Continuing our look at the current boom in external hardware samplers, we review three of the best machines released in recent years that come in around the £500 price point.
Akai MPC Touch
First up we have a great sampling box courtesy of a company with some serious heritage in the world of sampling. Of course, the Touch is not the newest addition to the MPC range but it’s the one released in recent years that fits into the budget remit for this article. and it is a beautiful machine. What set it apart from its competitors upon it’s release was the large (seven inch!) colour display multi-touch screen, which allows tactile iPad-esque editing of samples, and allows the user to draw, edit and work with samples in a visually intuitive way. It’s a very well-spec’d controller rather than a standalone sampler, so you’ll be using it in conjunction with your computer. You should be able to pick one of these up for under £500 and it’s really a wonderful entry into the world of Akai and MPC products if you haven’t yet made that leap. If you’re after a standalone machine, then the Live or soon-to-be-released Live II will fit the bill for you, as will their pricier flagship product, the MPC X.
Akai MPCs were always famed for their workflow and the MPC Touch doesn’t disappoint in this area. Aside from the smart screen, the Touch also comes with 16 full colour (extremely) responsive pads, four small and one large encoder. You also get two sets of back-lit soft buttons, transport controls underneath the screen and bank selection controls above the pads.
The Touch allows sampling directly through the 1/4 inch jack audio inputs or through the USB, and it comes with 1/4 audio outs to allow you to further process your sounds with external gear. You also get MIDI in and out and a headphone socket. It’s slightly larger than the average laptop and there are no battery options with this beast, it will only run on mains through a wall socket.
As you might expect, it ships with 20gb of samples (that’s over 20,000 sounds) and also comes with a decent set of FX, which can also be controlled via the screen through a Korg Kaoss-type ‘XYFX’ mode. Indeed, it is the touch screen which really sets the Touch apart from its rivals at this price point, providing an intuitive and tactile approach to working with sampling – using it in tandem with the machine’s onboard step sequencer can also be an extremely fruitful way of working if you enjoy the particular constraints of step sequencing.
The strengths of the MPC Touch are simple – the workflow is superb and the touch-screen brings an element of intuitiveness that you just don’t get with a standard screen. Equally, there are multiple ways to do the same things, using the screen, the buttons, the encoders etc. It’s also a great looking piece of kit too and comes highly recommended: With all of the new models that Akai have released in the last 2/3 years, picking one of these up now second-hand represents good value for money and is more than capable of providing a creative working environment away from your computer.
Roland call their latest incarnation of their SP404 series a ‘Linear Wave Sampler’, and is marketed primarily as a live module. Although its similar in price to the MPC Touch, it’s a smaller and more portable machine, and its a standalone box too, so you could easily use it in a DJ booth without having to have a laptop with you.
You get 16 backlit pads and a bunch of other buttons, with four encoders at the top of the machine. In terms of the screen, the SP404A provides a basic ‘calculator-type’ 3 digit display. Samples get in via smart card (up to 32 gig – that’s like a couple of days of sampling time), via your computer or through either the mic or line inputs. You get 16-bit sampling with 29 of Roland’s superb DSP effects to play with as well, all of which can be adjusted from the front panel, so instant extreme sample mangling is easily attainable.
Aside from the standard delays and reverbs you also get a voice transformer – good for spooky robot voices – an isolater, a looper, tape echo, chorus, flanger, phaser, distortion, ring modulator, pitch, wah and more, and you can resample with effects too. It even comes with a built-in microphone and comes bundled with a quality sound library too.
The pads, although small, are responsive and most of the main functions are easily accessible, despite the limits of the display screen. In terms of looks and intuitive creativity, both the Touch and the Maschine MK3 (see below) edge ahead, but remember the SP404A can be used as a stand-alone sampler/sequencer which the other two can’t – and in terms of live sampling, looping and jamming, the 404A is very capable and enjoyable to use bit of kit.
Native Instruments’ Maschine MK3
NI Maschine, in its original incarnation, originally hit the market in 2009 and was something of a game-changer at the time. The MK3 is an update of the original and provides the user with 16 great big pads, 8 smaller backlit pads, a row of eight encoders, one larger push-encoder and two high-resolution screens as well as a touch strip controller too. It’s a very sleek design, and the high res screens, although not as instantly rewarding as the touchscreen on the Touch, are a classy feature.
The audio ins and outs are on 1/4 inch jacks and you also get a mic in, MIDI in and out, USB and a pedal control input too. It can run on mains or powered via USB. Like the Touch, and unlike the SP404A, the MK3 is used in conjunction with your computer. It’s a great looking piece of kit, and along with its modern design, you get pristine 96kHz / 24-bit audio too.
It’s a good performance instrument as well as studio tool and one feature we were particularly impressed with is the ‘lock’ function which takes a snapshot of your production, enabling you to then tweak and twist to your heart’s desire before hitting lock again to return everything to where it was. Perfect for live jamming and for creating huge builds and breakdowns.
Maschine MK3 comes bundled with an 8GB sound library, as well as the 25GB Komplete 11 library collection, all of which should keep you occupied for a while. There’s also plenty of expansions to choose from and new ones being released regularly. Navigation around the menus and functions is smooth and the screens give you plenty of visual feedback too. The layout is well designed, providing plenty of opportunity for immediate improvisation and what NI call ‘classic groovebox workflow’. The MK3 has a particularly impressive build quality and overall its design is extremely sleek.
The next best options, such as the outstanding products from Elektron, other models from Akai, and Pioneer’s Toraiz, require quite a significant increase in budget. At this price point of around £500, it becomes more challenging to directly compare machines as apart from comparing functionality, each box also engenders a particular creative approach. Your choice of external sampler will be at least partly driven by how you like to work. If you need a standalone sampler that you can use independently, then the Roland SP404A is the one – it’s also the cheapest of the three samplers we looked at. It’s also likely that your choice will be swayed by the genre of music you’re making too – the SP-404 is a mainstay of lo-fi hip-hop producers, whist Maschine sees heavy use within the house and techno community. If you want to work with a DAW and your computer, then both the Touch and Maschine MK3 have a lot going for them. The Touch’s screen lends itself to creativity, and it’s a superb bit of kit for improvisation. Maschine is also a very capable and classy performance machine. In order to write this review, we went down to GAK, our local pro-audio shop, and played around with the various samplers – we would advise you do the same to find which workflow works best for you. Whichever choice you make, we can firmly recommend any of these three machines.
If you’re looking to spend a little less, please check out our recommendations for hardware samplers below £300 here.