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When the producer Charles Njapa sat down to work with Kanye West, Jay-Z and Frank Ocean on their collaborative track, “No Church in the Wild” (off Jay and Kanye’s Watch the Throne album), he started with a sample.
“I put the main component samples for that beat together in under 12 minutes,” says Njapa, better known as 88-Keys. “It’s one of my favorite tracks that has been commercially released.”
One of the most respected producers in hip-hop, 88-Keys has worked with everyone from Black Star to The Pharcyde, and says he relies on a solid audio sampler for many of his tracks.
“An audio sampler is a electronic machine which captures sound recordings, which can be played back usually through padded triggers,” explains the Grammy-winning producer. “All of my music is comprised of samples I’ve recorded from old vinyl records — I use these samples in creative ways in place of playing live instruments.”
The best audio samplers will let you record all types of sounds into the device, where you can then apply effects to it, and record or overdub it into new compositions. In other words, you’re creating new sounds from old samples, using the effects to add musicality and expression to your track. Playing solo? Use a sampler to add more layers and voices to your performance. Audio samplers let you transform, create, sequence and manipulate.
“I use samplers for anything in my music I want to bring to life,” says Somba, the producer for the Vermont-based hip-hop collective, 99 Neighbors. He cites the current work of SoundCloud producers, who have sampled auxiliary percussion hits like wood blocks or bells, and turned them into melodic or harmonic musical instruments. “Using an audio sampler to create plucks out of unusual sounds has almost become a tradition in the SoundCloud music scene,” Somba says.
Even if you’re not a professional musician or producer, it’s easy to get your hands on a decent audio sampler. When buying an audio sampler, there are a few things to look for, namely a user-friendly interface, a variety of controls and reliability.
“You should be able to have fun with it immediately but there should be enough parameters to adjust so you can dive deep and find nearly unlimited ways to manipulate your sample,” says Somba, adding: “Find one that has a ton of tutorials available as well.”
“It depends on what you’re trying to achieve,” adds Marshall Gallagher, the guitarist and singer for rockers Teenage Wrist, who says he’s experimenting with sampling drum machines and hip-hop loops on the band’s next record. “Sometimes it’s just playability that you’re looking for and a good, responsive MIDI controller with an in the box sampler will give you endless options. You can drag and drop insane amounts of samples in and use whatever effects you can imagine.”
Adds 88-Keys: “I’m a bit of a brand whore so I’d say look for a brand whose name you can trust.”
Whether you’re an award-winning pro or just a casual musician, there are a ton of accessible audio samplers available these days to help give your next track a boost. And while they may be most commonly associated with hip-hop, audio samplers are used across genres these days.
“It’s hard to find a tune outside of rock, country or any other live instrument-centric genre that doesn’t use some kind of sampler,” Gallagher says. “Samples allow for a super cool re-imagining of musical beds that are hard (or impossible) to achieve when playing real instruments. The beautiful thing about sampling is that it’s all about taste — and anyone can make it work.”
1. Akai Professional MPC X
“I’ve only used Akai Professional samplers for the entirety of my professional career,” says 88-Keys, who’s currently using this MPC X system.
Producers like this Akai Professional setup for its high-quality studio-grade capture, 10GB of pre-installed sounds, and a 10.1-inch high-res screen — the largest display in its class.
MPC calls its MPC Software 2 a “cutting-edge production suite,” with enhanced editing and sequencing capabilities, and seamless integration to your digital audio workstations. What we like: access Ableton or similar digital audio workstations over WiFi and Bluetooth — no need to plug into a computer.
The MPC also gets you a multi-touch display, 16 touch-capacitive Q Links with OLED displays and more. This system also comes with 16GB of storage.
The MPC X lets you connect to a variety of different sounds, with two MIDI inputs, four MIDI outputs and eight configurable CV/Gate outputs. A built-in SD card slot and USB drive let you plug in even more sounds.
PROS: Large, full-color display. Includes three built-in synthesizers by AIR Music Technology (TubeSynth, Bassline and Electric).
CONS: Steep learning curve as the MPC system takes a bit of time to learn.
2. GoXLR Mixer, Sampler and Voice FX for Streamers
An all-in-one sampling setup for streamers and online broadcasters, the GoXLR lets you mix your audio in real time, change your voice, mute your voice, add bleeps, effects and more. The sampler lets you record live samples or load pre-recorded audio files to take your Twitch broadcast up a notch with just a few simple additions.
The four-channel mixer lets you individually control the volume of the game you’re playing, your mic, background music, and chat to find the perfect balance for your streaming style.
What we like: a ton of inputs and outputs let you easily connect your mic, headphones and console.
PROS: Easy to learn, intuitive setup.
CONS: Best suited for gamers and live streaming rather than music. Some users report a slight delay between speaking into the mic and hearing the sound through headphones.
3. Roland SP-404SX Linear Wave Sampler with DSP Effects
Roland is one of the most-trusted names in musical instruments and accessories, and their SP-404SX performance sampler gets you 29 DSP effects, 12 trigger pads and three control knobs for an intuitive, hands-on experience. The effects include filter, delay, subsonic, and looper, with seamless switching and transitions. You also get decent sound quality with pure 16-bit linear sampling.
Users say the SP-404 takes away reliance on a computer, with the ability to make beats and effects from the box. Materials-wise, this sampler is super portable, measuring roughly 10 x 7 inches and weighing just 1.5 pounds.
The linear wave sampler runs on four AA batteries. This set comes with a 1GB SD card for easy access to your files.
PROS: No latency. Easy to use right out of the box.
CONS: Effects are limited to a single pad at a time.
4. Teenage Engineering PO-33 Pocket Operator KO Sampler
This credit card-sized sampler gets you up to 40 seconds of sample time with 16 different effects to tweak your tracks. There are 16 buttons divided into eight banks for voice or “melodic” samples and eight banks for drunk samples. The 16 buttons are also used to represent the 16-step sequencer.
The device includes a built-in microphone to record your voice, and a built-in speaker to let you hear it back (you can also plug in a pair of headphones).
Truly a handheld device, this Teenage Engineering sampler measures just 4.9 x 2.4 inches and weighs less than 0.2 pounds. Runs on two AAA batteries (not included).
PROS: Huge value for its price point.
CONS: Professional musicians will want to consider more full-featured samplers on this list.