Samplers In Music Explained

How many times have you listened to a brand new song and wondered why it sounds familiar? Perhaps something in the bass line? The drum beats, maybe? Or was it the guitar riff? Whatever it is, it has something to do with what is called a music sampler.

What Is A Sampler?

A music sampler is a digital device that takes real sounds, actual recordings and audio signal from multiple sources, which you can then map on the keyboard for playback and real-time improvisation. It’s essentially a type of instrument consisting of real recordings of sounds for the purpose of incorporating them into your own musical creations.

When musicians sample sounds, they take inspiration from different sources. Although they typically use sounds from real instruments, they also use even the most mundane non-musical sounds of everyday existence like tapping of the feet, streetcar noise, rain hitting the pavement, and pretty much anything they could think of.

With a sampler, you can chop up the samples, get rid of audio region that you don’t need, and retain those that you want to use. You can take notes from different samples and play them in different sequences and orders so that you can create a unique sound.

Why Use A Sampler?

As a musician or producer, you’re probably more than capable of producing and recording your own beats, riffs, and sounds, so why even bother using a sampler?

Here are the reasons why:

  • Sometimes, musicians don’t have the time, money or equipment to record every instrument they need for recording. A sampler fulfills the musicians’ need for a variety of sound options without having to record every single instrument.
  • Using a sample cuts down recording and production time significantly. The more time you spend in the studio recording all sorts of sounds, the more you burn through your budget. The less time you spend on recording sessions, the better off you are in terms of production costs.
  • Starting from scratch is too much work. When you use a sample, you have something to start with, and you can easily map out an entire song based on the sample you have. There’s no need to start things from the ground up.
  • With a sampler, you can duplicate the feel of a segment of a song. This is particularly true for producers who want a layered sound in their songs. For instance, you want to replicate the sound of string instruments from a 12-piece orchestra, it would be impractical to hire a band just to get a particular sound.
  • Using a sampler gives listeners something recognizable that evoke feelings of nostalgia and familiarity. Songs with familiar beats pique the interest of listeners. This sense of intrigue can give your song some traction.

The Evolution Of Music Samplers

It’s easy to think of a sampler as a tape recorder on steroids because musicians used to record real and artificial instrument sounds on analog tapes. Samplers have come a long way from its crude beginnings. The problematic mechanisms of an analog system paved the way for samplers to evolve into a digital beast of a machine.

The way to really understand a sampler is to see its evolution through the years. As technology became more advanced, samplers also became more sophisticated, but much easier to use and less expensive to maintain.

Knowing the types of samplers used by musicians as far back as the1960s can help you appreciate not just the technology, but also the unique sound that defined different music genres.

  • Tape Relay Keyboard – Before digital samplers came into the picture, there was the tape relay keyboard. The keyboard stores recordings on analogue tape that is built into the instrument. Pressing a key would trigger the head to make contact with the moving magnetic tape and play a sound. Releasing the key causes the tape to retract to its original position. Different sections of the tape can be played to play different sounds.

The most popular brand is the Mellotron, which is developed in 1963. This sampler has preset sounds and accompaniments that can be mixed together to form new sounds. Early adopters of the Mellotron were rock bands and pop singers who experimented on new sounds in the 1960s and 1970s and ushered in progressive rock and psychedelic rock.

Perhaps the most popular band to ever use the Mellotron was The Beatles in the song Strawberry Fields Forever. If you listen to the intro of the song, you’ll hear tape loops of flute, brass, and choir.

Although the tape relay keyboard was cutting edge back then, it was heavy and expensive. Because it relies on clunky tape mechanisms, the range of sounds is very limited. Such limitation paved the way for digital samplers to emerge.

  • Digital Samplers – A shift to digital sampling was inevitable because the primitive way of tape sampling was not commercially viable. Back then, only big studios and established musicians could afford tape relay keyboards.

The first digital sampling was done using the EMS Musys system that ran on two PDP-8s mini computers. It only has a 12k memory with a 32k hard drive backup storage. The capacity is laughable by today’s standards, but back in the 1970s, it was sufficient to record a range of sounds not available using analog samplers.

When the E-mu SP-1200 was released in 1987, it was primarily a percussion sampler. It was used extensively by hip hop artists. When Japanese manufacturer Akai discovered time stretch techniques and crossfading loops, the digital sampler opened up new ways to modify samples. Best of all, using these techniques did not alter the quality or pitch.

The combination of drum machines and digital samplers gave birth to a new breed of hip hop producers, DJs, and artists who revolutionized hip hop music. They created great records using samples derived from jazz, rock and roll, funk, soul, and other music genres. The innovative techniques ushered in the golden age of hip hop.

Modern digital samplers are now standalone powerful instruments used in studios and live concerts without the need for computers. Musicians and producers can easily create full tracks using a sampler with the ability to sequence, edit, and record.

  • Synthesizers – Unlike samplers that use actual recordings of instruments and sounds, synthesizers will create the sounds from scratch. Because there are different ways to recreate sounds, different models of synthesizers are available in the market.

The first commercial sampling synthesizer was created by Harry Mendell in 1976. It didn’t take long for hybrid synthesizers to emerge, and brands like Korg and Roland created synthesizers that use both short samples and digital synthesis to mimic instruments. The result was a realistic imitation of sounds from different instruments.

Synthesizers were big in the 1980s and songs created in that era have distinguishable techno-pop sound.

  • Software Samplers – There was a time when the hardware sampler market was on the brink of collapse because software samplers were doing things better and quicker. Essentially, a software sampler mimics its hardware counterpart’s features and capabilities.

With increased memory and storage capacity, the software allows users to create a massive library of samples. Many software also have advanced features that go beyond the sample editing, sample recording, and digital signal processing effects.

Fortunately, the music industry soon realized that both technologies can co-exist harmoniously, largely because of certain factors such as budget, availability of equipment and facilities, and need for variety.

What Type Of Samplers To Use?

Not all samplers are the same. Each of them has different features. Choosing the right sampler entails identifying certain specifications that meet your requirements.

In general, samplers are categorized based on the following specifications:

Polyphony – This refers to the number of independent notes, voices, or melody lines that can be played simultaneously to create chords.

Sample Space – This simply refers to the size and capacity of the sampler to load multiple samples. Throughout the years, samplers have used hard drives, CD-ROMs, cartridges, zip drives, and memory cards to store samples.

Channels – This refers to the number of MIDI channels that the sampler can support for different musical instruments.

Bit Depth – This refers to the resolution of the sample that the sampler can support. For professional recording, mixing, or mastering, 24 bits is optimal. Higher bit rates can take up more space.

Outputs – This refers to the number of discrete audio output that the sampler has.

Let these specifications be your guide when figuring out what kind of sampler you want to buy. It helps narrow down the list of sampler models you need to check out.

How Different Samplers Are Used In Music Production

A sampler is an amazing invention that continues to evolve and get better through time. Many modern-day samplers can do pretty much everything a synthesizer can do, but the basic structure is still there—it will always have an audio input and a recording output.

The intention is still the same, in that, producers intend to use a piece of audio or sample within another piece of music that belongs to another artist.

They say a sampler is only as good as the one who operates it, but that doesn’t take away the fact that there are now specialized samplers meant to be used for a specific purpose.

  • Samplers can be drummers. The EMU SP 1200 was meant to be a drum sampler used as an accompaniment during a band session. With eight pads representing eight percussion instruments, the sampler can be tuned and sequenced in the same manner that a real drummer would play his drums. In this regard, the EMU SP 1200 can temporarily replace a human drummer.
  • Samplers can capture and record human voices. Traditional samplers are essentially multipurpose instruments and keyboard samplers, meaning they can sample any sound, musical or non-musical. But what about human voices? Samplers are so versatile that they can record human voices or any real word sounds.

You can plug a microphone into the sampler and just start sampling different voices. Even random worldly noises from the street or outdoors can be turned into a sample, which can then be integrated into other sounds.

Using samplers that can capture voices and sounds (digital or analog) enables producers and musicians to create sounds, beats, and tracks that couldn’t be done using other instruments. Through synthesis processing, the musical possibilities are endless. You’re only limited by your own creativity.

  • Samplers can do complex audio mangling. Highly specialized samplers like the Roland VP 9000 excel at sound mangling. This process of mangling expands what can be done on digital audio.

Samplers that do this are capable of doing real-time and on-the-fly pitch shifting, time stretching, vocal sweetening, and other complex techniques. In this respect, digital audio can be anything you want it to be as long as you have the knowledge, skills, and the right sampler to work with.

Sampling Beyond Instruments

In the early years of digital samplers, a sample used to refer to sounds of instruments and non-musical sounds. As the technology evolved, so did the types of sounds that can be sampled. These include not only beats, riffs, or drum parts, but segments of songs that have already been released.

If you listen to songs today, you’d hear familiar beats and sequences because you’ve actually heard them before. They are parts of songs performed by other artists. Even the most obscure songs of the past can find their way into brand new songs.

Artists like Kanye West, Calvin Harris, Madlib, Beyonce, and Mark Ronson have all benefitted from sampling tracks of both popular and obscure songs. Artists of today owe a huge debt of gratitude to samplers and sampling techniques because they helped define their kind of music.

Mark Ronson created many hit songs using samples and perhaps the most popular is Uptown Funk, which was a collaboration with Bruno Mars. The song has become an instant hit because it brings out an array of musical influences that get instant recall and spark nostalgia from listeners.

Is Music Sampling Legal?

The use of samplers is not without its controversies. Some say that using samples from other music artists is a form of stealing, while others say it’s perfectly okay to use samples because they are substantially altered anyway.

Nowadays, producers and musicians extract or sample a part of an already completed song and use them in their own song. This is a great way for one artist to build on what another artist has already done. But there’s always the issue of copyright infringement.

Clearing Samples

Regardless of how people feel about the use of samples in creating new songs, the law is pretty clear about using copyright musical work. If you intend to use samples from existing songs or sound recordings, you need to get permission from the owner of the song. You run the risk of copyright infringement lawsuits if you use samples without permission.

But wait, didn’t the golden age of hip hop in the 1980s and 1990s promote this kind of practice even without asking permission? This may be true for the most part, but copyright laws have become stricter over the years.

There are laws in place to protect the owners of the copyrighted music. You need to ask permission to acquire license to use other people’s works. So make sure that all samples are cleared before using them.

Most Sampled Songs in History

To the untrained ear, brand new songs may sound completely original. But the reality is that many of the songs today are not only heavily influenced by songs in the past, but they contain samples that have been altered to have a distinctive sound.

The technology used in samplers allows musicians to insert themselves into the narrative and turn songs into a shared event between different artists and composers. This multi-layered sampling has become the norm rather than just an anomaly.

To give you an idea of how widespread the practice is, here are some of the most sampled songs in history. The familiar beats you hear in new songs are the result of artists sampling other artists’ work.

1. La Di Da Di by Doug E. Fresh & Slick Rick

This rap classic was created in 1984 with Doug E. Fresh on beat box and Slick Rick on rap vocals. It has been sampled 547 times. It’s arguably the most recognizable sample in hip hop and pop.

Notorious B.I.G. sampled the song for his rap masterpiece Hypnotize and so did Robbie Williams (in Rock DJ), Ini Kamoze (in Here Comes the Hotstepper), and Ludacris and Mary J. Blige (in Runaway Love).

2. Funky President by James Brown

The Godfather of Soul’s body of work has long been a source of samples. This particular track has been sampled 861 times. Notable uses for Funky President include Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince’s Summertime, Naughty by Nature’s Hip Hop Hooray, Calvin Harris’ C.U.B.A., and The Offspring’s Pretty Fly (For a White Guy).

3. Synthetic Substitution by Melvin Bliss

This B-side song was almost lost forever after Bliss’ record label folded. Fortunately, it was released from obscurity in 1986 when it was used by Kool Keith in Ego Trippin’. Since then, it has been sampled by Wu Tang Clan (Bring the Ruckus), Naughty by Nature (O.P.P.), and Kanye West (New God Flow).

4. Here We Go (Live at the Funhouse) by Run DMC

This 1985 track is sampled over 750 times. Different parts of the track were sampled by a bevy of artists from different genres including LMFAO, Autechre, The Orb, and BTS.

5. Impeach The President by The Honey Dippers

The song was recorded during the term of Richard Nixon in the wake of the Watergate Scandal. Its drum sequence was used as a hip hop sample by Marley Marl on MC Shan’s The Bridge. Since then, it has been sampled by Janet Jackson, Shaggy, LL Cool J, and George Benson, to name just a few.

Artists and producers have found a treasure trove of samples from old tracks. What’s really amazing is that they could sample songs that came long before they were born.

Some people would argue that artists of this generation are just too lazy to write their own songs or they lack the talent to create timeless original music.

Many artists and producers disagree with this observation. Mark Ronson explains in his TED talk that they are sampling all those records because there’s something in those tracks that spoke to them. They want to be part of that music and what it represents. As a result, they find ways to inject themselves into the narrative of that music.

The Future Of Samplers

All these digital audio samplings and virtual collaborations would not have been possible if not for the invention and evolution of the sampler. Musicians found themselves in possession of the technology that made it possible for them to test the limits of their creativity.

Music has changed forever with the invention of the sampler. The next generation of samplers have already found their way into the music industry using AI-assisted sampling tools and technology.

What’s more, there’s now an online marketplace where anyone can legally purchase samples. This is good for artists and musicians who own the rights to the samples because it’s an added income to their pockets. But more than that, it levels the playing field for struggling musicians. With access to tools and samples, they can create music and compete in a larger music space previously exclusive to artists signed by big record labels.

Even though the Grammy’s now allows songs with samples to be eligible for awards, the validity of music containing samples remains to be a point of contention. Perhaps in the future, more people will begin to recognize that every song has its own influences and sampling is just a tool to make timeless songs of the past translate to a whole new generation of listeners.

With sampler technology as an important tool of the trade, musicians will continue to find new techniques to improve their craft, and discover clever ways to take a song they love and build upon it.

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