The only comparison available, Gigasampler, runs on the PC, is twice the price and doesn’t offer all the synthesis capabilities of Unity. But the best reason to get Unity is its advantage over hardware samplers – virtually instantaneous loading and full integration with Mac sequencers and audio cards.
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The increased power of today’s CPUs have brought down the cost of many audio sampling applications. For six months now, Mac-owning musicians have watched enviously as the £600 Gigasampler program offered this to PC users (a rash few even bought a Pentium II just to be able to use this program). By using the hard drives as the online storage space and just loading the first few samples into RAM, it’s able to keep thousands of sampled sounds available for access from a MIDI keyboard or sampler. But no longer will any Mac-loving musician be forced to contemplate the unthinkable; indeed, Bitheadz’s Unity DS-1 may well cause defection in the other direction offering significantly more features than Gigasampler at half the price. The latest release from Bitheadz offers the same instant access to huge banks of sampled sounds. Clearly it’s doing the same kind of trick with hard-drive storage and memory buffers, as 8MB sound banks taking over a minute to load into a conventional sampler are ready to play a couple of seconds after selection. This makes Unity a lot more usable in a live scenario than traditional samplers which (even with a hard drive) could lead to embarrassing gaps between songs. Only when you want to edit a multisample do you have to wait the longer time for the entire thing to load into RAM. If the huge quantity of samples included on the CD isn’t enough for you (including banks from benchmark libraries like E-mu), and you haven’t time to make your own, then Unity’s ability to import programs from Akai CD will be crucial (it even imports the keyboard mapping). For those whose Mac-based sampling has previously been via Digidesign’s SampleCell, Unity can also read this data format directly. Other direct import sources include AIFF, SDI & SDII, CD-Audio and WAV files. Those who have the courage to make their own samples will find a phase-locked stereo record facility (vital to make sure that left and right channels stay in sync) complete with DSP functions like Normalise, Fade, Reverse and Crossfade Loop (ideal for economizing on memory). Once multisamples have been assigned across the keyboard, then you can apply all the Retro-style synthesis parameters. But comparison with Bitheadz’s other program does not end here. Like Retro, it has two insert and two master effects and can be used multitimbrally on 16 MIDI channels via the DS-1 Mixer. Unity also comes with direct Serial drivers as well as those for OMS and FreeMIDI, making its use with sequencers a breeze. The best thing we found was that it could be used side by side with Retro with Sound Manager handling the output of both programs perfectly. This highlighted Unity’s only downside, its heavy CPU usage (especially to achieve the theoretical 64-voice maximum polyphony). Fortunately, Unity’s Control Panel lets you limit polyphony and CPU usage to avoid encroaching on other programs (particularly important when running sequencer, Retro and Unity all together). Outputting at higher quality than the Mac’s mini-jacks is not restricted to Sound Manager-compatible PCI cards. Individual outputs are available via Digidesign Direct IO, but Version 1.03 (recently posted on the Bitheadz Web site), adds Steinberg ASIO driver support, also allowing multi-channel input/output. A brief test with the Korg 1212I/O showed the first eight MIDI channels assigned to separate outputs.