How Rock Bands Can Incorporate Sampling Into Their Live Sound

Despite a long history of being a vital technique and aesthetic in experimental, pop music, and hip-hop, the art of sampling is still not found too often at live rock or indie rock shows. Sure, sampling is perhaps used more than ever in the studio, especially with drum tracks, but when it comes to bringing samples to the stage, what options do bands have? And what can incorporating samples do for your sound?

If your core band is built around vocals, guitars, bass, and drums, there are many options for hardware samplers, electronic drum pads, and music software to bring new sounds and tones with you on stage. Below, we'll take cues from some acts known for their sampling—and offer products and techniques any band can use.

Hardware Samplers

During the recording of My Bloody Valentine's 1991 magnum opus, Loveless, Kevin Shields and engineer Alan Moulder used Akai S Series samplers to not only make drum loops but also to reconfigure guitar feedback.

They started by recording feedback squalls into a DAT tape recorder, then transferred short moments over to the Akai S1000. From there, the passage could be mapped and played across any note of a MIDI keyboard. Used as one element amid the wall of tremulous guitar sounds and eerie vocals on a song like "To Here Knows When," these feedback samples added to the dense texture and atmosphere.

As you can read in this article about those early Akai machines, this would have been a fairly time-consuming process (and would have involved very limited memory and floppy disks). Today, there are many standalone hardware samplers that can help you achieve a similar end while being affordable, portable, and reliable enough to gig with.

Machines like Akai's MPX16 and the Korg Electribe Sampler 2 are entry-level devices that can you give you that same 16-bit flavor, with much smaller enclosures and modern, user-friendly features. With the MPX16, you can connect through USB to your computer to drag-and-drop samples into the machine's SD card, and it has a built-in stereo mic to record ideas directly. The Electribe Sampler 2 can even be powered just by batteries, making it even easier to use on stage.

One of the great strengths of most samplers is that any sound can be recorded into them and then manipulated with effects and synthesis engines. Sounds can be chopped, reversed, spliced, pitched, time-stretched, filtered, effected, rearranged, and warped in many other ways. It's helpful to think of the sounds loaded into them as unique oscillators that can be tweaked at will.

More advanced samplers like the Elektron Digitakt and Pioneer Toraiz SP-16 are also equipped with multi-track sequencers. What this means is that the traditional three-, four-, or five-piece rock band can be augmented with pre-programmed sounds, or even step sequences that can be tweaked on the fly. The possibilities are truly endless.

One band known for exploring the outer limits of sampling technology is Animal Collective. While still using some live instrumentation, they use multiple samplers to trigger beats, basslines, random loops, psychedelic sounds, vocals, and so on. Of course, not every band needs to ditch traditional instruments to such an extent, but just taking some of their pieces of kit or process can help any act add some sonic variety.

In a performance for KCRW, Animal Collective's three current members—Panda Bear, Avey Tare, and Geologist—can be seen using the Roland SP-404 and SP-555 samplers, as well as a Teenage Engineering OP-1 and Elektron Octatrack. Any of these pieces of hardware—with the exception of the OP-1, though some might argue the contrary—could give a band the "brain" to handle their pre-loaded sounds.

Percussion Controllers

How to Add Song Samples to Live Drums with Roland SPD-SX

If your band doesn't want to fuss with pre-programmed sequences, or if there's not a free hand for triggering samples when you want them, then sample pads set up alongside your drum kit are a great option. (This, of course, presumes your drummer can hit pads on-beat, at least as well as they can hit drums.)

Many companies make these pads (often called percussion controllers). Roland is a leader in the field, with many variants of its SPD-SX line. These offer nine different areas that can each be set to trigger any sample of your choosing, or any of the sounds that come on-board. Roland also makes the SPD::One, an individual pad that offers the same functionality. So not only can you use these to bring electronic drum tones to an acoustic kit, but your drummer can trigger any sampled sound you load onto the machines, whether they're drum-related or not.

Outside of Roland, Yamaha makes the similar DTX-Multi 12, which, as its name suggests, has 12 pads, while Alesis makes four- and eight-pad percussion controllers.

Music Software

For many of the hardware units mentioned above, a great way to create the samples you'll use with them can be found in recording, editing, and adding effects to your traditional instruments and vocals within a DAW. But of your course, if your recording software is already on a laptop, there are many MIDI controllers available that can allow you to play the samples directly from your computer in a live scenario.

Think back to Kevin Shields recording feedback onto a DAT recorder, transferring seconds-long clips to an Akai sampler, and then playing the part across notes on a MIDI keyboard. A program like Apple Logic, with its EXS24 sampler, along with any modern MIDI controller, allows you to accomplish this same process with far fewer limitations.

Other DAWs, from Ableton Live to FL Studio and many others, are creating (or partnering with other companies to create) MIDI controllers made specifically for their programs, making it easier than ever to perform live with the sounds you create within the software. Ableton's Push series, the Akai Fire for FL Studio, are just some of the examples of this trend. With the world of sampled sound at your fingertips, you can bring in all manner of textures, rhythms, and sounds, adding new timbres and power to your rock lineup.

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