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Spotlight: Hardware Samplers

Keep It Sample, Stupid!
By Chris Korff

The hardware sampler market might be dwindling, but it’s not dead yet! Here’s our pick of the currently available options.

Sampling seems to have become something of a dying art. Indeed, if you mention samplers to most people these days, they’ll probably assume you mean software ones that make your computer think it’s a Bösendorfer or a symphony orchestra or a Minimoog or a Ludwig drum kit. (There are some destructive ways to make your computer sound like a drum kit, but they tend to involve replacing your computer so regularly that it’s just cheaper to buy the Ludwig stuff.) Anyway, what I’m talking about here isn’t clever software that plays back samples, but actually relatively primitive hardware that lets you record your own.

Hardware samplers themselves are getting a little thin on the ground these days, too — at least, new ones are — but there are still plenty around on the second–hand market if you’re looking to dive into the world of sampling.

Roland SP555Roland SP555Elektron OctatrackElektron OctatrackAkai are, of course, the biggest name in this regard, with their iconic MPC range of sampling sequencers. Many still use them, in fact, mostly due to the workflow — there’s a certain immediacy to jabbing buttons on a big control panel that you don’t get from mousing around in front of a computer — but partly also due to the sound. Hip–hoppers and rave–ists have been known to evangelise about the ‘gritty’ qualities of the old 12– and 16–bit A–D/D–A converters that these classic devices use, and I have to say, having heard a few of them, I’m inclined to agree. Of course, it is possible to achieve the same kind of sound with bit–crusher and distortion plug–ins, but where’s the fun in that?

State Of The Art

If the MPC format appeals, but you want something a little more modern, then the Elektron Octatrack has to be on your list. It’s not cheap, but then it does have both an eight–track MIDI sequencer and an eight–track audio sequencer, plus a healthy helping of effects, modulation options, including envelopes, and freely assignable and customisable LFOs), and a plethora of performance–oriented buttons and controls, including a DJ–style crossfader. You can read our glowing review of it at http://sosm.ag/oct11-octatrack.

Alternatively, and if you’re on a slightly tighter budget, the Roland SP555 may suit. It’s not cutting edge (we reviewed it way back in 2008, see http://sosm.ag/feb08-sp555), but it is still a very capable machine. Up to 160 samples can be stored across its 32MB of internal memory and a user–supplied Compact Flash card (an older format that betrays the unit’s age, but if you max it out to 2GB, you’ll still get several hours of sampling time). There’s also an innovative function called Loop Capture, which lets you layer up sounds to create a single complex sample out of multiple sounds and sources, which include a mic/line input and a built–in mic.

Korg Volca SampleKorg Volca SampleAkai MPX8Akai MPX8As its format suggests, it also incorporates extensive pattern– and song–creation features, meaning you can build up entire tracks using the SP555 alone. To aid in that task, it also has an extensive collection of internal effects, which can be applied to samples individually.

Korgy Puppies

One of the most fun samplers we’ve seen at SOS recently has been the Korg Volca Sample (http://sosm.ag/feb15-volca-sample). This bijou box takes the same format as the rest of the Volca range, being built into a paperback–sized box and featuring a large touch–sensitive ribbon/key strip along the front. Like its stablemates, it has a surprisingly flexible 16–step sequencer built in, and an impressive (especially given its size) complement of controls for real–time tweakery. You can record your sequences live, or punch them in one step at a time, and your songs can be saved to its internal memory.

The one fly in the Volca Sample’s ointment is that it doesn’t actually sample — it ships with a host of sounds built in (and these are actually very good), but if you want to get your own sounds into it, you need an iOS device running Korg’s AudioPocket app. In fairness, it’s a pretty painless process, and the app allows you to record from your iDevice’s input, so you can use your phone or iPad to ‘sample’ before transferring the audio to the Volca box. And if you’ve got a library of songs on your iPod or iPhone, you can also rip from these, trimming any snippets you want to use within the app itself.

If you’re looking for something a little more ‘serious’, then you may want to wait for Korg to release their upcoming Electribe Sampler. Details of it are still a little thin on the ground, but it looks essentially like a turbocharged Volca Sample. It dispenses with the key strip, replacing it with 16 drum/trigger pads, and adds an X-Y control pad. Promisingly, it has a stereo audio input and input level control, which suggests it will be capable of recording samples on its own.

Trigger Happy

There are some simpler and more cost–effective options available for people who don’t necessarily require a sequencer, or who already have one (either in the form of a hardware sequencer or a DAW). The MPX16 from Akai is just such a device. Capable of recording samples directly to an SD card, its sounds can be triggered either with its 16 drum pads, or via MIDI. This makes it perfect for live sample triggering; you can bash out sound effects with your fingers, or hook it up to an electronic drum kit and make your snare drum sound like a dog barking (or, if you’re so inclined, turn your MIDI keyboard into an 88–note dachshund).

Akai MPC RenaissanceAkai MPC RenaissanceNI Maschine StudioNI Maschine StudioIf your sample–triggering needs are modest, and you can live without ‘live’ sampling, you could opt for the highly affordable MPX8, which we reviewed most favourably in January last year (http://sosm.ag/jan14-mpx8). Again, it features an SD card slot, so you can load up all your favourite dog–barking sounds using a computer, and create your very own canine orchestra for less than the price of a single puppy.

Computerised Options

If you’re committed to using a computer for your productions, but you envy the tactile experience that comes with using a hardware sampler, then fear not: solutions are at hand, notably from hardware veterans Akai and software boffins Native Instruments. From the former camp is the MPC Rennaissance (http://sosm.ag/feb13-mpc-renaissance), which bears more than a passing resemblance to its forebears, and has indeed been designed to behave like one too, albeit only when attached to a computer. It works as both a MIDI controller and audio interface, and when used with the supplied sampler software it becomes a kind of MPC on steroids. As well as being able to sample (of course), and having multiple MIDI outs to hook up to hardware synths, it also allows you to sequence your existing software synths. One nice touch is that the supplied software features ‘vintage converter’ emulation modes, invoking the gritty sound of such classic samplers as the 12–bit MPC60 and the 16–bit MPC3000.

And finally, the NI Maschine range, of which the Maschine Studio (http://sosm.ag/mar14-maschine-studio) is the latest and greatest. This differs from the MPC Renaissance in that it doesn’t have any audio I/O — it’s intended to run alongside your existing interface, rather than to replace it. It features myriad pads and buttons for accessing and triggering various features of the accompanying Maschine software, as well as two high–resolution colour displays for parameter feedback. The software has its own powerful mixer built in, and comes with a selection of instruments including the Prism synth and a modelling drum synth.

Published March 2015