Native Instruments have recently dropped their new drum and percussion instrument, Empire Breaks. Designed to emulate the sound of 90’s break-beats sampled from vintage samplers in a modern and streamlined interface.
I’ll admit, to begin with, that I’m obsessed with 90’s Hip Hop. It was the first genre of music I remember being emotionally drawn to, for the most part, because of the beat-making and production techniques used at the time. I remember my teenage years hearing Digable Planets Rebirth Of Cool (Cool Like That) or Souls Of Mischief 93’ Till Infinity, and Tribe Called Quest’s – Electronic Relaxation for the first time and thinking ‘how did they make that sound’. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was the chopped-up jazzy samples, ‘boom-bap’ drum arrangements with that ‘lo-fi’ sound from vintage samplers that yielded such an emotive sound. When I cast my mind back, I recognise how pivotable time this was in influencing my love for this genre and how it became a lifelong passion of mine. But what was it about this era of Hip Hop and these tracks that hit me so hard in the feels?
Humour me whilst I bore you with specifics for context, but behind the beats were some iconic producers and beat-makers whose contributions were essential to developing that sound. There are waaay too many to list although J-Dilla is an obvious place to start as he had an iconic sound that has influenced generations of producers. Although let’s not forget some of my faves like Pete Rock and DJ Premier, as well as Q-Tip, Lord Finesse and Diamond D who without them we wouldn’t have some unbelieve albums throughout the 90s.
So what was it that made this genre just soo damn good?? The technology at the time had many limitations by today’s standards. Music making was simpler, this was the pre-internet era so there were no subscriptions for sample packs so musical elements were sampled directly from vinyl or tape into the likes of Akai’s MPC samplers or E-MU Systems SP-1200 and chopped up and re-arranged in creative new ways.
This is exactly why it sounded the way it did, think Jazzy trumpet solos from a Miles Davis record used by Mos Def and Erykah Badu, or that amazing string and piano sound from Quincy Jones’s ‘Summer In The City’ that featured in tracks by The Roots, The Pharcyde and LL Cool J. Beatmakers chopped these samples pushing every inch of their machines and in turn created a whole new genre.
OK OK, SO WHAT ARE WE TALKING ABOUT HERE
Empire Breaks adds to NI’s Play Series Collection, which is a range of highly playable and easily customisable virtual software instruments. They are fantastic, sound great and are extremely easy to use. Empire Breaks is the latest in the line-up that draws upon that authentic sound of 90’s Hip Hop drum productions as they sound gritty and crunchy with that distinct ‘old-school flavour’ synonymous with the genre. When you open the instrument for the first time, you’re greeted with a cheesy image of what looks like a New York city block (seemingly a nod to the birthplace of Hip Hop) with a drum layout that uses iconic Ney York city subway font. Below are 8 simple macro parameters that let you quickly dial in your desired sound.
In the top left-hand corner, you can diver deeper into the instruments, but changing individual sounds in the kit, cycling through patterns, editing effects and customising macro controls for different parameters.
The simplicity behind the drum programming is very clever here. Firstly, you can trigger each sound individually and program them to create your own drum patterns via MIDI, however, there are also pre-programmed loops, in a variety of combinations to reflect different parts you may need for a track; drum fills, variations, and the main groove. From here you can easily drag these arrangements from the plugin window and drop them into your arrangement window as a MIDI track.
In order to achieve that gritty sound, extensive modelling has been done, combined with elaborate effect combinations like saturation, compression, chorus, reverbs and delays to provide an authentic sound. Yes, these are all customisable and you can select from a range of effects and put them in the order you wish.
WHY EMPIRE BREAKS?
Clearly, the sound of the 90s has been creeping its way back into the mainstream for some time, although recontextualised for today. The sound of boom-bap Hip Hop has been a key influence in ‘lo-fi’ Hip Hop and House music, as it employs similar production techniques. Empire Breaks will nestle in nicely for people producing these genres. Empire Breaks will also serve as an awesome tool for beat-making across multiple genres like Disco and other forms of electronic music.
There are those that still own and operate vintage samplers and will never change (and for good reason) but these machines have long been discontinued and are by and large hard to come by. They also need lots of servicing and parts can be hard to find. Obtaining vintage samplers are pricey and often needs servicing, that’s not to say there aren’t modern equivalents that do an awesome job and offer more, such as Native Instruments Maschine+ and Akai’s MPC Live 2, both amazing samplers. However, for the heads that really have no interest in owning any vintage gear and want to get that 90’s Hip Hop sound, software suites like Empire Breaks will be a super nice edition to add to your pallet of sounds.