Chopped‑up loops are at the heart of many genres of music. There’s never been a better time to get hands‑on with sliced samples.
Sample chopping remains a core compositional tool in modern music production, especially hip‑hop and the various flavours of breakbeat music that have evolved from jungle. By chopping I specifically mean sampling an extended musical or rhythmic phrase and slicing it into sections, then re‑sequencing and reworking the parts to make something new. In hip‑hop this technique is routinely used to generate the key hook or seed for a beat. Drum & bass typically uses acoustic drum breaks, cut up (and sped up) and reprogrammed into a new drum track. But any genre of music can benefit from the idea, whether it’s used to generate ideas and interesting loops or layers, or to extract a kit of individual hits.
The Musique Concrète movement was the first to use pre‑recorded sounds as compositional sources, and John Cage even experimented with a pair of turntables as far back as the 1930s. But the technique of repurposing existing recordings as we recognise it today comes down from New York’s hip‑hop pioneers and Jamaican dub DJs, who looped and scratched drum breaks manually on turntables while MCs rapped over the top. As hip‑hop developed, sampling became more than just a means to an end, but part of the sound and identity of the form.
Affordable sampler hardware like the Akai S-series made more complex production possible, letting you grab and cut up raw material even without turntable skills or tape editing. Akai and Roger Linn developed the MPC60, adding a built‑in performance interface to the sampler, and making it easy to juggle multiple samples. Computers brought sequencers and trackers, and later Propellerhead’s ReCycle accelerated the edit process for samplers, making sample slicing simple. Chopping samples and using loops became a common part of electronic music and pop production across the board.
DAWs and even simple audio editors now offer almost unlimited scope for assembling music from recorded audio, essentially providing an efficient and non‑destructive upgrade to tape workflows. But triggering samples dynamically remains a faster and more performance‑oriented approach than assembling clips on a timeline. And so performance sampling workstations, which all share a lineage with the MPC60, are more popular than ever.
In this article I’m going to focus on sample‑chopping workflows for the ‘big three’: Akai MPC, Native Instruments Maschine and Ableton Push. There are of course many other devices which excel at chopping and playing samples, including the Elektron Octatrack, Roland MC‑707, Akai’s Force and now the Novation Circuit Rhythm. Then there are plug‑ins like FXpansion Geist or Reason. Many other software and hardware samplers can let you get to the same place. But there’s a specific convergence of features and techniques found on MPC, Maschine and Push.
Whatever kind of music you make, sample chopping can be an inspiring and freeing way to spark new ideas, borrow a feel or mood, or add life and interest to a track.
The process of slicing and playing a sample is similar across the three workstations. The steps may be slightly different for each, or occur in a different order, but here’s what we need to do:
1. Load in a sample, either by browsing files or recording directly.
2. Chop it up using one of several options, depending on the material and how you want to use it.
3. Tempo‑match with your project if necessary.
4. Convert the sliced sample into a playable kit or program.
5. Play and sequence the sections to create something new.
There’s a ton of possibilities and creative tricks to be explored, but we’ll start with the basic steps to getting started with the three workstations, then try to draw out the common themes.
There are three ways samples are going to get on your chopping board: direct recording from an external source, importing from a file, or internal re‑rendering (bouncing). For this section we’ll look at how you get started with each workstation individually.
Direct sampling on Push means recording into an Audio Track in Live — there’s no separate sampling mode. (You might want to keep a dedicated track in your Session for sampling.) Simply record from your chosen external or internal source into a Clip. With the Clip selected on Push, press the Convert button and choose the first option, which is Simpler. A new track will be created with your sample loaded into the Simpler device, ready for live triggering and chopping. You can do the same thing with any Clip in the Arranger timeline, but you’ll need to select it from the computer instead of Push.
To load a sample file instead of recording, you can Browse with a MIDI track selected and your sample will load straight into a Simpler: no Convert needed. Alternatively, you can load samples into Clip slots on an audio track and Convert from there. Push’s Browser can access anything in the Live core library, Packs or User Files areas. If you select Current Project you can also load in any sample that’s already used in the Session, so this is another way to grab clips that are in the Arranger. Once again, when your sample is loaded, press Convert to load it into a Simpler.
MPC has a dedicated Sampler mode for capturing audio. Choose from the available inputs, or the Resample option for an internal bounce. Sampling can be armed and triggered manually from the onscreen record button, or can be set to trigger at an input threshold. In the standard Sample mode, after recording you are given a choice to name the sample and choose where it will go. Choose <none> in the Program selector, so that the recording will be placed into the Project’s general sample pool.
The MPC is unique in letting you chop a sample while it’s being recorded. For this, use the Slice sampling mode. Tapping the drum pads as you sample will now create slice markers in the sample on the fly. After recording you’re given the option to save to the pool, or create a new program with your sample slices assigned across the pads. You can trim the slices later.
If you’re loading a sample from your library or a thumb drive, use the Browser. There’s no need at this point to use the Sample Assign function, as we’ll be creating a new Program after we’ve chopped.
Like the MPC, Maschine has a Sampling mode for capturing and re‑rendering, with manual or threshold‑triggered recording. There are three record modes: Detect, Sync and Loop. Manual recording is available by choosing Detect and setting the Threshold all the way to the Off position at the far left. What you record will appear in a Sampler instrument on the selected pad and Group. Subsequent recordings will appear in a pool for that pad on the left‑hand screen, unless you...