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The sampler has become one of the most crucial instruments in 21st century songwriting. How did it come to this, you ask? Laurent Fintoni delves in 30 years of sampler history to bring you its evolution.
We live in the age of the sample. The practice of sampling informs what we consume every day, and its roots can be traced back to music. More than any other medium, music has normalised the idea of sampling in our daily lives; thanks to music, sampling has become just another tool in the modern creative arsenal, and it has seeped into our collective unconscious.
The practice of sampling in music dates back to the 1940s and the early days of musique concrète. Using recording tape, Pierre Schaeffer and others experimented with recorded sounds by manipulating them via splicing, speeding and reversing. Musique concrète’s experimental practices and use of common sounds placed it firmly outside the realms of what was accepted and understood as ‘real music’ at the time, a situation not unlike that which would befall modern sampling decades later.
Tape recording and manipulation also gave us the first sampling machines – prototypes for what was to come. In the late 1940s, the Chamberlin became the first tape-based playback instrument. Developed by Harry Chamberlin, it was intended to be a keyboard that could play back any sound. Influential as it was, in the following decades it was improved upon by other tape-based instruments such as the Mellotron, the Birotron and Mattel’s Optigan. The Mellotron proved particularly popular and its warbling keyboard-controlled tape loops can be heard in recordings by The Beatles, King Crimson, and Tangerine Dream; the storied BBC Radiophonic Workshop also found a use for it as a sound-effects generator.
As synthesisers rose to prominence at the end of the 1970s, tape-based machines began to die off and soon enough the first real samplers appeared: machines with the capability to digitally record and play back sounds. The Fairlight CMI is widely credited as the first sampler, though its sampling capabilities were merely an addition to the machine’s central function, synthesis. But a technical afterthought was all it took to sow the seeds of an entirely new way of thinking about and making music.
Over the past 35 years, samplers have shaped the sound of modern music from the underground to the mainstream. The once expensive technology slowly became more affordable, and in the 1980s young dreamers found ways to subvert the machines’ intended use, engaging in what’s often referred to today as ‘creative misuse’. Hardware samplers became the backbone of electronic music, from hip-hop to dance, for two decades until the development of cheap, effective software sampling (and its availability on the internet) rendered them outdated.
To those who grew up with them, or have come to love them, hardware samplers simply sound different from software. They’re tactile and can behave in unpredictable ways. There’s an intangible, hard-to-define quality to hardware samplers that software simply cannot replicate. It resides somewhere in the circuit boards and behind the faceplates, and is unlikely to ever be found in the more logical world of the contemporary digital audio workstation.
What follows is a look at some of the most influential samplers of the past 30 years and the role they played in leaving an indelible mark on contemporary music.
E-Mu Systems SP-12 and SP-1200
One of the first samplers to truly change the face of modern music was E-Mu Systems’ SP–12, which was released in 1985. Conceived as a successor to E-Mu Systems’ Drumulator, a sample-based drum machine originally intended to rival Roger Linn’s iconic LM–1, the SP–12 (Sampling Percussion at 12 bits) included 24 preset drum samples and allowed users to record their own sounds at a crunchy 27.5 kHz sampling rate. When you consider that CD-quality is 44.1 kHz at 16 bit, it’s easy to imagine the “dusty” character that came to characterize the SP–12.
The timing of the SP–12’s arrival on the market was perfect. By 1986 hip-hop was evolving from a perceived fad to a fully-fledged musical revolution and the SP series would play a huge part in shaping the sound of New York rap. A couple of years earlier, Marley Marl had stumbled upon the concept of sampling drum sounds by accident, a technique he would develop on early records with MC Shan. When samplers like the SP–12 appeared, they began to democratise the practice of sampling breakbeats and drum sounds. In the summer of 1986, Rick Rubin was overseeing the sessions for the Beastie Boys’ debut album. On ‘Rhymin & Stealin’ he used the SP–12 to soup up the track’s drums, putting extra weight to the John Bonham samples he’d lifted from Led Zeppelin’s ‘When The Levee Breaks’.
The SP–12 was subverted by the first generation of modern electronic musicians, mirroring how early DJs had repurposed the humble turntable. Once you erased the preset drum sounds, you were free to squeeze as much as you could into the machine’s memory and play the samples in an intuitive, rhythmic manner. Realising what was happening, E-Mu Systems released a Turbo update that expanded the machine’s sampling memory to 5 seconds. Ultimately, though, it would be the SP–12’s successor, the SP–1200, that would unlock sampling’s potential and usher in a golden era of hip-hop beats and dance music classics.
The SP–1200 was released in 1987 and remained in production for a decade. E-Mu Systems played to the machine’s popularity in the nascent hip-hop and dance music worlds by getting rid of the preset drum samples entirely and moving the storage to RAM, which you could fill with a floppy disk. The machine kept the same eight touch pads but added four banks for a total of 32 possible samples. Sampling time was doubled to 10 seconds (which in 1987 was a large amount) and the rate was reduced to 26.04 Khz to accommodate better memory usage. Add to this the SSM2044 filter chips the machines were fitted with and things were about to get crunchy.
The 1200 was one of the first samplers to offer producers, the would-be musicians of a new era, an all-in-one box in which they could create entire tracks. Limitation drives innovation, and the SP series’ weaknesses – scratchy, lo-fi sounds; short sampling time – became strengths. The machine’s easily-identifiable sound became synonymous with much of New York City’s musical output from 1987 onwards.
Budding producer Large Professor learnt to use the SP–1200 through his mentor, the legendary studio engineer Paul C. McKasty. After Large Pro had befriended McKasty, the engineer told him that the SP–1200 was the machine “you want to rock with.” What followed was a session at McKasty’s home, where he showed Large Pro the basics and left him to play with it while he went to get some sleep. “I sat there and just went crazy with that SP–1200,” Large Professor recently told Jeff Mao. “I was like, ‘I hope he doesn’t wake up, because I want to hook another beat and I want to make mad disks to fill and everything.’ That SP–1200, once Paul C. introduced me to it, that was it.” One of the first results of this revelation was Main Source’s debut album Breaking Atoms, a bonafide New York rap classic built largely on the back of Large Professor’s newfound instrument.
The SP–1200’s raw sound would prove to be the main attraction for scores of now-legendary hip-hop producers. Speaking in 2001 about production techniques, DJ Spinna admitted that “when I want it to be on the raw tip, I go back to the SP–1200.” Most of Pete Rock’s early classics were crafted on the SP-1200, from ‘They Reminisce Over You’ to his his subtle remix of Public Enemy’s ‘Shut Em Down’.
Another notable SP–1200 aficionado was Detroit’s J Dilla. His work in the 1990s for groups like The Pharcyde, A Tribe Called Quest and Slum Village was largely shaped by the sound and capabilities of the SP–1200. Further south, in New Orleans, a young Mannie Fresh also got familiar with the SP series and to this day continues to make use of its gritty edge.
In the dance music world, the SP series proved just as popular. Todd Terry has evangelised the machine since his early days and it was integral to the sound of Masters At Work, Moodyman and Theo Parrish. Over in the UK, Roni Size and The Prodigy are two of the most famous dance acts to have made use of the SP-1200’s sonic crunch.
Beyond its sound and the classics it helped create, the legacy of the SP series is that it helped usher in a new era of digital sampling. Musicians were free to take the idea and potentials of sampling in a multitude of different directions.
Casio SK–1 and FZ–1
The Casio SK–1 might seem like an odd addition to a list of samplers that shaped modern music. Launched in 1985, the cheap consumer keyboard was regarded by many as a toy; it could only store one sample (with a length of about 1.4 seconds and a bit rate of 9.38kHz) and offered pretty much nothing else aside from some envelope shapes. But you know how the saying goes: it’s not what you have, it’s what you do with it.
Thanks to its limitations, the SK–1 became a tool of choice for producers seeking a particularly lo-fi sound, and within its first decade found new life in the circuit-bending world (where it remains incredibly popular). Autechre cut their teeth in the late 1980s remixing some of their favourite records using a Roland TR–606 drum machine and the SK–1 for additional spice. Similarly, a young DJ Hype used the SK–1 in his first home studio attempts, holding the keyboard’s microphone up to the speakers to record the desired sample. In the hip-hop world meanwhile, the SK–1 acted primarily as a gateway drug for producers including Large Professor and Maseo from De La Soul.
Ann Arbor’s Tadd Mullinix, aka Dabrye, used the keyboard as a child and ended up naming one of his aliases after it. “I was just having fun and making noises with it when I was young,” he explains. “You can loop sounds you record into it. I would come up with phasing cycles by recording a drumbeat and holding down keys of octaves and 6ths. Later on I made experimental music playing it through guitar pedals with my friend Josh Hight. The SK–1 has a simple digital preset rhythm that will play an automatic melody so you can create chord progressions by holding down certain keys in a sequence. I made some solo stuff like that and recorded it to cassette and reversed the reels so I could listen to it backwards. I still have the SK–1 and I use it occasionally for dirty lo-fi stabs and pitched noises.”
In 1987, Casio released the FZ–1 keyboard sampler and its rack mount counterpart the FZ–10. A 16-bit sampler with 1MB of sampling memory (expandable to 2MB) and additive synthesis, the FZ–1 was one of the first truly affordable samplers on the market, though it still retailed at just under £2,000 in the UK. Despite its counterintuitive interface, the FZ–1’s professional features – low pass filters, variable sample rate and graphic editing – made it a market-friendly version of the early Fairlight CMI samplers, feature-packed machines that cost almost as much as a mortgage.
DJ Krust recently recounted how on his return to Bristol after a stint in London in the late 1980s, he discovered an FZ–1 at his brother’s place. Krust locked himself in the room until he had mastered the sampler, which would go on to shape the early sounds of Full Cycle and Bristol’s jungle onslaught.
“Its capabilities fit this project perfectly. Awesome sampler.”
In 1991, R&S Records released Second Phase’s ‘Mentasm’, a collaboration between Joey Beltram and Mundo Muzique. A rave classic, the track is best known for its lead synth noise immortalised in the following decade as the ‘hoover’ sound. While the lead was created on a Roland Alpha Juno 1, the overall sound and grittiness of the final take is down to the FZ–1. Talking to Phil Moffa last year, Mundo Muzique revealed that due to sync issues in the studio, the original riff was sampled into the FZ–1 before being cleaned up and filtered. “The FZ–1 had some of the absolute best sounding filters built into it. We modified the LFO and DCF during the recording using the slider. You can hear the ‘Mentasm’ riff buzzing and snarling at you as the filter parameters changed. The slap delay on the changing frequency also made the filters stand out even more. The monster low pass frequency you hear during the drop in ‘Mentasm’ was also the FZ–1 cutoff filter. Its capabilities fit this project perfectly. Awesome sampler.”
Perhaps one of the most unlikely users of the FZ series is Daniel Dumile, aka (MF) DOOM. In the mid–1990s, following the death of his brother Sub Roc and collapse of their record deal, Dumile spent time bouncing around New York City and would plug in his FZ-1 anywhere he could to make music. Meanwhile on the other side of the ocean, Coldcut were making use of the FZ–1 for their own nefarious sampling ends – in a 1988 Australian documentary about sampling you can see the FZ–1 in Coldcut’s studio, between turntables and a drum machine.
While the FZ series never quite gained the prestige of its better-known counterparts, it remains a crucial part of sampling history that continues to echo in music to this day.
Akai Music Production Center (MPC) series
The history of modern music is inextricably intertwined with the history of capital. Economic forces pitted the two major music hardware manufacturers, E-Mu Systems and Akai, against each other for close to 20 years, and the result was two of the most popular and essential drum machine samplers of all time.
Following the rise in popularity of the SP series, Japanese manufacturer Akai recruited Roger Linn, the inventor of the LM–1 (which the SP–12 had sought to emulate), to design a new machine that could compete with the SP’s dominance. Linn’s solution was the Music Production Center (MPC), and just like that, the sound of hip-hop and dance music would once again be completely transformed.
Speaking to Dazed in 2006, Linn explained that he had “noticed that people were starting to sample big chunks of other people’s records. I thought it was odd that they were using a machine that should be used for drums and just looping a segment, you know, basically standing on the shoulders of giants.”
In the making of his previous drum machines, Linn had stumbled upon the concepts of quantise and swing, which allowed the machine to correct human error and align the rhythm pattern to a grid, without losing that crucial “shuffle.” Those particular innovations would become central to the MPC’s popularity, alongside its now timeless 16-pad layout. Linn developed the functional design and specifications for the machine and also created the software for Akai; the hardware was handled by English engineer David Cockerell, a founding member of the EMS synthesiser company.
The MPC 60 launched in 1988 as an all-in-one sampling workstation, followed by the MPC 60-II in 1991. However it was the machine’s next jump, in 1994, that would seal its place in history. The MPC 3000 offered 16-bit, 44.1kHz sampling, vastly increased memory (up to 32MB) and a set of effects and filters. Over the years Akai released additional iterations of the machine including the 2000, 2000XL, 4000, 2500, 1000, 500 and 5000, making it one of the longest running and most comprehensive lines of drum machine samplers. This was largely thanks to the machine’s use in hip-hop and dance music, where it gained cult status throughout the 1990s. In 2012 the MPC series was rebooted with the Renaissance, a sadly sub-par attempt at wresting control back from the likes of Native Instrument’s Maschine, which had arguably superseded the MPC series as the pad-driven sampler of choice for a new generation.
One of the first American hip-hop producers to make use of the MPC 60 was an outsider to the scene: Josh Davis, aka DJ Shadow, who was living in the small town of Davis, California. Speaking to Eliot Wilder for the 33 1/3 book about his groundbreaking debut album Endtroducing, Davis noted that his early single ‘In/Flux’ (which came out on Mo’Wax in 1993) was the first record he produced on the machine. “The MPC wouldn’t really catch on with hip-hop at large for another few years. So, again, I felt lucky on the technological curve, and was doing stuff on the machine before about 95 per cent of producers were.” The majority of his debut album was recorded on the MPC 60 and an ADAT, acting as a proof-of-concept for the machine’s sampling capabilities.
If the E-Mu SP series was the sound of hip-hop in the late 1980s, then the MPC was its equivalent in the following decades. DJ Premier, Hi-Tek and Just Blaze (who in 2006 said he owned the entire series), each responsible for various phases of New York’s hip-hop sound, have all crafted a number of their hit records on the MPC. Prefuse 73 started on an MPC 2000 and moved to the 2000XL, which he used to rethink hip-hop’s aesthetics on his early records. Atlanta’s DJ Toomp, the godfather of trap, ditched the SP–1200 in 1989 in favour of the MPC 60. In Detroit, J Dilla learned to use the MPC at Amp Fiddler’s studio in the Conant Gardens neighbourhood in the early 1990s. Jay Dee’s MPC 3000 became such an integral part of his sound that his machine is set to be included in an addition to the Smithsonian Institution.
While it has remained a studio favourite through the years, the MPC is also a surprisingly rugged machine for live performance. Los Angeles’ Exile is one of the world’s best at manipulating the MPC live, French producer Onra performs with two MPC 1000s, and New York producer AraabMuzik has made quite a career in recent years with his own frantic take on MPC drumming.
“I always had a drum machine but most Jamaican drummers were scared of them.”
Away from the hip-hop world, one of the most surprising uses of the MPC was in Jamaica. As it turns out, the rhythm track to Chaka Demus & Pliers’ 1992 classic ‘Murder She Wrote’ was played on the MPC 60 by producer Sly Dunbar. A drummer and part of the legendary duo Sly & Robbie, Dunbar bought his first MPC after borrowing one from Robbie Lyn for a Black Uhuru song. “I always had a drum machine but most Jamaican drummers were scared of them. I started programming everything. I bought an MPC, a DMX, I bought the SP–1200, I have the 500. I just want to make beats and it’s cool to sit and program something you’re feeling.”
Speaking to the Red Bull Music Academy in 2010, Moodymann memorably referred to his MPC and his SP as his “bitches and hoes”: “A lot of people, you go home you fuck your wife, a lot of people go home, you cut your grass. I go home and I fuck that motherfucking MPC all fucking night.” The hypnotic grooves and loops that underpin much of his repertoire can be traced back to the machines he’s put under his thumb.
Another more recent sound that can’t be disassociated from the MPC is footwork. Just as house and hip-hop flourished on the machine thanks to its sampling and sequencing capabilities, footwork was a natural fit for the MPC. Speaking in 2012, Chicago’s Nate Boylan noted that “the real juice seems to flow best from the MPC.”
It’s fair to say that without the MPC series modern music would sound very different. Sure, someone else would have probably come up with a similar machine, but there’s something about the MPC and how it came about that feels simply irreplaceable. Or as RZA put it: “If there’s ever a hip-hop hall of fame, Roger Linn has to be inducted within the first year. He’s like the motherfucker who made the piano. He’s a genius that should never stop getting props.”
Ensoniq EPS, EPS–16+ and ASR–10
Like the Casio FZ–1 before it, the Ensoniq EPS was an ‘affordable’ keyboard sampler aimed at producers who didn’t want to re-mortgage their homes. Released in 1988, the EPS boasted 13-bit sampling, variable bit rate (from 6.25 to 52kHz) and extendable memory alongside a track sequencer and a set of filters that made it ideal for the growing home studio market and budding bedroom producers. Two years later, Ensoniq doubled up with the EPS–16+, which added 16-bit sampling and editing functions that increased its sampling capabilities.
In New York, a young RZA borrowed an EPS from RNS, Shyheim’s producer, after offering financial help. “RNS left it there about 90 days. Every day I was making beats, all kinds of stuff, then he’s taking it back. Then I got an SP-1200 on some scandal stuff that me and Melquan pulled. ‘Bring the Pain’ was made back then. Then I started getting money. Then I bought the EPS-16+, sticking to the same brand because I was always around the Ensoniq products. I eventually got the ASR. I made the Wu-Tang and Method Man albums with that and a SP–1200.”
Meanwhile in the UK, Autechre were equally engrossed in Ensoniq’s range. For Sean Booth and Rob Brown it was the machine’s capabilities to turn samples into synths that appealed. Speaking to Sound On Sound, Booth explained that “the EPS is just like using the Prophecy [synthesiser] really. Everybody beats on about how smart the Prophecy is but we’ve been able to do that with samples for years. It’s weird that Ensoniq is getting ignored in preference to Akai, which admittedly is a tighter ,more accurate sampler, but it still lacks a lot of scope for exploration, you can’t really do a lot with it. With the EPS and the ASR–10 we’re still finding things, like changing aspects of effects, that you’re not supposed to be able to alter.”
The ASR–10 was the successor to the EPS series, launched in 1992. The Advanced Sampling Recorder was Ensoniq’s all-in-one production studio, a beefed-up version of the EPS machines with a 16-bit sampler, up to 16MB of memory and a full suite of professional editing tools. The ASR also included a sequencer, digital effects processor and, the cherry on top, the use of Ensoniq’s synthesiser architecture to handle samples.
The EPS and ASR samplers, like the Casio FZ–1, often found themselves in the shadow of E-Mu and Akai’s ongoing hardware war. Yet the machines are behind many of hip-hop’s different forms from the mid–90s to this day. Mobb Deep’s Havoc used the EPS in combination with an MPC 60 to craft much of the duo’s seminal The Infamous. El-P used the EPS–16+ to craft the classic beats he churned out in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Echoing Autechre’s approach to the machines, El-P told Remix in 2001 that he loved the EPS for its ability to create, sequence and play bass lines. “I’ll sample this squelching noise from a guitar combined with a horn, pitch it crazy low, loop the end of it, and play a bass line from that.”
“[Kanye] was just playing with the sample himself. We started in the ASR looping it.” DJ Toomp
Atlanta’s DJ Toomp used the EPS at first before switching to the ASR because it had “more sampling time, crazy effects.” He used the ASR to craft Kanye West’s 2007 hit ‘Good Life’: “[Kanye] was just playing with the sample himself. We started in the ASR looping it, [then I] took the sample from the ASR, put it into the Fantom, time-stretched it, put it back in the ASR and chopped it up and put my drums around it. And we kept on going and built up from there, he got that going to the breakdown and back and forth with it and boom, a masterpiece.”
Seattle’s Jake One is another longstanding user of the ASR–10. The machine is central to his workflow and has been used to craft many of his best known hits, from De La Soul’s ‘Rock Co.Kane Flow’ to 50 Cent’s ‘Hustler’ and Drake’s ‘Furthest Thing’. And then you have Just Blaze, for whom the ASR was the first serious piece of equipment. Talking at the Red Bull Music Academy in 2006, he remembered “a lot of floppy disks, two outputs and my headphones in my mother’s living room.”
Ensoniq was in many ways the David to Akai’s Goliath. Despite their lack of glamour, the EPS and ASR machines are two of the sturdiest workhorses in modern sampling history.
Akai S900, S950, S1000
If the MPC defined the sound of hip-hop in the 1990s, then the S900 and its siblings defined the sound of dance music.
The S900 was released in 1986 as Akai’s first professional sampler, an attempt at an affordable, market-friendly device. It offered 12-bit sampling, up to 40kHz sampling rate and a maximum of 63 seconds of sampling time. The S950 followed in 1988 with a higher sampling rate and increased memory. That same year Akai also released the S1000 with 16-bit sampling, 44.1kHz rate and up to 32MB of memory, a machine referred to by Sound on Sound as the gold standard of hardware samplers. Being rack mount units, the S samplers were arguably uglier and potentially more confusing than the MPC series, but behind their tricky facade lay a wealth of advanced editing capabilities that would prove a boon to various nascent dance music movements.
In the UK, the S950 became an integral part of jungle’s evolution from hardcore. The main driver for this was the sampler’s ability to timestretch a sample without affecting its pitch. By playing with the D-value you could effect the interpolation of the stretched sample, resulting in a sonic quality that ranged from metallic to realistic and outright bizarre. The S950’s timestretch quickly became one of jungle’s trademark sonic innovations.
Steve Spacek recently recalled that after purchasing an S950 in the early 1990s, he found himself wondering exactly how it worked: “I remember getting it and thinking it looked like a piece of hospital equipment. I didn’t know what to do with it!” Thanks to help from his younger brother D-Bridge, Spacek soon learnt to use the sampler and together the pair made some early experimental breakbeat and proto-jungle tracks.
“It looked like a piece of hospital equipment. I didn’t know what to do with it!” Steve Spacek
4Hero and Reinforced founder Marc Mac recently dug out his old equipment to get back to his jungle roots. Speaking to Music Radar, he explained how integral the S950 was to early classics like ‘Journey From The Light’. “We made it our job to learn every single page in the sampler. Timestretching was something like page 20 in the menu, but we needed to know everything in the sampler so that’s how we stumbled on it. The other thing about the 950, that a lot of people walked away from, was how it looped. We used to call it the infinite loop. If you looped a pad sound or a drum sound or anything it would have this alternating forward and backward loop. We had a lot of people coming back to us and saying how are you making those sounds? It was simply because we didn’t move quickly onto the new technology, we wanted to master the old one first.”
Aside from jungle, the S samplers were also integral to the workflow and experimentations of artists including Moby, Fatboy Slim and Mr. Oizo, as well as electronic music pioneers such as Gary Numan, Jean-Michel Jarre and Vangelis. Even London hip-hop head Roots Manuva used the S1000, which he borrowed from Coldcut to finish his debut album for the Big Dada label.
Alongside the MPC series, the S samplers arguably cemented Akai’s role in shaping the sound of hip-hop and dance music and, in hindsight, gave the Japanese company the edge in its battle with E-Mu Systems.
Roland/BOSS Dr. Sample SP 202, 303, 404 and 505
The last, but by no means least, hardware sampler to impact modern music is the unassuming Roland/BOSS Dr. Sample series, which began production in the early 2000s. Adapted from the Roland MS–1 Digital Sampler, released in 1995, the series started in 1998 with the SP–202, a simple sampler designed for DJs seeking to handle loops and grooves on the go and on a budget. Notably, Odd Nosdam used it to craft the first cLOUDDEAD record. Its first update came in 2001 with the SP–303, turning the machine into a more powerful phrase sampler that was still portable. While the sequencer and 44.1kHz sampling gave it some versatility, it was the onboard effects unit, with its 26 choices and ability to resample, that would cement the SP as one of the defining machines of the past decade.
In 2002, the 303 was upgraded to the 505, a bulkier unit that kept the powerful suite of effects and added a bigger UI, more sound banks, more memory and additional sequencing. However, it was the arrival of the SP–404 in 2005 that would prove the shrewdest addition to the range. The 404 was essentially a redesign of the 303, retaining its sibling’s portability while enhancing its effects and vastly increasing its memory capacity via Flash Cards.
Los Angeles producers have defined the role and importance of the Dr. Sample units in the past decade, starting with Otis Jackson Jr, aka Madlib. While the 303 was never intended as a full production unit, Madlib bent the machine to his will and used it to craft many of his beats in the early 2000s. Even though he was already using the SP–1200 and MPC, it’s for his use of the 303 that Madlib has become best known, and that’s largely thanks to his hip-hop approach to the machine; finding creative uses for it no one had ever imagined.
Another LA producer responsible for spreading the Dr. Sample gospel is Ras G, the Sun Ra disciple whose blunted beats and live sets owe much of their grit to the SP’s effects. Ras was also responsible for helping popularise the SP’s usage as a performance device, freeing the producer from the tedium of staring at a laptop on stage. After touring with two 303 units, which he would use to play tracks for an hour long set, Ras bought a 404 and moved his entire set to the machine. The sampler has become the centrepiece of his performance, allowing him to ‘mix’ his music live and add effects in real time.
Since its release in 2005, the list of artists who make use of the SP–404 live on stage, whether to perform entire sets or to handle effecting or sampling, has grown to include fellow beat heads Samiyam and Teebs as well as Four Tet, Radiohead and Grimes.
The 505 has remained less popular than its two siblings but can be just as useful. Canadian producer and singer Pursuit Grooves brought the machine on the road with her in the early 2010s. Speaking to Dubspot around the time of the release of her album on Tectonic, she noted that its portability and ease of use made it ideal for live sets.
Proving that it’s not what you have but rather what you do with it, the Dr. Sample series has proven to be one of the most enduring machines of the past decade, carving a niche for itself at a time when software and computer setups have rendered most hardware samplers obsolete.
Laurent Fintoni is on Twitter.