Thursday, July 01, 2004

the bench intro to sampling

intro to sampling~ by J. Phoenix ~ In this month's issue of The Bench, I will define what sampling is, introduce you to some of the history behind sampling, touch on how it has changed the way we make music, and outline future articles on sampling. I am primarily a sample-based artist; it is my favorite form of working with music. I am obsessed with the manipulation of recorded sound, and it will be a pleasure to share some of my knowledge on this with you.

Sampling is the recording and playing back of small digitally recorded pieces of sound. Samples can be made out of any sound that can be recorded or created. Samples can be short brief stabs of recorded sound (like a drum); they can be repeating loops of sound creating a rhythm or repeated melody; they can be the sound of a human voice speaking or singing; a sample can be a single note which will be pitched up and down to imitate a specific instrument.

Sampling has utilized digital technology from its very beginning. The first instrument which could be properly called a sampler was the Fairlight CSI (Computer Musical Instrument). The Fairlight CSI was first made in 1979 by an Australian company of the same name. In addition to several innovative digital synthesizer & sequencing features, the CSI featured the ability to record small sections of sound and play them back digitally for the low price of $25,000.

How does a sampler work? Remember that all sound is simply waves of energy moving through the air. Our ears translate the pressure of these waves into what we perceive as sound. These waves in the air can be converted into electrical energy following the same wave patterns and then amplified, recorded, and manipulated. Samplers use digital technology which breaks the recorded sound into frequencies, and then relates those frequencies in time into 0's and 1's, allowing the sound to be stored in the sampler's memory, and played back easily.

Samplers since the Fairlight have come a long way. Today's samplers vs. the earliest samplers is similar to comparing the video games, Space Invaders to Halo.

As samplers decreased in size and price, quality and sophistication, they quickly began to change the course of music. Musicians (and people who had never played any instrument before) became able to manipulate and integrate any sound into their music.

An early use of sampling was imitating acoustic instruments like cellos and flutes. Others began working on using loops of recorded sound repeating to create rhythms or to sustain notes. Sampling made it possible to take a specific section of music and turn it into a rhythm or melody all its own.

The ability to create a realistic back beat without a drummer or an orchestral sound without an orchestra along with their own playing allowed many bedroom producers to create music that could compete with a full production studio's layering--and allowed full studios even more access to esoteric sounds than before.

Sampling allowed producers to create music using instruments they could not necessarily play themselves, or be able to hire musicians to record. This opened a lot of new possibilities up, but it also created some new twists on old ethical questions about borrowing, or stealing other people's work. I'll address those issues at another time.

As of this moment in time, sampling has never been easier, whether using a computer program or using hardware. Early limitations of samplers (sound quality and amount of time able to be recorded) meant constantly having to measure how much time was left to work with and almost never getting playback quality identical to the original source of sound.

Looping a sound could take hours of time finding just the right spot where the sample begins and ends to create a seamless loop with no reference but the sound itself. Pitching a sample up and down a keyboard could end up with something totally unrecognizable from what you started with.

Today's samplers have far more memory, far better quality, and many have features that make looping or sequencing samples almost intuitively easy. Software programs that perform sampling functions are numerous, many with even more features than hardware, provided that you have the computer to handle it.

No matter what type of sampler you use, there are several primary techniques in sampling: cutting a single shot sample (such as a vocal sample or a single drum sound), creating a repeating loop of melody or rhythm, and cutting and pitching a single sampled note or sound up or down at intervals to be used like a patch on a synthesizer.

The way your sampler allows you to accomplish these goals may differ from other samplers, and we will discuss those differences and similarities as well. Along the way we will also discuss the time/tempo/pitch problem, sound quality, what "artifacts" are, their causes and how to fix them, ethics issues in sampling, and discuss the importance of Source (where and how you get your samples).

A note to those curious about the promised Synthesis article: it will have to continue to wait; part of why I have moved on to Sampling is because I have seen the amount of subject matter we will need to cover, and I have not figured out how to logically order the information. Stay tuned however, I think the sampling articles will be a goldmine of information for those not familiar with it.

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