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)

Free Track Downloads – Rough N’Ready Trax

RoughNReady” Tracks are just that. Ideas in the studio that I’ve bounced down – no real sequencing, just on the fly mixing, manual fades etc. 

Patches on the hardware were not saved, so these are literally one-offs, never to be repeated. These are some of them that I think captured a certain vibe worth sharing. 

Download these for free if you like, but please sign up to my mailing list

I’ll use it to let you know of releases. Some of these rough edits may be turned into more developed ideas. 

I hope you enjoy the rough n’ ready vibe!

Deep House One-Shot Chords – Free Download.

Vintage House Chords | Pads & Stabs

Vintage House One-Shot Chords
Vintage House One-Shot Chords

Vintage House Chords is a collection of lush one-shot chords full of unique character and vintage vibes. Each one shot is a combination of minor 9th chords played through a selection of instruments that helped define the classic sound of House & Techno – the Juno 106, TX81Z, Korg M1, MK2 & Nord Lead. For additional authenticity, each combination of chords was then sampled into the Ensoniq ASR-10 for additional crunch and character.

I hope you enjoy this free download and that the one-shot chords bring you plenty of inspiration.


  • 30 chords, minor 9ths in the key of C and G. (Playable across the entire range of your keyboard for unique chords.)
  • Composites of chords played through the Juno 106, TX81Z, Nord Lead, Korg M1 (VST), Rhodes Piano (VST).
  • All elements and the final composite sampled into the ASR10 for additional crunch.
  • Composite chords sampled to Mono for extra vintage authenticity & to avoid potential phase issues with stacking sounds.

True to the roots of early sampling, the one-shots were sampled as mono files (a technique that is commonplace in classic House, Hip Hop & Techno from the golden era, and a “secret weapon” of many modern producers.) (Tip : pan the mono one-shots hard left and hard right and send both to a stereo reverb for a huge/wide sound with the presence and control that only a mono file brings to your mix!)

To ensure maximum flexibility, the vast majority of these chords have been sampled without heavy use of additional effects. (As these are stacked sounds, even without effects, they are full of character and change subtely as each of the stacked elements evolves.) Care has been taken to give each combination a character that comes to life in YOUR sampler of choice : simply apply your sampler’s modulation effects, alter the ADSR, and/or process with additional effects and you will find a treasure trove of sounds that can be completely YOU. 

I love lush pads, but who doesn’t love a great chord stab? For additional flexibility, the majority of the chords in this pack have been layered with a nice percussive element at the beginning of the sample. You’ll find that these chords, therefore, work great as deep pads and ALSO as punchy percussive stabs. (Tip : adjust the attack on each chord to remove the percussive element, if you wish).

With Vintage House Chords, I hope I’ve created a pallette that creative producers will be happy to return to again and again. Each chord will add vintage character to your music as is, but the magic happens when you use this content in your own way. If you’re a lover of labels like Serious Grooves, KMS, Sistrum, M&S, Moods & Grooves, Sound Signature, Balance, Nite Grooves, Trackmode, Soundstream etc, – or simply a fan of proper deep House, Hip Hop or Techno – I think you’ll enjoy these chords!

Grass Roots House - Detroit To Chicago
My Deep House Sample Pack – Grass Roots House

Plugin Review – Live.Stepper (Free) Max4Live Plugin

The Roland TR-707 Rhythm Composer
The Roland TR-707

The rise of “in the box” production has advanced many aspects of music production, and in the process brought the possibility of producing music at a high level to the masses. I’m a big fan of the modern DAW and the amazing software that is currently available to both bedroom producers and pros alike.

That said, I am still a fan of some more “archaic” formats, such as MIDI and Sysex, and I sometimes regret the fact that very new producers will probably never know how powerful a deeper understanding of these technologies can be in a creative context.

One of these vintage tools is the trigger or gate signal. These were generally pre-MIDI and essentially were a voltage signal that could be output from a hardware device. These signals would be sent to other hardware devices as a way of synchronizing playback of the various devices.

An extension of this was that these signals could be used to advance a sequenced set of notes by one note in a sequencer with each trigger that the sequencer received.

The Roland TR-909 Rhythm Composer.
The Roland TR-909 TRG Out (Rim Shot)

The classic Roland drum machines included a trigger out that was associated with the Rim Shot as in the image of the TR-909 here.

So, a technique would be to program in a series of notes on something like the Juno 60 or SH-101 and then program in a rhythm pattern using the Rim Shot on the drum machine. With each trigger from the drum machine, the synth would step to the next note in the sequence, and once it reached the end of the sequence, begin again.

The result is that a producer could create an interesting progression of notes on the synth by simply manipulating the pattern of the Rim Shot trigger notes on the drum machine (these could be muted and still trigger the sequencer, so it was a matter of taste if they were actually heard or not). In fact, it is believed that one of the most famous bass lines in dance music was created this way by Larry Heard when he created “Can You Feel It”. Synthmania have kindly demonstrated how he would have done this with this nice video.

But what about the modern “in the box” producer? I was interested in finding out how a producer without a hardware sequencer or drum machine might be able to replicate this process. Fortunately, someone has kindly developed a great Max4Live plugin for Ableton Live users and it’s free! (I am hopeful that for those of you who aren’t using Ableton you will be able to find a similar type of plugin for your platform).

I’ve done a quick video demonstrating how this great free plugin called Live.Stepper can be used to emulate the classic trigger / gate sequencer technique below. My take – this is a great free plugin and it plugs a gap that exists. Kudos!

I hope some of you enjoy exploring this classic technique and come up with some great patterns!

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Using Maschine with Ableton Live (Free Template)

Maschine MK1
Native Instruments Maschine

If you’re using Native Instruments Maschine and Ableton Live, you may have struggled with a common question: what’s the best way to integrate the two?

Or, put another way, how can you make the most of Maschines’ intuitive hands-on hardware, and maximize the sequencing and arrangement features of Live?

I’ve been around the block on this question more than a few times and spent hours testing and revising different scenarios. In the end, I’ve ended up with what I think is the best way to integrate the two, leaving maximum flexibility and accommodating different workflows.

The answer, for me, is a template that routes each of Maschines’ 8 groups to 8 individual tracks in Ableton Live.

For maximum flexibility, the Ableton Live tracks are set up as external instruments, meaning you can not only route & record audio from each Maschine group into the individual Ableton tracks, but you can also record MIDI output from Maschine if you wish.

So, if you like to take advantage of Ableton’s excellent sequencing, mixing and processing features and essentially use Maschine as your sampler, this works well.

OR, if you are one who prefers to do all of your sequencing, mixing & processing work inside of Maschine you can. A nice advantage is that you can still use some of Live’s proprietary effects racks, MIDI effects etc by placing them on the relevant Ableton tracks.

NOTES:

*The first Maschine group in the template is for drums. Utilize Maschines’ dedicated mixer to pan and mix levels, and then bring the audio into Ableton as summed audio.

**When changing the sample on any Maschine pad don’t hit “reset”! It will also clear the routing. Instead, just drag a new sample onto any pad to replace it.

***This template requires Ableton Live 9 or later and Maschine 2.7.8 or later.

****Feel free to update the name of each group in the template if you wish. I’ve just named them in a way that works for me.

Download the Ableton with Maschine Template and enjoy!

VST vs. AU Plugins – Does It Matter?

D16 Drumazon
D16 Drumazon

These days, most plugins come in both AU and VST format, and Macintosh (at least up to OSX) continues to support both formats.

When installing on a Mac, many users go with the default AU version all the time. But, does it matter? In fact, due to the way AU and VST plugins behave the answer is sometimes yes. Let’s examine why and when it matters.

MIDI OUT – VST vs. AU

VST plugins handle MIDI output very differently than AU plugins. More specifically, VST plugins have the capability of sending out MIDI signals (if they are programmed to do so by the plugin designer) and AU plugins do not. (At least that’s my experience)

This is WHY it does make a difference which version you choose.

TO TRIGGER OR NOT TO TRIGGER?

That is the question! If you can imagine an instance in which you would like to have your plugin act like a traditional external hardware instrument and be able to transmit a signal out, you should choose the VST version. This is WHEN it matters what type of plugin format you choose.

Think about the types of instruments that would traditionally have this capability – drum machines, synths & certain types of effects modules that use MIDI triggers (like arpeggiators or chord generators) quickly come to mind.

So, when installing plugins like this, ask yourself a quick question: do I want to be able to trigger other devices with the output of this plugin? If the answer is yes, and the plugin includes a VST version that is capable of transmitting MIDI, install it.

One prime example of just how much better VST use can be over an AU version is Plugin Boutique’s excellent Scaler plugin. When using the AU version, you are not able to trigger external plugins with it. This means that when you find a selection of chords you like, you have to manually drag the MIDI files into a channel you want to trigger and then manually edit the length of your chords to play a pattern.

With the VST version, you can just set it to trigger an external plugin and whatever you play is recorded, as you played it, into the external plugin track. This video demonstrates the process:

Below are a couple of additional examples I’ve created that demonstrate how useful VST MIDI output can be (using D16 Group’s excellent TR909 and TB303 emulations) Drumazon and Phoscyon.

In the end, it all depends on what you want from a plugin. From my perspective, VST still has some unique advantages.

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5 Sampling Tips To Add Personality To Your Loops.

Akai MPC200The great loop. Whether it’s Hip-Hop or House, it is more often than not the foundation of a track. In fact, it’s become so much a part of modern music that we now have access to literally millions of pre-produced loops with the click of a mouse.

But, with all of this pre-made content perfectly looped and waiting for us to drop into our own productions, how do we really make our music our own?

One great way to achieve this is to alter your mindset. Start to think about the loops you purchase not as completed building blocks, simply to be put together in various combinations. When you instead start to think of them as great source material for your sampler, you’re moving in the right direction!

Let’s quickly look at 5 sampling tips to take loops from sample packs and make them your own.

Forget about the time!

These days, most any DAW or sampler will automatically stretch a loop to the tempo of your track. While this can be very useful, it’s not something you should just assume is always the best option. Why?

Turning off time-stretching forces you to take a snippet of audio that isn’t perfectly in time with your music and make it work. You won’t be able to just trigger the sample once and have it stay perfectly in time, so you’ll be forced to re-trigger the sample in a pattern that works with your tempo. In other words, you will be forced to add your own personality to the loop.

To do this, you will need to rely on features common in any sampler. Typically, this might include adjusting the sample start and end point, setting up new loop points, and adjusting the attack, decay, sustain and release of the sample.

Finally, it’s common that you’ll find that triggering the sample completely on the quantized grid doesn’t work. You’ll be forced to listen to your track and play it in a way that fits. The result will be a natural swing that makes your tracks feel less “cut and paste”.

Chop it up!

An extension of the first tip relates to the duration of the loop. While a great one bar loop can be just the right thing, having a bunch of them together can lead to a sense of rigidly structured repetition that becomes a bit stagnant. We’ve all been stuck in that one bar loop mode.

To add some spice, consider chopping some of your loops into shorter segments. A commonly used approach is to create a cool half bar loop as a foundation for things. Of course, you can then double this up to create a 1-bar loop, but if you use some of the techniques outlined in tip one (especially with regards to turning off automatic time stretching), you’ll have a 1 bar loop with some natural swing that can bring some much-needed life to your track.

*A shout-out to Erik Svahn who runs the amazing RawCutz Hip-Hop sample label for an inspiring conversation on this technique. Check out one of his nice Deep House tracks that uses this technique here and enjoy.

Stack ’em up!

One really fun way to take a sample pack loop and make it your own is to stack it with another sample. Again, we’re not just talking about taking a full loop and putting it with another full loop from a sample pack. There’s no doubt that this can yield cool results, but how much of your own creativity really went into that?

Finding another sample that you think goes well with it, and stacking the two (or more) before applying our first two techniques will yield some truly unique results. Setting up times where you are doing things like this, without actually planning on making a track, can also help break things up when you hit a creative wall. It takes you in the direction of sound design and forces you to start thinking of your sampler as the incredible tool that it is. If you haven’t yet played around with stacking samples, here’s a video I’ve done demonstrating how simple and effective it can be with a pad and bass sound.

Sometimes odd is good!

Purchased loops are almost always delivered in an even number of bars (1, 2, 4 etc.) The idea here is that they loop around in a way that is consistent with the most common (4/4) structure we’re likely to be writing our music in. In most cases, this makes sense and this consistency is something that we’ve grown to love and expect when listening to House, Hip-Hop etc.

But, there are times when taking a loop and shortening it so that it loops off the even bar grid is a really useful tool. A perfect example is live percussion loops. Having them loop in a different way from the majority of your track creates a constantly evolving variation in the way the percussion interacts with the rest of your elements, adding a much more human feel. It’s a great way to quickly get a few great variations of a percussive loop. Here’s a quick example of how to achieve this.

Not JUST a bit!

These days commercially sold samples are usually delivered at 24bit, minimum 16bit. From a sampling standpoint, the higher the bit rate, the more accurately the sampler is able to “describe” the sound sampled. It’s more accurate. Cleaner & more defined.

But, is this always the best thing? Not in my view. If you read my post on old school sampling techniques or the D16 Decimort review you’ll know that I’m a big fan of the character that older samplers with their lower bit rates imparted to sounds. In fact, the reason why some samplers are legendary has a lot to do with the way they colored sounds. What you put in isn’t what came out.

Think about this with your own music. Is having everything at 24bit always the best thing for your style? If you’re going for classic 90’s House vibes or Boom Bap Hip Hop, the answer is probably not.

My analogy is that bit depth can be a lot like colors. Would you paint a picture using only red? Not most of the time.

Like with colors in a painting, you will find that mixing bit rates creates levels of depth in your mix and the contrast you need to create your mood. Some sounds will be cleaner and more “present” and others grittier and more colored.

Try reducing the bit depth of your sample pack sounds and resampling them and you’ll soon see what I mean. Most any DAW will have some sort of bit reducer and most hardware or software samplers these days include some kind of way to emulate the older, more vintage feel of samplers that sampled with lower bit depth.

In the end…

In the end, the theme here is that samples are simply food for your sampler. Don’t think of them as the end-product, but rather a means to an end. Learn to explore your sampler and you’ll soon realize the possibilities are limitless. The sampler is truly one of the most powerful tools in your arsenal.

“Classic” House and Techno Chords

Korg PolysixTwo themes heavily influenced early House & Techno music production – limitation and technology. The intersection of these two things often resulted in the unique style that many of us now associate with that “classic” sound.

A prime example is the use of planed chords or parallel harmony. If you’re into the sound of producers like Kerri Chandler, Jovonn, Mood 2 Swing or even more current producers like Motor City Drum Ensemble, Legowelt, Soulclap, or Detroit Swindle, you’re familiar with this sound.

Let’s look at how the planed chords technique came to be a popular staple of House and Techno.

The Technology

Samplers ushered in the possibility of pulling audio from existing recordings. Things such as chords could be sampled and turned into new melodies.

The way samplers work, however, changed the way that chord progressions would be played. Normally, chords in a progression would vary between major and minor, depending on the root note the chord is built upon.

But, sampled chords remain fixed. It’s either a major or a minor chord you sampled. That won’t change, so your progressions with a sampled chord sound “different”.  Samplers thus resulted in the popularization of a “new” style (with a very distinct sound) of chord progressions by early House & Techno producers. (Early 1900s composers like Debussy experimented with this, but it was not commonplace).

Chord progressions arranged in this way are now commonly referred to as “planed chords”.

The Limitation

Throw into the mix the fact that many House & Techno producers are not musically trained and it is not surprising that this method of sampling chords and creating progressions with them (also referred to as “parallel harmony”) became a staple of the genres from very early on.

Even if some producers were classically trained, the underground nature of the genres meant that most production was done in small studios, without access to the resources needed to use live musicians, who were more likely to stick to accepted music theory. Of course, access to gear was an issue as well. If you can’t afford to hire a string section or rent/buy an electric piano what do you do?  You sample it.

Chord  Memory

The sampler resulted in the popularity of this sound. But, there’s another technological advancement that helped push it along even more.

Some early synth manufacturers recognized the popularity of planed chords and understood that many producers might want to replicate that sound without having to sample the chords they played on their synth. Enter chord memory.

Chord memory essentially mimics what a sampler does, keeping the structure of your original chord intact, at the same time allowing you to trigger it across the range of your keyboard. Like a sampler, triggering the chord only requires striking a single key.

A few classic synths that really popularized this feature were the Korg Polysix and Memorymoog. It’s no surprise that you’ll find these synths all over classic House & Techno productions (along with sampled chords).

For many of us, chord memory still remains a popular feature. Parallel harmony just has “that sound” we’ve come to love. Some soft synth producers have also recognized this and include the feature. One such synth is Rob Papen’s Predator. Find out a bit about how it works in Predator in the video.

Gear Spotlight – Ensoniq ASR-10

Ensoniq ASR-10
The Ensoniq ASR-10

The ASR-10 is one of the oldest pieces of gear in my setup but still holds a very central role. I use it as my main keyboard (the weight of the keys on the 88-keys keyboard is very nice and it feels familiar), and I also use it to add lo-fi character to clean samples.

I grew up on sample-based music during the “golden era” of Hip Hop & House. Due to the technology of the time, those classics that I grew up on included subtle gear noise, bit reduction, and aliasing imparted by the popular samplers of the day (MPC, SP12, ASR mainly). So, for me, the ultra-clean sound of today’s production is – well – lacking something.

Here’s my general process for dirtying up a clean sample:

  • Find a clean sample I like and throw it into Ableton Simpler
  • Sample the clean version in MONO into Maschine
  • Record the clean version through the Soundcraft mixer into my (Technics RS-TR355) cassette tape deck
  • Sample the cassette tape version into the ASR (with or without any ASR onboard effects).
  • Record the “dirty” ASR sample into a new pad in Maschine
  • Link the dirty version and the original clean version pads in Maschine and mix the levels to taste
  • Play them together and resample in Maschine to a single pad
  • Have fun

With my (Soundcraft Signature 12MTK) mixer this process is pretty quick. The Soundcraft’s multi-track USB audio interface allows any VST/AU/AAX/TDM/RTAS plug-ins to be inserted on any input channel. Then, sending output to the tape recorder is just a matter of turning up a send on that mixer channel.  The output of the cassette recording is connected to a dedicated channel on the mixer and I have a dedicated channel send that sends audio to the ASR.

I find that playing the original clean sample together with the dirty one does much more than adding some unique character. It also obviously fattens up the sound as you’re layering samples. The end results can be much more interesting and (here’s the point!) unique to you.

Of course, you don’t need an ASR to try this yourself, it just ads an extra bit of ASR-10 character that I enjoy! (There are some great plugins like Decimort that include vintage synth emulations including the ASR-10).

You could just use a cheap cassette recorder and/or cheap mixer. The main point is to take things out of your computer and then bring them back in using any gear that is likely to leave a sonic imprint on the original sound.

Curious about the ASR-10? Find out more about why people love it in the short video below.

ASR-10 Specs can be found here.

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