I’ve had a love/hate relationship with digital samplers for decades now. I love them because I love the idea of inserting random beats, vocal drops, and even the idea of having an entire vocal track available with just a press on the keyboard. I love the time stretching and squeezing abilities of samplers, and I love the fact that you can adjust the speed, tempo, and pitch of a beat or chop it up within the sampler’s parameters.
What I don’t love about samplers are the arcane operating systems that vex the typical user, from the terrible hex display on the Ensoniq Mirage to the GUI of the Roland S760. At one point, I also had a Korg Electribe ES-1 but that was fun for one-shots, but since it also was a 3 digit display I couldn’t do any kind of editing on the fly.
But I’ve always WANTED a sampler. Especially one that could do what I wanted it to do, namely play back drum machines that I couldn’t afford and play back breakbeats from James Brown records. Not a tall order.
So, in 2009-2010 there were two rays of hope for my Samplelust. One was Korg’s Microsampler. You could load samples in via USB, and I am already a fan of Korg’s “Micro” series. The only rub is that it’s plastic, and I honestly don’t have room in my rig for another keyboard.
Another option is Elektron’s Octatrack, which will be out Q4 2010. I’ve always liked Elektron’s vibe, ever since I first heard of the original Machinedrum and Sidstation. They have a real sense of fun, while offering a great build quality and beautiful design. The Octatrack has been buzzed about as a “hardware Ableton,” giving users the option to do massive, flexible tracks, limited only by the memory inserted by the user. But, since it’s a quality instrument it will probably be $1,500 to $2,000. For what I want, that’s a little much, since so much of what you pay for with Elektron’s non-Sid instruments are the very capable hardware sequencing functionality.
So what did I buy? After trolling craigslist last week, I found an Akai S900. for under $100. I had always heard good things about the Akai S-series, and they’re all right! The specs themselves are comical in 2010. 3 rack spaces (big), extremely heavy, and the sampling capacity onboard (non-expandable) is 750k! Considering you can buy an iPod for $50 that holds 500 songs, and you can buy a cheap flash card with 4 gigabytes of memory for $10, it is miserably small. But the beauty of the S900 is the build quality, programming interface, and the sound quality. And the sound quality is what I call “Gloriously Crappy.” Vocal samples and drum loops take on an amazing quality. I did a bunch of samples last night and they sound like they’re coming off a cassette.
There’s a great blog that I found last week that has a whole bunch of samples you can download right off the site and pump straight into the S900.. Akai S900 Blog.
I’m just having a great time sampling drums and vocal drops from movies like Dolemite. Since I already have a variety of synths, drum modules, and sample playback devices, my needs from a sampler a really limited, and the gritty sound of the S900 suits me just fine. Here’s a great little film about the Akai S-Series from Sonic State.