How to achieve a lo-fi hardware sampler sound in your DAW
Need some more warped, crushed tones in your new track? These tips will help get you there.
Lo-fi hip-hop and other sampling-based genres can sound wonderfully degraded and damaged, often thanks to the hardware samplers producers use. With a little careful processing, you can get this same sound in the box.
Hardware sampling used to be a means of yielding high-quality audio, with bit and sampling rates rising with each new release. Then, music producers started getting computers and, practically overnight, those classic Akai and E-mu samplers essentially became redundant. Now, thanks to genres that celebrate sonic imperfections, like lo-fi hip-hop and lo-fi house, hardware sampling with old-school tools is back. Those once-unwantd hardware samplers are commanding high prices yet again.
However, you don’t necessarily need them to get similar results in your DAW. With a little knowledge of the workflow of hardware samplers, plus some careful processing and imagination, you’ll be banging out nostalgia-infused dirty beats in no time.
The target for this tutorial is to make a piano melody sound like it was sampled off an old turntable. Here it is laid over some lo-fi beats.
Creating the sample source
First, you’ll need something to sample. In keeping with an in-the-box ethos, you could start by recording a MIDI melody and then bouncing it out. Try playing the notes an octave or two higher than your target range. When you run them back through the software sampler in the next stage, it’ll add some unusual pitch artefacts.
Importing into a software sampler
Add an instance of a software sampler to a new MIDI track and import the audio file that you exported in step one above. You don’t have to use Kontakt as in the example here – any software sampler will get the job done. You may even have a stock one in your DAW.
Now record a new melody to MIDI using the imported sample.
Setting the amp envelope
Next, shape the audio using the sampler’s onboard envelope. You’re free to shape it however you see fit, but leaving the envelope relatively untouched will preserve the characteristics of the original sound. Try clamping down on the release stage and cutting off the end of the source sound to create the feeling of limited sample time (the E-Mu SP-1200 is infamous for its short sample time of 10 seconds).
EQing for vibe
Now you can start using effects to impart some lo-fi vibes. The first port of call is EQ. By drastically cutting frequencies around the sample, you can ensure that there are no errant low or high frequency content cluttering the mix. You can also give it some extra character as if it was recorded through some old speakers with a cheap microphone.
Reducing the bit rate
A characteristic of old hardware samplers from the 1980s and 90s is their low bit rate. Use a bit reduction plugin to drag the number of bits down to 12 or lower. For additional authenticity, try reducing the sample rate as well, such as from 44.1kHz to 22kHz. Adjusting parameters like sample jitter (fluctuations in the timing of the sampling clock) and amount of distortion will give you more crunch.
Many hardware samplers had onboard filters. The RX950 plugin by Inphonik recreates the AD/DA conversion process of the Akai S950 and this includes its famously creamy lowpass filter. Try lowering the cutoff for a smooth, muffled result. Note that you don’t have to use RX950 for this – any filter effect will do – but this one has the added bonus of authenticity. You can reduce the stereo image to mono for even more of an obsolete hardware vibe.
We’re getting there but there’s more work to be done. In the early days of music production, you’d record a sample through a microphone – likely connected to an amplifier. These hardware stages would colour the signal, adding saturation. At tastefully low levels, saturation adds subtle warmth and character. Today’s goal is not about good taste, however. Pushing it brings in all kinds of noise and distortion, which is just what’s on the menu today.
Soundtoys’ Radiator is a recreation of the Altec 1567A Mixer Amp tube mic amp. When driven, it gives warm and gooey sound. Flip the toggle from Line to Mic, engage the Noisy stage, and drive the Input amount. You can adjust the tone controls to reduce the amount of bass as well. If you don’t have Radiator, there are plenty of other saturation plugins available.
Dialing in pitch wobble
Not lo-fi enough? There’s more we can do to foul up the sound. Pitch wobbles (also called wow and flutter) simulate motor speed imperfections in older tech like turntables and tape machines. RC-20 Retro Color by XLN Audio is a fantastic one-stop lo-fi shop and excels at pitch wobbles.
Load RC-20 onto the plugin track and turn your attention to the Wobble section. Dial in some wow (slow wobbles) and adjust the rate to taste. You can ignore flutter for now as that’s more for tapes than records. Use the Flux bar to introduce timing imperfections.
Adding the lo-fi finishing touches
Staying with RC-20, in the Distort column choose the Tubepair preset for some additional saturation. Use the Mix amount knob to fine tune the effect. Finally, employ the Noise section to sprinkle some vinyl pops over the signal. Switch the Routing button to Post so the pops and crackles come last in the signal chain.
For an even more pronounced effect, use the Duck control to push the source signal out of the way every time there’s a pop. Tweak the other parameters to taste. Finally, use the Magnitude bar at the top of to blend in dry signal with the processed one.
For the final touch, call in some reverb and delay to help your lo-fi melody line sit in the mix. Spring reverb is particularly suited to the task given its dark and metallic nature.
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