How Much Do You Know About Sampling?

   By Emilie L   Categories: Audio Equipment
The original sampler- the Mellotron

image from flickr user Chris Carter

Sampling isn’t, strictly speaking, a synthesis method, but it is an essential part of the overall sound-design process. Sampling is, in essence, a recording of a sound, which is then manipulated in various ways. Although it wasn’t recognized as such when it first came out, the first well-known “sampler” was really the Mellotron. Released in the 1960s, it was a machine that featured actual tape recordings of different instruments, one tape for each note. The sounds were triggered by the keyboard and the tapes pulled over tape heads by electric motors. There were several limitations to this system. The first was that the recordings were of a limited length (about eight seconds) so if you wanted a sound like strings to hold for longer than eight seconds, well, you were out of luck! People got around this limitation by adapting their playing style to suit, but it still wasn’t ideal. The other big limitation was that, because of the “tape banks” used to store the sounds, a Mellotron could only be loaded with one sound at a time, and changing a tape bank wasn’t an easy job! But it paved the way for the later development of much more accessible digital sampling.

Digital sampling can be traced back to the late 1970s and the legendary Fairlight system. The aim of the Fairlight was simple: to bypass the limitations of synthesis techniques in reproducing real instruments by simply recording the actual sound of them and allowing those sounds to be played back, in a melodic way, at will. The early systems were extremely limited by the technology of the time because, as the recordings were digital, they had to be stored in some kind of memory and, at the time when the Fairlight was released, the multiple gigabytes of memory that we have become accustomed to today weren’t even a dream! The less memory you have available to store the sample, the shorter the length of the recording and the lower the quality of recording that you can store. But still, even with those limitations, the arrival of sampling was a real breakthrough and allowed a far more accurate representation of acoustic sounds.

The first samplers had very limited editing capabilities and were fundamentally similar to the Mellotron in the sense of being “playback” devices. The biggest difference was that these digital samplers had looping capabilities. These weren’t perfect (although great improvements in looping would come later), but it meant that the notes could, if desired, be held indefinitely, bypassing one of the major limitations of the Mellotron. The other big advantage was that the storage medium for digital samplers was far more convenient. Sounds (or sound banks) were stored on floppy disks, so loading a new sound meant inserting a new disk and loading from there rather than changing a large and cumbersome tape bank. The loading times were far from instantaneous, but they were a marked improvement.

Roland synthesizer

photo from flickr user Adam Tucker

Later samplers would increase the quality of the samples and the total length and amount of samples that could be stored at any one time. Later, manufacturers began to include filters and modulation sources so that the samplers of the day were more like subtractive synths that used real recordings rather than static waveforms as the sound sources. But in its early days, digital sampling was still, primarily, sampling. Then, in 1987, Roland released the D-50, the first real synthesizer that incorporated samples. The D-50 had both static waveforms and samples available as oscillator sources, and these could then be combined before being passed through the filters and further modified by all the usual elements of a subtractive synth. Admittedly the samples within were very short and mainly limited to transient samples (the initial “attack” portion of a sound in which most of the identifying character—bowed, plucked, blown, and so on—is contained), but by grafting a sampled transient onto a static waveform the resulting sounds were much more lifelike and realistic.

This approach became known as the SS method (or sampling synthesis). The next development in this approach was the Korg M1, which used more elaborate samples as the main source for the oscillators. There were traditional square, sawtooth, and triangle waves included, but much more emphasis was put on the samples as the source of the sounds. This was the start of a trend that was to last for many years and produced some of the best known and bestselling synths of the 1990s including Roland’s legendary JV series. In fact, it is only in the last five years or so that the trend has swung back toward “vintage” synthesizers (or at least their software recreated counterparts).

Excerpt from The Remix Manual by Simon Langford © 2011 Taylor & Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.

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