Grass Roots House – The Raw Sound of the Nineties

Grass Roots House is a project I’ve recently been working on for sample label Niche Audio, creating 15 kits inspired by my love of the classic raw House sound of the early 90s coming out of Chicago & Detroit.

It is out now and available as Maschine and Ableton Live kits, plus additional formats.

The “Golden Era”

For many, the early 90s is considered a golden-era for dance music, paralleling a similar time for Hip Hop. The discussion of WHY music from this era has such long-lasting appeal ultimately comes back to a certain “sound” that fans of the era love and modern producers often try to emulate.

So – what exactly IS behind this sound? I’ve touched on some of these things in previous posts, but to summarize it again here, one of the most popular sounds in dance music has roots in healthy doses of analog noise, and production techniques guided by simplicity and limitation.

Less equals more

An excellent example of this simplicity in the studio setups of the era is Larry Heard’s gear used in the production of the now anthemic “Can You Feel It”. He described his setup in creating the track as follows :

I used a Roland Juno-60 and a TR-909 drum machine. That’s all the gear used on the song,” he says. “I had two cassette decks—there were no digital recorders or even multi-track recorders—and I did one take, one pass, on one tape, then ran it back to the other one, played some other parts by hand that I wanted to add, and that was pretty much the recording process. It wasn’t exactly the Beatles.”

Of course, not all producers at the time used such limited studios, and, in fact, the photo here (taken circa 1997) shows that Larry Heard did around that time have more gear at his disposal. Nevertheless, it’s sure that most producers at the time would have been operating with relatively limited setups that would be based on the following:

  • One or more affordable (for the time) analog synths, often by Roland, Korg and Yamaha. (DX7, TX81Z, Juno 60 or 106, M1 are staple classics from the era).
  • Some sort of drum machine OR a sampler for beats. Sometimes both. (LinnDrum, Roland TR series, Akai MPC, E-mu SP1200, Akai S950, Ensoniq ASR10 are heavily used staples from the era).
  • An analog mixing desk (often a Mackie, Soundcraft or similar relatively cheap desk). Overdriving the inputs for rough n’ ready saturation and distortion was a common technique.
  • Whatever (typically on the cheaper side) outboard processing they could get their hands on. This would usually include a reverb and a delay as fundamentals, followed by additional FX such as filters, flangers and the like. (Think relatively cheap rack-mounted FX units such as the Alesis Quadraverb, Ensoniq DP4, Akai MFC42 etc.)
  • Some sort of analog recording medium (tape), or possibly ADAT
  • Rarely any computer for additional sequencing or automation. Sequencing was done with built in sequencers in the hardware. Manual fades, “scene changes”, channel-muting and FX modulation took place in real-time as the producer was bouncing down.

Sample, DIG, Sample, Dig!

Of course, with limited access to gear, the sampler was a go-to alternative. If you needed a sound, and didn’t have it, you could find it (or something similar) in a record and sample it. The prevalence of vinyl in many homes at the time meant that sampling inspiration from a family or friends’ collection was usually close at hand.

Similarly, if you didn’t have a piece of gear, but a friend did, a few days sampling up their synth could be the answer. Gear trading for this reason, was not uncommon.

One thing worth noting, and an important aspect of the golden era sound, is that samplers of the era had much lower sampling resolution, and often led to noticeable artifacts. The sampler, in this way, colored the sounds and unlike the ultra-clean high-resolution samplers of today never created a facsimile of the material. In addition, very limited sampling time (memory) necessitated unique sampling techniques that further colored the sound.

a healthy dose of dirt

A bi-product of the heavy use of often crackly vinyl for samples, sampling hardware through noisy mixing desks & FX units powered by often buzzy home power outlets, and lower sampling resolution is that samples of the era were often aliased and DIRTY.

If you then throw in the fact that people often RE-sampled sounds that had originally come from samples themselves, the noise and aliasing are compounded.

In isolation, these sounds are noticeably noisy. However, with creative filtering and EQ and placed with other sounds, the obvious noise is heavily reduced and for many becomes a pleasant character of the era. Truthfully, the 90s sound is DIRTY.

The Grass Roots Sound

I came up in the golden-era of House & Hip Hop and for many like me all of the above are recipes for true UNDERGROUND music. It’s dirty, not glossy. It’s rough around the edges. It relies on vibe, not complicated or high-end production tools. It’s not for everyone. It bangs.

I started Grass Roots Records back in ’92 with this sound coursing in my veins, and I hope I’ve transferred some of that vibe to the “Grass Roots House” pack. Enjoy!

In creating Grass Roots House the following was used:

  • Juno 106
  • Ensoniq ASR10 (sampler and FX)
  • Akai S950
  • Akai MFC42 filter
  • Korg M1
  • Yamaha TX81Z
  • Yamaha DX7
  • Nord Lead 1
  • Moog Grandmother
  • TR-909
  • Mackie 1202VLZ Mixer
  • Soundcraft Signature12 Mixer
  • XOXbox (TB-303 clone)

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