The past and the future of music sampling
Sampling: taking from classics and creating new content. It’s the spine of worldwide hits, block parties in the '70s and club dancefloors, EDM, hip hop and many, many more. Taking a sample from a sound recording and looping it brings new content. Sampling changed our music world, created new quality and ... new legislation problems. For some musicians, sampling is piracy but for others it opens up a new spectrum of music perception. For these people, sampled music is the audio equivalent of the visual collages.
How much do you know about sampling?
Musique concrète and non-musical samples
Sampling was born years before the first block party. Already in the late 1940s, it became one of the techniques used by composer Pierre Schaeffer. Musique concrète is based on real sounds. Fabric noise, sounds of nature, people talking: these are all considered to be music elements, and all can be included in a music composition. These sounds are recorded, sampled and mixed. The collection of these abstracted audio elements allows the creation of a musical piece out of non-musical samples. However, a composer might also use synthesizers and computer-based digital sound processing. This process can be considered as an aesthetic game.
John Cage and experimental music
Other composers have also looked into the assemblage of recorded sounds to create a music composition. Take a closer look at Williams Mix (1951-1952) by John Cage. This particular piece is composed for 8 magnetic tapes playing simultaneously. Recording categories: countryside, city, manually produced, electronic, wind and “little” sounds. On the score the composer marks where each tape should be cut. The piece itself was performed and recorded according to I-Ching (The Book of Changes) and Cage’s idea of chance operations.
The less the better: minimalism
If you are a fan of Steve Reich or Philip Glass, you know how a repetitive sample can transform into a new musical piece. Repeating of a small unit and then reprocessing it is a key in the means of expression for minimalists. Other characteristics are: lack of narration, constant harmony, steady pulse, stasis transformation and focus on smaller units or phrases.
Probably you have heard Come Out by Steve Reich. The main sentence “I had to, like, open the bruise up, and let some of the bruise blood come out to show them” was cut to “come out to show them.” At first it was presented in two channels in unison. After a while the phase begins to shift. The output becomes a reverberation and almost canonical. Two voices are split into four (after that into eight) and looped. The original material that was presented to Reich was 70 hours long, but the composer decided to use only a 4-second loop. You can also hear this loop in Madvillain’s America’s Most Blunted. Another Reich piece is the well-known Grammy Award-winning (1989) - Different Trains. Written for string quartet and tape (1988), it used the techniques of tape looping, various speed playback and recorded speech as a melody source. To transfer the recorded speech, Reich used a digital sampling keyboard (Casio FZ01).
Despite experimental music and avant-garde, sampling became a coherent part of hip-hop in the 1970s. It spread to electronic music and the disco scene as well. From a DJ’s interaction with vinyl records and replaying breaks in funk music, the art of sampling evolved to changing turntable speeds.
The first sampler Mellotron was made in the mid-1960s (for magnetic tape). Commercially available samplers appeared in the late 1970s - Computer Music Melodian by Harry Mendell. Samplers became more common and had diversified functions. The first polyphonic digital sampling synthesizer was Fairlight CMI.
About the same time, Akai introduced processing techniques like crossfade looping or stretching samples in time. This was the era of CMIs, SPs, S900s, MPCs, MCs, etc.; a period when people were so busy innovating that they couldn't come up with a proper name for their brilliant hardware. These days, samplers are both in hardware and software form, allowing us to loop, slice and splice an audio track.
Endtroducing … music recycling
Cutting a part of a track and putting it together with another in a new context is more than a collage of sounds. Old tracks and grooves revived and became a core for a creation of a fresh musical piece. In the 1970s, taking a part of a song, i.e., rhythm break, and building a new song on it became a huge wave in hip-hop culture. If you were going to parties in the Bronx in 1974, you could hear the first breakbeats made by DJ Kool Herc. The first album made almost entirely out of sampled content was Endtroducing… by DJ Shadow, released in 1996.
Sampling includes more than music: spoken words and phrases, parts of ads, TV shows or movies are also used. The best example of creative use of samples is Frontier Psychiatrist by The Avalanches. Samples are taken from a song (My Way of Life by Enoch Light Singers), a sketch (Frontier Psychiatrist by duo Wayne & Shuster), a movie (Polyester by John Waters) and a part of Maurice Jarre’s Overture (from the movie Lawrence of Arabia).
Better Call Saul...
Finding a balance between an original artist and the new, appropriative artist became a challenge for copyright law. No matter how many seconds you want to take from the original recording, it is not allowed. Rhythms, melody lines, bars from another song – these are all under copyright law and belong to the original artist (or the record label). In case you want to use a part of another artist’s song, it is necessary to get a license (or if you want to see the glass half full, you might get paid well if someone samples your music). There are different conditions for licenses.
To avoid that, an artist can either use pre-cleared samples or create their own, or use samples from pieces with expired copyrights (as Coolio did with Pachelbel’s Canon in D major for the track C U When You Get There).
Undoubtedly the majority of samples are extracted from existing recordings but not all. Many musicians create their own material, edit it and loop it. In this way, they construct songs by sampling their own material.
There are types of samples that are neither melodic nor rhythmical: single notes from a musical instrument, spoken words or, in general, sounds which cannot be perceived as melodic or percussive.
The variety of sampling techniques started with cutting a vinyl or a magnetic tape. A few ways to use samplers:
- Timbre imitation of acoustic instruments
- Digital synthesis of samples
- Creating a polyphonic version of monophonic instruments
- Combining different audio samples to achieve new timbers
- Unconventional effects, for example, reversing, slowing down
Taking a sample, editing it, looping or playing back became an integral part of the music world. But what does the future hold for sampling?
Sampling in a perfect world
In the 1990s, music production tools became cheaper and more affordable. EMU or AKAI were considered a must-have for a modern electronic music producer. At that time, the Commodore computer began to appear in many households. Software programs with audio tracks became more and more popular, as well as software effects. Currently, having a DAW installed on a computer or laptop is enough to be able to cut and loop whatever we want. The majority of the sources might be found on the internet or in a music shop. Free sound libraries are highly popular. There is a vast majority of music makers willing to share their music for free in exchange for crediting them or for a small fee. When sampling, one has always to consider copyright law and respect someone’s work.
When you finally have the perfect sample clip, it might be a challenge to get exactly the desired part of it. Here at accusonus, we believe that the future of sampling belongs to A.I. Regroover is the world’s first A.I. beat machine that redefines sampling and opens up new creative possibilities.