The Ultimate Beat Machine, Part 3: The Hardware Option

11 Jun

E-mu SP-1200

Image via Wikipedia


Hi folks,

We’ve covered computer-based approaches and monitoring issues in the previous two posts so this one is all about using hardware to make hip hop.

I’m not going to be too pedantic about it and go into the ins and outs of samplers and full analogue tracking systems (reel-to-reel etc).  This is about the production side of things – essentially, making beats that you could then track in a studio or home recording set up of any kind.

The big question is, obviously, what sampler should I use?

Like all big questions there is the a sensible little answer.  In this case, you should use the sampler that works for you.  Like all little questions this is really not very helpful.  So lets run through some of the common options.


The Akai MPC series of samplers is the “industry standard” (for want of a better term) for hip hop production.  They began production circa. 1989 with the MPC60, under the leadership of sampler genius Roger Linn, and have since gone through the following incarnations:  MPC 60II, a slightly more powerful remake of the 60; the MPC3000, another remake of the 60 with a whole heap more punch which is widely held to be the best model made to date (used extensively by J. Dilla amongst others); the MPC2000, the first model to be made without Roger Linn’s input and a solid machine though the workflow is not great; the MPC2000xl a “gruntier” version of the 2000 with some worthwhile improvements; the MPC2500, a slightly smaller unit than the 2000xl with a bunch more memory and a few more expansions but otherwise much the same potential; the MPC1000, which is a smaller, stripped back version of the 2500 – I have one of these (as well as a 2000xl) and I have to say that the Akai OS is horrible (the third party JJOS is better but still not mind-blowing);  the MPC4000, the most powerful MPC to date (including the later 5000) with tons of sample memory and a giant edit window; and the MPC5000, the current flagship model which is as much a home recording solution as a sampler (it even has a built in synth, though no one raves about it so….).

All MPC’s work in pretty much the same way (though the minor changes can make a big difference).  You record sound from an external source, slice it up in the machine, assign it to pads and record yourself replaying it.  Generally, sample memory (and this length of recording time) has increased with each successive model (as has recording quality but some people don’t see that as an improvement).  If you make elaborate productions using substantial bits and pieces of recordings then the extra sample memory is a beautiful thing.  In any case, it can’t hurt.

I can only really speak meaningfully for the MPC2000xl and the MPC1000 which I own.  The MPC2000xl is a much better machine than the 1000 (even though it lacks some of the features).  The crucial separator between the two models is simply this: the MPC2000xl is much, much nicer to play.  And that is the key to the MPC series – it is successful because it allows you to use sampled sounds like instruments.  The 2000xl’s pads are more responsive and feel more natural to play.  You have greater control than with the 1000 where the pads feel a bit loose and the pressure you need to apply to differ the velocity of your notes just seems inconsistent.

The EMU SP1200

This is an old beast now and the amount of sample time reflects it.  That said, SP1200 users will talk your ear off about the “sound” of the 1200 compared to the MPC series.  They may be right, too.  There is a certain grit to the SP1200 but it is really a producers tool rather than a performers instrument.  That said, DJ Muggs produced most of the Cypress Hill and Soul Assassins beats on the SP, so it has to be good, right?

The ASR10 and ASRX

The ASR10 is a sampling keyboard used by the like of Emile Haynie (Kid Kudi’s beats).  It doesn’t have a lot of bells and whistles and it’s sampling time is limited but, if you’re coming from a keyboardists background, it can be pretty intuitive to use.  The ASRX on the other hand is a stand-alone unit that looks like a cross between the SP1200 and a Korg Electribe unit.  Can’t say much about them as I haven’t used them but the beats I’ve heard from them always seem a little simplistic.

Aside from that, you might want to consider the following points:

1. What type of music do you make?

If you make Pete Rock-style heavily sampled and chopped beats then you’re probably looking towards the MPC series.  If you tend to push breaks and long samples together, then the SP series will do you just fine.  Alternatively, if you’re a beatboxer then neither of these will do (they can’t sample/loop on the fly).  You might want to go for a Roland RC50 Loop Station or a Korg KaossPad 3.  On a side note, listen to this guy kill it on a mixture of loopers and effects pedals (his name is Sam Perry and he rocks).

2. Are you going to be playing your stuff live at all?

If yes, then you will probably be looking towards the MPC side of things but even then the live aspect of those machines is not hugely flexible.  You can make it work, though, with a bit of practice (check out the vids below to see what I mean).  The other alternative is to use something like Native Instruments Maschine (which interfaces with your computer) or an APC40 (or similar) along with Ableton Live.  The Ableton Live set-up is really common amongst sample-based performers these days and with (a lot of) practice you can make some great tunes.

3.  What kind of producer are you?

And the correct answer is not “A dope one!”.  By this I mean, are you the sort of person that listens to a sample, thinks long and hard about the musical elements of counterpoint, chord progression and micro-tonal intervals?  Or are you the sort of person that slams it all together on gut instinct?  If you’re the latter, then hardware samplers will make you smile.  If you’re the former, then you’ll get more enjoyment out of the in-the-box flexibility of a software driven approach.


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Posted by on June 11, 2011 in Uncategorized


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