The art of sampling and modern sound manipulation is still in its waking hours relative to the universal day that encompasses the history of music. But that dawn is passing, and the sample capabilities of the Top Virtual Studio Technology (VST) Samplers are currently at the peak of our imagination.
What began as physical, tonal manipulations of a recorded sound, has evolved into software using samples to completely alter our concept of an instrument’s sonic character. The doors of the instrumental multiverse are wide open, and today’s software sampling capabilities are on target with what sample technology has always been shooting for.
“Sampling is a new way of doing something that’s been with us for a long time. The mix breaks free from the old associations. New contexts form from old. The script gets flipped. The languages evolve and learn to speak in new forms, new thoughts. The sound of thought becomes legible again at the edge of the new meanings.” – DJ Spooky
Samples Through Time
The concept of taking a recorded sample of a sound and then manipulating it for an altered effect can essentially be traced back to the musique concrète movement in France during the Second World War. Emerging from French radiophonist Pierre Schaeffer’s desire to create music from concrete objects, he realized he could take some of the effects being used in experimental film and implement them into audio tape manipulation.
Using tape loops and splicing a variety of different sounds and voices together, Schaeffer was able to create novel sonic collages from familiar sounds. And it was the possibilities for the unfaithful reproduction of those recordings within these collages that would define the sound: creating both a whole new avant-garde genre of music as well as adding a whole new sonic palette to traditional song composition.
It would be another 20 years before tape-manipulation was available to the public, and that came in the form of the Mellotron. The first keyboard-driven tape instrument had actual tape reels cycling within, with individual recordings of each note. There’s really never been anything like it. Those weird flutes at the beginning of “Strawberry Fields”? Those engine hums on “Space Oddity”? Those alien strings on Zeppelin’s “Rain Song”? All Mellotron.
The next evolution in sample-based instrumentation arrived yet another two decades later with the release of the Fairlight CMI’s rise to prominence in the early 80’s. Even though it’s got enough hardware to look like something Dabney Coleman should be using to ignite the Cold War (stay fresh on those Dabney Coleman references, kids) it uses all that space to house a fully embedded sampler. In fact, Fairlight is credited for coining the term “sampling.”
So cut a few decades ahead to the present, and now the capabilities of that massive Fairlight CMI pale in comparison to the feature set of downloadable VST Sampler software. The Top Sample VSTs are fully changing the possibility of what sound itself can be in relation to what humans have known it to be.
Today’s sampler plug-ins still use actual recordings (samples) as their foundation, but the way that digital audio can be altered and manipulated is nearly limitless. Filters, compression, instrument stacking, and many other techniques formerly only capable via synthesizers or painstaking manual tape manipulation can now be applied to these rich, natural sounds. There are nearly infinite options in terms of sample plug-in software, so here’s our list of the top VST Samplers for 2023, with an overview of the standout capabilities for each sample plug-in.
Top 5 VST samplers for 2023
1) Lunacy’s CUBE
We don’t mean to brag, but not including CUBE on this list would be a disservice to the music community. CUBE smells nice, is polite to your mother, and is always surrounded by puppies. More importantly, its elegant approach to sampling makes it a deserving inclusion on any Top VST sampler list.
Compared with our VST sampler brethren, CUBE feels more like an instrument unto itself than just a software addition to your studio. An innovative and intuitive 3D interface combined with near-limitless potential for tonal manipulation make CUBE’s sample-centric capabilities both something you can understand from day one, yet would need several lifetimes to fully explore.
Massive Sample Library
The overall quality of a sampler VST depends on the quality of the samples themselves. That’s why CUBE starts with high-fidelity samples recorded with state-of-the-art equipment at top professional studios. CUBE’s massive sample library includes 6,000 individual sound samples, layered and processed to create 500 unique sampled instrument presets. Each preset includes up to 8 sound sources, with 2 unique samples per sound source. The result is a massive sonic palette that includes pads, basses, pulses, plucks, keys, and much more.
CUBE’s expansion packs continue to add to its ever-growing sonic possibilities, with Air’s breath-taking hybrid wind textures and Threads’ refreshing new take on strings. The textural and atmospheric samples CUBE offers go beyond traditional instrumentation to put it in a league of its own.
Seamless User Samples and SFZ Imports
From day one, CUBE users have loved the ability to easily load their own samples into CUBE and then create a truly custom, new timbre. Whether it’s a unique found sound recording, a royalty-free sample from a bygone era, a high-fidelity recording of the user’s favorite instrument, or anything in between, user-generated samples can be loaded into one (or many) of the corners of the CUBE for manipulation and further processing. This feature allows users to sculpt their own samples within CUBE by simply dragging and dropping it into the interface.
The ability to import SFZ multi-sampled instruments is also a huge benefit. This feature allows you to use anything from PianoBook or other popular multi-sampled instrument platforms right within the CUBE engine, without the hassles and technical mapping hurdles that users experience with many other sample VSTs.
While other VSTs opt to mimic traditional analog interfaces, CUBE uses a unique 3-dimensional interface that makes you feel like you are inside the CUBE.
The “Main” section offers a handful of intuitive, easy sample manipulation controls: an “Ether” slider that fades between the two samples in each sound source, a “Macro” knob pre-programmed to change multiple parameters simultaneously, and a global low-pass filter. The “Orbit” section enables seamless morphing between the sound sources, with over 50 preset orb paths and several orbit customization features. The “Effects” section includes filter, EQ, distortion, dynamics (compression), chorus, delay, reverb, and limiter to further sculpt the sound samples, while the “Mod” section supports advanced modulation with up to 16 modulation assignment options.
With its seamless interface, CUBE enables the user to feel like an extension of the instrument itself.
Extensive Sample Manipulation
The “Sounds” section is where CUBE’s advanced sampling capabilities live. The overview shows which sound sources are active, with the ability to load up to 8 sound sources, and includes a global volume control and envelope. Clicking on a specific sound source activates deeper sample editing: samples can be reversed, looped (or kept to a one-shot), and set to monophonic. Sample playback can be altered to start at any part of the waveform.
A sample-specific envelope can adjust the sample’s amplitude contour. Tone options offer hi-pass, low-pass, and formant filters. Panning lets you play with the stereo field, while tuning allows you to shift the sample’s pitch by semitones up to an octave lower or higher. You can tweak the sample further by adjusting loop times and enabling the arpeggiator, with intuitive settings for length, velocity, and pitch per arp step.
In terms of the ability to create something entirely new out of original samples, CUBE takes the cake. Starting with the richness of the samples themselves, CUBE’s sample editing options give users an unparalleled ability to create sounds that no one has ever heard before, making it truly stand out amongst a wide array of other amazing VST Samplers.
2) Native Instruments’ KONTAKT 6
As the industry leader for sample platforms, much of the allure of KONTAKT is due to its simplicity. With more than 55GB of sampled and modulated instruments in its factory library (not to mention countless third party libraries), KONTAKT offers the largest selection of sampled instruments on the market. Combined with extremely user-friendly interface and search functionality, KONTAKT is the surefire way to find that exact sound you’re looking for.
When many folks are looking for a sample VST, they want something with a shallow learning curve. KONTAKT has a complete menu of effects and articulations presented in a clean user interface, so there’s less fumbling with drop-down tabs to dial in that sound you’re looking for.
Deep Sample Library and Custom Instruments
The enduring popularity of KONTAKT is in large part due to the strength of its factory sample library. KONTAKT provides users a dizzying array of instrumentation options spanning classic symphony instruments, choirs, analog synths, drum machines, world music instruments, and everything in between.
KONTAKT raised the stakes further with their version 6, which offers three pre-crafted instruments in their Play Series: Analog Dreams, Hybrid Keys, and Ethereal Earth. Each of these instruments was built from combining two morphable sound layers, and then optimized for easy playability with intelligently-mapped macro knobs for intuitive controls. The detail that went into their development allows for life to spring forth from these presets that would have never been possible in a non-sample based synthesizer.
Powerful Processing and Effects
KONTAKT offers a wide array of sample manipulation prior to the signal hitting the instrument, with eight separate modules on its main effects chain. You can also change the order of any effects within the chain, allowing for a vast spectrum of sound dependent on how the effects play off one another.
KONTAKT’s post-signal processing options are also extensive. In addition to the compressors, limiters, and other EQ that the majority of these VSTs all possess, KONTAKT also offers unique effect features. Their Supercharger GT is a tube compressor that can add a wide range of textures, spanning warmth, grit, and more. They also offer numerous delay modes through their Replika Delay, a transparent limiter to eliminate potential clipping, 3-mode reverb options, and a Mod Pack to send you deep into the modulation rabbit hole.
Extensive Developer Tools
Third party developers of sample libraries and sampled instruments have a host of tools at their disposal within the KONTAKT ecosystem. KONTAKT’s Creator Tools is an application aimed at improving developer workflows, with assorted tools to help refine scripting processes, automap samples and groupings, copy settings between instruments, organize project assets, and much more.
While KONTAKT definitely allows for creation and experimentation, their real strength lies in delivering that sound you already hear in your head. And in many ways, it feels like an essential VST sampler for anyone who wants to have everything at their fingertips.
3) Spectrasonics’ Omnisphere 2.8
Spectrasonics first launched their flagship VST in 2008, and it has evolved through various incarnations since then. No software stays at the top of the game for 14 years unless they a) have a dedicated following, or b) constantly evolve their product to meet the evolving needs of the market. Omnisphere has both.
With a powerful feature set included in its latest upgrade, Omnisphere is one of the pricier options on the market, but the hardware integration possibilities alone can make it well worth the price tag for music makers looking for deep hybrid sampling.
Hardware Synth Integration
What distinguishes Omnisphere from other VSTs is its Hardware Synth Integration. This feature bridges the gap between software and hardware by allowing users to rely on the familiar layout of their preferred hardware synth to control Omnisphere’s parameters. It is notable in that no other platform has even attempted it.
Omnisphere’s Hardware Synth Integration feature is able to transform over 65 physical, hardware synthesizers into physical controllers of the Omnisphere software. Far beyond a simple MIDI controller, the Spectrasonics software is actually designed to respond in real time to the physical controls of whatever keyboard is being used, and have the software react accordingly to what the controls would do on the physical hardware. It’s augmented reality at its finest.
Vast Patch Library and Synth Capabilities
With thousands of sample patches with the Omnisphere, its “hardware library” was forged through that same Hardware Synth Integration technology. That means that the samples were not only taken from classic hardware synthesizer instruments, but they were crafted to work in tandem with the integrated software and hardware. That means these samples were built from the ground up to respond identically to how the original hardware would respond, yet go further with the possibilities of Omnisphere’s software.
Akin to a two-dimensional version of CUBE’s Orbit, the Orb is a visual guide for sonic manipulation. Looking like an Atari dartboard, the bullseye represents the original patch. The character of the original sound then changes significantly when the dart strays closer to the outer reaches of the circle. The Orb’s two dimensions of sonic-shaping options give users a broad range of possibilities to experiment with and dial in their sound.
Spectrasonics’ Omnisphere has long established itself as a cornerstone of the Sample VST market, and their ability to evolve and adapt means they’re not going anywhere soon. There’s a solid chunk of producers and creators out there who built a relationship with Omnisphere strong enough that they don’t have a need or desire to try any other platform.
4) Output’s Arcade
Arcade is unique in that it’s designed to push your creative boundaries when you need that little spark. Arcade still gives you the ability to start from scratch, record your own samples, and integrate into Arcade’s own lines. But one of Arcade’s key strengths is how immediate and effortless it makes music production. With its carefully curated combination of sampler kits and intuitive modifiers, you can tweak a few loops and get a full-fledged track going in minutes.
Arcade propagates inspiration, and a solid chunk of beats you’re hearing on the radio and scores on notable films and television series were birthed on Output’s platform.
Arcade includes 4,000 sampler kits that can be filtered by genre, tempo, instrumentation, and atmosphere to quickly add some color to a blank canvas. But the Output team’s curation skills are on full display with their 40+ “lines”: collections of samples and/or loops that align with a common theme or musical idea.
Recommendations on appropriate tempos per kit or line create an instant picture of what Output had in mind for it, but from there the user can manipulate it however they see fit. Even when firing up Arcade with an idea in mind, it’s hard to resist the temptation of jumping into one of these kits and letting it take you wherever it takes you.
Modifiers and Tweak Options
Once you select a line or kit and start triggering loops within it, you’re presented with incredibly intuitive “modifiers” to quickly change the sound. The “resequence” modifier slices and dices the sample sequence, the “playhead” modifier changes the speed, direction, and marker positions for all samples in a kit, and the “Repeater” modifier continuously repeats a segment of the sample. These modifiers give you easy yet endlessly fun options to add some zest to a track.
Then there’s the Tweak Menu, which allows editing of samples, modulation, effects, and modifier settings. These “advanced” sample editing features may seem somewhat basic to the experienced producer, but to someone new to the game it offers all the control you would want without being too intimidating. And again, the fact that all these modulations happen in a separate page could be frustrating to a rapid-fire creator, but the ability to focus all your tweaks on one sample allows for more direct control for the perfectionist.
Arcade is completely subscription based – currently only $10/month – and they offer a free 30-day trial that offers complete access to their full platform. At that price point, you are trading in some degrees of control compared to other platforms. But coupled with the directional pushes they provide, it does make Arcade the ideal software for the aspiring producer who wants to be creating before they fully grasp all the tools at their disposal.
Output’s Arcade really is the ideal software for someone new to the game who wants to produce something immediately. The great thing is that they help lead you through the door, but then what’s on the other side is up to you. It really harkens back memories of that first keyboard you ever had a chance to mess around with, and how amazing it felt to create something new from something that was already there.
5) Ableton’s Simpler and Sampler
We’ve been living in an Ableton world for over 20 years now, and most of us are ready to live here for at least another 20 more. Ableton’s digital audio workstation is all about the user being in full control with on-the-fly, live-oriented production features. That means the genre nudges and atmospheric suggestions that some of these other VST samplers provide don’t really apply to Ableton, and that’s OK.
In terms of sampling software, Ableton has two options: Simpler is free and is included in the original package, while Sampler is a paid add-on. The platform itself comes preloaded with basic sampled instruments and loops to get you started, and there are a couple dozen free sound packs you can download from their website for more variety. Both pieces of software are far more designed for manipulation of your own samples.
It’s all in the name: Simpler is a sample manipulation tool designed for ease and simplicity. That does mean that only one sample can be loaded at a time, but once loaded, all manipulatable parameters are present and accessible through one single panel.
Simpler takes advantage of Ableton Live’s warping features to stretch or shrink your samples to match the tempo of your track. It includes 3 modes: Classic Mode is best for pads since its supports polyphonic note playback and is the only mode that enables looping, so you can play back the sample indefinitely. 1-Shot mode is best for drums and bass, with its basic monophonic capabilities and simple trigger and gate settings. Slice mode is designed to chop up samples. It starts by analyzing the sample, then slices it into smaller samples and assigns each to a different MIDI note.
Simpler does a great job of giving you control and understanding its capabilities, but limits itself just enough to encourage you to advance to Sampler.
With Ableton’s Sampler, the straightforward approach of Simpler is still here, but with multiple advanced capabilities. Sampler is closer to KONTAKT than the other sampler VSTs on this list, as it is designed to import third party libraries and lends itself to creation and editing of multisampled instruments. You can create and manage sample zones, then configure creative playback and looping options within each zone.
Sampler also enables extensive sound design and synthesis capabilities. Polyphonic modulation enables tweaks to sample playback, loop position, and loop length, helping you dial in the perfect loop. A dedicated modulation oscillator enables frequency modulation (FM) or amplitude modulation (AM) for harmonic (or disharmonic) modifications to the sample’s original sound. And a multimode morphing filter opens up the possibilities further, seamlessly switching between low-, hi-, and band-pass filter modes.
Integration With Ableton Live
Sampler can work great integrated into various other VSTs, but it’s truly the peanut-butter to Live’s jelly. For the producer who wants to manipulate their samples both individually and collectively in a live format, the Live/Sampler combo is essential.
Ableton has done a great job of understanding who and what they are, and perfecting themselves, rather than extending beyond their reach. You come to Ableton to manipulate your own samples, and you use other platforms for what you don’t have to bring to the table yourself.
Top VST Samplers of 2023
Despite software sampler VSTs all being forged on the same premise of manipulating actual recorded sound, they all offer unique ways of approaching sample playback, manipulation, and processing. The top VST samplers we have listed here all offer incredibly effective tools for sparking inspiration and creativity across all genres and media formats.
Great art in any form is about taking a slice of reality and then filtering it through your own vision. And in that sense, the ability to use samples to create your own sound is something with infinite possibilities. We built CUBE to help draw those sounds out of the ether and push reality into unexpected places, and this is just the beginning. As the Lunacy Audio community grows and sample manipulation techniques evolve, we’re excited to continuously update CUBE with cutting-edge sampling capabilities, imaginative and unique sample libraries, and new ways to create music.