Forays into Modern Grooveboxes (Volca Sample vs. Model:Samples)
April 20, 2021
Many years ago I had a Korg Electribe groovebox sampler (ESX-1) which I used on a few tracks but mostly just collected dust. The appeal to these units at the time was you could punch in beats very quickly and then tweak the sounds. I think speed was the main appeal because you could just as easily make these beats on the computer, but in addition to being able to work faster with these machines, there is also a different sound quality coming out of hardware. The grooveboxes were especially great for live performance, and for all these reasons listed above they’re still a popular category of keyboard and DJ gear in the market.
But as I said, the Electribe unit that I had was collecting dust, so I sold that thing in 2016 and not until this year did I consider the need for a hardware sampler to make beats with again. This shift goes alongside my recent use of a hardware multi-track recorder as well.
My first purchase was a Korg Volca Sample – the first generation of that unit which was on sale at the time to make way for version 2 that came out this year. I liked that unit but the way you update the samples seemed to be long – it happened over a 1/8″ headphone cable using sound pulses as opposed to USB which is just about how everything else updates nowadays. The reason is that the Volca series offers lots of stuff in a small and affordable box.
I had read on a forum that people were enjoying the Elektron Model:Samples which is double the price but has a lot of great features like support for polyrhythms and sample retriggering. So I did an exchange, and to be honest I never got into a good flow with that Model:Samples. It has the allure of offering an introduction into the Elektron ecosystem, but I didn’t find the unit to be that fun to work with. Even using it to trigger another synth seemed to be a bit arduous for me. Having it create a soundscape by looping a sound produced results that were fairly mechanical and not that interesting. Remembering basic functions was nearly impossible for me and I don’t like looking things up in manuals.
I have found that when deciding to keep or get rid of a piece of gear, you will know pretty quickly if it’s a good fit for you. This is why renting music gear is so useful, in addition to working with a store that has a flexible return policy. That Model:Samples was just not exciting for me, even though I had programmed a few cool rhythms on it. So I decided to sell it and went back to the Korg Volca Sample, but this time around the version 2 had come out which allows you to update the samples over USB.
The Korg Volca Sample is a fun way to have a hardware sampler nearby with a low enough price tag to make you feel overly committed to the device ($165 USD and $210 CAD). It runs at a lower bit rate so it’s noisy in general, but that’s part of the fun of it. Making a cool rhythm is a useful starting point for writing a new track. I can do this in Ableton Live by using different loops as a starting point, but the Volca Sample and Model:Samples are both fun ways of doing this without looking at the screen. If you are comparing these two devices I recommend you get a chance to try the Model:Samples for at least an hour before buying one outright. Many people online are huge fans of it but in practice the device didn’t work for me. Also I should note that a proper comparison of the Model:Samples would be to put it up against one of the more recent Electribe models such as the Electribe 2, rather than a Volca machine.