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Sampling – History & Definition - Part 1

  • 07 March 2014, Friday
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The history of sampling goes back to the 60s and 70s, before digital technology came into use and sounds were still recorded and played on tape. Tape had very high audio quality, and could be manipulated in many different ways, as you could cut it and stick it together again. This is how the first ‘loops’ were created; part of a tape recording would be reproduced as an endless loop (like in Pink Floyd’s song ‘Money’). Since then, sampling technology has taken over the global music market, and had a huge influence upon its musical content too.

The history of sampling and how it has influenced the industry

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The most prestigious studios began using digital technology towards the end of the 70s, though it was still extremely expensive. Top-of-the-range tools like ‘Fairlight’ and ‘Synclavier’ expanded the possibilities of sound manipulation. From the mid-80s onwards, sampling technology became increasingly affordable, and tools like ‘Emulator’ or ‘Mirage’ started to become common in smaller studios and well-equipped private households. This technological development supported the emergence of new musical genres like Hip Hop, and opened doors to new forms of musical expression. Bands like Depeche Mode created their sound tapestries and underlaid their music with industrial percussion samples. Synth-based electronic music by bands like Kraftwerk was really completed by sampling technology, which also had a strong influence on black music coming from American cities like Detroit and Chicago. New forms of expression like ‘Break Dance’ took over streets and discos across the world.

In 1987, just one year before the incredibly successful 16 Bit Sampler S-1000 was released by Akai, MARRS’s dance hit “Pump up the volume” (which featured extensive use of sampled fragments) conquered the charts, becoming a leading force in the upcoming UK House Scene. This was a decisive victory for Indie music, but it also represented a new type of 'bedroom production' in music making.

However, this new technology rapidly brought new difficulties and discussions with it, as the sampling pioneers helped themselves to a plentiful selection of existing recordings by other artists, or other sources of sound (like radio and film), and integrated these samples into their recordings without ‘clearing’ them beforehand. At first, this was usually tolerated, but it wasn’t long before the first waves of complaints about these new sound collectors and manipulators started to pour in.

Sampling technology continued to march triumphantly into the 90s, as the tools became cheaper while sampling time (memory space) and editing possibilities increased – samplers became affordable. It was only towards the end of the 20th century that a new trend loomed, as flagship tools by leading brands like EMU or AKAI became increasingly outmoded, and computers pushed their way into the market. Sequencer programs that used to apply solely to MIDI data, born as ‘trackers’ on inexpensive home computers like Commodore C64 grew into powerful programs with audio tracks and software-based effects (see our post on modern DAW programs for more information.) The evolution of software sampling could not be held back.

What are samples?

A sample is a digital portion of an existing recording or recorded sound/noise. The audio signal is recorded by a microphone or a direct line/mic input on a piece of equipment that can digitalize an analog signal (“electric oscillations”) via an AD converter. During the sampling process, these oscillations are measured in short intervals. The bitrate determines how many samples are measured. The more a sample is analyzed for a specific period, the more accurately the waveform (the analog source signal) will be emulated (see the diagram on the right). Of course, you can also play this collection of measured sounds back onto analog equipment again.

The scratchy 8-bit technology that is reproduced by the ‘Bitcrusher effect’ is still loved by modern producers, although it was replaced at the end of the 80s by 16-bit technology (CD quality with 44.1 kHz and 16-bit), and many audio interfaces have offered super audiophile sampling rate levels like 192 kHz (with 64 bit) for the last few years. CD quality samples save around 44.1000 measures per second with 16-bit as the measuring value. This enables an image of 65.536 possible voltage levels.

Technically a sample can be any digital audio recording. However, the term is usually referring to short fragments like:

  • Short percussive samples (drums, metallic sounds, synth noises etc.)
  • Loops (drum loops /beats and/or complete melody loops)
  • Spoken word/vocals
  • Noises from nature and our day-to-day environment
  • Effects (synth sounds, manipulated tones, etc.)
  • Instrument samples (which can be reproduced with a MIDI keyboard, and playable instruments – usually ‘multi-samples’)

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