High Contrast’s Turn to Hardware Samplers

Made With Tracklib

High Contrast’s Turn to Hardware Samplers

Drum-and-bass producer High Contrast is a scholar of beats and breaks. Sampling has been an integral part of his music-making for over twenty years now. But the limitations of lockdown ignited the desire to switch things up completely for his latest album, 'Notes From The Underground': for the first time ever, he fully immersed himself in vintage synthesizers and hardware samplers. Using three Tracklib samples while he was at it.


Danny Veekens


April 19, 2021

From a Tracklib perspective, the title ‘Notes From The Underground’ feels closely related to sampling obscure bits and pieces. Also since the album is a homage to 90s Jungle and rave culture.

Absolutely. The title has that fluidity for people to interpret it in their own way. I took the name Notes From The Underground from the 1864 novel by Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky. Perhaps the first-ever existential piece of literature. There’s a loner, introvert type character in there that you see repeated in art over time. Like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, or antiheroes in various movies. That was the character I was building this album around. Someone locked inside, not shaving for weeks, all by himself…

Guess you jinxed the lockdown. We’re all that person now.

[Laughs] Yes, blame me. But indeed, the title also relates to music: taking notes from Jungle music. At the same time, it’s about fragments of debris. That’s what sampling is to me: I like taking things that are generally discarded and forgotten about, digging them up, and making them into something new. And then there’s the existential theme based on the novel. A fragmented diary of someone living on the outskirts of society. For example, I made the track “A Mind Forever Voyaging” on the first day of lockdown. That’s the emotion and melancholy I was feeling - I got on a synth and that’s what came out.

For that track, you sampled “Let Him Go” by First Choice. Did you choose the sample based on that feeling?

I guess so. But to me, vocal samples are just another element of a track.

So you use vocals more like textures?

Yeah, I like to treat everything equally. I’m not letting a vocal sample completely dominate a track. Sometimes you might hear a fuller vocal, but at least mentally I try to treat a vocal sample the same way as I’d treat keys or brass or so. When I use a vocal like “Let Him Go,” I do that because there’s an emotion to it which I can’t really articulate. The song just hits the right feeling. That’s why it was very useful to find all of these a cappellas on Tracklib. Especially with not being able to travel around lately, and do crate-digging in record stores around the world. Tracklib really kind of saved me there.

Generally, I try to use things in a non-obvious way. Such as a stem of "So Long, Goodbye, It's Over" by Coupe De Villes on “Disk 2.” Or the track “Remind Me” from another release, based on the same Aretha Franklin vocal which Ayatollah used for Mos Def’s “Ms. Fat Booty.” I actually used a different line from the same song and built the entire track around that, sung by a singer who sounds a lot like Aretha Franklin. In the middle of the track, it drops in a little hip-hop segment with a bit of “Ms. Fat Booty” in it as a homage to that hip-hop classic.

Sampling is trial-and-error. You gotta keep moving. When something clicks—that’s it. I guess you develop taste and instinct over the years. What makes one piece of vocal “better” to use than another bit? I guess I can’t really articulate that. It’s all instinct.

What’s interesting is that sampling has been part of your music since the late 90s, but this album marks the very first time you actually used hardware samplers. What made you go for that?

Yeah, I’ve been sampling for over twenty years. I don’t even consider myself to be a musician. I see myself as an editor of sounds. I found this niche in which I can make sample-heavy drum-and-bass, and that seems to click. For years, I just used a laptop or iMac. I only bought one or two synths over time. But I never really used them. A lot of producers want all this studio gear, the racks, the goods… That just never crossed my mind, really. I just enjoyed playing around with sounds and samples on my computer.

But I hit a certain point. I’m not sure if that was getting to the limits of it all. But I wanted to switch things up and do things differently. It was a bit of a ‘Eureka’ moment. I realized I never used a hardware sampler, and as it happened, I mentioned that to a friend of mine and he had a Roland SP-303 and told me about all the hip-hop producers who have used it. He lent the SP-303 to me. When I start with something, I easily get obsessed over it… So I went from never using a sampler, to using ten different samplers—trying to buy them for cheap on eBay, aiming to get the classic machines, but also some samplers people don’t really know about. Just to try to find different uses for each of them.

Which samplers did you get?

I got the Akai S950, which is not just for hip-hop a classic sampler, but also for Jungle producers. The S950 was used for so many original Jungle tunes... So it made a lot of sense to get that one. Also because it’s got the classic time-stretch sound. Then I also got the Roland W-30, which is a huge keyboard with a sampler. That’s what The Prodigy used on their first couple of albums. They are obviously a huge source of inspiration for me. Especially the way how they sampled music.

One of the lesser-known samplers is the Zoom Sampletrak ST-224. Zoom is known for their field recorders and handy recorders and such, but they made a sampler about twenty years ago. It’s actually really good! I like the sound quality of it as it’s quite similar to the sound of an SP-1200. As expensive as that classic sampler is, a second-hand Sampletrak is only about 200 quid and has a similar sound quality to it. You can also do great effects on the ST-224.

The Sampletrak ST-224 by Japanese manufacturer Zoom

How did all of that change your own way of producing?

Although there is a sonic quality to sampling from hardware, the most important thing to me was that it makes me do different things than I’d do on just a computer. 90% of the listeners aren’t going to pick up whether a sample came through a DAW or a hardware sampler. But depending on the sample, and whether it’s spread across the keyboard or MPC-style pads, a sampler leads you to work in a different way. With that said, another benefit of using hardware samplers was that you’re recording a “performance,” so to speak. A moment in time.

Especially on synths like the ARP Odyssey which doesn’t have any recall or presets. It’s just where you put the sliders on the synth. You can take a photo of it and try to recreate it later on, but you’ll never get the exact same result. It’s a delicate piece of hardware that even changes with the temperature of the room and such. That’s what I did on a number of tracks on Notes From The Underground, including “A Mind Forever Voyaging.” On a computer, you can endlessly tweak things. With synths and samplers, you have to treat it as a performance. I liked that, after years of tirelessly tweaking and editing sounds.

So which DAW have you used before and on this album?

I’ve always used Cubase, going back as far as my early work in 1997. But similarly to using hardware to switch things up, I switched to Ableton for Notes From The Underground to change my way of working. The good thing about it: I didn’t know how to use Ableton! After becoming quite the expert in Cubase, it was kind of nice to reset, start over, learn something new, and make mistakes again. Not doing it the right way, perhaps. There was definitely a learning curve with Ableton.

"I’ve always been very influenced by hip-hop and sampling, and learned a lot from studying the work of producers like DJ Premier, No I.D. & RZA."

—High Contrast

high contrast drum n bass

Is it true that you wanted to start producing lo-fi hip-hop last year?

Yeah! Well, I’ve actually always been working on hip-hop beats, dabbling around with them. But because it’s not my main focus, I never felt comfortable arranging the tracks. It’s not in my blood as much as Jungle is. So I always struggle to finish a beat. I don’t know. Now that I’m using all these hardware samplers, it’s got more of a Dilla type of vibe you can get from it. I would like to make some more hip-hop. Maybe I should.

You should! There are so many parallels to be drawn between hip-hop and drum-and-bass. You mentioned the SP-1200 and Akai S950, a golden combo also heavily used in hip-hop, of course. Plus the genres of drum-and-bass and hip-hop are both grounded in drum breaks... They feel like distant brothers.

Yeah, that's true! Back then, it felt to me that hip-hop was all-American music, with Jungle and drum-and-bass as the then-British “version” of that. They always felt connected. At times also drawing from the same samples such as obviously the Amen break or “Think (About It)” by Lyn Collins. I’ve always been very influenced by hip-hop and sampling, and learned a lot from studying the work of producers like DJ Premier, No I.D. & RZA.

That shows on ‘Notes From The Underground.’ Whereas sampling in jungle and drum-and-bass production today is far less prominent than back in the early days, you actually start using vintage samplers for the first time...

Sampling has become more difficult now. Since about ten years ago, people really pulled back from sampling in drum-and-bass, due to all the problems with clearances. Drum-and-bass is a relatively small genre, so people couldn’t afford to clear all samples. So, unfortunately, people really had to pull back from sampling which encouraged a more synth-based style in drum-and-bass. But I love sampling so much. I really wanted to get back to that with Notes From The Underground.

For example, when I wanted to sample movie dialogues for this album, I actually hired actors through websites like Fiverr and got them to recreate the dialogue. Then I’d add foley background noise to make it sound like it’s from a movie, and then I’d put that through one of my samplers.

I read something about Liam Neeson & Jack Nicholson soundalikes?

[Laughs] Yes, indeed! The recreated Jack Nicholson dialogue didn’t make the album, though. One that did make the album was a Liam Neeson bit from Gangs Of New York for “Snare the Blame.” So that was one way to get around copyright issues on the movie front. Next to that, Tracklib made the clearance process a whole lot easier with their direct licenses. That way I could get some 70s soul sounds on the album. That sound is so integral to me, to the original Jungle and drum-and-bass sound. We’ve lost our way a bit by not sampling a lot of things from the 70s with that soul in it anymore. So I wanted to represent that again and bring it back.

But then again: I’m not into revival, I want to recycle. I wasn’t looking to make exactly a 90s Jungle record. I could do that on an Amiga or an Atari ST. Or just use the Akai S950… Instead, I wanted to take some of the essence of those ideas and how producers did things back then, but mix it with what feels right today. A 1994 feel in a 2020 way.

How did that translate to your choice of samples? There are some classic breaks on the record, but also newer styles...

In terms of breaks, I actually tried to NOT use the Amen or the Lyn Collins break… But I came to the realization that those breaks are such a huge part of the DNA of Jungle, that if you don’t have them in there somewhere, it really loses the Jungle feel. So I ended up using them. You can’t reinvent those breaks, but you can try to tweak it and do things a bit differently.

Such as?

Chopping the breaks up in the samplers, for example. Such as in the PO-33 K.O. sampler by Teenage Engineering and the Zoom Sampletrak. You get different kinds of edits from that. Or another example: instead of house vocals, I’d take a vocal from a studio session with a folk singer and see if there’s something in there with the same type of feel. Or sampling from video games… It’s in the ballpark of what would’ve been sampled, but they wouldn’t have used those actual things. On Notes From The Underground, I just tried to give a different spin on the production process.


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