Infectious grooves aren't the only ingredient that you need to put on a great show. It's not enough to simply drop a groove and let it ride; you need to add drama to the music with well-timed fills, breaks and builds. Whether you DJ or do live P.A.s, ideal tools for adding this type of energy are one-shot samples. Examples of commonly employed one-shots are percussive sound effects, such as orchestral stabs and explosions, and vocal expletives. However, just about any sound can work — from a droning car alarm to a burbling synth wash — if you know how to tune it, time it and play it.
But before you begin assembling your one-shot-sample arsenal, it's a good idea to decide on your sample-playback system. The setup you select will determine how many one-shot samples you can load and play at the same time, as well as the type of controller that you will use to trigger the samples. Candidates for the task include samplers, sampling groove boxes, computer software programs and DJ CD decks that can play homemade audio CDs. Each system has its own set of pros and cons, so you'll need to decide which one will best fit your needs.
A classic rackmount sampler, such as an Akai S2000, is a fitting option because you can find a used one for less than $500. But do keep in mind that with a rackmount unit, you will need a MIDI controller, such as an M-Audio Radium keyboard or an Akai MPD16 pad control surface, to trigger the samples. Most hardware samplers also require an external SCSI device for sample storage. However, all of this hardware can lead to a bulky setup that is a pain to lug to gigs. A sampling drum machine, such as the Akai MPC1000 or the vintage Ensoniq ASR-X (only available used), offers a more compact alternative because its onboard drum pads work great for triggering samples live.
More evolved cousins of the sampling drum machine are today's sampling groove boxes. One of the best examples of such a unit is the Korg ESX-1 Electribe·SX. Not only can its 285 seconds of sample time store plenty of samples but also WAV and AIFF files can be easily transferred back and forth between your computer via SmartMedia card for an endless supply line of one-shots. The ESX-1 is also designed for live performance, with features such as backlit trigger pads, a ribbon controller for real-time control of effects parameters, a tap-tempo key for beat-matching rhythmic effects and its pattern sequencer to outside music, and a robust chassis to handle the rigors of the road.
SOFTWARE AND CD-Rs
With programs such as Propellerhead Reason or Ableton Live running on a laptop computer, you have the advantage of extremely flexible sound design and nearly endless storage capacity. For triggering the samples, a USB-to-MIDI controller, such as those mentioned, will get the job done. Even a less-high-profile program — such as Mixman StudioXPro, along with its handy DM2 USB controller — can be employed to trigger samples stored on a laptop computer. The downside to taking laptops onstage is that they are not well-suited for the demands of live performance because they are delicate and sometimes temperamental.
Using a DJ CD deck to play back samples burned to a CD-R is yet another alternative. This approach has the advantage of being extremely compact because, if you know in advance that there is a suitable deck at the venue, all of your one-shots can be burned to a couple of CD-Rs. Although the number of one-shots that you can trigger on a DJ CD player pales in comparison to other systems, for some, familiar DJ-style controls are preferred. But be aware that not all DJ CD decks either have a fast-enough play from cue pick-up time (or instant start) to be used to trigger samples or a large-enough cue/play button to pound out rhythms. Some also do not have the ability to read CD-Rs authored as audio CDs (using programs like Roxio Toast for Mac or Ahead Software Nero for PC).
The ability to loop and sample is invaluable, allowing you to get two or more samples playing at the same time on a single deck. The deck should also have a pitch slider so that you can quickly tune a sample and, if you're skilled, play the sample melodically (by moving the pitch slider while simultaneously triggering the sample — a very cool effect). Examples of DJ CD players that fit the needs of performance include the Tascam CD-302 and the Pioneer CDJ-1000MK2.
PLAYING YOUR ONE-SHOTS
When searching for one-shots, remember that they are not drum loops or sounds with a conspicuous beat. Of course, you could beat-match those, but hits, stabs and washes that don't have a backbeat are better choices for one-shots. For example, a sexually provocative vocal sample, such as an ecstatic moan, can be performed in a way that causes your audience's level of excitement and anticipation to slowly build. Begin playing the sample slowly on the downbeats; then, over several bars, start introducing eighth notes until you climax in a series of frenetic 16th notes. Additional amplitude dynamics and fades can be applied over your rhythms by working the fader of the mixer channel into which the sampler is connected. End the build with a crash, an explosion or an anticlimactic synth wash while simultaneously dropping out your beats for a dramatic break.
Take advantage of multiple sample outputs when they are available. Many samplers have several assignable outputs, as do USB and FireWire audio interfaces, and the ESX-1 has two stereo outputs. Assign different types of one-shots to different outputs, such as short hits and stabs to outputs 1 and 2 and long sustained sounds to outputs 3 and 4. Connect these outputs to a DJ mixer so that you can headphone-cue your one-shots before playing them live. Finally, don't forget to add effects to help your one-shots sit better in the mix. Reverb is always good, as is beat-synchronized delay, filters, distortion and compression. Whether the effects you have available are built into your sampler or part of your DJ mixer, make sure to headphone-cue your effects, as well.