In the sampler department, you could say that Ableton has you covered. Ableton offer two choices, Simpler and Sampler. Simpler is bundled with every version of Ableton Live. Sampler is bundled with Ableton Live Suite but can be bought separately for owners of the standard version of Live. If you're wondering what the difference is, which one is right for you, or if you should upgrade to Sampler, then read on.
[Before we start and for the sake of clarity, when this article refers to the Ableton instruments 'Simpler' and 'Sampler', we will use capital letters for those names. When we refer to a 'sampler' (without a capital letter) we mean a generic sample playback instrument, which happen to be known as samplers. It was nice of Ableton to be so direct about their instrument naming, but it certainly can cause confusion... oh and if I use the word 'simpler' (no capitals) in this article, then my editor can sack me for the crime of sadistic confusion.]
[I'm keeping an eye out for any misdemeanours - Editor]
In a nutshell, Simpler is the baby and Sampler is the grown-up. Simpler is able to load a single audio file either from Ableton's browser or by dragging a clip directly into the sample view.
Simpler's interface is gloriously er.. simple. No tabs, no menus, everything is presented in a single panel.
Once a sample is loaded in Simpler, it can be processed with a number of tools. Sample start can be adjusted and loop start, length and crossfade can help you find the right portion of the sample to play back. There's a multi-mode filter which can be modulated by velocity, LFO, key position or envelope. The LFO is what you'd expect. It can be free-running or can retrigger on note-on and can sync to host tempo if needed. There are three envelopes for volume, filter and pitch. Finally, Glide allows you to apply portamento style glide and Spread applies a unison detune and panning for a rich stereo chorus effect.
There are no bells and whistles. The most glaring restriction for anyone used to samplers or sampling is that you can only load one sample at a time. That means no multi-sampling, but as a simple tool to playback an audio file chromatically, or to sculpt a sound with filters, envelopes and LFOs, it's perfect.
It makes sense, therefore, that Sampler makes up for Simpler's restrictions. Multisampling and velocity splits are the key features here, along with import of third party formats such as EXS24, Kontakt and Akai. There are other additional features too, such as pre/post filter waveshaping, additional LFOs and envelopes, and comprehensive MIDI mapping. There's even an oscillator on board which can be used for frequency or amplitude modulation if you want to get experimental.
Sampler's interface is more complex. Making use of tabs and a fold out Zone Editor.
In short, Sampler is much more akin to something like Native Instruments Kontakt or Steinberg Halion because it has been designed to handle large multi-sampled instrument libraries, and it does so very well.
The good news is that you cannot make a mistake in your choice of Simpler vs Sampler. Simpler presets can be converted to Sampler presets and vice versa. So if you start your work in Simpler and then realize you need the power of Sampler, you can convert in a single click. Likewise if you work in Sampler, but want to share your work with those who don't own it, you can convert to Simpler format, without losing any of the extra features. Simpler cannot access the full under-the-hood features when playing back a Sampler preset, but the ability to playback Sampler presets at all is a clever move on Ableton's part.
The process of converting is easy. Right-click in the Device Title Bar of either Simpler or Sampler and choose the conversion option from the bottom of the context menu. Either Simpler > Sampler or Sampler > Simpler depending on which instrument you are in at the time.
Converting Sampler to Simpler format is a one-click operation.
Once a Sampler preset is converted to Simpler, the words 'Multisample Mode' indicate that you are playing back a multi-sampled preset created in Sampler.
Reading this, one might assume that Simpler's limitations will quickly become an issue. No multi-sampling means no keyboard or velocity splits but Live has a few tools which can help us overcome these limitations.
Using Instrument Racks, it is possible to achieve both keyboard and velocity splits using multiple Simplers.
Keyboard splits are possible using multiple Simplers and the Instrument Rack. Velocity splits are possible too.
Another useful tool is the Drum Rack. As its name implies, its main use is for drums. It creates key splits on every key for you, allowing you to put a sample or instrument on each key. Dropping an audio file onto a Drum Rack's cell will automatically open an instance of Simpler in that cell, creating a single note key split to play back that Simpler instrument. It is worth noting that Drum Racks can just as easily hold instances of Sampler or any other Live Device or virtual instrument.
Drum Racks represent another way to enhance the power of Simpler.
For more information on using Ableton's Drum Racks, check out Mo Volans' excellent tutorial, Making Beats in Live Using Drum Racks.
Overall, Simpler and Sampler can be be seen as similar instruments, with Simpler being more suited to manipulating single audio files and Sampler being more focussed on large multi-sampled instruments. Ableton have cleverly allowed each instrument to convert to the other, which blurs the boundaries and most importantly, allows Sampler users to share their work with those who only use Simpler.
Because of Live's almost modular approach to building instruments however, Simpler's limited looking feature set can be extended using Instrument Racks and Drum Racks so basic keymapping and velocity splits can be achieved without the need for Sampler. However if you are serious about instrument building and are looking for pro features found in the big industry standard samplers like Kontakt, Sampler may be exactly what you are looking for.