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Music production has surely evolved since the early days of hip-hop. In today’s world all you need to make a chart-topping beat is a laptop, MIDI keyboard, a pair of headphones or monitors, and a digital audio workstation (DAW).
Yet while it’s become simpler than ever to craft a hip-hop beat, that also means it has become harder to stand out as a beat maker. As a result of the endless production possibilities readily available in most DAWs, more and more producers are looking for ways to expand beyond the standard virtual software instruments (VSTs) and plugins.
A great way to do this is by adding hardware to your setup, and that doesn’t have to mean dropping thousands.
Let’s look at some of the most affordable hardware to help you make your hip-hop tracks stand out. But first, have you checked out Soundfly’s online course The Art of Hip-Hop Production yet? As with all of our courses, you can get unlimited access to the content with our subscription plan or get 1:1 help from a professional production mentor as you work through the course material — learn more here.
Samplers & Drum Machines
First let’s look at some pieces of hardware that you can use to create rhythmic backdrops to your beat, and so much more…
Roland SP-404 & SP-404SX ($350-$500)
The Roland SP series has inspired multiple generations of beatsmiths from Madlib to Ras G and beyond. Many producers enjoy the SP series of samplers because of the analog warmth that they add to tracks as well as the numerous effects that allow you to manipulate samples in real time like a DJ. These samplers are also incredibly easy to use which is why many beat makers use them as a tool to perform their tracks live.
Of the four samplers in this line, the SP-404 has become synonymous with the burgeoning chill hop/lo-fi genre that has developed in recent years, inspired by J Dilla among other producers. The vinyl simulator effect on the SP-303 is one of the signature effects that gives that unit its particular warmth when processing samples.
Over time, these samplers have become popular for a few simple reasons: they are relatively inexpensive, easy to use, and help bridge the gap for producers who want to perform their beats live without complications. If you want a cheap way to give your beats that extra color, or if you’re looking to trigger your samples live without a computer, this is definitely a tool you want in your toolbox.
Korg Volca ($120-$150 per device)
Another popular series of gear items, the Korg Volca series includes a unique array of miniature synthesizers and step sequencers that cover a wide variety of sound groups: bass, keys, beats, nu-bass, modular synths, drum racks, samples, kicks, and FM synthesis.
Korg has been making cutting edge electronic instruments since the mid ’70s and the Volca series continues that tradition by offering powerful analog and digital synthesis in compact machines. Each of the Volca machines features a tempo sync option which allows you to play them all together and create unique performance possibilities. The Volca sample allows you to edit and sequence up to 100 different samples.
Roland AIRA TR-8 ($500-$600)
The Roland AIRA TR-8 is Roland’s modern approach to replicating their extremely influential TR-808 and TR-909 drum machines. Both the TR-808 and TR-909 were instrumental in defining the sound of early dance, house, techno, trance, and of course hip-hop music. As drum machines began to permeate popular culture, the iconic sounds of Roland’s drum machines became the industry standard.
The TR-8 has been designed using the same specs as the original analog machines but features many updated controls which allow you to manipulate the machine in ways that were previously unavailable. This 16-step sequencer features all of the classic sounds of the TR-808 and TR-909 but also allows users to control individual parameters of each sound such as decay, tuning, attack, and more.
In addition to being able to program your own complex drum patterns you can use the Scatter mode to apply a wide range of effects such as reverse, glitch, stutter, and gate in order to create unique rhyming variations. This machine is perfect for performing live sets or integrating more analog drum sounds into your production arsenal.
Akai MPC One ($700)
Akai’s Music Production Center (also known as the MPC) is almost synonymous with hip-hop. This powerful sampler and drum machine has been around since the late ’80s and was originally designed by legendary electronic instrument pioneer, Roger Linn. The MPC became an instant hit with the music production community and many of its design elements quickly became widely replicated, like the pressure sensitive square pads arranged in a 4×4 pattern.
One reason the original MPC became so popular was because of its affordability in comparison to other samplers and drum machines in the late ’80s which would retail for around $9,000-$10,000. Linn stated that he wanted to make a machine that was easy to use even if you didn’t have an extensive musical theory or production background. The MPC One continues this legacy in its easy of use, affordability, and ability to meet the needs of the modern producer.
The MPC One is an all-in-one music production station that comes packed with 2GB of sounds, 16 velocity sensitive drum pads, and a 7” touch display which allows you to easily edit samples and control effects. This machine, like it’s many predecessors, is a completely standalone workstation which means you don’t need a computer to complete tracks. In fact, it comes with MPC Studio software which works like most normal DAWs and allows you to use the device as a MIDI controller.
Teenage Engineering PO-33 K.O. ($89)
For the last few years, the Swedish brand Teenage Engineering has been manufacturing and creating an innovative line of hardware synths and samplers known as Pocket Operators. The company first came to prominence with the release of their flagship product the OP-1, an all-in-one sequencer, sampler, and synthesizer. The pocket operators focus on very specific functionality to create extremely powerful devices that fit in your pocket. There are nine different pocket operators, however for the purposes of creating hip-hop beats, I believe the PO-33 is your best bet.
The PO-33 K.O. is a powerful sampler that allows up to 40 seconds of sample time, 16 step two-track sequencer, a built in microphone, and 16 effects. The pads are divided into eight melodic samples and eight drum samples. The melodic samples (pads 1-8) can be played chromatically via the 16 pads while the other pads (9-16) can be divided into 16 slices, which works well for drum and percussion samples. You can play and record up to four different voices at the same time and even sync other pocket operator devices to play simultaneously.
Novation Bass Station II ($350)
Novation’s flagship instrument, the Bass Station, was a triumph of innovation in 1993. The first Bass Station, now regarded as a classic synthesizer, was modelled after Roland’s classic TB-303, but in a more portable form. The Bass Station II is a modern update that also functions as a MIDI controller.
The Bass Station II features two oscillators as well as a sub oscillator for extra bass frequencies. Each oscillator features the classic waveforms (sine, square, triangle, sawtooth) as well two filters and a ring modulator that can be applied to patches. This synth is excellent for bass sounds and leads and is a favorite of producers such as RZA, Mr. Dibia$e, Hudson Mohawke, and Radiohead. If you want to create your own 808 patches this a great instrument to have in your arsenal.
Roland Boutique series ($300-$450 per unit)
In the 1980s, Roland manufactured many iconic instruments, such as the TR-808, TR-909, Juno-60, JX-3P, SH-101, TB-303, and VP-330. In 2015 Roland came out with miniature, Boutique versions of their classic synths and drum machines. Each of these Boutique versions replicates one of their classic units with a modern update. Each unit features an optional 25 keyboard, 16-step sequencer, a built in speaker, and MIDI capabilities.
These synths can operate by battery power or USB and are no bigger than a book. Their compact size and affordable price point makes them a go to for any producer looking to capture the sound of the ’80s with a modern twist. Each device uses Roland’s Analog Circuit Behavior system to accurately recapture the sound and functionality of the original synths.
Yamaha Reface series ($350 per unit)
The Yamaha Reface series debuted around the same time as the Roland Boutique series and offers musicians a portable way to recreate textures from some of Yamaha’s classic keyboards and synths. The four available units are the DX, YC, CS, and CP. Each unit is battery operated, contains a built in speaker, on board effects and allows users to choose from different presets or create custom patches.
Although each board contains miniature keys the sound quality matches I’ll to the original keyboards for a fraction of the price. The DX is a recreation of the classic FM synth the DX-7. The CS is a dual oscillator synth that’s great for creating pads, leads, and other spacey sounds. The CP captures the sound of the classic CP80 as well as a few other vintage keyboard sounds.
The YC is a great organ emulator that features five different organ presets (american tone wheel, British transistor organ, Italian transistor organ, Japanese transistor organ, and the Yamaha YC-45D). What makes these keyboards standout are their incredible sound quality and lightweight design. The reface units work well in studio, live, and production settings.
Arturia MicroBrute ($350)
The Arturia MicroBrute is an update of its predecessor, the MiniBrute, and is a fully analog monophonic synth. This little synth is incredibly powerful not only as a synthesizer but as an audio processor. One unique feature of the MicroBrute is that you can use the audio input to process sounds through a custom filter developed originally for the MiniBrute.
The synth also features a powerful step sequencer that allows you to program up to 64 steps as well as ADSR envelope generators, a sub oscillator generator, and many custom filters and signal enhancers that allow for endless sound creation possibilities. For the price point, this is a super versatile machine that will allow you to create a wide variety of bass and lead patches perfect for giving your tracks that extra grit.
Korg microKORG ($350-$400)
The microKORG has been a favorite of hip-hop producers since it first arrived in 2002. This small three-octave synthesizer uses digital signal processing to emulate the sound of an analog synthesizer. The sounds are made up of two oscillators that each produce fundamental wave patterns like square, sine, saw, and triangle waves. The microKORG comes with 128 factory presets that can all be manipulated and saved as new sounds.
What makes the microKORG so special is that it is affordable, the presets sound amazing, and there are enough knobs, effects, and presets to keep anyone busy making a wide variety of unique sounds with very little knowledge of synthesis. This powerful little piece of gear usually runs for around $400 and has been used by producers such as J-ROC, Ryan Leslie, Dorian Concept, Black Milk, Pharrell, and many more.
Don’t stop here!
Continue learning about electronic music production, beat making, vocal processing, and mixing with Soundfly’s suite of in-depth online courses, like The Art of Hip-Hop Production, Modern Pop Vocal Production, and Faders Up: Modern Mix Techniques. Subscribe for unlimited access here.