SampleCell II

The Digidesign SampleCell II was a 16-bit sampler on a NuBus card for 68k and early PowerPC Macs (so their big/professional desktops from 1988-1995 or so). Later a PCI version was made. You need a different editor (version 3) for the PCI card, but it doesn't appear to have many more features.

The card takes its own memory for samples (up to 32MB) and has 8 audio outputs on four stereo jacks. It also has a TDM port, so you can connect it to a ProTools system in the same machine if you have it. I think the software is capable of talking to more cards at once, for more voices - I think it's 16 voice polyphony per card but I don't remember.

You use the editing software to load samples and edit parameters, and the feel is quite like a modern software sampler. Sample upload is very fast. It has a lowpass filter and envelopes and some limited modulation options. It doesn't seem like an incredibly deep sampler to me, but at the time I think it was up against something like an Akai S900 or S1000.

The card shows up as a MIDI destination in OMS, so any MIDI sequencer running on the machine can trigger it. I haven't measured latencies but I'm not very sensitive to that. My techie intuition tells me it should be quite snappy, though, since it's on a nice fast bus and not actual serial MIDI, but they might have fucked it up somehow, of course.

Later versions of TurboSynth integrate seamlessly with the SampleCell - you just tell it to automatically upload the sample to the card, and then when you change something in TurboSynth, the new version of the sample is uploaded with very little delay. Not realtime editing for performance, but quite close enough to be used during composition I'd say. To me, that's where both TurboSynth and the SampleCell really shine. You can also just load the card with Bob Clearmountain Drums, and it's very authentic, but perhaps not so interesting.

My SampleCell has the optional TDM hardware add-on, which allows you to connect it internally with a cable to a similar-vintage ProTools system. I have the simplest 2-card Nubus TDM system consisting of a Disk I/O card and a single DSP Farm. Connecting the SampleCell to the ProTools cards means it shows up as 8 inputs in the ProTools mixer, like the busses or hardware audio inputs. The integration is seamless, you can record the output, or run it live through your ProTools interface, and apply TDM effects. My two-card system will run up to four mono effects at a time, one for each physical DSP on the card. There are quite a lot of effects, but a lot (like Amp Farm) were made for newer, PCI-only ProTools Mix systems. ProTools dropped support for the Nubus cards with version 4.3 in 1997 or 1998. ProTools 4 is a big step up from ProTools 3, since it includes a lot of the functions that you'd previously have to move over to SoundDesigner for, like reversing and changing gain.

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Screenshot 2 An empty bank.

Screenshot 3 Creating a new instrument in the bank.

Screenshot 4 The bank overview looks like a mixer. The four buttons above the pan control select which stereo out to route the instrument to.

Screenshot 5 Here we can add samples and map them across the keys.

Screenshot 8 Envelope controls. Gate time allows holding an envelope open for some fixed time before releasing, regardless of key-up.

Screenshot 6 Various settings, including the filter.

Screenshot 9 The modulation matrix.

Screenshot 10 LFOs and "ramp" (for generating slides).

Screenshot 13 "Trackers". The trackers allow you to scale another modifier. Examples include adding more vibrato based on pitch.

Screenshot 14 Sample parameters.

Screenshot 15 Simple waveform editor and visual loop point finder.

Screenshot 1 The OS, sequencer (M), and SampleCell editor are all running in just over 8 megabytes of RAM, with Turbosynth allocated a further 8MB for working with the samples that then get sent to the card.

History of this document

Nov 29, 2020 - Added more information about ProTools integration. Apr 10, 2020 - Initial publication.