The sampler is perhaps the most versatile musical instrument ever devised. It is the chameleon of sound synthesis. While it has no actual sound of its own, it does a very good job of imitating any other sound you can make, and mapping that sound across a musical keyboard.
The first musical instruments that existed solely to emulate other musical instruments were the Chamberlin and Mellotron. They were large, mechanical machines with keyboards. When you held down a key, a strip of audiotape would play back a prerecorded sound. Each key played a different tape, featuring the same instrument playing the appropriate note.
This allowed keyboard players in 1970s rock bands to sound uncannily like they had some violinists or even a choir hidden behind the stage they were playing on, which is what many people thought they were actually doing. Unfortunately, these ambitious machines were prone to breaking down, so the best way to listen to their distinctive sounds these days is to buy a sample CD of them, which can be played reliably on their modern counterpart: the digital sampler.
The digital sampler turns any sound fed into it into a series of numbers, and then turns those numbers back into the original sound again. This is exactly the same method that CD players use, known as pulse-code modulation (or PCM for short). The main difference between the two devices is that while a CD player is content to merely play back the sound on a Compact Disc, a sampler can also record sounds via a microphone.
The other big difference is that a sampler has the ability to play a sound back at a different pitch. You can, for example, record the middle C of a piano and play it back slower or faster to make it sound like a B3 or C♯4. However, you would soon notice that once you play the sample back at more than about half an octave from its original note, it starts to sound unrealistic. High notes will be tinny and too fast, whereas low notes will sound muddled and very slow, not at all like a real piano.
This is where key zones come in: a different sample can be used every few notes. If, for example, you sample the C and F♯ notes of every octave of a piano, the result won't be perfect, but it will at least sound OK. For less expressive instruments like electric organs, the result will sound very much like the real thing. The drawback of key zones is that several samples are required to capture the sound of just one instrument, taking more time and effort to actually sample and taking up more space in the sampler's memory. This drawback is outweighed by the benefit: a much more realistic reproduction of the original instrument.
Modern samplers go even further than this, using two dimensional key zones: one dimension for the pitches, and another for the dynamics (dynamics being a fancy term meaning "how hard you press the key"). Sampling each pitch of a piano at various different dynamics provides a much more realistic emulation of that instrument (after all, its expressive dynamics are what make the piano more popular than its predecessor, the harpsichord), allowing the musician to play the sampler's keyboard in the same expressive way that they would play the original piano. However, recording every note of an instrument (or even one in every three or six) at several different volumes, then mapping the results into a sampler, can be a very tedious and time consuming process.
Even before samplers could record the dynamic range of an instrument, several companies had realised that many people using samplers would want someone else to do the actual tedious sampling for them. The result was the sample CD, a compact disc full of sounds that someone else had painstakingly recorded so that the musician didn't have to, usually available in the various native formats of the most popular models of sampler, with the key zones already mapped out. Retailing at a price much higher than albums, but significantly lower than the actual instruments they more or less captured the sound of, these became popular enough to warrant the existence of companies that do nothing but make them, and mail order retailers that do nothing but sell them.
These days, anyone into sampling has a lot of options. You can buy an old sampler that has such low fidelity that it has a unique character all of its own that colours any sound it plays back, or you can go to the other extreme and buy a new software sampler which can effortlessly render a surprisingly good imitation of a grand piano in surround sound. Somewhere between the two extremes lies the CD quality Akai S1000, one of the most popular hardware samplers. Its format is still the main standard for sample CDs, even though many modern samplers — both hardware and software — have surpassed its limitations.
Another choice is whether to record an instrument yourself, or buy a sample CD. The latter is far easier, although the license will likely impose restrictions on how you can use the samples, and it can be expensive.
Instead, you could forget instruments altogether, choosing to record a quote from a film or a bar or two from someone else's song. While paying royalties can eat into your profits, that didn't stop Fatboy Slim from building an entire career out of remixing and recycling other people's riffs and vocals. Public Enemy and Pop Will Eat Itself were experts at taking snippets of other people's music and films, putting them into a new context where they would complement their own original work. With his debut album Endtroducing, DJ Shadow even went as far as to make the whole record out of samples of other people's work.
Yet another option is to make your own original samples of things other than musical instruments. This is arguably the most important ability of the sampler: to turn any conceivable sound into a potential musical instrument. Binary's album Brick Wall Music, for example, is made exclusively out of the sounds of things lying around in his house. In the inlay card, he proudly proclaims "No musical instruments were used on these recordings. Sound sources come from everyday objects and found sounds manipulated digitally." Don't even get me started on Aphex Twin.
Although sampling can be a tedious, time consuming process, and it often offers a less than perfect reproduction of other instruments, the sampler truly is the most versatile musical instrument. It has also changed the sound of music, from every hip hop song that samples Michael Viner's Incredible Bongo Band's cover of The Shadows's Apache to every composer who uses a sampler to help them sketch out ideas for their latest classical composition.
Another technique we use quite often is sampling a chord into the FZ-1 and playing it back from single notes. We got that off Derrick May. There's something about a whole chord being shifted like that which is very techno.
— Graham Massey, 808 State, 1989
There's not one instrument out today that really allows you to do anything fast enough. We are getting more and more away from nature. In the last few years, sampling has become very fashionable, and it was a very nice opening for the world of keyboards and electronic music, but unfortunately the process of sampling has become very stiff.
With, let's say, an analogue synthesiser like the Minimoog, you could shape and change the sound instantly, and give a little warmth, even though the keyboard itself wasn't really that great. The concept of immediate response was very, very important, without any reference to the sounds that we knew from conventional instruments.
Then sampling came along and this gave us the opportunity to have "real sounds", but it is of no use to have the sound of a flute or a violin, or a guitar or a harp, when you can't play it properly. What makes a violin sound attractive is the player, not the violin itself, but with these new instruments, the player is becoming less and less important. The sound is already there, with its own vibrato and its own expression, so when you want to play something, you can't really do much... It just sounds wrong, because it's always the same. What makes my voice different is not what I am saying, but how I am saying it.
— Vangelis, 1990
I went through the whole recording and sampled phrases, each three or four notes long, and then made up a melody out of those phrases. I had to work out what key they all hinged around, which wasn't very difficult, and then tune them, and once I'd done that I used time compression and stretching to get the notes to fit one tempo. Fortunately, all the samples were all pretty near to 120 BPM.
It's definitely a technique worth exploring, because what you're doing is taking somebody's incredibly expressive, very human playing, which at the same time is very simple in terms of note content, and then putting a chord change underneath it which can bring tears to your eyes. If it's a simple melodic note sequence, you can fit it over a whole range of chord sequences and create amazingly different moods. It's a very enjoyable way of creating a track.
At one time we were using the 909 bass drum all the time, and we ended up just getting sick of it. That's when we started making our own sounds up. Now we've got a few disks of drum and percussion sounds that we've made up from the old synths. We get a click or a zap on the MS-10, say, and then we sample that and mix it in with, like, an 808 bass drum to get a different sound.
...sampling was developed in so many different ways through the '80s. You have the Art of Noise approach, which is to take fragments of reality and make fun with it — a very interesting artistic proposal. And then you have the use of sampling as a kind of universal way of making music, which in my opinion is wrong. Because if you sample a trumpet, it still doesn't sound quite like a trumpet. You should use sampling to create, to invent new sounds, not just to imitate sounds. It's OK for advertising, for soundtracks, it's very practical — and as a songwriting and arranging tool, of course. But, to me, the most interesting use of sampling is to transform and process sounds. Then it becomes a real instrument. Otherwise it's just a library.
— Jean-Michel Jarre, 1993
The sampler is probably the thing that has changed music more than anything else during the past five years. Originally hip hop and rap were the only forms of music to be really influenced by that technology, but now everyone's using it and it's really cool to see these different styles of music all intertwined. That's one thing that new technology can do for you.
— Butch Vig, Garbage, 1997
When we started, Brian and myself in the mid eighties, the sampler was very new. We sold drum machines and guitars to get a sampler, and so our ears were tuned to becoming experts in the two second snip, not how to lift a chorus that big, so from that I then realised twenty years later that when I listen to musicians, I'm kinda going "OK, boring, boring, boring, OK, that's boring... OK, interesting, I would sample that." In the beginning, it was, like, play as you want, and when you go I can just take what I want, but gradually it was like "well, actually that's wasting my time as well, and yours, 'cause I can help you. Let's get somewhere more interesting. Let me tell you what I would like you to be playing," and then I'd collage a bit and then I'd bring it back to them and I'd say "OK, now play this again, the way I collaged it," so you'd get into a bit more of a Frank Zappa way of dealing with things.
I'm not confined to loops. If I want to reduce it to loops, I can, but if I can get a great musician in, that's a virtuoso violin player, and I can be 50% happy with his performance, and the rest of it, tweak it, so I'm 50% happy as if I'm listening to a sample track, then that's very new. That's the next thing, really, and that's, I think, what's happening now. It's not as purist anymore.
We did one of the singles with Liz Fraser of the Cocteau Twins, and at that particular point in time we were seriously up against the limitations of where we were with the technology, and Liz Fraser brought the whole thing collapsing down because she gave us, like, two hours of vocals, and we couldn't handle them. Because although we had, like, seven samplers, it was all about snippets. So if somebody performs a vocal that's great for a minute and a half, and then not good for a bit, in other words, big chunks of samples, how'd you do it in, like, '91, '92? It's very difficult.
— Garry Cobain, The Future Sound of London, 2014
- "The State of Technology" Simon Trask, Music Technology, Nov 1989, pp. 54—60
- "Vangelis" Richard Buskin, Sound On Sound, Jul 1990, pp. 26—29
- "Machine Head" Simon Trask, Music Technology, Jul 1991, pp. 56—62
- "Deep Vibrations" Simon Trask, Music Technology, Aug 1991, pp. 60—65
- "Sound And Vision" Phil Ward, Music Technology, Aug 1993, pp. 50—54
- "Butch Vig: Nevermind the Garbage" Richard Buskin, Sound On Sound, Mar 1997
- "Garry Cobain Interview" Sverige Radio, 2014
- "Sampling Confidential: Anything To Declare?" Dom Foulsham, Music Technology, Apr 1993, pp. 28—30
- "Sampling Confidential - Lateral Thinking" Dom Foulsham, Music Technology, May 1993, pp. 52—54
- "Sampling Confidential - Lateral Thinking" Dom Foulsham, Music Technology, Jun 1993, pp. 62—64
- "Sampling Confidential - CD Heaven" Dom Foulsham, Music Technology, Jul 1993, pp. 30—34