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Sampling - A Brief History

The historical development of sampling has been influenced by a number of different factors and the first types of Samplers look quite different to today’s versions. As samplers have evolved there has been a move away from analogue and digital systems towards software based versions, which offer greater flexibility and options in terms of what you can do however they fundamentally still operate in the same way, that is to trigger a pre recorded sounds (such as a real instrument sounds, snippet of a song/riff, effects etc) to use for a specific purpose, typically for use within a musical composition.

Where did it all start?

Although there were different experiments into sampling prior to the 1950s, two technological developments that really laid the foundations for sampling to take place were the creation of magnetic tape (developed in the 30’s by a company called AEG) to store audio recordings and the development Pulse code modulation (PCM) by Bell Laboratories in the 50’s 60’s, who developed the technology to transform audio signal into digital numbers to be used in digital audio systems.

Historical developments

In the early sixties an interesting music instrument took advantage of magnetic tape storage facility and playback capabilities, it was called the “Mellotron” which had eighteen pre-recorded rhythms and instruments, perhaps most famously used for the Beatles song Strawberry fields as demonstrated by Paul McCartney here.

A Fairlight CMI Series 1

From the mid to late 70’s the ‘Fairlight computer musical instrument’ entered the market, this workstation was the first commercial exploitation of sampling and was shortly followed by a dedicated sampler created by E-mu systems in the early eighties.

This move toward digital sampler technology continued and was arguably spearheaded by the company Akai who in 1985 produced the ‘S612’ a rack mounted sampler that allowed for 12-bit recording onto a quick-disk storage. It was the first in a long line of samplers produced by Akai and by the late 1980s samplers had become more powerful, more versatile, and less expensive. The introduction of the Akai s1000 in 1998 being an example of this, offering an affordable way to produce CD-quality audio by sampling at higher rates than previous models.

In summary between 1960 - 2000 technological developments led to different brands emerging on the market offering more affordable consumer based sampling equipment that supported musical creativity and laid the foundation for certain music genres to be created and flourish. More recently there has been a move towards software versions of samplers that can be housed alone or within Digital audio workstations (DAW). This has been made possible to the advancements in computer technology & CPU processing power over the last twenty years.

An advert for the AKAI S612 sampler

What is the future of sampling?

This is a good question and will inevitably be tired in with music technology advancements. One interesting recent development, dubbed the ‘photoshop for audio’ was developed by Adobe and takes an audio waveform/recording and allows the user to then manipulate the audio to say what they desire, as demonstrated at Adobe MAX 2016, what implications this has on music and copyright is yet to be seen but could be an extension of the way that samples and audio are manipulated within the musical and professional sphere.