With the ability to manipulate sound in hundreds of different ways, its important not to forget the basics and have a grounding in what's going on, in order to produce the best results. Let's look at the history of sampling technology, examining the development of the equipment itself, explaining the theory behind it before finally checking out your options for sampling in the 21st century.
The Analog Era
In a musical sense, the process of sampling - that is, recording a snippet of sound and then triggering them to be played back at will - appears relatively simple, but there's a lot more to sampling than you might realize. We'll start our lesson in the analogue era, which might seem a bit counter intuitive after all, sampling is, by definition, based on digital technology but there was still a demand for similar instruments before the advent of digital recording. The solution was the tape-replay keyboard, whose keys triggered the playback of strips of tape, creating sounds, which were otherwise impossible to replicate.
The most famous and widely used tape replay keyboards were the American Chamberlin models and British Mellotrons, both of which produced unique sounds, but could hardly be seen as a versatile sampling instrument given that they relied on pre-recorded tapes to produce notes. Another common use for samplers also has a clear parallel in the analogue era. Looping a whole sample or a fragment of a sound to give the impression of infinite sustain is such a common process with just about any modern sampler that you've probably never given it too much thought, but in the pre-digital era it was an altogether more time-consuming prospect, involving creating physical loops from tape and running them round and round in a tape machine to repeat the recorded section. Clearly sampling-style tasks were not easily carried out in the pre-digital era, meaning that early digital samplers instantly introduced a whole world of new possibilities.
Early Mass-market Sampling
The first generation of digital samplers were huge systems built around early personal computers and, although they were massively important in the development of mass market sampling technology, these exotic models have largely been consigned to the dustbin of history. Only a handful of electronic musicians today would recognize, for example, the Computer Music Melodian or EMS MUSYS, let alone consider using one to make music. However, thanks to the pioneering work of their developers, these machines formed the framework for what we now consider to be the basis of sampling: digitally recording a sound and triggering it at will, manipulating its speed and pitch.
The second wave of sampler came in the form of commercially available machines such as New England Digital's Synclavier (1975) and Synclavier II (1980) and Fairlight's legendary CMI (1979).
Although these models brought sampling to a wider audience in theory, their prohibitively expensive retail prices meant that sales were limited to the wealthy and as a result it was mainly established artists such as Peter Gabriel, Frank Zappa and Hall and Oates who adopted the Synclavier and Fairlight, creating some of the earliest sample-based music.
Sampling technology really got into its stride With the arrival of less expensive mass-market machines, which offered powerful sampling ability in a smaller, more convenient format. Samplers including the keyboard-based Ensoniq Mirage (1984) and Sequential Prophet 2000 (1985), the rackmount Akai S612 (1985) and the drum machine-style E-mu SP-1200 (1987) were the first big hits as sampling captured the imaginations of producers and musicians from every genre. The SP-1200 in particular became the default choice of Hip Hop producers, whose manipulation of Funk and Soul breakbeats not only broke musical ground, but also led to a number of court cases as sampled artists and record labels sought legal ramifications for this new appropriation of their recordings (see the Sampling and the Law box for more on the legal implications of sampling). At the time, the small memory capacity and inaccurate sound of low-resolution samplers was widely considered undesirable.
Although their simplicity and dirty sound would ultimately be seen as part of their enduring appeal, there was significant demand for companies to develop more accurate, cleaner-sounding samplers with bigger memories, more features and more powerful processing options.
Into the '90s
In the late '80s and early '90s, compact rack-based samplers from Akai, E-mu and Roland began to dominate the market. Compared to the earlier models, these samplers offered larger sample memory, easier workflow for editing sounds and setting up patches and often Included filters or effects to allow sounds to be manipulated even further. Akai's development of time-stretching algorithms meant that samples could be sped up and slowed down Without affecting their pitch, an effect that opened up all kinds of possibilities for loop-based electronic Dance music. By this technology from each other and reached similar conclusions on the basic features that we've come to expect from samplers.
Since the 1990s, most samplers are capable of holding a large number of samples in memory and assigning each one to a range of MIDI notes and velocity values in order to create complex patches.
Features such as multiple outputs, effects processing, high levels of polyphony and support for more complex patches spread over a number of MIDI channels became increasingly common. Waveform editing via on-board screens and external monitors made recording and manipulating samples much easier, as did software-based editors which allowed computerized control of key functions. During the early 1990s, sampling workstations also enjoyed a brief period of popularity, offering sequencing capabilities, sampling and syn thesis in conjunction with a keyboard or pad-based interface. The workstation declined in popularity with the arrival of cheap and powerful computer-based setups and the DAW revolution of the 1990s and although a handful of models are still manufactured by the likes of Korg, Roland, Yamaha and Alesis, the workstation no longer enjoys the market it did 15 years ago. The main exception to this trend is Akai's MPC range, which remains phenomenally popular with Hip Hop producers in particular. As we mentioned in last month's Knowledge Base on drum machines, the original MPC60, released in 1988, was developed by electronic music legend Roger Linn, creator of the Linndrum and the product line has been upgraded on a regular basis since late '80s. The MPC's simple workflow, distinctive sound and rock-solid MIDI timing ensure that it remains a favorite two decades after its introduction.
Sampling In the 21st Century
For most producers, the default choice of sampler in 2010 will be a software plug-in running in conjunction With a DAW and the main reason for this dramatic shift away from hardware is simple: software samplers offer a convenience which very few hardware models can rival. The workflow of most software samplers leaves hardware for dead, allowing the user to drag and drop files to set up patches, edit waveforms in a non-destructive fashion and run multiple instances of the same plug-in for ultimate control. Compared to the hassle of working through hardware samplers' layers of menus, usually on a tiny LCD screen, this alone is enough to persuade most users to ditch the hardware. Given that software samplers are also capable of operating at 24-bit resolution and higher sample rates than their hardware equivalents, the advantages are clear.
However, despite the many benefits of software sampling, the legendary sounds of older models mean that many hardware samplers retain a loyal fan base in spite of the fact that they may be much less convenient to use and technically inferior in many ways. Vintage hardware samplers can be viewed as another tool to add tone to your production, taking advantage of the dirt and grit, which vintage AD and DA conversion add to samples. As such, the classic 8-bit, 12-bit and 16-bit models such as those produced by E-mu, Ensoniq and Akai in the 1980s and early 1990s still attract good prices on the second-hand market.
Less popular models by companies such as Yamaha and Casio offer a cheaper entry point to vintage sampling but you may find that software, repair parts and information are less easily available than with the more popular models. The sound of classic samplers can be emulated to some extent using a combination of resampling, bitcrushing, filters and mild overdrive to mimic the grit and inaccuracy of older machines.
Whichever approach you take, the possibilities with sampling technology are huge, and can play a crucial role in your productions.
Next: Sampling Techniques