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Slicing Up Sound: A Brief History of the Sampler

Whether you’re aware of it or not, modern music is rife with samples – snippets of previously recorded music re-contextualised into a new song. Sometimes, it’s pretty obvious, like when Sugarhill Gang sampled Chic’s ‘Good Times’ in the iconic ‘Rapper’s Delight’. Other times, producers have reworked a sample so cleverly that you’d have a tough time detecting it (check out our list of songs you didn’t know were samples here). Artists and producers can ‘flip’ samples in this way thanks to the intuitive sampling machines that have rapidly evolved over the last few decades. 

We can trace the art of sampling back to the 1940s, when inquisitive engineers like Pierre Schaefer began splicing and looping tapes. It wouldn’t be for another 20 years, however, until the Mellotron arrived. This keyboard sampler effectively marked the beginning of mainstream interest in sampling. Sir Paul McCartney famously used the instrument to play the flute-like intro to ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, playing the pre-recorded tape samples. It was eye-wateringly expensive, though, making it unavailable to the average musician. Check out Sir Paul jamming on the Mellotron at Abbey Road:

Towards the end of the 70s, Fairlight created the Fairlight CMI. This bulky sampling computer would set you back £18,000, which equates to about £43,000 today, and the second iteration in 1982 came with a price hike to £30,000. Again, it wasn’t the most affordable option, so it took musical pioneers such as Quincy Jones, Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush and Stevie Wonder to get hands-on with it in accomplished music studios. 

The Fairlight CMI, although primitive by today’s standard, was sleek and intuitive in its heyday, with an irresistibly cool light pen that let users draw in sequences using samples. It allowed artists and producers to record their own sounds and play them back in real-time (or sequence them with the pen), opening the doors up for the portable samplers of the 80s that producers are still obsessed with today. Watch Peter Gabriel demonstrate its workflow and sample some wacky sounds: 

Naturally, producers wanted a slice of the extravagant sampler action. They just needed some affordable alternatives. By the late-80s, E-mu and Akai had entered the fray with their portable samplers, the E-Mu SP-1200 and Akai MPC60. These two machines were pivotal in defining the hip-hop sound of the late 80s and 90s. They allowed producers to record audio, slice up the recording and assign it to pads on the samplers to play back in any sequence they desired.

DJs, producers and beatmakers quickly realised that they could chop up their favourite records and create hypnotising loops. They could also chop up drum breaks into individual hits to play a beat however they like. Before they knew it, they’d have laid down the foundation of a track that MCs could rap over. Cookin’ Soul uses the E-Mu SP-1200 to make a 90s-style hip-hop beat in the video below, giving you the perfect idea of the old-school workflow.

These portable samplers reigned for a decade or so, with the Akai MPC2000, 2000XL, and 3000 becoming a staple among producers. Eventually, the computer became a more capable machine, and developers started work on music-making software. This was the advent of the digital audio workstation (DAW) that is the heart of almost all music production today. Computers could hook up to audio interfaces and mixing desks and simultaneously capture hundreds of channels of instruments.

Arranging audio files in a DAW became a breeze, with Reason, Logic Pro, Pro Tools, Cubase, Ableton Live and more becoming the DAWs of choice for producers. Each software had its own quirks and workflows, but they all enabled producers to easily chop up, pitch shift, loop and edit audio files. They also made it straightforward to turn a single sample into an entire instrument, mapping the sample across an entire keyboard to play and manipulate as musicians pleased.

Despite being the most advanced tool in music production, DAWs are far more affordable than the aforementioned samplers – there are many today that are free and can have you sampling in no time. 

History has a habit of repeating itself, though, and producers yearned for the tactility that came with the samplers of the 90s and early 00s. Akai still manufactured its MPC series, but these were now designed to link up to a computer, and MIDI controllers became an intuitive way to navigate a DAW with hardware. Native Instruments released its Maschine hardware and software in the late 00s/early 10s, which built on the concept of the MPC with a variety of different workflows. Richie Hawtin, Run The Jewels, Chemical Brothers and 9th Wonder were among the new generation of producers harnessing the power of Maschine. 

These DAW companions were versatile and powerful, but producers are growing bored of laptop screens. They miss the simple standalone workflow of samplers in the 90s. So Akai and Native Instruments took their devices away from the computer with Maschine+, MPC Live and MPC One, housing all the power in the sampler itself, and Isla Instruments even revived the classic E-mu SP1200. 

We don’t need to remind you that your smartphone is essentially a computer in itself at this point. You probably know there’s a ton of music-making apps out there. Sampler apps are available in bounds, too, with Koala currently being one of the most popular. This lets you import audio or video from your phone, edit it, chop it up, and play it back in a flash. BandLab, a free music production app, features a Looper, which lets you quickly play back samples from a vast library and sequence them in an arranger. 

Simply put, sampling is now more convenient and affordable than ever before. So what are you waiting for? Dig out some songs you love, plug in your earphones and chop them up in the palm of your hand. Just make sure that you clear any samples you intend on releasing as a track, or you could end up like The Verve, who had a little trouble with their track ‘Bittersweet Symphony’...

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