Drum Machine vs. Sampler: What’s the Difference?

Last Updated on February 2, 2023 by Danny

If you’re looking to update your studio beat-making workflow, deciding between a drum machine and a sampler may be tricky – they both serve similar purposes, and even look the same in many cases. But which one is right for you Drum Machine vs. Sampler? It all depends on what style of music you are creating and what level of control over sound manipulation you desire. Both offer unique advantages and it’s up to you to decide which is best for your needs.

What’s a Drum Machine?

A drum machine is an electronic device that produces drum and percussion sounds, and utilizes touch-sensitive pads which can be played to create beats and grooves, while also featuring a built-in sequencer for playing back rhythmic compositions. It offers both synthesized sounds as well as prerecorded samples, replicating either traditional or synthetic percussion. Simple rhythms can be performed manually from the machine, or programmed in more intricate detail using its sequencer. Although software emulations have become popular since the early 2000s, hardware drum machines are still widely used today in many types of music such as electronic and hip-hop.

History of the Drum Machine

In the 1930s, Henry Cowell and Léon Theremin pushed the boundaries of music production by creating the Rhythmicon. This early drum machine was difficult to use, but in 1959 Wurlitzer released the Sideman – the first commercial rhythm-producing product. This upset members of 1950s musicians’ unions.

In 1980, the Linn LM-1 was released, making it the first drum machine to use digital samples commercially. Its advanced features such as swing factors, shuffle, accent and real-time programming enabled popular musicians such as Prince, Michael Jackson and Devo to record hits in the 1980s. The DMX by Oberheim then became a popular choice for hip-hop producers after Run-DMC used it extensively. This revolutionized the production of music at that time.

The drum machine’s portability and ease of use saw it become a mainstay in studios, home studios, and live performances alike. It also impacted the development of genres such as EDM, which built upon the technology to create entirely new sounds. Drum machines are now used everywhere from in commercials to film scores. They have come a long way since their inception and remain an essential part of music production today.

The Roland TR-808 was released around the same time as the Linn LM-1 but it was seen initially as a commercial failure because of its cheesy analog drum sounds. However, when hip-hop and electronic music started to rise in popularity, producers began to appreciate the TR-808’s unique sound and it soon became extremely popular with more hit records being made using it than any other drum machine. Today, it continues to be highly sought after in genres like electronic, dance and hip-hop. For an experience of the classic hardware TR-808 today, check out the Roland TR-08. It will give you a taste of its iconic mojo.

In the ’90s, drum machines became popular in home recording studios due to their convenience and affordability. The Alesis SR-16 was a common choice for demos as capturing real drums in small spaces is difficult. However, this changed at the start of the 2000s as software such as Toontrack’s EZdrummer and FXpansion’s BFD started replacing hardware devices. These programs made it easier for producers to create high quality drum parts with minimal effort.

What’s a Sampler?

An electronic device capable of recording, modifying, and playing back digital audio is known as a sampler. It uses digitized recordings of real instruments, fragments of tunes, or sound effects to compose music – hence its title. This makes it an invaluable tool for producers looking to bring their creative ideas to life. From hip-hop beats to atmospheric ambiance, a sampler can be used to craft truly unique sounds.

A sampler is a digital device capable of instantly recalling sounds, allowing them to be played back in real-time with an array of musical instruments and effects. Sounds stored in the machine’s memory can be mapped to the keys of a keyboard or electronic drum pads to play back like acoustic and electric pianos, organs, and synthesizers. Additionally, samplers can be connected to a sequencer for creating more complex song arrangements based on their built-in polyphony limits. MPC-style devices even include their own sequencing capabilities.

Samplers have become increasingly sophisticated, offering filters, oscillators and effects similar to those found in synthesizers. This allows for more creative manipulation of sound. Software-based samplers have largely replaced the hardware variety, mainly being used in genres such as hip-hop, dance and electronic music.

History of the Sampler

In the 1960s and 70s, the popular tape-based Mellotron was chosen by bands such as The Beatles, King Crimson, and Genesis to add a futuristic touch to their music. In 1972, Harry Mendell launched Computer Music Melodian, the first commercially available digital sampling device. This monophonic synthesizer featured 12-bit A/D conversion and 22kHz sample rate capabilities which amazed people at that time. Stevie Wonder made great use of this technology in his album ‘Journey Through The Secret Life of Plants’.

In 1977, the New England Digital Corporation released their pioneering Synclavier, a digital sampling workstation which gained widespread use among both traditional producers and experimental musicians. This system provided 16-bit/100kHz audio recording and playback capabilities, which were notably used on albums from Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms to Michael Jackson’s Bad as well as movie soundtracks such as Clan of the Cave Bear, Kiss of the Spider Woman, and Rocky IV.

The Synclavier was a highly sought after instrument in professional music circles, however its hefty cost – ranging from $200,000 to $500,000 – made it only accessible to top-level studios and producers. The Fairlight CMI, the first polyphonic digital sampling instrument to hit the market, was certainly a sophisticated piece of equipment for its time. Released in 1979, it allowed for 8-bit/24kHz sampling, and by 1985 had achieved CD quality at 16-bit/44.1kHz. Despite being more cost-effective than Synclaviers – at around $25,000 each – it remained largely out of reach for most musicians due to its hefty price tag. Nevertheless, some well-known artists including Peter Gabriel, Herbie Hancock and Jean Michel Jarre embraced the technology.

In 1981, E-MU revolutionized the music industry by releasing their Emulator Series of samplers. These affordable keyboard workstations allowed musicians to record sounds and play them back as notes using a 4-octave, piano-style keyboard. Notable for being the first real-world priced samplers, celebrities such as Stevie Wonder even owned the first model with serial number 001! The SP-1200, released in 1987, has become an iconic part of hip hop culture due to its crunchy and distinctive sound when sampling vinyl records. After more than two decades of producing the Emulator Series, it was discontinued in 2002.

In 1985, Roger Linn partnered with Akai to create the S612 and S900 rackmount samplers. These digital instruments provided 8-note polyphony and 12-bit/40kHz sound quality. But 1988 marked a revolution in sampling technology – the arrival of the MPC series, which was portable rather than rackmountable. The initial model, the MPC60, changed the way dance music and hip-hop production worked by providing 16 velocity-sensitive touch pads that allowed for looping and sequencing of samples. Since then Akai have continued to create new MPC models based around the original design but with added features such as DAW compatibility and software integration.

So What’s the Difference? Drum Machine vs. Sampler

A drum machine is equipped with factory-installed percussion and drum sounds, as well as a sequencer. Samplers, on the other hand, allow you to capture and alter your own audio recordings. Depending on the model, it may or may not have an integrated sequencer. If you’re looking for a simple way to generate rhythms using pre-stored samples, then a drum machine would be the right choice for you. But if what you’re aiming for is creating layered pieces of music with your personal sound clips, then an MPC sampler could be an ideal option.

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