The Korg Triton and the 2000s Seachange in Beat Production

Pharrell Williams, Chad Hugo (2008). Photo by: Stephen Lovekin, Getty Images.

In 1991, federal judge Kevin Thomas Duffy made a ruling in a landmark case that would change the face of hip-hop, and music production, forever.

Grand Upright Music, Ltd vs. Warner Bros. Records Inc. was a dispute between rapper-producer Biz Markie and singer-songwriter Gilbert O'Sullivan, after O'Sullivan claimed Biz Markie's song "Alone Again"—which contained a sample of O'Sullivan's 1971 single "Alone Again (Naturally)"—infringed on O'Sullivan's copyright.

Duffy ruled in favor of O'Sullivan, finding that Biz Markie had violated O'Sullivan's copyright by not clearing the sample with O'Sullivan before release. As a result, the case set a precedent that would require samples to be cleared with copyright holders before release. As the '90s progressed and rap music continued to become an integral part of the pop cultural zeitgeist, sampling became more expensive—and more of a legal liability.

The decade was marked with veteran musicians confronting hip-hop artists and their record labels for uncleared samples on major projects, like The Fugees' "The Score," which contained a sample of British soul/funk combo Cymande's "Dove." Lord Tariq & Peter Gunz's "Deja Vu (Uptown Baby)" sampled Steely Dan's "Black Cow" and resulted in an infamous settlement: Steely Dan's Walter Becker and Donald Fagen ended up being credited as the sole songwriters of the rap duo's breakout single, netting 100% of publishing royalties.

Gone were the days of the kind of lawless, collage-like sample production that marked classic late-'80s/early-'90s albums like De La Soul's 3 Feet High & Rising, Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique, and The Jungle Brothers' Done by the Forces of Nature. By the end of the decade, rap music would be leaning toward a more minimal, stripped-down sound, a sound that did not require samples, or at least did not rely on them to such a great extent.

It would take a few years for manufacturers to come up with an instrument that would both suit the needs of hip-hop producers and define rap music's new sound. In 1999, pioneering Japanese electronic instrument makers Korg released the Triton, a workstation/synthesizer that was a wholesale upgrade of Korg's Trinity workstation that had been released in 1995.

Korg Tritons on Reverb

Coming out of the box with sequencing and sampling capabilities as well as Korg's powerful HI (Hyper Integrated) sample-based PCM synthesis engine, the Triton—along with its many model variants the LE, Studio, Extreme, Pro, and Pro X—provided an all-in-one solution for producers who wanted to build tracks with a single machine, from the ground up.

The Triton's specs are impressive for its time. With 256 drum samples in 64 user drum kits and 375 PCM multi-sample sounds recorded at a 48kHz sampling rate, the Triton's sound was clear, punchy, and colorful. Sporting a large touch screen on its face, the Triton allowed users to scroll through a seemingly endless array of options divided into categories like woodwinds, brass, piano/keys, strings, and other instrument groups. The 16-track MIDI sequencer could be used to record and playback up to 200 songs, with one song able to use as many as 100 patterns.

With such onboard capabilities—and thanks to EXB-PCM expansion boards, the ability to add even more—the Triton either rivaled or surpassed any workstation that was on the market at the time.

In the hands of a generation of young producers, the Triton was a powerful workhorse whose sound would show up on an untold number of hit rap songs, while also making its mark on pop and R&B. Before DAW-equipped laptops became powerful enough to surpass keyboard workstations, it was the Triton that producers carried from studio to studio, showing off their latest beats and taking them to the next stage of production.

Timbaland demos beats for Jay-Z with a Korg Triton Pro.

In a now-famous clip from Jay-Z's 2004 documentary, Fade to Black, the Brooklyn-born rapper visits beatsmith and music production savant Timbaland in the studio. In the process of writing what was supposed to be his final full-length project, The Black Album, Jay is on the hunt for beats and Tim has a stockpile of them. After Jay passes on the quirky, bass-heavy beats that would later become Ludacris' thunderous club banger "The Potion" and Brandy's Middle Eastern–tinged, R&B banger "Come As You Are," Tim plays the opening of a rowdy, synth-heavy beat that forces Jay to jump up out of his chair.

"Dirt Off Your Shoulder" and the scene is notable because it shows Tim cueing up the beats from a rig that includes a Korg Triton Pro, likely connected via MIDI to his trusty Ensoniq ASR-10. As Timbaland and his Triton would dominate the aughts, racking up production credits for Aaliyah, Missy Elliot, Madonna, and more, another production team from his home state of Virginia would rise to challenge his chart dominance—and push the creative possibilities of the Triton.

As The Neptunes, producer/songwriters Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo spent the entire decade of the 2000s at the top of the charts, with many of their most memorable hits crafted using stock sounds from the Korg Triton. Utilizing the Triton's colorful sonic palette, Chad and Pharrell took their experience as high-school band geeks (turned apprentices for Teddy Riley) and applied it to their catchy fusion of heavy hip-hop beats and sweet, synthesized instrumentation.

From Clipse's minimal, lunch table classic "Grindin'" (utilizing the Triton's B116:Percussion Kit) to the understated plucked guitar of Jay-Z's "I Just Wanna Love You" and Justin Timberlake's funky radio smash "Rock Your Body," The Neptunes and their Korg Triton scored the soundtrack to club nights, block parties, and radio mixes throughout the decade.

The Triton's dominance of the 2000s did not end with The Neptunes and Timbaland. The powerful and versatile instrument was used on massive hits from Lil Jon, Scott Storch, and Rodney "Darkchild" Jerkins, and the Triton also found its way into the home studios of an untold number of aspiring music producers.

Producer/multi-instrumentalist Pat Van Dyke started his production career while attending college at William Paterson University in New Jersey. In those early days, the Korg Triton was an essential part of his setup.

"Before the days of affordable interfaces and DAWs, the Triton was the machine every young producer wanted; an all-in-one workstation, sequencer, synthesizer, and sampler that had everyone thinking they were Rodney Jerkins in the privacy of their dorm rooms," he says. "The ability to load and chop samples, plug a microphone directly into the back, sequence individual sections as well as entire arrangements, a full keyboard, and the ability to mix internally made the Triton the go-to machine of the era."

Two decades after the Triton's release, hip-hop producers have largely replaced it and other all-in-one hardware workstations with digital audio workstations, whether Ableton Live, Reason, Logic, FL Studio, or others. Despite this, the hip-hop, R&B, and pop hits produced on the machine remain popular, their bright, bass-heavy sound sparking deep feelings of nostalgia in the generation that grew up on them.

Ave Mcree shows off Triton presets used by Timbaland, Scott Storch, and The Neptunes.

In 2019, in celebration of the 20th anniversary of Triton's release, Korg released the first VST emulation of the classic workstation, letting today's producers bring the workstation's PCM sounds and its particular coloration into their DAWs.

According to Korg's website, the process of creating the Triton VST was supervised by members of the original development team. Since its release, the VST has received near-universal acclaim with music production YouTubers like Weaver Beats and Ave Mcree, who praise the software for its accuracy at replicating the sound of the hardware original.

The fact that the hits that the Korg Triton helped produce are still playing all around the world, and that a new generation of producers are able to capture that sound with Korg's software recreation, are testaments to the quality and enduring influence of this beloved machine.

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