What is a Sampler?


A sampler is an electronic or digital musical instrument similar in some respects to a synthesizer. However, instead of generating new sounds with Voltage-controlled oscillators, it uses sound recordings (or “samples”) of real or artificial instrument sounds. Though digital sampling has been in existence since the 1960s, the first commercially available models were Harry Mendell’s Computer Music Melodian and Fairlight’s CMI (Computer Musical Instrument). It might seem primitive for today standards. However back then, it was a revolutionary machine which was offering sampling at 24 kHz and edit waveforms with it. What’s more, it was really expensive (around 18,000 $ which is 58,000 $ in today’s money). So, it was available only to established artists and early adopters like Peter Gabriel, Thomas Dolby, and Kate Bush.


Tape replay keyboards


Prior to computer memory-based samplers, musicians used tape replay keyboards, which store recordings on analog tape. After pressing a key, the tape head contacts the moving tape and plays a sound. The Mellotron was the most notable model.  A large number of groups used it in the late 1960s and the 1970s, but such systems were expensive and heavy due to the multiple tape mechanisms involved. Additionally, the range of the instrument was limited to three octaves at the most. Moreover, musicians had to install a new set of tapes to change sounds. The emergence of the digital sampler made sampling far more practical.


The emergence of cheap samplers


Thanks to digital technology’s decreasing manufacturing costs, the first relatively cheap samplers began to appear in the mid-to-late ’80s. Classic hardware like the E-MU SP-1200 and Akai S950 made sampling available to studios that didn’t have astronomical budgets, and hip-hop was the first genre to explore the sampler’s ability to recycle musical ideas and put them into entirely new contexts. Hip-hop had been founded on the instrumental breaks of funk and rock tracks since the ’70s, and pre-sampling records like The Sugarhill Gang’s Rapper’s Delight and West Street Mob’s Break Dance utilized session musicians replaying famous grooves, or turntablists cutting up breaks. Now producers could simply sample their favorite parts of songs and cut them up in exciting new ways.

Controlling a sampler


Usually, you can control a sampler by an attached music keyboard or other external MIDI controller or source. Each note-message received by the sampler accesses a particular sample. Often multiple samples are arranged across the keyboard, each assigned to a note or group of notes. Keyboard tracking allows samples to be shifted in pitch by an appropriate amount, typically in semitones and tones. Each group of notes to which a single sample has been assigned is often called a “keyzone”, and the resultant set of zones is called a keymap.


How does a sampler work?


Many samplers work as described above: the key mapping system “spread out” a sample over a certain range of keys. This has side-effects that may be desirable in some contexts, such as speeding up or slowing down drum loops. However, the higher and lower-pitched parts of such a keymap may sound unnatural. For example, if a harpsichord is sampled in its lower register and then the samples are moved up to very high pitches, the high notes may not sound natural and authentic. When arranging a pitched instrument over several keymaps, the transition from one to another may be too noticeable for realistic imitation of the instrument – the art is to make transitions as smooth as possible.


Phase samplers


Some phrase samplers are more optimized for triggering single “one-shot” sounds such as drum hits. Each key-map spans only a single key, requiring a large number of zones (61 on a five-octave keyboard), each with its own settings. “Phrase sampling” aims to simplify this, particularly on interfaces such as the 16 pads on the Akai MPC series: the fact that each pad is actually a note is hidden from the user. The sampling engine does not re-pitch samples, it only plays them back. The user interface is simplified. Phrase samplers often have a groove box format, which makes them lightweight, easy to operate and light to carry.


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