What is Sampling?

In by phoenixgreen

A look at the history of sample-based music

In this course, we will be exploring the world of sampling. Sampling in a nutshell can be defined as:

A production technique which involves reusing or repurposing an existing piece of audio in a piece of music.

This is a very simple definition, but there are many of applications for sampling in music. The first technologies to facilitate sampling were shellac records and later magnetic tape, and these were used by musique concretecomposers such as Pierre Schaeffer in the 1940’s. Schaeffer would take short audio recordings, layer them and manipulate them to create complex sounds which even modern synthesis would struggle to replicate. By manipulating these samples, Schaeffer obscured them from their source, meaning that listeners were able to hear and appreciate sounds without linking them to an instrument. Schaeffer called this acousmatic listening.

Pierre Schaeffer

Pierre Schaeffer

The genre of hip-hop was born of sampling: In 1970’s New York, street parties would often involve DJs playing records with MCs “toasting” over them to entertain the crowd. Over time, this evolved into a practice of looping drum breaks so to that MCs could rap for longer. Hip-hop production has developed to include synthesis and live instrumentation since then, but sampling has always been an integral part of the genre, and hardware samplers like the Akai MPC are some of the most recognisable symbols of the genre thanks to producers like J Dilla and DJ Shadow.

J Dilla with his AKAI MPC 3000 sampler

J Dilla with his AKAI MPC 3000 sampler

In the 1970’s, the term samplingwas first applied to an instrument called the Fairlight CMI. This instrument actually looked like a large computer and cost over £85,000 in today’s money. However, the CMI was a huge success as for the first time producers were able to play digitally sampled audio chromatically, just as they would a piano or synthesiser. This meant that musicians now had access to a vast library of sounds and instruments, and did not need to hire session musicians to play them.

Fairlight CMI

Fairlight CMI

Sampling, throughout its history, has been controversial at times: hip-hop’s recycling of grooves and hooks landed several artists with lawsuits, and the Fairlight CMI was criticised by the Musician’s Union in the UK for fears that it would put orchestras out of work.

From these three examples of sampling in music history we can see the beginnings of ways in which we use sampling today: from musique concrete and acoustmatics, we might take a sound like a car door closing and use it as percussion. From hip-hop, we might search through old jazz and funk records for a perfect drum break, and then use that as the foundation of an entirely new piece of music. From the Fairlight CMI (and similar instruments such as the Synclavier), we have modern sampling instruments like Ableton’s Simpler and Sampler.

Ableton's Sampler Instrument

Ableton's Sampler Instrument

Simpler and Sampler are both sampling instruments, meaning that they take in an existing audio sample and then use MIDI to control those samples in much the same way as a synthesiser would. In this course we are going to take each of these instruments in turn and explore the various ways in which we can use them to create sample-based music. As we go, we will also build up an arrangement. As an example, we have made a hip-hop beat, but you are welcome to make whatever genre you like.

Tasks

Task 1 - Open up Ableton and save a blank session. Name the session “Ableton 10 Introduction to Sampling”.

Task 2 - Collect some sounds to work with during this project. Take a look online for a sample pack which fits your preferred genre, there are lots of great free sample packs available online but take caution with downloading files from the internet; only download from reputable websites. You may also want to collect some sounds which are outside of the genre that you want to work within. Perhaps try finding some world percussion sounds, or foley samples.

Quiz