The 10 Best Hardware Samplers

BEST Hardware Samplers

The age of the DAW and the advent of more powerful computers caused many producers to abandon their hardware samplers in the early-2000s. But samplers have since come back in a big way and are now more popular than ever. Some of the best hardware samplers to have ever been invented have come out over the past few years.

In this rundown we take a look some of these options.


Hardware Sampler Buying Guide

A sampler is one of the most useful and most versatile devices you could add to your rig, and it could change the way you make music in many significant ways. But you should keep a few things in mind to know what sampler you want to buy.

Variety

Hardware samplers come in a variety of sizes, shapes, and designs, from handheld gadgets and desktop devices to rack units and keyboard-equipped workstations. Some are essentially sampling drum machines, while others are more sophisticated instruments that let you manipulate audio into weird and wonderful textures.

Complexity

The most basic hardware samplers allow you to incorporate audio material into your productions or live performances in the form of one-shots or loops. These could be anything from vocal chops and sampled dialog to beats, fills, sound effects, and even lengthy musical passages.

More fully-featured samplers provide a wide range of options where you could warp, twist, and play back sound. Some even let you take small snippets of audio and process them into playable instruments that you could play across the full range of the keyboard. Used in this manner, samplers are a great way to come up with unique-sounding melodic instruments from human voices, found sounds, and any other audio sources you could think of.

Intent

We kind of hinted at this in the last paragraph, but what is your intention of using a sampler? You could sample instruments, voices, or noises. But another interesting use of samplers is to create unique new beats and grooves.

Sampling drum machines provide a simple way to put this idea to use, allowing you to craft grooves from a variety of drum and non-drum sources. More capable samplers let you work with longer chunks of audio, allowing you to create exciting groove variations.

There is so much more to hardware samplers than we can cover in the space of this review. Suffice it to say that samplers are a great way to expand your sonic palette and to explore creative new musical directions.

If you’re more interested in software samplers, check out our VST Sampler guide.


Best Hardware Samplers

Elektron Digitakt

Elektron Digitakt

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Pros

The sequencer features parameter locks and trigger conditions.
Has eight tracks plus eight additional tracks for external sequencing.
Overbridge integration is excellent.

Cons

Monophonic sequencing only per track.
The Elektron workflow isn’t for everybody.

Elektron’s Digitakt has been around for a while now, but it is still the secret weapon of choice for many sample junkies and sonic adventurers. With its powerful and versatile engine and robust sampling capabilities, Digitakt stands apart from all other sampling boxes on the market. It also has the legendary Elektron sequencing workflow that makes it an excellent choice for live performers and hardcore sound designers.

Digitakt lets you turn raw samples into mindbending sounds and textures within seconds. A truly creative and inspirational tool, it can even serve as the sequencing brain of your live or studio rig.

Features and specs

Digitakt is essentially an eight-track sampler/sample player with 64 MB of memory and 1 GB of storage. Although it makes a killer drum machine, it is a lot more powerful and versatile than your average beatbox.

Each of the eight tracks has a multi-mode filter and an LFO that can be assigned to various parameters. Parameter lock lets you define parameters on a ‘per-step’ basis, which is the key to awesome grooves and evolving textures. Along with trigger conditions, you get plenty of tools to come up with interesting rhythmic material.

Bottom-line

Digitakt is a truly inspirational piece of gear. So much more than a groovebox, it can just as easily be the hub of your studio or your main sampling drum machine.


Elektron Octatrack MkII

Elektron Octatrack MkII

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Pros

A DAW replacement that is also a serious instrument in its own right.
Offers a wealth of tools and features for mangling audio material.
Equally capable at sampler, drum machine, and looper applications.

Cons

The learning curve can be intimidating for some.
Get ready for plenty of menu diving.

The Octatrack is Elektron’s flagship sampler/sequencer, and it is a beast of a machine. Equally at home on stage and in the studio, it has a wealth of features that make it a serious tool for performance, composition, arrangement, and sound design. Now on its second iteration, the Octatrack is still pretty much untouchable in the sampling sequencer arena.

Like many Elektron instruments, the Octatrack does have a fairly steep learning curve. But those with the patience and perseverance to plumb its depths will be rewarded by a tremendously powerful and versatile creative tool.

Features and specs

Like its predecessor, Octatrack MkII has eight stereo audio tracks and eight additional MIDI tracks that can be used to sequence external instruments. Audio material can be stretched and pitch-shifted in real-time using the Octatrack’s excellent sounding algorithms. Plus, you get the immensely powerful Elektron sequencer that has taken the world by storm.

The new version of the Octatrack adds a handful of performance-oriented features such as high-resolution encoders and backlit buttons. The result is a powerful and intuitive machine that could easily serve as the core unit of your live setup.

Bottom-line

There really is nothing quite like the Octatrack. The learning curve is admittedly daunting, but that is to be expected, given its awesome power and capabilities. Arguably one of the best hardware samplers for live performance.


Elektron Model: Samples

Elektron Model: Samples

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Pros

The most affordable Elektron instrument available.
Simple and straightforward knob-per-function workflow.
Can be used to sequence external instruments.

Cons

Monophonic sequencing only.
Only has six tracks.

Are you eager to delve into the Elektron world but have held off because of the steep price tag? The Model:Samples might just be the ideal entry-point for you! Offering a slimmed-down version of Elektron’s sequencing and sample mangling engine, Model:Samples lets you dip into the Elektron workflow at a more manageable cost.

Even at its entry-level price, the Model:Samples is a pretty capable machine. The six tracks can sequence internal samples or external instruments, and you get a full set of tools with which to mangle samples. Best of all, Model:Samples boasts of a knob-per-function interface, which neatly does away with tedious menu diving.

Features and specs

Almost every aspect of Model:Samples is designed for hands-on control. Each function has a knob dedicated to it, so you can pretty much do what you need to do instantaneously. This is the easiest and most intuitive Elektron machine to use yet, making it ideally suited for live performance. Tweaks can be recorded into patterns as well, so you’re only a few knob twists away from deliciously warped and evolving grooves.

Bottom-line

Model: Samples is the simplest and most straightforward Elektron instrument yet, and the least expensive way to get into the Elektron workflow.


Akai MPC Live

Akai MPC Live

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Pros

Superb build quality worthy of the MPC heritage.
Excellent workflow with a very responsive touchscreen.
A true mobile workstation that integrates well with studio computers.

Cons

You need to watch your gain staging to avoid unpleasant clipping.
Some features require interfacing with a computer.

The MPC Live is billed as a portable sampler workstation that provides many of the features that make the MPC X such a respected studio and live performance tool. From the surface-level control to the extended I/O options, the MPC Live is ready to handle any compositional and performance tasks.

Because the Live runs Akai’s celebrated MPC 2.0 software, it is a truly standalone device that you can take with you anywhere for beat-making and composing on-the-go. And when you are ready to finish up your track, the MPC Live connects seamlessly to your computer.

Features and specs

The MPC Live has a compact and lightweight form factor that lends itself to beat-making anywhere you choose. Take it on a trip or on vacation, and you have all the power and functionality of a full-blown MPC workstation at your fingertips.

Like the best MPCs, the Live has 16 pressure-sensitive pads. It also has a master encoder in addition to four Q-Link encoders, plus a gorgeous 7” multi-touch display.

Bottom-line

Even with its array of features, the MPC Live is one of the easiest to use MPCs yet. A powerhouse sampling solution that works equally well in the studio and onstage.


Akai MPC X

Akai MPC X

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Pros

Classic MPC workflow with a host of modern features.
Has an excellent 10.1” multi-touch screen.
Has a comprehensive range of audio and control I/O options, including CV/gate.

Cons

There are quite a few multi-button combinations to remember.
The layout takes some getting used to.

Akai proudly claims that the MPC X is the most powerful music-production system yet, and it is easy to see why. A robust and road-ready standalone system running the MPC 2.0 software, the MPC X interfaces just as easily with your studio computer. And with a full set of controls ensuring a hands-on workflow, the X is as intuitive and enjoyable to use as the best of the MPC line.

Features and specs

The best thing about the MPC X is that you can do pretty much everything you need to do without being connected to your computer. A full complement of sampling and beat-making tools are included onboard, giving you everything you need to craft beats, mangle loops, and even put together full-blown tracks.

The 10.1” multi-touch screen gives you a great overview of every function of the software. Anything that you would normally control with a mouse is controllable via the touchscreen, and there are knobs for all the major functions as well. And if you have analog synths, you will be glad to know that you can control them directly via the X’s CV/Gate outputs.

Bottom-line

The MPC X is an awesome powerhouse that brings the celebrated MPC workflow to the 21st century. One of the best standalone samplers around and a worthy addition to the MPC line.


Akai Professional MPC One

Akai Professional MPC One

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Pros

Powerful yet easy to use.
The onboard instruments sound pretty good.
Has eight CV/gate outputs for controlling analog modular systems.

Cons

A battery option would have been nice.
No option to add an SSD.

The MPC One is yet another Akai sampler/sequencer based on the groundbreaking MPC X. Like the X, the MPC One runs the powerful MPC 2.0 software, giving users a full DAW experience in a standalone unit.

The One is a compact device equipped with a 7” touchscreen, which allows you to perform a variety of sampling, beat-making, and editing tasks without a computer in sight. The screen is especially useful for editing and chopping, and encoders are provided for mapping commonly-used parameters for an even more intuitive experience.

Features and specs

The MPC One allows you to do almost anything that you can do on the MPC X. It loads projects, programs, and sequences from any previous MPC model via SD card or USB, and has 4 GB of storage onboard.

The One also comes with three high-quality instruments: Electric, Tubesynth, and Bassline. It even has AIR FX mastering processors, so you could conceivably come up with finished productions on the MPC One alone. And for integration with other devices, the One has standard MIDI I/O ports as well as eight CV/Gate outputs.

Bottom-line

The MPC One offers the power and functionality of the MPC X in a more convenient and portable package.


Akai Professional Force

Akai Professional Force

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Pros

A truly self-contained machine that is suitable for live performances as well as production tasks.
Great sounding instruments.
Excellent integration of sampling and synthesis.

Cons

A bit confusing at first, especially for those accustomed to the MPC workflow.
It only has a single MIDI port.

Akai Professional’s Force promises a DAW-like experience in the familiar MPC form factor, with the extensive sampling and sequencing capabilities that the line is known for. Like many of the recent MPC iterations, the Force lets you sample directly on the device or import audio files via USB or an SD card.

Once in the Force, loops can easily be synced with your project using the great-sounding time-stretch algorithm and BPM-detection feature. You can even import several loops and chunks of audio and sync them quickly for professional-sounding mashups.

Features and specs

The Force is a standalone sampler/sequencer with a 7” multi-touch display and an 8 x 8 pad matrix. The pads are velocity-sensitive and can be used for launching clips, playing the four onboard instruments, and performing other functions. Other useful features include an arpeggiator, note mode options, and a looper.

Bottom-line

The Akai Force is a powerful and flexible sampler/sequencer that offers an intriguing alternative to the familiar MPC workflow.


1010music Blackbox

1010music Blackbox

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Pros

Quick and intuitive workflow.
Plenty of storage space.
Samples can be of any length.

Cons

Only 16 slots for samples.
The touchscreen interface isn’t for everyone.
Parameter tweaks aren’t recordable.

1010music’s Blackbox Studio is one of the most promising sampling boxes in recent years. It has a touchscreen interface and a minimalistic form that is pretty unique in the standalone sampler arena. And unlike many other compact sampling playback devices, the Blackbox actually lets you sample right on the device itself. In fact, the Blackbox lets you work totally untethered from a computer, which is a refreshing change of pace.

Features and specs

1010music’s Blackbox has a stereo audio input for sampling, and you can import samples via USB and SD card as well. It has three audio outputs and a headphone out, with MIDI I/O provided via a pair of 3.5 mm to 5-pin DIN connectors. The Blackbox also has clock in and out for interfacing with analog gear.

Most of the Blackbox’s functions are controllable via the touchscreen interface, including the piano roll from which you could create sequences. You can also create sequences via the onscreen pads in much the same way as an MPC’s pad grid.

Bottom-line

The 1010music Blackbox is fast, responsive, and easy to use, and comes with plenty of storage space for loops and samples. Intuitive and immensely playable, this could make sampling fun for you all over again.


Pioneer DJ DJS-1000

Pioneer DJ DJS-1000

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Pros

Has a unique workflow that differs from most sampler/sequencers.
Superb routing and live-performance capabilities.
Syncs tightly with DJ setups.

Cons

No reverb per track.
Secondary output can’t be assigned to individual tracks.

Pioneer is better known for its pro audio and DJ gear than its musical instruments, but all that may change with the DJS-1000. Designed for easy integration with DJ setups, the DJS-1000 is a sequencer and sampler that opens up a world of performance capabilities for DJs and electronic musicians. From live sampling to sequencing, the DJS-1000 is a powerhouse device that came seemingly out of left field to take the sampling world by storm.

Features and specs

Everything about the DJS-1000 seems to be geared toward live performance. The 16 performance pads give users a familiar interface by which to trigger samples and loops and to create patterns in the 16 track sequencer. Visual information is provided by the 7” color touchscreen display, which is part of what makes the DJS-1000 such a quick and intuitive instrument. You can even sample in real-time, perform remixes instantly, and manipulate sound in a variety of ways on the fly.

Bottom-line

The Pioneer DJ DJS-1000 is a powerful and flexible sampler/sequencer that is nevertheless remarkably easy-to-use. Ideally suited for live performance, it is an excellent addition to any live performance or DJ rig.


Pioneer DJ Toraiz SP-16

Pioneer DJ Toraiz SP-16

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Pros

Intuitive and easy-to-use touchscreen interface.
Big and easy to read screen.
Great-sounding filters from Dave Smith Instruments.

Cons

Only capable of 16 voices.
Effects and editing aren’t as in-depth as the best hardware samplers.

The Toraiz SP-16 is another Pioneer DJ device that bridges the divide between live electronic music and DJing. Ideally suited for DJs who are looking to expand their capabilities with electronic music elements, it packs enough power and functionality to make it a useful live performance tool as well. Whether you have previously relied on software for sampling or have had to make do with limited and inflexible hardware solutions, the Pioneer DJ Toraiz SP-16 will change your perception of standalone sampling.

Features and specs

At the core of the Toraiz SP-16 is a 16-step sequencer with a 256-pattern capacity. That’s already more than what most entry-level sampling solutions can offer, and it places the SP-16 firmly in the category of ‘serious sampling instrument’.

Also on board is a 7” full-color touchscreen, with no less than six soft encoders and an array of pads and buttons that provide fingertip control. All this makes the various functions of the SP-16 easily accessible, and you have four switchable scenes besides.

Other noteworthy features include thick and juicy filters based on the Prophet-6 synthesizer, a wealth of sound manipulation tools, and one of the best time-stretch engines in the business.

Bottom-line

The Toraiz SP-16 is a DJ-friendly sampler/sequencer that should appeal to even hardcore electronic musicians. A fun and easy to use sampler brimming with power and functionality.

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