What Is A Sampler In Music? Here’s Everything You Need To Know.

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Ever wondered about the tools behind your favorite beats? Let me introduce the Sampler – an innovative device that’s transforming music production by recording and manipulating sound samples. From rhythm and melody to speech effects, samplers turn simple sound bites into musical magic.

Intrigued? Let’s explore this article and find out how samplers work, their history, and the impact they’ve made on music genres like hip-hop, pop, and EDM.

You’ll also learn about key sampler specifications and the legal implications of music sampling. Whether you’re an aspiring musician or just interested in the science behind music, this guide will be music to your ears! So, turn up the volume and get ready for a vibrant journey into the heart of sound manipulation.

What Is a Sampler?

A sampler is an electronic instrument you’ll find widely used in modern music. It records and plays back samples, which might include rhythm, melody, speech, sound effects, or even longer musical pieces. You or the manufacturer can load or record these samples.

You can play these samples back through various means. These include a MIDI keyboard, the sampler program itself, or another triggering device. A single sample can be pitched to different pitches to produce musical scales and chords.

Samplers also offer filters, effects, and modulation via low-frequency oscillation. These features let you modify the original sound in many different ways. Many samplers have multitimbral capabilities, meaning they can play back different sounds simultaneously. They’re also often polyphonic, able to play more than one note at the same time.

How does a sampler work?

A sampler is organized into a hierarchy of progressively more complicated data structures. Each note message received by the sampler accesses a particular sample. The keymapping system “spreads out” a sample over a certain range of keys.

Some samplers are more optimized for triggering single “one-shot” sounds, such as drum hits. Samplers can be classified by several specifications; Polyphony, Sample Space, Channels, Bit depth, and Outputs. Most older samplers use SCSI as the protocol for getting sample data in and out of the machine.

Grayscale shot of a drum pad machine for beats and sound design on a wooden table

Hardware vs. Software Music Samplers

In the mid-20th century, keyboard instruments that played sounds recorded on tape, such as the Mellotron, were introduced. Before computer memory-based samplers, musicians used tape replay keyboards, which store recordings on analog tape. The Mellotron was the most notable model, used by a number of groups in the late 1960s and the 1970s.

The emergence of the digital sampler made sampling far more practical. The first commercially available sampling synthesizer was the Computer Music Melodian by Harry Mendell in 1976. The first polyphonic digital sampling synthesizer was the Australian-produced Fairlight CMI, first available in 1979.

The E-mu SP-1200 percussion sampler, upon its release in August 1987, popularized the use of digital samplers within hip-hop music in the late 1980s. In the 1990s and 2000s, the increases in computer power and memory capacity made it possible to develop software applications that provide the same capabilities as hardware-based units. These are typically called “softsamplers”. Softsamplers may have no external controls and are operated purely from the host computer’s user interface.

The different types of samplers

Music sampling can take many forms, including looping, chopping, layering, and reversing, among others. You can do these manipulations with hardware (digital samplers like the Akai MPC or Native Instruments’ Maschine MK3) as well as software (a digital audio workstation or DAW) such as Ableton Live.

Sampling music can be done in many different ways. Looping and chopping are the most commonly used techniques and terms. Other techniques include layering, changing the tempo, time stretching, pitch shifting, equalizing frequencies, reversing, resampling, using one-shots, and stem splitting.

The practice of repurposing existing recordings dates as far back as the late 1940s. French composers like Pierre Schaeffer started experimenting with splicing and looping tapes of recorded material to create new compositions. In the early 1970s, DJs like Kool Herc began to extend drum beats from records to let the crowd dance longer.

With digital samplers, you can create music without the need for theoretical music education, paying for studio time, playing traditional instruments, or hiring musicians.

The History and Development of Music Samplers

The evolution of samplers has been a fascinating journey. From their early days, they’ve undergone significant transformations, becoming more sophisticated and versatile over time.

The emergence of cheap samplers

The Mellotron, a tape-based keyboard instrument, marked the beginning of this journey in the mid-20th century. However, the advent of digital samplers revolutionized the field. The Computer Music Melodian, introduced by Harry Mendell in 1976, was the first commercially available sampling synthesizer. The Fairlight CMI, an Australian innovation, followed in 1979, utilizing wavetable sample-based synthesis.

As technology advanced, standalone samplers with enhanced capabilities emerged. The E-mu SP-12 percussion sampler was launched in 1987, and the Akai MPC60, released in 1988, played pivotal roles in popularizing digital samplers within hip-hop music.

The Evolution Of Music Samplers

Technological advancements in the later 1990s and early 2000s further propelled the evolution of samplers to where they are today. The rise in computing power and memory capacity has led to the development of software applications, or “softsamplers”, that mirrored the capabilities of hardware-based units. With a DAW, musicians could now edit, stretch, and manipulate samples in their compositions.

Sampling became integral to various music genres, including House, Jungle, Drum & Bass, UK Garage, and Pop music. Hip-hop producers, in particular, have significantly influenced the use of sampling. Renowned artists like the Neptunes, Kanye West, and Timbaland have shaped the production sound of hip-hop and R&B from the late 90s into the 2000s through their innovative use of samplers.

Dj producer is mixing a new music track in a studio

Most Sampled Songs in History

Sampling has enabled the creation of new sounds and musical styles, offering unprecedented possibilities for sound manipulation and alteration. The most-sampled track in history is “Amen, Brother” by The Winstons, a 1960s track that has been used in over 2,000 songs. The “Amen Break” from this song has been utilized by a diverse range of artists, from early hip-hop acts like N.W.A. to electronic music pioneers like The Prodigy and even pop artists like Janet Jackson and David Bowie.

The proliferation of samplers and sampling technology has sparked legal and ethical debates about sound ownership and the appropriation of other artists’ work. As technology continues to advance, these discussions will undoubtedly remain a focal point in the music industry.

Application of Samplers in Producing Music

The advent of samplers has provided a significant boost to the music industry, offering a platform for musicians to experiment with audio samples and create distinctive sounds. This has been particularly advantageous for hip-hop producers.

The digital age has transformed the way these producers work. Instead of manually searching through vinyl records for audio samples, beat makers can now access extensive libraries of audio samples, synthesizer presets, and VSTs through CBMP services. This has streamlined the process of sample-based music production and has sparked a surge of creativity among producers.

Examples of producers using sampling in their music

Sampling has been a fundamental element of music production for many years. It first gained traction in the 1980s with hip-hop artists who repurposed sections from existing songs to create their own music.

In the present day, sampling is utilized across a range of genres, including modern hip-hop styles like Drill and Trap, pop, EDM, and neo-soul.

Several iconic producers have made extensive use of sampling in their music. For example, Rick Rubin’s diverse selection of samples for the Beastie Boys, DJ Shadow’s innovative use of sampling, and J Dilla’s fusion of jazz, funk, and soul created the popular genre: LoFi Hip Hop.

Using a sampler to create drum beats

Samplers are not limited to modifying existing music. They can also be used to generate original sounds. One of the most thrilling applications of samplers is in the creation of drum beats.

By recording human voices or real-world sounds, you can create unique beats and tracks that would be impossible to achieve using traditional instruments. The sampler can convert a sound into a new instrument and loop a sample, creating a repeating pattern that can form the backbone of a song.

Sampling Beyond Instruments

Samplers can capture and store real sounds from a variety of sources, not just instruments. Everyday sounds like foot tapping, streetcar noise, or rain hitting the pavement can be sampled and used to create unique music. The sampler can dissect these samples, retain desired audio regions, and discard unwanted ones.

This offers a plethora of possibilities for musicians. It allows you to create a unique sound from a variety of sources.

To use samplers in music production, you’ll need to be proficient at audio editing and manipulation techniques. This includes time-stretching algorithms, pitch-shifting, beat-slicing, and gain management. The stereo width of a sample is also an important consideration, as it can affect the overall sound of the track.

Despite the controversies surrounding the use of samplers due to copyright issues, they’ve become a staple of modern music production. They’re likely to continue to evolve with advances in technology. An online marketplace where anyone can legally purchase samples has emerged. This has been beneficial for artists and musicians who own the rights to the samples as it provides an added income source.

Samplers are more than just a tool for sound manipulation. They can also fulfill a narrative function, allowing musicians to insert themselves into the narrative and turn songs into a shared event between different artists and composers. The use of samplers can evoke feelings of nostalgia and familiarity in listeners, providing a sense of intrigue that can give a song traction. Artists like Kanye West, Calvin Harris, Madlib, Beyonce, and Mark Ronson have all benefitted from sampling tracks of both popular and obscure songs.

Benefits of Using a Music Sampler

The benefits of using a sampler in music production

A sampler’s versatility is its main attraction. It provides a broad spectrum of sounds and effects, enabling the creation of unique soundscapes, textures, and intricate rhythms.

The evolution of sampling technology has democratized access to a vast library of sounds from diverse sources. These include not only traditional music mediums like vinyl records, CDs, and mp3s but also unconventional sources like field recordings. This wealth of resources can be manipulated to create entirely new compositions, remix existing tracks, or create mashups.

Getting the most out of your sampler

To maximize the potential of a sampler, a basic understanding of rhythm and tempo, the interaction of different sounds, and the selection of optimal drum samples is essential. The process involves mapping out drum samples on a sequencer, experimenting with different samples, adjusting pitch and volume, and adding effects for extra depth and texture.

There are also techniques to enhance the sound of samples. These include obtaining the samples in wav format, ensuring they complement the song, using dry samples, applying pitch correction first, using corrective EQ, shaping their dynamics, using automation on samples, boosting the needed frequencies, layering, resampling, and applying fades after trimming and slicing.

The future of sampling promises more unique and interesting creations. This is thanks to the growth of global streaming services and advances in music editing software. As music production’s always been driven by technology, the evolution of sampling over the years is tied to technological advancements. High-quality samplers are now available in DAW software, and most music production comes standard with some excellent samplers.

music producer using a music sampler in a studio

How Can You Legally Sample Music?

While the process of sampling is common in various music genres, it’s crucial to understand the legal implications involved.

Is Music Sampling Legal?

Indeed, music sampling is permissible under certain conditions. To legally incorporate a sample, you must obtain consent from both the copyright owner of the song and the copyright owner of the specific recording of that song. Typically, these rights are held by the music publisher and the record label, respectively.

This process, known as sample clearance, is essential to avoid copyright infringement. The complexity and cost of this process can vary, depending on the length and nature of the music sample.

Clearing Samples

Clearing samples can be a significant challenge for many musicians, particularly independent ones. This is because licensing the right to use a sound recording is not compulsory. The artist can refuse to license the work or negotiate any price for those rights.

Despite these legal requirements, many artists release music with uncleared samples, partly due to the widespread access to affordable recording and sampling tools and easy independent distribution methods.

However, if a track using an uncleared sample gains popularity, copyright holders can sue for infringement. This can result in fines and a halt in distribution. There are resources available to aid in sample clearance. These include online libraries of pre-cleared samples that eliminate the need for individual clearance.

Alternatively, some artists choose to interpolate records. This involves replaying or recreating a sample note for note in a new production without using the original audio. This method reduces the number of permissions they need to obtain.

When you’re preparing to obtain permission for sample use, you’ll need to gather key information about the song you want to sample and how you’re planning on using it. This includes finding the rightsholders of the song and contacting them with your request. This might involve searching through extensive music publishing databases. If either the artist (and their label) or the songwriter (and or publisher) deny access to the sample, you can’t use it.

For those on a budget, sample CDs or digital albums can be a helpful alternative. These are recordings that contain sounds and riffs specifically sold to be used in samplers. Most sample discs are “pre-cleared,” meaning that by buying the disc, you’re automatically granted permission to use the music without paying any additional fees.

Wrapping Up the Sound of Samplers

The profound influence of samplers in music production is undeniable. From their fundamental role in the evolution of music genres to their critical significance in diverse music production processes, samplers have revolutionized the music industry. They have democratized access to a multitude of sounds, given birth to innovative music styles, and infused an element of nostalgia and familiarity into modern music.

Whether you’re an upcoming DJ or an established producer, the boundary-pushing possibilities offered by samplers can enhance your craft and broaden your sonic palette. As technological advancements continue to shape the future of music, the realm of sampling presents a captivating journey of discovery and creativity.


Andrew Scrivens

Andrew Scrivens

I am a live musician and guitar teacher from Brisbane, Australia, with extensive experience playing live, in the studio and for TV shows. I play in many venues, studios, music shops and with my students and as such am exposed to a lot of different gear. I form my opinions based on my experiences playing instruments in these locations.

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