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Sampling - Technology and Effects - Part 2

  • 14 March 2014, Friday
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In Sampling – History & Definition - Part 1, we took a close look at the historical development of sampling technology. We’d now like to consider how samples function, the influence they can have on musical genres, and how sampling is perceived in both a legal and a cultural context.

Working with samples

Creative types usually try to sample as independently as possible, and create their own sounds. There are lots of resources to this purpose. Almost every source of noise or sound can be digitalised and isolated. A single sample is then assigned to one of the keys on a MIDI keyboard, in a process called ‘mapping’. The software sampler then pitches the sample onto the other keys required. This is usually achieved by playing back a sample either faster or slower. The higher the tone, the faster the digital signal is played back. This effect has enormous creative potential, but it can also conceal some audio corruption, which can sound terrible in many cases. The best way of sampling an analogue instrument or a synthesiser as accurately as possible is to use multi samples, which are expensive. With multi samples, every tone pitch is digitalised separately, often even with a different attack or nuance. You can imagine what a nightmare the process of digitalising a piano can be when trying to stay as close to the original sound of the instrument as possible!

This is one of the many reasons for the widespread availability of elaborate sampling libraries – the people who used to produce ‘sampling CDs’ (which were a profitable business model up until the millennium) have adjusted to the new market and the technology available, and are selling their own virtual instruments or sound libraries to established software samplers like Kontakt, HALion or EXS-24. The omnipresence and speed of the Internet has also made changes in this field, unfortunately including lots of illegal activity.

Sample based virtual instruments are dominating studios, alongside hardware and software synthesisers. What used to be impossible due to memory bottlenecks is now standard repertoire. Libraries including whole orchestras aren’t unusual anymore, and even extremely successful musicians and composers like Hans Zimmer swear by the technical aid and endless possibilities offered by virtual instruments - not just because they are portable, and even though they have access to real orchestras!

The range of software samplers has also grown; the most well known models include Logic’s internal EXS-24, Steinberg’s HALion, MotU’s Mach Five, Native Instrument’s KONTAKT etc. When it comes to Rompler (sample based instruments with limited editing function), virtual instruments like ReFX NEXUS are entering the scene.

Samples and Genres

As we already mentioned, the establishment of samplers also helped the development of many musical styles. The biggest example is hip-hop, whose artists helped themselves to sound fragments (loops) from funk and soul records. Many other sources were also sampled and embedded into original creations by acts like Depeche Mode, Beastie Boys, Eminem, Mike Oldfield, etc. A famous example is the song ‘When The Levee Breaks’ by Led Zeppelin

A phenomenal example of the effect an individual sample can have on musical genre is the famous drums break from a 1960s record, known as the ‘Amen Break’. The digitalisation and use of this loop (also used in other combinations via ‘Slice-ings’ with software like ReCycle) actually led to the birth of a new musical genre, Break Beat!

Contrary to popular belief, free sampling of rhythms or melody lines which only last a certain amount of bars or seconds is not allowed. Every sample containing another recording is protected by copyright, and belongs 100% to the original artists or their record label. Anything else you hear on the matter is pure myth! Permission is required from the copyright owner even for the shortest of samples. Of course, it is sometimes impossible to prove something has been sampled, in the case of very short, percussive samples like a kick or a snare drum. Legal battles over these sorts of situations would reach a ridiculous level!

Read how Swiss jazz musician Bruno Spoerri accused Jay Z of using one of his samples without clearance or even notifying him.

In a recent blog we wrote about how Jay Z used a Swiss jazz legend’s recording without permission. As we’ve made clear, a sample has to be officially cleared these days. Of course, it’s much easier to do this if your band is more established, as you have the support of your label, and greater chances of getting access to certain samples due to your own fame. It’s definitely worth knowing the law in this situation.

Finally, there is the cultural question: where will the line be drawn? Was and is sampling not actually a form of cultural inheritance, which lives on in new creations and influences the future development of music, or even whole musical styles? Isn’t every type of music based on something that already existed beforehand? We’re interested to hear your views!

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