Point Blank’s Guide to Sampling: History, Development & Techniques

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We have a special guest editorial from Point Blank Electronic Music School and it’s all about sampling.

Sampling is the use of someone else’s recording within your own to create something new. It can range from lifting sections of drums or other isolated instruments to entire musical ideas and right down to milliseconds of material. It’s such a common technique that we’ve developed instruments to solely perform this function, it’s studied at universities, there are even laws governing it and there are companies based around exploiting loopholes and workarounds.

There are a number of reasons why we might sample something: It can form the basis of a new song, inspire musical offshoots, work as a layer or contextualise other ideas. Whether or not we lift an entire chorus or a drum break, verbatim or completely reprocessed, we use a tiny slice or four bars, the law on the matter is the same: Permission needs to be sought.

Before Sampling

The technique came to prominence during the late 1970s and early 1980s with the emergence of hip-hop in New York, where DJs would loop sections of soul, funk or disco records creating a platform for MCs to rhyme over. However the origins of re-purposing recordings goes way back to France circa 1928, with acousmatic composers such as Pierre Schaeffer creating what we now know as Musique Concrète.

Pierre Schaeffer

The invention of the wax cylinder meant recording sound was now possible for the first time and the Musique Concrète school of composers exploited this through their music; juxtaposing sounds not commonly heard together, at various speeds and often playing in reverse or treated in other uncommon practises. It was the first time recorded sound has been manipulated for musical purposes. It could be argued this was the precursor to turntablism.

The instantly recognisable and classic sounding Mellotron was developed in 1963. It was based on looped magnetic tape, one for each key. When a key was depressed, the tape met the head of the player and sounded.

The was arguably the first instance of what we now might know as multi-sampling. There was two other instruments that appeared about 15 years later that took this idea further, the Synclavier and the Fairlight CMI. Both would have cost more than the average house and would need an extremely in-depth knowledge to operate.

New England Digital Synclavier was revolutionary in the development of sample technology

The Synclavier, developed in 1977, was a very early digital polyphonic workstation, that stored 8-bit samples and replayed them with a combination of FM and additive resynthesis.

The Fairlight CMI came in early 1979 and was an even larger, but more powerful successor to the Synclavier. It has its own onboard computer with an internal sequencer.

CMI’s Fairlight is probably the most famous example of an early sampler

Both of these instruments, considering their cost and size, could only really be afforded by large faculties and rock stars, so despite their massive influence of music, it didn’t really open the world of sampling to the masses.

In 1976, Walter Murphy recorded ‘A Fifth of Beethoven’, a famous disco recorded that sounds almost identical to Beethoven’s ‘Fifth Symphony’ (first movement). Despite the almost identical sound, and though there may well have been legal disputes or remuneration of sorts in regards to the publishing of the song, this was not actually a sample and pre-dates traditional sampling as we know it, by a few years.

Similarly, in 1979 The Sugar Hill Gang embarked on a similar path, with their hit ‘Rapper’s Delight’; which is perhaps the first mention of the word rapper in a hit single. The bassline is a replayed version of Chic’s ‘Good Times’.