[digital noises]










S-s-s-sampling - you just can't live without it. Richard Wentk explains why in the first part of a new series for beginners.

It all started with a dog bark in Australia. The world's first sampler - the famous Fairlight CMI, sometimes known as the Koalaclavier to some of its fans - wasn't supposed to be a sampler at all. It started life as a digital synthesizer. Instead of filters, oscillators and the like, it used a system of wavetables, rather like today's Korg Wavestation series. This was all deeply wondrous if you wanted digital sounds. And you could, if you tried hard, get some interesting noises out of these machines - but it wasn't exactly easy to use. One much touted feature was the fact that you could draw a waveform on the screen and then play it back as a sound. Thing is, most people didn't know how to match up waveshapes with sounds, so mostly this option just got ignored.


In fact, the sampling only became available as an afterthought. The designers realised that they had a computer with some memory and some playback circuitry, and hey - wouldn't it be fun to try recording real sounds into it? After a quick trip out for a few bits and pieces and some nifty soldering, they designed a simple circuit which could take sound from a microphone and feed it into the computer. Then the dog arrived, and a whole new musical technique was born.

If it hadn't been for sampling, the Fairlight CMI would have become an expensive (and I mean expensive - over $20,000 in late 1970s' money) curiosity. Instead, it instantly transformed the instrument into one of the most desirable musical objects in history.

It's easy to see why. Real sound simulation has always been the holy grail of sound synthesis, but early synthesizers didn't sound like anything other than synthesizers, no matter what you did with them. The CMI was different. Suddenly you could use all kinds of super-realistic sounds in your music. Till then, if you wanted the sound of breaking glass, you either had to spend forever trying to recreate it with a conventional synth - and almost certainly getting nowhere - or you had to resort to tape. This did the job, more or less, but it was definitely awkward and unwieldy to use. With the CMI you could just record a noise straight into the instrument, and then use it just like any other keyboard sound.

It took a while for the implications of this to sink in. For the first few years the CMI was more of a cliché generator than an innovative musical tool, and all the same old samples started turning up on music everywhere. The disco records of the day resounded to the sound of breaking glass, the sound of bottles being blown (especially curious, that one, seeing as it's a bit of a dud anyway), and the inevitable 'orch stab' - much like an orchestra collapsing, but in fact taken from a recording of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring.

Fortunately, a few artists realised that sampling could do a lot more than this. Instead of sampling kitchen utensils, pets, thunderstorms and passing jets, they started playing with whole snatches of music - often other people's music.

This could be tricky on early samplers. The sound quality was limited and so was the maximum length of a sample that they could manage. But as the technology improved this kind of musical collage started to become an art form in its own right. It caught the rising tide of DJ-mixed live music, and much of today's dance music is the result.

And so to today. Most music is now totally samplified. Even records that sound like they went straight down to tape with real people playing real instruments are often tidied up with a few sampled sounds. And the remix market would be nowhere without it. It simply wouldn't have happened.

As a way of making music, sampling is about as good as you'll get today. It has its limitations, the biggest of which is that any sampled sound will tend to sound static compared to the real thing. But the advantages more than make up for this. Sampling is quick, it's easy to use, it's creative and it can make for stunning results. In fact, it's no longer the gimmick it used to be - it's now a way of life.

[ Part 2 ]

[ Part 1 ] [ Part 2 ] [ Part 3 ] [ Part 4 ] [ Part 5 ]

[ What Is Sampling? ] [ Samplers & Sequencers ] [ Four classic sampled moments in time ] [ The Sound of Sampling ] [ State of the Art ]