Classic Beat Making Machines that Garage Band Producers Can’t Touch
To sound like an old washed-up beat-maker, “back in my day, it was hard to make beats! And expensive!”. I began “producing” beats back in the 1990s. At the time there really weren’t any convenient options to choose from. Beat machines were expensive. Vinyl to find samples cost money. Hours of self-training were required before you could even figure out a drum loop for the lucky few who did end up with an SP-1200 or MPC.
The Struggle of the Pause Mix
A natural starting place was to make “Pause Mix” beats. Pause mixing is the process of recording to a cassette a section of a record, pausing the cassette, rewinding the record being sampled, and restarting the recording. This process left many imperfections in the loops created.
The introduction of beat machines like the MPC, SP-1200, and the ASR-10 in the late-1980’s and 1990’s changed hip hop. The sampling capabilities of these beat tools led to the introduction of new sounds and complex patterns in hip hop. These machines are the canvas for some of the dopest songs ever created in the world of hip hop and pop music.
Accessibility versus Innovation in Beat Making
Today there are hundreds of beat-making apps, programs, and software packages. In a matter of minutes, samples can be downloaded by the thousands. No more digging in the crates, sampling a scratched-up record and making gold from a pile of dust. High-quality sounding beats can be produced easily from the touch screen on your iPhone. Notice I said “high-quality sounding“. While, sonically speaking, the crackle of a damaged record or a hiss of analog recording is a thing of the past, the necessity of innovation has too faded away.
The beat machines of Golden Era Hip Hop allowed for immense amounts of creativity and innovation. Innovation was driven by the necessity to work within the limited confines of the beat machines themselves. Limited RAM, limited sampling time, limited floppy disks to save beats were all constraining factors that forced beatmakers (or “producers” as chicly called today) to find new ways to differentiate.
Let’s dig a little deeper into some of the best beat machines that made hip hop the most popular form of music in the world. Many great producers have used these tools, but we’re going to only mention our favorites. Let us know in the comments if we missed any “producers” who use these tools.
The E-mu SP-1200 first dropped in 1987 and was a game-changer for beatmakers everywhere. The crunchy “east coast” sound was created due to the low sampling rate and 12-bit processing. The SP-1200 allowed for producers to incorporate a wide range of samples into their beats. However, there were some limitations.
The SP-1200 factory model only has about 10 seconds of sampling time (only ~2.5 seconds for a single sample). Innovative producers found a way around this by sampling a record at a higher RPM to save on sampling time. Pitching it down once it was recorded into the sampler to bring it back to the original speed. Additionally, the SP has no internal memory which means when you shut this thing off your project was gone. Every sample and sequence pattern had to be saved to floppy disks.
The greatness of the SP 1200 is it allowed producers to move away from manually looping samples on a reel-to-reel and incorporate full continuous loops. It also allowed for the song structure complexity to expand across the hip-hop landscape. Beat changeups from verse to hook became more and more common, and the days of having a monotonous 808 loop for your beat were over (for the time being).
Producers who used the SP-1200
There are too many to name here, but here are a couple legendary videos we could find:
Legendary Song produced on the SP-1200
Any true hip hop head knows this classic needs no introduction:
Akai MPC Series (MPC 60, MPC 3000, MPC 2000, MPC 2000XL, etc.)
There have been many versions of Roger Linn’s brainchild since its introduction in the late 1980s. The Akai MPC is one of the most infamous machines in hip-hop beat-making history. Its soft gray drum pads (on the non-rack mount versions) excited a legion of producers and opened up new possibilities to rhythm and producing. The “swing” of the MPC quantizing lead to a new feel for hip hop production that had not been previously heard with some of the more rigid sequencers of the past. Velocity settings on each drum pad were also key to making the music “feel” more authentic. There are some songs produced entirely on the MPC that you would think there were an orchestra and full band at the helm. The Akai MPC changed beat making and beat innovation forever
There were limitations to the earlier versions of the Akai MPC series (MPC 60, MPC 3000, MPC 2000, MPC 2000XL). Much like the SP-1200, sampling time and digital storage were limited. Floppy disks were likely the storage of choice. I have a cabinet full of old floppies to verify this.
However, the ability to expand the internal memory, sampling time, and storage was a monumental benefit for producers who were feeling constrained by the few seconds of factory sampling time.
Producers Who Have Used an MPC
Again there are too many to name, but here are a few:
Pete Rock (again)
Havoc of Mobb Deep
Legendary Song produced on the Akai MPC
I mentioned Havoc on the MPC, so I could leave this track for you…
Although not as commonly known as the SP-1200 and the Akai MPC, the Esoniq ASR-10 is by no means less significant in the hallowed halls of hip hop production. The keyboard style layout and 16-bit sampler allowed for maximum creativity and flexibility in making sample-based beats. A producer could literally now sample a single note from a record and play it on a wide musical scale as if it was a factory sound on the keyboard itself. The ASR-10 also allowed for SCSI compatibility to resolve the limitations of floppy drive storage.
The ASR-10 dropped in the early 1990s, a little later than the SP-1200 and early MPCs. Nevertheless, you’ll hear the beat machine being used on many tracks in the 1990s but it gained more popularity with underground hip hop producers in the mid to late years of the decade.
Producers Who’ve Used an ASR 10
Granted the producer of Run The Jewels has a ton of other gear in this video! He is using the ASR-10 as a sampler.
Legendary Song Produced on the ASR-10
The Platform by Dilated Peoples – produced by Alchemist
So what’s the best way to make a beat? The answer is: there is none. Ultimately the success of these machines is due to the creative minds that innovated and learned to wield their power. Attributing the artist’s success to a beat machine is like recognizing Picasso’s brushes more than the artist himself.
As a hip hop enthusiast and beatmaker, it is always interesting to study the techniques the legends use. These are valuable nuggets. However, innovation and creativity always win the day over biting and jacking. So if you produce on an MPC, SP-1200, ASR, or even a PC software kit (or yes, even Garage Band), take solace that the most valuable tool you have is artistry.