You may know Italy’s IK Multimedia from their range of popular mobile interfaces, such as the iRig or StealthPlug, or maybe from Amplitube, their amp sim plugin, a lite version of which which ships with many DAWs. I first heard of SampleTank for the same reason, because my first Pro Tools LE rig came with a free download of it with a limited number of sounds. Those limited sounds ended up getting a fair amount of use, partially because I couldn’t afford to pay to download more, and partially because they sounded so good and were so easy to use. This was 8 years ago.
Fast forward to today, and SampleTank has come a long way. They were the first ever virtual instrument plugin for your DAW, but they haven’t been resting on their laurels and counting their Euros. The shortcoming of the original SampleTank was the interface – it was tiny, red, and hard to look at. SampleTank 3 is leaps and bounds better looking, bigger, and easier to use. It also comes with a staggering 33 gigs of sounds, which will take you a good number of hours to download, so be prepared for that. This isn’t a VI for the faint of heart.
The ST3 interface is now a big, friendly square, with 3 tabs (Play, Mix, Edit) which allow you to easily find and load sounds by type, apply a myriad of effects, and tweak the parameters of the sample natively. I found it very easy to use, which is certainly one of it’s strong points. Mixing drums within the plugin was pretty easy, and although the effects weren’t as versatile as using a separate plugin, they sounded great and were simple as could be.
I found the sounds to be pretty good. I think that because it’s meant to be a comprehensive library, with every type of instrument sampled, that perhaps the realism of some of the instruments suffers. A lot of the sounds are very clean, perhaps too clean, almost sterile to a point, but there sure are a lot of them. The best ones I found in terms of realism were the drums, the pianos, and the electric basses. There was also an impressive collection of dance-y synths, some of which I liked a lot.
Just like having a collection of amp sims in your AxeFx, you may not have a use for 90% of them most of the time. But when you’re producing for various different types of artists, or soundtrack work, or wherever your wacky musical journey takes you, you might have a serious need for a shamisen, or koto, or something you might not use everyday, and you don’t wan’t to have to download a dedicated sampler that might cost an arm and a leg. For what ST3 costs, you’ll get a LOT of use out of it. It’s a Swiss Army knife, not a scalpel.
For metal, it’s extremely usable. I used it to produce 2 tracks, one Angra-style speedy power metal jam, and a neo-prog djenty tune with some ambient synth sounds that were reminiscent of the Metroid: Prime soundtrack. All the sounds you hear are from SampleTank, with the exception of the guitars, which I recorded direct using IK’s AmpliTube Custom shop. I mixed and mastered the tracks using only IK plugins from their T-Racks Custom Shop collection.
The AmpliTube and T-Racks Custom Shop is also extremely cool. The AmpliTube plugin is free, and then you just download amp models, cabs, mics, stompboxes and rack effects ala carte. This seems like it could get expensive, but you have the option to try out anything they sell for 72 hours, so you can piece together your virtual dream rig and decide if you actually like it or not. Also, if you compare the cost to a hardware amp modeler, the savings is significant. I also discovered the advantage of a plugin modeler, in recording just a DI track and having the modeler directly on the track, you can tweak the sound as needed, in real time, without having to reamp through an external device every time you want to change it. The models are also approved by the actual companies that make them, so the layout is the same, all the controls are identical, and the sound is terrifyingly close to the actual piece of gear that’s being modeled. I used an Engl Powerball that sounded pretty spectacular, and pretty damn close to the real thing. I discovered also that you can save a bundle by downloading bundles of models or plugins, called Collections. These usually include (for AmpliTube) a host of amp sims, mics, effects, and cabs, for a lot cheaper than if you were to buy them individually. The same for T-Racks plugins, I got the Deluxe collection to mix and master the tracks, and it came with 9 EQs, compressors, limiters, and a metering section. Overall I was very impressed with the Custom Shop.
If you’re looking for Superior Drummer quality drum editing capability and sounds, this isn’t it. There’s exactly one kit for each style of drums, and the editing isn’t anywhere near as flexible. But the metal kit that it comes with does sound really good, and with a little tweaking, you can make it sound huge. Its strength lies in its simplicity, rather than power. For a drumkit in a sample library though, it’s fantastic.
SampleTank 3 is $299, with discounted upgrades and crossgrades available. For that price, it’s a powerhouse of sounds and effects. IK Multimedia wants your in-the-box production to be on their ground, and they’re making it more and more enticing every year. For the price, it’s the one to beat.