Getting Started With Rackmount Samplers

It may seem strange now but there was a time when sampling was done not by dragging an audio file into a DAW but by painstakingly recording something into a piece of hardware. It seems quaint and laborious these days, but for about 15 years this was the way a large amount of music was made. Find a source, plug it into a rackmounted box, press record, capture the audio (at perhaps reduced fidelity), set loop points manually, and then play back the sample chromatically.

'80s E-MU Systems e6400. Photo by Rock N Roll Vintage

From the mid-'80s, when sampling technology became cheap enough for most anyone to afford, records were increasingly made with samples. It was a boon to electronic genres like dance music and hip-hop but it also informed indie and pop music, allowing guitar-based bands to inject a sampled break into otherwise traditionally recorded songs.

Why would anyone want to go back to those primitive days before advances in computing power made them obsolete? Can't we do everything from those days faster with computers? Well, sure. But maybe faster isn't always better.

We're here today to sing the praises of rackmount samplers, to see what the fuss was about and how a modern studio can still benefit from having one. We'll also recommend a few models to get you started in your hunt. There are a number of reasons why someone would want to add a rackmount sampler to their studio. Let's take a look at them in turn.

Rackmount Sampler Workflow

Changing your workflow can spark creativity. Working with instruments and technology that require you to think outside your comfort zone can be very inspiring. While it might be tempting to crank out another song sitting in front of the computer, there's something to be said for standing up, walking across the room, and engaging with gear that requires more than a few wrist twitches.

Like any hardware, rackmount samplers have their own idiosyncrasies. Learning to navigate the operating system, working with the hands-on editing controls, and even plugging and unplugging cables can all lead to new approaches in songwriting. They may also require you to slow down. Loading up floppy disks, paging through menus—engaging with obsolete tech can have an almost meditative effect.

Rackmount Sampler Limitations

There's something paradoxically freeing about constraints. When everything is available, choosing where to start can be paralyzing. However, if all you have is a handful of controls and very limited options, you're going to try and squeeze as much as you can out of your resources.

Rackmount samplers were made at a time when memory was expensive. A few seconds of sample time may be all that you had. That didn't stop producers from making amazing records with this equipment though. They found creative ways to work within the limitations they had and even overcome them. Sampling records and other sources at high speed and then playing them back pitched down, pushing their primitive time-stretch algorithms to the limit, sampling breaks as individual slivers of sound to eke out even a few seconds of sample time—all these techniques helped further the evolution of music.

Do note that if the idea of working with floppy discs has you rolling your eyes, you could always retrofit your sampler with a USB floppy emulator.

Authentic Sound

If you're making a genre of music that started on rackmount samplers, why not go back to the source and do it the most authentic way possible? You don't need a nice grand piano to play classical music, but it can make a big difference in the sound. It's the same here. If you make retro-inspired hip-hop, house, drum and bass, or any of a number of genres of electronic music, you're going to have much more authentic results working with the original gear than trying to mimic it with software.

And then, of course, there's the sound. Nothing time-stretches like an Akai S950. Nothing sounds like the Z-Plane filter on an E-MU Systems Emulator IV. Nothing crunches up sounds like a Roland S-550.

E-MU Emulator IV. Photo by Seventy Three Records.

No no, this is just software, you say. This is true. But while you might be able to emulate the way the software worked, you're still going to be lacking the hardware. It makes a difference, with each stage in the signal path adding warmth and color to the sound. Your source starts with hardware, passes through some cables, enters the sampler, gets interpolated into digital code, is recorded and then converted back into analog, and then sent out through cables.

There might be a patchbay or mixer sitting in the path as well before your sample reaches its final destination. That's a long journey of added color compared to a sound that stays in the digital realm for its entire life. The A/D and D/A converters alone may be enough to recommend getting the unit, as with the S950 (below).

We know why we might want a rackmount sampler. But where's a good place to start?

Akai S950

Akai S950. Photo by Vintage Zoo.

Starting with the S612 in 1985, Akai released a bewilderingly large number of similarly named rackmount samplers. There are plenty worth recommending, but we're going with the S950.

Released in 1988, the S950 is a monophonic, 12-bit sampler and a step up from the similarly spec'd S900. Where the S950 had it beat was in the sample rate department, with settings that allowed you to go as high as a crisp 48 kHz. It came with 2.25 MB of RAM and included then-fancy functions like crossfade looping and pretrigger recording. It also had eight-note polyphony and eight individual outs, enough to practically make a song with.

While the monophonic S950 was initially overshadowed by the 16-bit, stereo S1000, the S950 was soon snapped up by forward-looking artists thanks to the inclusion of time-stretching, a first for an Akai sampler. (The S1000 eventually got it in an OS upgrade).

Why buy one? The S950 is a workhorse with a great 12-bit sound. Its filter is also to die for. And then of course there's the time stretching algorithm. Niiiiiiiiiiiice.

E-Mu E6400 Ultra

E-Mu E6400 Ultra. Photo by Techno Empire

California-based E-MU didn't invent sampling but they did a lot to popularise it thanks to the Emulator and Emax samplers. In the 1990s, the company's Emulator 4 Ultra line of rackmount samplers were some of the most popular, with a number of upgradeable alternatives on sale at the same time. The E6400 Ultra, released in 1995, wasn't the top of the line but had plenty of functionality that was pretty cutting-edge in its day.

Chief among its list of accomplishments is the Z-plane filter, a digital resonant multimode filter that functioned in X, Y, and Z control axes (hence the name). It features 197 filter types and up to 14 poles. The E6400 also has what E-Mu called Beat Munging, which allowed drum loops to be stretched to a definable tempo without affecting pitch—what we would call warping today.

Thanks to these functions, plus upgradeability to 128 voices and 128 MB of RAM, the ability to import Akai S3000 sample libraries, and of course CD-quality sampling, the 36400 Ultra was extremely popular with '90s drum and bass artists.

Why buy one? The E-Mu series has their own sound compared to Akais, and also features the much-lauded Z-plane filter. If you do drum and bass or other kinds of bass music, this should be on your wish list.

Roland S-550

Roland S-550.

Although the big three Japanese synthesizer manufacturers—Roland, Yamaha, and Korg—all had samplers in the market, they were never as in-demand as those from Akai, E-Mu, and Ensoniq. One exception was Roland's S-50 (1986), a fairly powerful 12-bit sampler. In 1987, the company released the rackmount version, the S-550. By the time of its release its specs had already been superseded by Akai, but it's worth a look today precisely because of its limited and decidedly crunchy sound.

Any computer can give you ultra-high quality sampling. We use old hardware samplers for the exact opposite reason—because we want something lo-fi. The 12-bit sampling engine in the Roland S series is deliciously crunchy and sounds wonderful on analog synths, beats, and pretty much anything you care to put through it. The fact that you're limited to 15 or 30 kHz sampling rates is the icing on the cake.

Unlike the keyboard-equipped S-50, the S-550 has real-time filters. Known as time-variant filters, they are derived from the D-50 and can offer an extra edge to your sound. The S-550 is also multitimbral with four outputs, useful should you want to try and make a whole song out of the 28.8-second sampling time.

Why buy one? The Roland S-550 is great for adding grit and texture to pretty much any sound. Think of it as an effects processor. It's also fairly affordable compared to some of the other units in this list.

Espen Kraft explores a Roland S-550.
Korg DSM-1

Korg DSM-1. Photo by Syntaur

This is admittedly a weird one. Korg in the late 1980s were kind of lost. They knew that digital synthesis was going to be the next big thing but they never quite nailed it (Roland eventually did with the D-50). Exhibit number one is the DSM-1, a rackmount version of the DSS-1 and released in 1987.

A big box of a thing, it's less a sampler in the traditional sense and more of a synthesizer with samplers for oscillators. It has 16 voices of polyphony, with each voice composed of two oscillators made up of sampled or digitally generated additive harmonic sounds. Sampling is 12-bit, with 16, 24, 32, and 48 kHz sampling frequency options. Each voice then passes through a non-resonant lowpass filter based on the one from the Poly-800. It also has two envelopes and two LFOs, and 16 individual outs.

Why buy one? This is one for fans of unique electronic instruments. How often do you get to combine samples with additive synthesis?

Ensoniq ASR-10R

Ensoniq ASR-10R. Photo by Loudspeaker Society

In the 1990s, few manufacturers were pushing the boundaries of digital synthesis like the American company Ensoniq. With digital synths like the ESQ-1 and samplers like the Mirage and EPS, Ensoniq were constantly evolving. This continued with the forward-thinking ASR-10.

The ASR-10R, the rackmount version of the ASR-10, was released in 1992, and is a true hybrid sampler/synthesizer. Like the Korg DSM-1 (above), it combines sampling with synthesis, but unlike Korg's ill-fated experiment, it found wide popularity.

At the heart of it is a 31-voice synthesis engine that uses samples as oscillators. Users can pass each sample (16-bit at 30 or 44.1 kHz) through two multimode digital filters and control them with three six-stage envelopes and an LFO, with 15 modulation sources available to keep things interesting. It features an onboard 24-bit effects unit capable of resampling plus an eight-track sequencer, making it a workstation as well.

Why buy one? The ASR-10R is an example of digital synthesis taken to new heights. It also sounds amazing.

About the author: Adam Douglas is a musician and synthesizer fan based in Tokyo, Japan. He writes about synths on his blog, Boy Meets Synth.

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