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The Crackle: The Instrument That Changed The Underground

We talk to three of the Underground's greatest to crack the code of the SP404 sampler

20th Jan 2017

When Roland released the SP404 sampler in 2005 (followed by its beefier brother the 404SX) it had no idea the impact it would have on the beat making community.

The 404 is a memory card based sampler and sequencer, as well as an effects unit. Essentially what it does is allow a producer to record and edit samples from records or live sources and then arrange them into a pattern. It’s the way all samplers have worked in the past but came at a time when production was moving away from analogue and into digital.

Despite its lo-fi function the SP has found a place in the heart of the underground. Artists like Ohbliv, Ras G and Diba$e have elevated its use to an art form but what is it that makes this machine so special? We sat down with OBIVON, Purple Dialect and Caveman Summer to find out.

Hi guys! So the SP404 and its extended brother the 404 SX have become integral parts of a modern beat maker’s toolkit. Why do you think this?

Purple Dialect:I think it started as a cheaper alternative to the Akai MPC for people. A lot of people, way back in the day, were making forum posts looking for the cheapest beat making hardware and finding the SP series.

Caveman Summer:It's partly the fact that it offers a hands on approach to beat making. A lot of producers have figured out the best way to achieve a certain sound is through hardware. The 404 was the most affordable way to do so. Plus it’s a very contained unit, you don't need a computer and a bunch plug-ins to make a beat. All the tools are there in the box.

OBIVON:Personally I think our generation of beat makers were deprived of the hardware era. We were all looking to get into hardware and everyone's initial instinct was to look for an MPC or a SP-1200. But we came to find out these things were either hella expensive or hard to get. The SP was the perfect tool for anyone jumping ship from digital to hardware. It perfectly meshed the hands on feel we were yearning for and the digital world through its FX unit and shit. 10 years ago these boxes were looked at as toys. Today it's shaping or influencing what we're hearing one way or another. Production wise or mix wise.

That’s a great point. I know when I started I saw an MPC was way out of my price range. Also OBIVON you touched on the personal aspect but what was it about 404 which initially attracted you guys to it?

CS:My first experience with SP's was owning the SP202. I stumbled upon one randomly and fell in love with the overall sound and the effects. I got a 404 for live sets to start with. I was sick of lugging my laptop everywhere with a MIDI controller and once I found the 404 I realized it did everything I needed in that department.

PD:For me it was the limitations and mobility! Throw it in a backpack and I can make anything, anywhere.

O:I personally started making beats because I used to skate to Madlib. I just wanted to re-create that feeling his beats gave me. At first I thought he did his shit on his MPC but I saw this documentary called Braslintime and he was making this beat and I noticed he was just using his MPC2000xl as a table for his 303! Blew my fucking lid away! I was like ‘what the fuuuuck is that??!’ I looked it up and found out there was already a small cult out there full of SP heads. It opened a new door for me.

Word! The limitations too Purple! Tell em broo!

Yeah Purple that’s interesting. How do you mean limitations?

PD:No visual waveform, no auto chopping (the samples). You gotta do it by ear! It makes you way better I think.

O:Also you think about it. All these other programs now they can literally do ANYTHING. You're sitting there with a track and you can never finish it. You're always stuck with "Well I can add that… plus this...” It's crazy. I don’t think I’ve ever finished a track on Ableton.

PD:Exactly. Ableton is amazing but you can get lost with the literally endless options in software.

O:But with the SP it's just all ears and feel. That classic case where software’s limitless abilities actually limits you. It feels like drowning.

So do you think that the limitless potential that has come with production software has actually pushed beat makers toward a more analogue approach? Do you feel your music is different with the 404?

O:It's definitely different!

CS:I agree. A lot of us don't use the sequencer on the 404 so it forces you into a space of having to get good at timing and mixing as you go along. The experience is more rewarding.

O:Cause the limitations presents you with an obstacle.

PD:100% yes. Makes you think and create differently.

O:Through the process of solving this obstacle to get the sound you want, you either find a new sound or find new ways you can freak your machine. One thing about it too is that almost everyone I’ve met with a 202, 303 (other Roland samplers) or 404 uses it differently, in their own way. It's becoming an instrument to most people not just a "sampler". That's what makes the SP series on the whole really unique for me.

Yeah I think SP series, but especially the 404, allows producers to approach their art in their own unique way. This of course leads to a more personalized sound and style.

CS:I know from personal experience that I got really bored with the ease of strictly digital production; I needed something that didn't lend itself to lazy beat making. There’s a lot of temptation to just hit the quantize button but the SP forces you to master your approach.

O:Yes sir!

PD:Also just getting away from the other distractions on the computer. Email, social media etc.

Teebs in the lab

So you've all talked about using it live. Is there any other reason than portability that you use it live? For me I try to play my own beats on it live because it feels more like a live performance rather than just spinning tunes.

O:Of course it's that too. I make all my beats in it, then save the finished ones in their own banks and play it the same night. I was done carrying laptops, keyboards and a controller just to "jam" or DJ at some local spot. The SP just needs batteries and I’m out the door.

PD:It depends for me; if I’m rapping then I want whole beats but for a beat set, chopped samples.

What about you Caveman? How do you approach it live?

CS:Yeah it’s great in a live setting! It’s the first sampler I've used that feels like an instrument. At its best, it can serve as an extension to the producer. Like PD said, it's great to play a beat while rapping and have effects at your disposal for drops and transitions.


PD:Yeah! So fun!

CS:Plus spectators tend to think you're a wizard of some sort because it looks more complicated than it really is to the average person haha.

PD:Let’s be real, showing up to play set with your backpack with SP in it feels cool.

Exactly! On that note who are some of your 404 heroes? Who do you see use it, hear their beats and go 'Wow'?

PD:Dibia$e and Mujo.

O:Guys from different genres like Four Tet to Animal Collective. Definitely Dibia$e like PD said. Also Samiyam. There's just so many to mention because every time you see someone with an SP, and they know what they’re doing, you can’t help but be a fan because you can see the genuine fun the person is having.

CS:I literally bought a 404 after seeing Busdriver a few years back because of the live effects he ran while rapping. Then I started discovering the other great producers who use it. I knew Madlib had used the 303 a lot but finding out that people like Dibia$e were using the 404 was really inspiring.

Can’t really talk about the 404 without mentioning Dibia$e! What is it about these guys that you think makes them using the 404 so special?

O:They made it their own.

PD:I think it’s what Caveman said. The genuine FUN they have with it and the love for it.

O:Yeah man. I mean I can’t sit for more than 5 minutes watching someone on an MPC. It’s the same as a computer to me but with an SP I can watch strangers on that for hours. Just to see how they use it from their perspective.

CS:The way these guys flip a sample or play drum patterns on them is almost like a fingerprint. No one else can do it like they do. I know people that have music degrees that are blown away by these simple loops. It just comes down to the producer having their own style and the SP helps bring that out in a lot of people.


Word. I love that point about their styles being like fingerprints. Are you guys worried about its rise making its use or sound clichéd?

O:Nah I’m not worried. The resample mode and effects used together turn this lil box into a full on Dub style studio. You know how those Reggae and Dub producers back then would produce? Like use the whole control board of the studio as their instrument just by messing with the effects and knobs to turn a piano stab to a pad sound. Turn a single shot snare sound to a staccato pattern through delay. It’s the same shit I feel when I’m creating in it.

CS:It's kind of getting to that point in a lot of ways though, but it doesn't bother me. I love the aesthetic of the lo-fi culture and no matter how much the same sound gets reproduced there’s always going to be some people doing really cool original things with it.

PD:I don’t worry about it. You can make anything with it. To be honest, people wouldn’t know most of my stuff was strictly 404 unless I told them. They are usually like “Really??” Like there are people making house on the 404 as we speak.

O:Cause like I said once the box becomes someone's third arm, or really their instrument, they start making their own sound. There are some who are still finding their own sound and do come off as biting but I feel like that's part of everyone's process. With the MPC you can just tell someone made it on there for the most part due to its sound. Which is very similar because it has a far more limited effects board than the SP. It leaves little room for MPC users to sound different to the next guy who uses one.

Yeah like its uniqueness means it can be utilized across the spectrum?

O:Yeah bro. I’ve met acoustic players who use SPs for their guitar sets and shit. Just as an effects board. The crazy shit is some of them would use it in some way I never thought of.

PD:Exactly. There are 404s being used by all genres for live shows and in production. My buddy uses it in a black metal band to trigger ambient sounds!

O:That’s a first time I heard a black metal band using it but that’s exactly the point!

CS:Yeah I’m starting to see tons of bands use them.

So it’s like the 404 (and SP series generally) is actually opening people up to creativity because the limitations are actually being exploited in their fullest?

O:Some people look at it and say "Man this shit is pointless. It does nothing" but you break the code and you find your own formula and it's the most capable machine out there.

CS:I think people that play instruments see the musicality too. I've had singer songwriter types ask me how I do all that crazy stuff on stage because they can see it’s not just a guy hitting play and nodding his head for three minutes. It can expand the tool belt of any musician if used properly. Its crazy versatile once you really dive in and learn about it.

O:Yeah for real, people who play instruments really gravitate to it and I think people who are used to having machines or programs do most of the work for them feel really uncomfortable with the SP at first. I remember Just Blaze sold his 404 with the caption on his twitter post saying something like: "Bought this thing. Hate it. It doesn’t do anything. Any takers?” I laughed hard at that one.

PD:Yo I HATED the SP first session I had. But years later it’s all I use!

So if you had to sum up why the 404 has been so important to the underground what would you say?

PD:Affordable, portable and friendly community of experienced and like-minded users.

CS:I think its a few things. For some people it just comes down to sound design and getting a gritty old school feel but it's expanded beyond that because it can do so much more than the makers intended. It's kind of undeniable once you get a feel for it.

O:Everything from its sound to its look and mobility. It looks very humble and harmless but when you turn it on it's a beast! Also it's rare these days for people to see someone do sets with blinking buttons without a big screen in front of them. It's giving people a taste or experience of the old and the new.

Thanks guys! Where can we follow you?

CS:Cool! You can follow me on Facebook at ‘Caveman Summer’

O:Yeah you can find me at ‘O B I V O N’ on Facebook too.

PD:Peace! I’m on Facebook too at ‘Purple Dialect’

Listen to Purple Dialect, OBIVON and Caveman Summer below:

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