Stories from a Beat maker’s Beatmaker
If the guitar is Super Mario, the sampler is Grand Theft Auto.
Allow me to explain…
There’s one question I find myself being asked time and time again…
“What’s a sampler?”
Now before we begin let’s get this straight. I’m almost 30. I live in Vancouver, BC - the leftmost side of America's gravy stained hat. We’ve got gluten fearing debutantes protesting cancelled yoga classes on Twitter. We’ve got whiny, minimum wage earning hipsters complimenting one another on their new fades and coconut scented beard wax. And let’s not forget the young married couples who rave about their local philanthropy but shudder at the idea of having the homeless as their neighbors.
Alright, alright. There are some cool people here, too. The point is, most folks my age in Vancouver think about samplers about as much as they think about the children in Shenzhen making their iPads: never.
The sampler and hip-hop go hand-in-hand, even though it’s used in many genres. In fact, if you search Wikipedia for “sampling”, a big picture of DJ Premier digging records pops up. That’s how ingrained it is in the culture.
Yet I continue to find myself hard-pressed to meet someone in Vancouver who can name five original hip-hop artists – five artists who helped shape the genre as we know it today - DJ’s, MC’s, producers…anything. It’s just non-existent here (congrats Toronto). You’d have a better chance getting Oprah to star in a Happy Madison flick.
So it may come as no surprise that I get a kick out of seeing the perplexed look on people’s faces when I mention that I own a sampler.
“What’s a sampler?”
When I just started high school I began playing the guitar. My dad gave me his old acoustic. It was a piece of shit. The strings were so tight they felt like they could be used to make a Costa Rican zip line. I had to press down insanely hard in the middle of the fret to make a noise that didn’t sound like a wasp fart.
Eventually, however, with a little practice and some good finger workouts, I was able to eliminate the annoying buzz and get down to brass-tax.
I soon graduated to an electric and loaded up on pedals and amps. I would scour the internet for terrible interpretations of tabs written by nerdy, computer savvy guitar-enthusiasts. I’d play along with fast food and beer commercials watching tv on my parent's couch.
Most importantly, though, I’d jam with others and familiarize myself with off-rhythms, improvisation, and human error (with or without beer).
But it wasn’t enough. Something was lacking. There was one inherent flaw with the guitar that I’d only come to realize at the end of high school - the guitar felt finite.
Don’t get me wrong - the guitar is a magical instrument. And like any instrument there are countless permutations and combinations of notes that can be played. Chords can be parlayed with finger picking, string slapping, and everything in-between. There are capo’s and slides and metal picks (plastic milk-bag ties if you’re cheap). There are wah-wahs’s, reverbs, phasers, and flangers. The list goes on.
But although the guitar is a fun instrument to play with an incredible amount of potential, it’s restricted to the sound the strings can produce. Like Super Mario, there are rigid parameters: platforms, walls, and what can feel at times like an instrument limited to only two dimensions.
Needless to say, the levels started getting repetitive, and even though I was blowing into the cartridge, it seemed like something was wrong with my game. It was time to move on and head over to GameStop to see the new releases.
“What’s a sampler?”
I copped my first sampler at the end of high school in 2004 after saving enough money driving a forklift for a furniture company. It was the MPC1000. I bought it on E-Bay. It cost me $1,500 at a time when people thought you were an idiot for punching your credit card numbers into a keyboard over the internet. The Information Superhighway allegedly led right into the garage of a nefarious criminal in Xenia, Ohio.
But it came…
…and it was exactly what I was hoping for. Something that could capture any sound whatsoever, manipulate it in as many ways as humanly possible, and play it back. A sampler records sounds from its inputs and saves them to the RAM or hard drive. Once the sounds are in the machine, they can be assigned to pads. The MPC has 16 pads and 4 pad banks, meaning there are 64 possible sounds that can be played at any given time. Each sound has the ability to be manipulated by slowing it down, speeding it up, adding FX, time-stretching, note combining, etc.
There was just one problem.
I had no fucking clue how to use it.
But I learned. I researched. I practiced. I banked hours. Gladwell says 10,000 hours makes you a virtuoso. I’m probably somewhere between washing cello’s for the maestro and playing my first practice recital.
And after a little hard work, I now feel like I have the ability to create (albeit somewhat poorly) virtually any piece of sound imaginable. Not only that, but I can create a collage of those sounds in an infinite number of sequences and patterns. The sampler has all the same manipulation capabilities as the guitar, but instead of being limited to the noises produced by the strings, any sound can be reproduced on the sampler.
So whether you're making hip-hop, ambient, rock, or polka. Using a sampler, the sky is truly the limit.
When I say a sampler is like Grand Theft Auto, not only do I mean that you can steal sounds like you can steal taxis and Maserati’s in San Andreas, but that you can create a whole universe of new sounds. The onus is on the artist to use their imagination, harness that autonomy and be imaginative. The guitar, on the other hand, is like playing GTA 1 with the birds-eye view. It gets boring after a while and you just want to get back to eating Trippy Dippy peyote and shooting cops like you can in GTA 5. It’s leaving the platform for the sandbox.
So I must reiterate. I admire the guitar. The guitar is an instrument of great history and tradition. I truly mean it no disrespect. It’s gotten 100’s of millions of people laid for centuries. I’m sure I’ll get a little flack for this piece. In fact, dads and grandpas are reading this right now thinking:
“Who is this little turd? Nothing compares to the feeling of the rich mahogany of a Gibson Hummingbird on your lap. They call them instrumentals because they were made from instruments! Not a fucking machine! I didn’t jam with Gord and the Hosers in ‘73 using a god-damned sampler! It’s unnatural. You can’t jam using machines!”
Umm. Yes you can, Gramps. I’ve done it. Just ask my friends the Pereiras how much Purple Urkel we used to go through having those exact same jam sessions you did. It’s called the future. Ever heard of it? This is an instrument from the future. We did, in fact, jam using machines, and it fucking ruled.
A sampler is something that enables creativity in the mind of its owner. It’s reminiscent of the “Tuner’s” in Dark City with the ability to modify anything in their purview. The sampler is the equivalent of Shang Tsung’s character in the last level of Mortal Kombat 1. The guitar is Goro, the second last level. Even though Goro was super hard to beat, Shang Tsung could fuckin’ be Goro!
The guitar and the sampler, to me, is the difference between a pad of paper with a pack of crayons and an Etch a Sketch: one of them allows you to draw whatever you want, the other is a two dimensional sketch stuck in annoying sandy box.
Now if you will excuse me, I’ve got to get my beard waxed.