Updated: Dec 27, 2021
Of all the electronic instruments out there. Why the sampler? Well this is what we’re going to look at. The sampler, ever since it’s appearance in popular music has always had an underlying presence over the years but when it comes to speaking of it as an exclusive instrument things fall way. Why so? Well let’s try and hammer that out.
By the way. Thanks so much for hanging out in this space. I’m glad you’re here!
The sampler in the form that we know it today has been around since the 60’s. Since then it has almost always been a supporting role of a greater whole in musical compositions. As the 70’s and 80’s rolled in; samplers became more sophisticated to the extent that sample time was optimized enough to support a greater role in music. Now if there was one style of music that benefited from these technological advances it was the growing form of Rap Music. Before this point samples were reserved for accentuated areas of a musical piece. Time restraints and possibly limited creative foresight prevented anything more prominent for the role of sampled audio in music.
So back to rap now. The combination of Deejaying and sampling met head on. The main instrument of rap music was (and is) the turntable. Preferably two or more of them linked by whatever technology is available to transition between them. When sampling time became extended and affordable enough to accommodate the extending of breaks (break beats) in similar manner as the DJ did by juggling breaks on a turntable; an unstoppable resource of creativity opened up.
The DJ’s role was augmented to electronic artist. Their task now was just as important in the studio as it was in the live setting. The breaks found and juggled on records were now processed digitally via the new technology of sampling and composite records were made that were closer to what was heard in parties.
What was happening before this you ask? Drum machines! Electronic percussive instruments that sounded futuristic and robotic but didn’t have the rawness or energy that a DJ was able to achieve at a party. As a result, breaks turned into loops; Loops turned into arrangements and drum machine beats were replaced with individual sampled drum hits from good old records.
The Well Runs Dry
Things took off. Music was renewed and things were looking like the fun would never stop. That was until things went left of course. Copyright infringement on the grounds of sampling commercially released audio recordings hadn’t been a consideration until this point. And why would it be. Rap music was new, underground and caught the general public by surprise. How could this music that was once regarded as a fad become so popular that the records were selling like a new version of an iPhone? There was money to be made and the copyright infringement lawsuits started flying. This halted things to a degree but all creative potential wasn’t lost. For a time if you weren’t too popular as an artist you could skate by with samples in your music. It was the “catch me if you can” game. Even from this dilemma new styles of sampling were created. The most popular being the style of “chopping” samples. If you could sample a record, divide the sample into parts and rearranged those divisions into a new sequence that sounded different from the original sample you could then camouflage the sample source ultimately keeping those snooping record company police from suing you.
Then…. The well ran dry! It became too risky to gamble with samples. If you got caught, you’d be hit up for anything from full ownership of your music to several hundred thousand dollars and a lawsuit for your troubles. Sampling once again receded back into the background. In the late 90’s it was far more profitable to make music on a synthesizer or keyboard workstation or simply re-play a sample than it was to sample an actual record. Record companies were encouraging their artist to do this as well or at the very least limit samples to music that was already part of their large catalog. Why? Because it’s always cheaper to negotiate in-house
The Ensoinq ASR-10. A powerhouse sampler from the 90's!
What Happened Next?
We’ll now things were back to the beginning. Samples were used sometimes but not so much in an original way and the source selection wasn’t as exiting as the days when folk were sampling anything without worry. We entered a time of restraint and sampling fell back into an accompanying role. Samplers, as in actual hardware instruments really took a hit. Going into the 2000’s they weren’t in demand anymore. Instead, the features of sampling were incorporated into synthesizers drum machines and such. It was getting pretty boring. Then something happened. And that would be the internet. Everyday people began to upload their home studio on goings for others to see. Myspace kicked it off and YouTube took it from there. Now we got to see how music was made, what was used and more importantly there was nothing to stop anyone from sampling to their hearts delight! With this new ultra-independent level of freedom there was a slow but steady shift back towards sample-based music.
This didn’t mean that hardware sampler manufactures were on the same wavelength yet. They didn’t know. Their corporate fingers weren’t feeling for the pulse of the internet beat scene. Meanwhile samplers that were currently available like the Roland SP-303 gained incredible traction within this new renaissance of sampling. Why bother with getting signed when you could be a producer or simply make your livelihood on the internet independently?
But remember that the internet social media platforms are (for all intents and purposes) free, making the barrier to entry as low as you could possibly expect. And with all that came a very saturated environment of aspiring “Beatmakers”. While all this mess was occurring instrument manufactures were finally beginning to catch up. The idea to combine the old with the new came by way of a new hybrid instrument called Maschine by Native Instruments. An MPC style drum machine interface that was ultimately driven by a software host. You could import samples, sample live audio and edit it with ease. Sampling was back and ready to roll and all seemed great!
Maschine! The hybrid instrument that really changed the way music was made.
But all this greatness couldn’t last for ever could it? Originality was getting scarce as the gold standard for online recognition was based on how much you could emulate the sampling greats. In a nutshell those were Gangstarr’s Dj Premier, Pete Rock and Jay Dee aka Dilla! As ironic as this was, it was this climate that instigated another restriction that no one could have foreseen. YouTube itself came under fire as a company for copyright infringement on behalf of all its users who used the platform as their home for their beatmaking careers. Imagine that! You try to be like Preemo and Preemos’ record label slaps YouTube with a “Cease and desist”. Good grief! YouTube Beatmakers began to receive copyright strikes and or have their channel demonetized.
What’s Good For The Goose….
Sample packs began to fill the void nicely. Both independent and major companies began to provide access to curated designed samples via their custom libraries to satisfy the need for sample-based musicians. These samples were often created in such a way that they often sounded like the old dusty vinyl records that beatmakers loved. Oddly enough, this turned the tables on the record industry. They were so busy suing folk that they never thought that it would’ve been a better idea to create a solution.
This was another shining example of the stupidity of the record industry. They failed to realize that these terrible little copyright offenders who had the cheek to call themselves “Beatmakers/Producers” really had no problem paying for samples. They clearly wanted access to the back catalog of music that the major record companies owned. There just wasn’t a practical way for them to legally access and pay for them! For reference, this was around 2006-18 and believe it or not the record companies have yet to act. And like all things. When one party neglects to act, another will. The initiation came from the most unlikely but genius source. Major record label artist themselves! Companies like Tracklib began to emerge with an easy “pay for use” solution. Now producers could pay for the samples they wanted with the assurance that what they we’re using was legal and legit.
And what’s more along side this; Instrument manufactures learned their lesson and were keenly paying attention to the trends of the internet. In addition, many small independent boutique companies came to the forefront with their own samplers to service an ever growing market segment. Not only that. For the vintage sampler lovers, used musical instrument re-sale websites were available and thriving!
So now it’s 2021 and we seemingly have gotten back on track with sampling since our initial derailment in the late 80’s. The future looks bright doesn’t it?