Just launched on Kickstarter from Synesthesia is Pipes, a hardware sample player that comes with all the sounds loaded, 64 voices, a touchscreen interface and Zero Discernable Latency (ZDL) technology.
It’s designed to be a rugged, reliable sound source for live performance and studio applications. You get a tablet interface with one big shiny knob housed in a decent case with a nicely retro colour scheme. Cheaper and more robust than a laptop and audio interface they say it outperforms any sampler, workstation or software solution.
The key feature, I think, is the “Parallel Access ZDL” which means that all the instruments, all the multi-GB sample sets are available instantly because they are always loaded. To help with this they have developed their own sample file format called MDA. It’s a container file for “containing as many samples as necessary to faithfully replicate an instrument”. They say it contains special parameters which allow for fully sampled drums which sets them apart from other compiled formats. It’s difficult to know exactly how these differ from EXS or NKI formats but apparently MDA is just a lot more awesome. There are tools to convert these other formats into MDA to use with the Pipes.
Pipes can handle lots of simultaneous inputs. There’s MIDI on the back but also 3 USB ports for USB controllers including MPE controllers. Any devices you connect can be assigned to and play their own instruments up to a combined polyphony of 64 voices. The output is 48kHz and 24bit with a balanced stereo output and S/PDIF. But that’s it, a stereo output. That seems really weird to me. Hardware samplers generally have multiple outputs so that you can mix and treat different output channels through a desk. If you have multiple controllers attached playing individual instruments then you are going to want to have mix control and possibly monitoring and routing control over those sounds. It doesn’t even appear to have a USB connection to a computer for streaming into a DAW. Oh well, I guess you mix on the touchscreen.
Pipes also has Wi-Fi and Bluetooth built in for adding peripherals and for transferring files.
The system is controlled by a 7″ touchscreen on an open source platform. That’s about all we have on the interface at the moment. The “exhaustive FAQ section on our Kickstarter Campaign page” is sadly empty.
Tweakers and effects
Pipes comes loaded with MIDI and audio effects. They call the MIDI effects Tweakers and include things like arpeggiators, benders, “PitchFlux”, “VelFlux” and other creative triggering utilities. These are built in Pure Data and are open to the community for hacking for the creation of entirely new Tweakers. Audio effects include compression, overdrive, delay, modulation, filters and reverb. All of this will be managed via the touchscreen. One of the reasons for the name Pipes is because you can setup sounds across a keyboard as “pipelines”. Similar to layers – very similar to layers – but where each sound can have it’s own tweakers and effects.
Ultimately it all comes down to the quality of those sample-based instruments. Their MDA format certainly has the ability to offer detailed captures of real instruments. There’s lots of talk of positional and velocity layers and round-robins but I’m not exactly sure how that’s different from existing instruments. But are we looking at this for the included library or for the convenience of being able to run our own sampled instruments or existing library in a more gig-ready device? Here’s some sound examples:
Pipes is still about a year away in terms of the estimated delivery on Kickstarter, so there’s plenty of room for development. In many ways it’s good to see an interesting product floated to fund development rather than simply taking preorders. There are 32GB or 128GB versions which by today’s library sizes actually seems a little small. I’m guessing that in order to achieve the “everything loaded” aspect then they are having to use memory rather than disk streaming which would put Terabyte sizes out of reach. But 32GB is plenty for most of us. The 32GB version starts at £399, the 128GB $499 but there are still some 128GB Founders Club Special Edition Pipes available (at the time of writing) for $399.
It’s a potentially exciting device and will certainly tick the boxes for a lot of people. The instant access to sounds being the outstanding feature as far as I’m concerned. I’d like to see more about the interface and workflow and hopefully those things will come. They’ve managed to produce a professional looking promo video for Kickstarter but without demonstrating the workflow of the machine at all. This video from NAMM, with an earlier prototype, does a better job of getting the concept across.