native Instruments Battery 3 and later, upgraded Battery 4. This is a solid, versatile, drum-orientated sampler with a large sample-library. The Native Instruments website can tell you more about it than I could, so by all means check it out.
Side-note: I upgraded to Big Sur on a new, M1 mac in July and Battery 4 wasn't yet compatible. I resorted to using Logic's new Drum Machine Designer, which appears to be a bit of a rip-off/copy of Battery, but it adequately fills the gap left by Battery 4's absence. At the time of writing this article, Battery 4 has just been made compatible with M1 Macs and so I will switch back to using it. This experience however, has given me a newfound appreciation for Logic's Drum Machine Designer, as I used it for an entire video-game soundtrack without problem. If you're a Logic user, I believe Drum Machine Designer has made it very difficult to justify purchasing Battery 4; it's not really necessary (I only use it as I already have it!).
The Kount - The Kount makes the most delicious, dirty, lo-fi-hip-hop and Funk sample-libraries. They're relatively inexpensive and add some serious sass and warmth to your drums. He also posts little beat videos almost daily on his social media and is well worth a follow as his beats always slap hard, and liven up your Twitter feed! I recently purchased a couple of his sample-packs to experiment and play around with (and they have found their way into a yet-to-be-released, 30-minute mini-album project).
My "Free" Sample-Libraries
This is where things get interesting, in my opinion. This is probably less about what free sample-libraries I have and more about an ethos, awareness of, or just keeping your ear to the ground for free sample-libraries.
Freebies & Handouts - For a long time, I've adopted a tactic of keeping an eye out for free sample-pack giveaways from established sample-pack producers and sample-retail websites. On one hand this means following sample-pack companies (like Splice, Loopmasters, etc) on social media or subscribing to their mailing list, which can be a bore, but it means you stay informed of whenever they're doing giveaways.
I also periodically browse music production forums where it's possible to find threads in which people post links to legitimately free sample-packs.
Typically these sample-packs are scaled-down or just "tasters", intended to encourage you to buy the full pack. However, I always resist temptation to buy the full packs, as my sample-library is getting almost unmanageably large.
I've been doing this now for over a decade and have amassed somewhere in the region of 50+GB of mostly drums/percussion (with an additional 25GB or so of vintage synth samples as well). Being entirely honest, I've not used much of it, but it's nice to have should I feel like experimenting, or receive a commission requiring something a little different or unusual.
Spitfire Audio LABS - This is an awesome, free sample-library (with bespoke sampler plug-in) from Spitfire Audio (an industry-leading sample-library manufacture - they specialise mostly in orchestral sample-packs). They periodically update LABS with new instruments and have an app that takes care of updating and installing (it's all very easy to use and intuitive). Predominantly acoustic, ambient and experimental sounds, LABS has proven to be a valuable source of texture and inspiration, as well as lending some real authenticity to synth-strings by layering their very textured string patches atop of some string sounds on my Jupiter-50 and/or Logic's Studio Strings.
The Piano Book - Founded by the man behind Spitfire Audio, The Piano Book is an open source community of musicians and recording engineers who started out sampling interesting, weird, wonderful and everyday pianos, uploading sampler instruments (mostly Kontakt and EXS24) to The Piano Book website.
Over time, the community has grown and branched out from just pianos to sampling just about anything. They have categories for conventional instruments, as well as strange, textural sounds and found-sounds.
Side-note: since writing this blog, The Piano Book has launched its version 3.0 website with renewed user interface and therefore may look different to what's pictured on the right.
A proportion of the instruments are only available for Kontakt, meaning if you wanted to use them without Kontakt, you'd need to download the samples and assign them to your sampler of choice. In some cases this is a quick and straight forward job, however in other instances, this can be a large job, as some of the sampler-instruments have many notes and velocity layers to configure.
Many of their instruments are also available for EXS24 (and Logic's new Sampler), so Logic users (such as myself) are also catered for.
If you have neither Logic or Kontakt, don't worry...
The Piano Book community member, and all round legend Frédéric Poirier worked with his brother (a computer coder) to write transcription/translation code for EXS24-to-Decent. Decent Sampler is a completely free sampler, and now all the EXS24 sample-packs on The Piano Book are also available for the Decent Sampler.
Furthermore, in a recent video blog, Poirier mentioned he and his brother were working on something to translate Kontakt into Decent, meaning hopefully soon, all of The Piano Book content (which is free) will be available, pre-configured for use on a totally free sampler (saving you from having to download the samples and configure them with your own sampler; which can a big job for some instruments, as some are multi-sample, multi-velocity packs).
Side-note: Whilst I've downloaded all of the The Piano Book's EXS24 compatible content (and it's a lot of stuff) a few instruments needed a little tidying up to finesse sample start/end points and some had blemishes which needed to be removed with some very fine editing work in Logic. But it's free, so I'm not complaining, just letting you know it's worth vetting each instrument once it's installed.
LABS and The Piano Book are the backbone of a lot of the sound design on my ambient work, and I'm planning a project for 2022 which aims to meet in the middle, between my Synthwave and ambient music, and no doubt The Piano Book and LABS sample-libraries will come in handy again.
Why Sample-Libraries (Creatively Speaking)?
In my previous article about Hardware Vs. Software I mentioned the benefits and merits of having one or two slightly unusual/uncommon bits of equipment in your arsenal of instruments to help bring some uniqueness and distinctiveness to your work. A selection of unusual, interesting or uncharacteristic (for your genre) samples can also be a powerful way of bringing some diversity and newness to your work. Better still, if it's a free sample-library, you've done so without spending any money.
Furthermore, a personal sample-library such as this can be constantly added to and continually curated. You can even get busy and create your own samples if you have access to recording equipment and/or some studio space. Maybe you could even share sample-libraries that you make yourself on The Piano Book. It's something I've been meaning to get around to, and at the time of writing this, I'm piecing together a sample library of an unusual instrument I've come into possession of, that I'm hoping to upload to The Piano Book in the near future.
To Sum Up
If you've read my other articles about instruments and equipment, you have probably realised that I really don't like the culture of "you need this particular instrument" or "you should only use this particular software". I've said it before and I'll say it again: If we all used the same equipment/instruments/software-instruments/sample-libraries, that would be really boring. Variety and diversity is what makes independent music so great and at no point should anyone feel under pressure to spend money (they perhaps don't have) in order to attain their uniqueness.
Utilise whatever equipment you have and exercise wit, be savvy, research and enquire. Work within your financial means to advance your creativity and don't be afraid or put off by the limitations of your music-making equipment/setup. As mentioned previous articles, too much choice can lead to stagnation and sometimes, having a select few things to delve into in a meaningful way will more likely yield positive results.
Now go get sampling and happy music making!
Steve (OSC) :-)