Not so long ago, the hardware sampler market was on life support, with software alternatives seemingly set to render physical units obsolete.
Just as with synths, though, producers and performers have realised that there are benefits to owning a hardware sampler, not least because many of the current products enable you to create music without the need for a computer.
So, prepare to rediscover how joyous the sampling process can be, as we round-up some of the best hardware products that we've reviewed, ranging from pocket-size modules to full-on production platforms. We’ve listed the products in ascending street price order to make it easier for you to find the one that suits your budget and requirements.
Korg Volca Sample
The Volca sample is a 10-part sample sequencer inspired by "the excitement of the first generation of samplers" and sports a white, red and grey colour scheme that gives a cheeky nod in the direction of the classic MPC.
There are 11 shaping parameters for each of the ten sample slots. These allow you to tweak the start point, length and playback speed of the sample, adjust the level and pan, and apply a low-pass filter. Each also has a pitch envelope, with Int, Attack and Decay controls, and an amp envelope with Attack and Decay.
There is one very notable omission, in that the Volca sample features no built-in sampling capabilities of its own, but it can be loaded with user samples.
Ultimately, this might be the most fun, flexible and inspiring Volca product yet and, at this price, that's what really matters.
4.5 out of 5
Following on from Akai's entry-level sample player, the MPX8, Akai now has a bigger brother to add to the range, and the MPX16 improves on the MPX8 in several ways.
Firstly, instead of eight MPC-style pads, there are now 16, allowing you to have twice as many samples under your fingertips. The pads are pretty sensitive (which will please the finger drummers out there!) and polyphony has also been increased to 64 notes, which obviously helps when you're triggering several samples simultaneously. It's worth noting that this isn't an MPC, so it doesn't have any sequencing facilities.
Sampling itself is pretty intuitive, and the resulting sound quality is good, albeit with some colouration. It's also very easy to get samples onto the card from your DAW.
The MPX16 is a very handy device not just for dropping samples live, but also for capturing ideas on the fly, though it would be even better with a battery power option and some more effects (such as delay and chorus).
3.5 out of 5
Korg Electribe Sampler
The Electribe Sampler gives the user the choice of importing or recording their own audio to use as the raw content with which to build their own tracks.
It's very easy to get up and running. Each front panel pad (a 'part') can be assigned a sound. Press record and play, and bash the pads to create a pattern. There are buttons for muting and deleting parts, and switching to keyboard mode enables you to play a part melodically.
All things considered, the Electribe Sampler is a worthy successor to its forebear the ESX-1. The inclusion of ROM-based content and synthesis capabilities is useful, though it's a shame some of the more interesting filter types weren't carried over from the non-sampling version.
For those wishing to free themselves from the tyranny of the mouse or streamline their live set-up the Electribe Sampler may well be the answer.
4 out of 5
Sampling is pretty straightforward on the 404SX. Plug in your source (mic, line or the internal mic) hit Rec, select the pad you want to sample onto, hit Rec again and sample away. Then hit Rec to stop.
The sample can be marked and truncated (this is a bit hit-and-miss without a waveform display), and sampling can be done in mono, stereo or the lo-fi mode. Resampling with FX is possible, too.
The 404SX is certainly a useful little sampler (and it's capable of decent results once you get to know it), but it has rather too many frustrations. True, it's fairly cheap, and a few years ago it might have been hot, but the current competition offers a lot more functionality and easier operability.
3.5 out of 5
Roland SPD-SX Sample Pad
The SPD-SX inherited many of the great features of its predecessor, the SPD-S, but boasts infinitely more sample memory, USB sockets, a larger display (with a raft of on-screen wave editing features), improved sound routing, more responsive pads, intuitive menus, innovative sampling and a host of significant system enhancements and design refinements.
The SPD-SX has nine playable pads with two dual input sockets, enabling the connection of up to four additional external pads, drum triggers or a combination of both. Due to its ease of use and user-routable sound outputs (headphone/main out or sub out), the SPD-SX is equally happy on stage and in the studio.
A great product for drummers and producers alike, then.
4 out of 5
Digitakt is a sampling drum machine and MIDI sequencer. With a purely digital architecture, it’s Elektron’s first non-analogue offering since before the release of the Analog Keys in 2012.
Triggering and sequencing of the Digitakt is done with two rows of plastic buttons that bring to mind the clicky feel of a vintage computer keyboard, albeit sturdier. It features 16 channels divided into eight audio - ie, sampling - channels and eight MIDI channels. Samples can either be loaded via the internal memory or sampled from Digitakt’s audio inputs. The process of sampling is fast and fluid, and can be done without the need to pause the sequencer.
Despite a couple of minor gripes - the reliance on a computer for loading samples, the additional Overbridge cost - Digitakt lives up to the promise of offering Elektron’s deep sequencing functionality at a (comparatively) affordable price.
It might look like a humble sampler, but with great sequencing and a decent amount of connectivity, we can see this becoming the centrepiece of plenty of studio and live rigs. Not a box to underestimate!
4.5 out of 5
Akai MPC Live
While the MPC Live relies on the software that was developed for the MIDI controller MPCs - and can function as a plug-and-play controller for the desktop version - it also keeps things self-contained by housing its own multicore processor, enabling the software to run inside the MPC itself. In fact, the MPC Live claims the title of the most self-sufficient MPC ever, thanks to an in-built lithium ion battery that allows for between four and six hours of plug-free operation.
The 16 pads remain a high-point of the MPC design - in terms of playability and feel they’re head-and-shoulders above most pad controllers on the market
Given its size and standalone credentials, it’s impressive what the MPC Live is capable of. Sampling and sequencing remain the heart of the experience and the Live is flexible in both departments .
In fact, minor niggles aside, the MPC Live is generally excellent. It successfully straddles the divide between the modern approach of recent controller MPCs and the standalone groovebox heritage of their ancestors.
Of all the MPCs we’ve seen in recent years, this is the one with the most clearly defined identity and, as a result, it’s the best addition to the line in some time.
4.5 out of 5
Elektron Octatrack DPS-1
The major selling point of the Octatrack is the fact that it's much more than just a sampler.
The Octatrack offers eight stereo tracks of samples plus eight tracks of MIDI step sequencing. Samples are stored on a Compact Flash card, with a maximum capacity of 64GB (the device's USB port is only used for transferring samples to the CF card from a computer). Each track is based around a 'machine' - Elektron's term for the virtual devices that generate audio or MIDI data.
Either for studio-based production or for live performance, the Octatrack is an incredibly exciting tool. There are similarities to the Ableton Live workflow, but the Octatrack offers its own solution to sample-based composition, production and live performance.
5 out of 5
Pioneer DJ Toraiz SP-16
With 16 channels, each capable of sampling up to 30 seconds, plus a step sequencer, performance pads, touchscreen control and an analogue filter courtesy of Dave Smith, Pioneer's Toraiz SP-16 sound like the standalone machine that old-school MPC fans have been dreaming of for the past few years.
In use, the SP-16 has a very fast and fluid workflow. The combination of the velocity sensitive performance pads and step sequencer make it exceptionally easy to input, play, record and tweak sequences. Sample browsing, loading, recording and editing functions are mostly handled by the touchscreen and surrounding rotaries.
The SP-16 has been refined considerably since its release, but still feels a touch on the pricey side. However, the hardware itself is great, the general workflow is a lot of fun, and it does a very good job of bridging the gap between the studio and live/DJ.
3.5 out of 5