Not so long ago, the idea of compiling a list of the best samplers would have been laughable, with the hardware sampler market on life support. Software alternatives were 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 samplers we've reviewed, ranging from pocket-size modules to full-on production platforms.
What is the best sampler right now?
While sampling seems, on paper, fairly straightforward, it can be made as complex as you like. While each of the best samplers in our guide below has its merits - both in terms of ease-of-use and capabilities - we're drawn towards one unit in particular.
Sure, there are samplers which can function as entire studios, or offer more in the way of connectivity, but the Elektron Digitakt is, for us, by far the most fun. Loading up a bank of samples, tweaking them within the unit, and then making use of the Digitakt's incredibly deep sequencing tricks made us smile like kids in a sweet shop.
It's incredibly liberating having the ability to automate every single parameter of every single element of a 64-step pattern, and then sitting back and listening to a track evolve and take on a life of its own. Regular firmware updates, like its Overbridge software companion, have added genuinely useful features like DAW integration, too.
Once you've got over the learning curve - seriously, read the manual - you'll have the keys to an incredibly exciting sampling/sequencing powerhouse.
Best samplers 2020: buying advice
Discovering the wonders of sampling is one of music production's great joys. Taking music created by someone else, and then chopping, mangling, tweaking and rebirthing it into something completely different is unbelievably rewarding. And, the good news is that - with the right equipment - it's not that difficult to get started. For that, you'll need a sampler.
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The best samplers come in many shapes and sizes, each with their own strengths. At a base level, you want something that can accept an audio signal, be that from a record player, synth, SD card or the internet. Once you have found a way to get audio waveforms into the sampler, there are a number of possibilities. Some will give you full visual control over the waveform, allowing for precise editing and slicing. Others are more tactile, and reward experimentation. Effects are useful tools for processing; that could be a simple dash of grit to warm a sound up, or it could be filters for sculpting the exact frequencies required for your mix.
You'll want to consider what you do with your samples once they're processed. Enter sequencing. This enables the user to create musical patterns from the samples they've amassed. Using MIDI - often performed on the unit itself using pads or other control inputs - you can build entire tracks just using audio obtained from existing sources.
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Connectivity is important; many modern units offer MIDI over USB, along with the ability to transfer audio from laptops or smartphones. It's also worth considering how an external sampling unit will work alongside a computer-based DAW setup too. Sketching out ideas in the sampler and later being able to transfer projects to your DAW of choice for finishing touches makes for a compelling workflow.
The best samplers you can buy right now
Digitakt is a sampling drum machine and MIDI sequencer. With a purely digital architecture, it was 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, Digitakt lives up to the promise of offering Elektron’s deep sequencing functionality at a (comparatively) affordable price. Not a box to underestimate, this is one of the best samplers around!
The MkII upgrade of Elektron’s eight-track sampler is mostly about the hardware – bringing improved build quality but not a lot in the way of new features. Despite this though, the Octatrack remains arguably the deepest and most powerful performance sampler on the market.
The workflow can be pretty intimidating and at times a little unintuitive, but once you get around the instrument’s foibles this is a truly creative sampler. Between deep sequencing and automation, excellent-sounding effects, extensive audio manipulation capabilities and a comprehensive song/pattern system, there’s a lot of potential on offer from this relatively compact box.
With little in the way of meaningful DAW compatibility the Octatrack is at its best as a standalone studio hub or live performance tool. Additional MIDI sequencing tracks make it a solid hardware ‘hub’ though. If freeing yourself from the computer screen is your goal, this could be the way to go.
MPC Live II is very much an evolution of its predecessor. It can be used with or without a computer, and comes with a 7-inch multi-gesture touchscreen. It promises all the features that you need to create a piece of music from start to finish.
MPC Live II adds five hardware buttons for a better editing workflow, and now comes with a built-in speaker system. Unlike many others, this actually sounds good, offering decent volume, a surprisingly good stereo image and - crucially - a fair amount of low-end presence.
On the connectivity side, there are now eight CV/Gate outputs, as well as WiFi and Bluetooth. The rechargeable lithium-ion battery, meanwhile, provides power for up to five hours.
MPC Live II runs the MPC 2.8 software, which enables you to control a studio’s worth of MIDI gear from your MPC hardware, with or without a computer.
In terms of its balance of capabilities and convenience, there isn’t anything on the market to rival the MPC Live when it comes to realising the dream of wireless, go-anywhere music production. The hardware updates for v2 are subtle, but both speaker and CV ports add genuine usability.
Elektron has form when it comes to idiosyncratic sampling powerhouses. Its Digitakt and Octatrack instruments set the standard for samplers which offer the user a little bit more than the norm. A lot of this comes from its unique approach to sequencing. The ability to manipulate every single one of those 64 steps, to the point where no two are the same, make for a sonic explorer's dream.
The Model:Samples takes this ethos and makes it into something slightly more immediate. For all that Digitakt is powerful, there is also an undeniable learning curve to using it. Not so with the Model:Samples, which can be up and running and creating incredible - and completely unique - sequences almost immediately. As an entry point to sampling, this unit makes a great first impression.
By and large, most of the samplers we've presented here have been large, plastic boxes with buttons, pads and knobs aplenty. Now for something completely different. Fans of modular synthesis will be familiar with 1010music, but this new device from the American firm marks its first foray into standalone hardware.
The 1010music Blackbox is a comprehensively tricked-out, all-in-one sampling beast. Using a touchscreen interface, with charming dot matrix typeface, producers can record, edit, sequence and perform entire sets from within a unit smaller than an old CD case. In a small-but-important touch, audio samples are recorded directly onto a microSD card, meaning there's potential for recording (and then getting stuck into) larger passages of audio.
Plus, if the tiny screen isn't suitable for your sausage fingers, you can connect the Blackbox to external USB MIDI devices for extra control. Add to this the fact new functionality is regularly distributed by 1010music, and you have a hugely tempting proposition. It might be small, but the Blackbox is indeed mighty.
Like its smaller sibling, the MPC Live, Akai’s flagship MPC X can function either as a standalone instrument, running the MPC 2.0 software via its internal CPU, or as a controller, paired with a Mac or PC.
Unlike the Live, however, there’s no internal battery in the X, so its standalone mode is slightly less ‘free’ – a fact compounded by its considerably larger size. This reduction in portability is made up for with an enhanced crop of front panel controls and a generous supply of inputs and outputs.
This includes eight assignable CV/gate outs, which make the MPC X a good partner to a modular set-up or rack of classic synths. As a flexible studio centre-piece, this sampling and sequencing behemoth has a lot to like about it.
Essentially, the DJS-1000 takes the engine of Pioneer DJ’s SP-16 and places it into a CDJ-like chassis designed for use in the DJ booth. While the differences between the two machines are fairly minor - here we get fewer outputs, and swap the analogue filter for a performance multi-effect - the overall effect makes the DJS-1000 feel more intuitive and instantaneous than its sibling.
Familiar DJ-style transport controls and pitch slider mean the users can beat-match with the DJS-1000 like a traditional CDJ or vinyl deck, making it great for adding a live production element to DJ sets. The fast and fluid sampling makes it a doddle to grab and manipulate samples from another deck too. While it’s most at home in the DJ booth, building beats with the DJS-1000 is so addictively fun we could see it becoming a studio favourite too.
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 is well-equipped for both studio and stage.
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 realm.
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.
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.
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.
The PO-33 K.O! offers 16 sample tracks, with a shared sample memory of up to 40 seconds. These come pre-loaded with a selection of sounds, but each can be easily overwritten by recording via the mic or mini-jack input. The sample tracks are divided into two banks of eight, labelled Melodic and Drum, which behave slightly differently when played via the pad grid or sequencer.
Unsurprisingly, the sound quality is fairly lo-fi, though this does lend a nice crunchy, old-school quality to the KO!. It’s fun to mess around with, and while it can be tricky to get super precise with sampling and sequencing, recording a few clips and haphazardly messing around with them is a great way to create spontaneous little hooks, loops and unexpected sounds.