electronic music basics

Samplers in Electronic Music

Like other modern technology, samplers have had a significant impact on the music industry. They have especially influenced such music genres as hip-hop and rap. But first, for those not yet in the know, we should review some basics.

What is sampling?

Obviously, in order to understand what a sampler is and what it does, one must first know what sampling is in terms of the music industry. According to Merriam-Webster sampling is the specific “act, process, or technique of selecting a suitable sample.” In this case, it would be a “sample” of music.

When a music producer or artist samples music he or she is employing a method of digitally encoding specific music or even a specific sound and then reusing it within a larger song or instrumental. How is this done? It is done with a sampler.

A sampler is an electronic instrument used in modern music
A sampler used by professionals in the music business.

What is a Sampler?

A sampler is essentially hardware used in today’s modern music. More specifically, it is a digital or electronic musical instrument which utilizes “samples” or sound recordings of vocals or instrumental sounds (such as trumpet, piano, or violin), extracts from previously-recorded instrumentals or songs (like a popular four-second bass guitar refrain from a famous funk track) or even such sounds as ocean waves or sirens.

The music samples are either recorded or loaded by either the manufacturer or the user. The selected sounds are played back via the sampler program, an audio or music sequencer, a triggering device (such as electronic drums) or a MIDI keyboard to compose or play music. The audio samples are generally saved in digital memory so it can be quickly and conveniently accessed.

Additionally, an audio sample can frequently be altered and the pitch can be changed in order to create chords or scales. These samplers frequently also offer users effects units, various filters, modulation via a specific low-frequency oscillation and several other synthesizer-style operations that allow the user to alter the original sample in numerous ways. The majority of samplers on the market today have multitimbrality abilities. In essence, they are able to play back more than one sound at the same time. Many of them are also reported to be polyphonic, meaning they can play multiple notes simultaneously as well.

Origins of Sampling in Music

The origins of sampling go back beyond hip-hop and even beyond the height of jazz music when musicians would lift riffs from each other. Its roots go back decades earlier in fact. It was born from the art of sound collage.

Rock band recording in a studio
Rock band recording in a studio

Indeed, early pioneers of sound experimented with music’s very definition. Pierre Henry and Pierre Schaeffer, for example, created the musique concrète movement in the 1940s. Prior to tape recorders, they utilized disc cutters to expand the limits of music by creating individualistic collages of sound.

The pioneering pair used more than just musical instruments. They used mechanical noises and train sounds too. They were soon followed by the likes of Karlheinz Stockhausen and much later by bands such as the Beatles. Witness the sound collage “Revolution 9” which was included on their 1968 eponymous platter known as “The White Album.”

Keyboard player using a synth keyboard in the studio
Keyboard player using a synth keyboard in the studio

Several years before that, in 1956, Bill Buchanan and Dickie Goodman created “Flying Saucer.” Using a fake news story about an alien invasion and a mashup of several rock and roll hits from that time, they created a single that was so popular it was perhaps first to attract copyright lawsuits.

The Residents’ 1977 single “The Beatles Play the Residents and the Residents Play the Beatles” was a popular underground sound collage. In the late 1970s and early 1980s sampling really exploded with the dawn of hip-hop, industrial and electronic dance music. Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five became famous with their 1980 record, “Freedom,” which actually sampled “Get Up and Dance” by the group Freedom.

Legal Issues

Is sampling legal? It can be but is not always. Indeed, early on, rappers and hip-hop artists like Public Enemy heavily sampled songs worry-free. Permission was not even an issue to them. As rap and hip-hop grew in sales and popularity though, copyright owners began to notice.

Artists started to pay modest monies to buy the rights to sample songs. Soon additional charges such as rollover rates were added to the cost of sampling a song based on the number of units sold. To further complicate the issues, artists who sampled were next being made to pay two copyright holders: the copyright owner of the recording and the owner of the composition itself.

An audio mixer is another electronic device that is used in music recording
An audio mixer is another electronic device that is used in music recording

These days, copyright owners are quite ready to take legal action against unauthorized sampling. Consider the case of DJ Danger Mouse who mashed up the raps from Jay-Z’s “The Black Album” with music from the Beatles’ “The White Album” to create “The Grey Album” in 2004. When promo copies of this work somehow reached EMI, the record label that currently owns the rights to the Beatles’ songs, DJ Danger Mouse was promptly hit with an official cease and desist order.

He was promptly prevented from commercially releasing the work. The album still went on to become an incredible hit on the internet and it can still be obtained via certain P2P networks. (The internet is forever.)

What makes things irritating to samplers is that it is often not the artists themselves who do the suing. It is the large corporations that actually own the copyrights. In 2005, a one-man business known as Bridgeport that had previously purchased numerous copyrights sued Jay-Z over his sampling. Still, today the safe rule is to get a license or don’t sample.

A hardware sampler has buttons or pads that are large and easy to press
black modern musical instrument, sampler on an intense red background

Sampler Hardware

Perhaps the first sampler, harking back to the 1960s, was Mellotron which utilized magnetic tape. In the 1980s, more affordable equipment such as the popular Akai S900 became available. At present, samplers are available as both software and hardware and users can slice, splice, and loop recordings.

The Sampling Capabilities of DAW Software

Currently, there are many Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) available to interested parties. They range from unbelievably expensive packed full of professional studio feature software to the free and relatively that allow little more than basic four-track editing.

Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) is software used for creating music on a general purpose computer, like Mac or Windows
A user controlling digital audio workstation. Narrow depth of field

Typical Features

Typical features of a high-quality sampler include a sequencer, a compact flash slot for import and storage, multiple channels of external MIDI sequencing, parameter automation, and USB for loading and organizing samples. Other available features are multiple effect types, extensive audio manipulation capabilities and a truly comprehensive song/pattern system. With such a variety in samplers, one really must research both needs, wants and budget range.