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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Old-school sampling techniques

Akai MPC - sampling legend.

Sampling continues to play a big part in all current forms of club and classic Hip-Hop production, and with the resurgence of hardware/software based counterparts of the classic sampling kit of vintage samplers (notably Maschine and the MPC Rennaissance), a whole new generation of sampling is on its way.

As a part of this re-kindled interest in sampling, many younger producers are also looking for sampling techniques to emulate the sound of early classics and get the sound of the “golden era” of Dance and Hip-Hop.

While many new samplers come with the option to switch to a “vintage” mode, simply doing this is only a step in the direction of achieving this sound. One of the main reasons for this is down to modern gear itself and how it affects the whole production process. We work with very little limitation from our gear these days, and while that seems great, it’s actually the limitation early producers faced that contributed to the sound we associate with early classic Hip Hop and House. Let’s go a little deeper.

Sampling Time

These days it’s likely you don’t even think of sampling time – there’s no reason why most of you couldn’t sample a whole track without any issues. Cheap memory and powerful computers/drives make it a non-issue. It wasn’t always so. In the early days of sampling, this was a huge issue. I am going to date myself here and say that my first sampler – an Ensoniq ASR-10 which I still lovingly own – shipped with 2MiB of internal memory. This was expandable to 16MiB. This translated into a default sampling max time of about 20 seconds, with the upgrade pushing you to the nose-bleed heights of about 2 minutes. This limited sampling time resulted in a creative workaround that many of us wouldn’t even consider today – and this contributed to the “classic” sound.

Speeding Up The Sample

With the limited sampling time, time literally was of the essence – so any way to shorten sampling time was good. One creative technique early vinyl samplers used was to sample the record at a pitched up speed – often sampling a 33rpm record at 45rpm – so that the sampling time was shortened. Once inside the sampler, the sample could then be pitched back down to its original speed. This imparted some subtle artefacts in the sample, giving it a less clean more “sampled” feel. Subtle, but there.

Mono Sampling

Another restriction of early sampling gear was that it could only sample in Mono. The MPC 3000, which came out in ’93, is the first of the well-known samplers to sample in stereo and it’s doubtful that many tracks were made on the 3K until 94 or 95, and obviously none before 93! So, once again, a limitation of early sampling gear contributed to the way that samples sounded.

Even with the ability to sample in stereo, many early producers would still opt to sample in mono because of the way samples could be edited. While today’s producers are used to being able to quickly and easily visually hone in on the desired start and end-points of a sample (or even have the software do it automatically with very little error), early editing of start and end-points to create a seamless loop was a science in and of itself. If you’ve never tried to get a seamless loop quickly with just your ears and a click-track, give it a try and you’ll soon see how it can be difficult.

So even if you could sample in stereo, the minute you started changing/ editing start and end points on stereo samples, phase problems could appear making the samples flange (interpolation/quantising error). This would mess up Drum Loops/ Instrumental Samples.

Production Techniques

Of course, producers wanted to give their productions a stereo feel, so a raft of techniques developed to accomplish this.

There were all sorts of techniques people dreamed up to overcome the limitations inherent in their setups.

A common technique would be to track out each sample on it’s own in a mixer and process each track to taste. EQ, reverb, compression, limiting etc. would be applied to each. Then the entire instrumental/song was mixed with some tracks panned left or right (slight or hard) and some tracks ducked, others pushed to get an overall conglomerate balance.

End Product

When the mix engineer was finished, the signal from the Main Outs (L/R) of the mixing console was printed.

It should be noted that all of this would be done out of the box – no DAW. Analogue mixers would be used with outboard processing or onboard processing from the sampler, all of which imparts a unique feel depending on the gear configuration. Not to mention a healthy amount of noise.

Finally, the “bounce” would be recorded to most often : (a) a 2 inch (reel) mastering tape; (b) a 1 inch (reel) mastering tape; (c) a DAT tape; or even (d) a cassette tape.

Conclusion

This hopefully gives you an insight into some of the early sampling techniques and most importantly gives you an understanding of a simple concept that today is often overlooked – limitation in the studio is often one of the best creative forces.

Try some of these techniques out yourself, making use of your own sample library – make them mono, pitch them up and sample them and then pitch them down again, add some dirt and noise to your sounds to emulate the dirt that outboard gear imparts, and so on.

Have fun getting your own sound.

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