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From the pioneering digital instruments of the early 80s all the way through to today’s best software options, we take a look back at the samplers which have helped define the sound of dance music as we know it.


Pic: retrosynthads.blogspot.com

Sampling revolutionised electronic music – and not just in the obvious ways that immediately spring to mind. But sure, let’s consider the direct impact first. House music would certainly be very different without sampled disco loops and diva vocals. Who knows where hip-hop might be if the likes of Marley Marl, DJ Premier and Pete Rock had never chopped and flipped soul and funk tracks? Hardcore, jungle and drum and bass might not ever have existed without the samplers required to twist, warp and timestretch classic breakbeats.

However, for all its direct influence on the creative process, the greater impact of sampling technology is even more significant. Digital recording and editing wouldn’t have developed in the same way if it hadn’t been for pioneering engineers attempting to push the limits of sampling technology and sample-based instruments in the early 80s. Just take Pro Tools as an example. The industry standard DAW was developed by Digidesign, which began life as Digidrums, a company which offered replacement chips for the E-mu Drumulator featuring a range of alternative drum sounds, kind of like prehistoric sample packs. From there the company went on to develop editing software for samplers and eventually Pro Tools, initially known as Sound Tools. That’s certainly not to say that Digidesign was the only company developing digital audio platforms, or that DAWs wouldn’t have evolved in another way, but there’s a clear and direct link between early sampling technology and the entire world of digital audio production.

These days, whether you take a narrow view of sampling as simply recording, manipulating and replaying sounds digitally, or whether you consider the broader concept of sample-based tools, the options are more extensive and more powerful than ever: from plugins to MPCs, iOS apps to Octatracks, free sample packs to astonishingly realistic orchestral libraries. In this feature we’ll shine the spotlight on a selection of our favourites in order to explain how sampling changed the world of dance music, and how it remains as relevant as ever to the creative process.

1st April, 2014

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  • Rob

    Pete Rock with CL Smooth’s Mecca and the Soul Brother is a masterpiece

  • bassface

    “Now let me take a trip down memory lane…”

    Thanks guys. Really enjoyed this. Brought back some memories!! I definitely remember playing with a friend’s toy sampling keyboard when I was a kid… Might have been the Casio… I bet we weren’t the only ones recording burp and fart sounds into it!!

    Anyway, slightly more serious… my experience from mid 90\s onwards was… back then it was ALL about the S1000, 2000 and maybe a handful of 3000s. People I knew were making house and techno mainly, a few getting more into drum and bass. I remember people looking down on the 900 and 950 for being a bit old fashioned… I guess because they were 12 bit

    MPCs were strictly for the hiphop heads and I only really remember them from quite late in the 90s… the hiphop guys I knew were using Akais because they were easier to get hold of. As for the SP12 I don’t even remember seeing one until years later.

    A few Emus around but nowhere near as much as Akais. Maybe because they were more expensive?

    I ditched the hardware samplers as soon as computers were up to the job…

    I sometimes consider a S900/950 but I’m not sure I’d go back to the hassle of chopping and editing samples in one… pretty much everything’s done with the Maschine now just cos it’s so easy. I got an MPC2k a couple of years ago to see what all the fuss was about. understnad the appeal but I think you’ve got to commit to the workflow. Too spoiled by ableton!

  • designworxs

    I love the EMU’s and still use them. The E64 and E6400 have this sound that is unobtainable anywhere else. ASR10 is of course great. Im not a huge fan of the Akai’s. Thanks for the article and any other articles about samplers are greatly appreciated.

  • Mala

    Great article, proper gear lust watching those videos. Biggups.

  • Dasfunk

    Funny how it goes, I remember dreaming if the day I could get s3000xl, a4000 or one of the emus.

    Wouldn’t want one now mind, Zip drives n floppies!! Arghh.

  • Architecture

    glad you guys used my videos!

  • Alex

    Re: Octatrack: “Artists as diverse as Alan Braxe, Mumdance and Zombie Nation have raved about it in interviews with us.” Call me lame but I’ve never heard of those three acts. I think this list would have been better off as Five instead of Nine. It’s way too much of a stretch to say that a three-year-old bug-ridden product like the Octatrack has defined much of anything except for Elektron’s reputation for notoriously terrible customer service.

  • Sizzle MacDonald

    @Alex.

    Um… Alan Braxe would be the co-writer of ‘Music Sounds Better With You’, one of the biggest crossover hits of recent times.

    So yeah, LAME – assuming that’s fine?

    (Not that I disagree with your wider point).

  • Wouter van Nifterick

    I think it’s the Commodore Amiga and the Creative Lab’s Sound Blaster that really brought sampling to the masses. Suddenly kids could do advanced sampling tricks in their bedrooms. Stuff that could only be done in expensive studio’s before.

    Dance music would not be the same if only rich and experienced musicians in fancy studio’s would be able to use sampling.

  • Dustin

    I remember messing around on the Casio SK-1 (or definitely something similar) when I was younger; my sister gave me hers when she went off to college (ages ago!). I messed around with it trying to make music like off the Streets of Rage games on Sega, then got bored with it. Now, after all this time, I produce dance music; who knew!

  • tony

    mpc 60 made my day there + sp1200 of course

  • Diangelo

    Top article! Can’t get enough of these machines and their stories.
    More S series goodness: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2ACk3paLv_s
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FcDhCeuaAk8
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sfcx4qq6UVE

  • Neville

    Great article. The Akais in that shot look oddly familiar.

  • alex who?

    alex-

    you have the right company? elektron definitely doesn’t have a rep for bad customer service, in fact it’s quite the opposite.

    there’s bugs in everything, but none that would keep you from creating on it. while i don’t personally use an octatrack, it’s easy to see why it belongs in this list… it does a lot of stuff that no other samplers can do, and it’s extremely functional for live sets or production.

  • bone c

    It was a great read, but the title is misleading. While Ableton undoubtedly has made a mark in a historical context, I don’t see how Kontakt, Maschine or the Octatrack can be referred as “Samplers that defined dance music.” Perhaps actively changing things, sure, but not in a historical context. As others have commented, what about the Ensoniq range (ASR, EPS…)? The Amiga? Korg’s offerrings?

  • Max

    Thanks for the article, I will be the one who say it : wtf no emu Eii sampler ? It was used from italo disco hits to rock punk / new wave and of course early dance tracks. A big omission in this article unfortunately …
    Thanks for the effort altough !

  • Francisco “Viper” Diaz

    Linn… Linn machines !!

  • SKTCH_D1G1TS

    I can’t believe this list left out 2 of the best samplers released since 2006- the Kaoss Pad 3 and MicroSampler, both from Korg. I’ve been using those 2 pieces of equipment since 2012 and use both units in my live performances. The sampling capabilities of the 2 are THE best out there as far as standalone units & the resampling function on the KP3 is hard to beat- you can resample ENDLESSLY, layering your sounds veey dense! And don’t forget about the awesome effects it has as well! The MicroSampler may be limited with memory time (I think 8 mins mono and 4 minutes stereo all together- 8 banks so 2mins per bank with mono) but its Auto Next fuction lets users chop samples to various keys, like drum beats, a key for a kick, key for a snare, and so forth and allows the users to do so without having to pause whatever they’re sampling and set up to sample the next sound. You can sample down to 1/64th of a beat to get super precise stabs. AND it has a 99 beat pattern sequencer which users can store 16 patterns per bank! (16 x 8) Please include both of these pieces of gear in your next list of best samplers.

  • steve

    I have to agree with some others, emu were easily as big as Akai, especially for people that wanted great sounding filters. I owned several emu’s, and still have one, and so did everyone I knew. I don’t think anyone I knew that was making dance music in the place I grew up used an akai, all of us had emus. . Also have to say something like audio engineer combined with one of the tracker programs for the Amiga should be in there, its how a lot of people made their way into dance music in the 90’s (before moving on to an e6400 or similar)

  • Clifton

    Sp12 & SP1200 was used all the time in combo with the Akai 950 from the early 90s in Hip Hop nd House i.e. Pete rock Paul C Large professor D.I.T.C Master at Work Todd Terry the list goes on…. Simply a dope machine with only 10 sec to play with the only real limitations is your creativity.

  • Trick

    Kind of surprised the Ensoniq ASR-X didn’t make either this or the drum machine list. Great units that have their own character.

  • genjutsushi

    @Alex
    “it’s way too much of a stretch to say that a three-year-old bug-ridden product like the Octatrack has defined much of anything except for Elektron’s reputation for notoriously terrible customer service.”

    Do you own one? Have you spent any time with it if you do own one?

    Ive owned my OT since it was released and year on year, Elektron have continued to support and develop it. It has had numerous updates, and theyve always been great on the forums. The OT to me, is the single most creative and flexible piece of kit in my studio. Thats not to say it is easy to use – its probably the most punishingly difficult thing ive ever owned – but once you see it as an INSTRUMENT that needs commitment and learning, youll fall in love with it and see the limitations as positives.

  • PGregor

    No NED Synclavier, for mi one of the most powerful sampler workstation of all time. Grat artist based mani records around it, like Frank Zappa, Tevor Horn and many more. And no Yamaha samplers, RMX1 or SU700.

  • holly molly

    Rm1x is not a sampler 😀 RS7000 is.

  • Acermakkara

    This list has no Ensoniqs which is hilarious

  • Ray Ovach

    (Cough) Korg Tritons (Cough) Roland MV-8×00 Series (Cough, Cough)

  • Skrapadelix

    Great article but sadly no room for the Casio FZ, Mirage, Emulator or Prophet 2000? All true classics with unique contributions to electronic music over the last 31 or so years.

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