Music Technology Research: The History of the Sampler

Task 1: Describe a piece of music technology and produce a time line detailing its key developments:

The piece of music technology I am going to researching is the audio sampler, which although similar to the synthesiser; which generating its own sounds, the sampler triggers pre existing sounds which are either recorded or loaded onto it and then played back. I will mainly be focusing on Hardware Samplers.


Mellotron (1963)


Prior to digital sampling, tape replay keyboards where employed by musicians, with the Mellotron being one of the most notable. It was a electro mechanical, polyphonic tape replay device developed in Birmingham, England, and was popularised by acts such as The Beatles, Moody Blues, and King Crimson.

Computer Music Melodian (1976)

Made by Harry Mendal in the mid seventies, it is known as the first commercially available digital sampler, which was monophonic, had a 12 bit A/D converter, and had a sample rate of up to 22Khz. It also had a feature, which allowed it to be compatible with analogue synthesisers by syncing with their pitch.

Note: The backwards compatibility, something which doesn’t tend to happen much at the present day.

Fairlight CMI (1979)

2The first polyphonic digital sampler, created by Peter Fogel and Kim Ryrie, it was originally designed to create sound by modelling waveform parameters in real time. However its processing power was incapable of accomplishing those feats, so they tried it with naturally recorded sound, which had a far more successful outcome.

It could run at both 8 bit and 16 bit depths, with 8 Bit having a 16Khz Sample rate, while 16 could sample at 100Khz.

E-mu SP-1200 (1987)


Created by E-mu Systems, Inc, this drum machine and sampler was revolutionary as it was able to construct the bulk of a song by itself, making it a favourite of hip hop producers at the time. It could use existing samples or could record 10 seconds of audio at a sample rate of 26.04Khz and at a bit Depth of 12 bit depth. It also had a mono output plus an MIDI in/out/through.

Akai MPC60 (1988)


Released by Japanese company Akai in partnership with Roger Linn, who was the creator of the first programmable drum machine, the Linn Electronics LM-1; the Akai MPC60 was the first non-rack mounted model by Akai to be sold. It was also one of the first samplers to feature touch sensitive trigger pads, giving rise to the MPC design of samplers. The 16 velocity pads could store 4 banks worth of sounds (64 in total) with a sampling rate of 40Khz and a bit depth of 16, with the option of the data being stored in 12 bit format in a non-linear format to reduce noise.

Software Samplers: (1989-onwards)


Towards the start of the 90s, advances in processing power and memory capacity made it possible to run software samplers, with their interfaces modelled of their hardware counterparts. Even though hardware samplers are still used, software samplers tend to be bundled with DAW’s (Digital Audio Workstation) as a VST or plug-in, which can be used in conjunction with other sound modules and effects

Examples include Kontakt by Native Instruments, HAlion by Steinberg, and Emulator X by E-mu.

Task 2: Explain how the music technology works comparing and contrasting 2 points on the time line.

Samplers are usually controlled by attached keyboard, or from an external MIDI source, with each trigger assigned to a different sound. When multiple samples are arranged on a keyboard, it is known as a keymap.


The example above shows that if G2 or A2 is pressed, it will trigger the sample “Violin G2” however if the A2 key is played it will pitch the sample up by one tone. This is known as Keyboard Tracking, and with it a single sample can be pitched up and down across a keyboard or MPC, so they can make chords and play scales. You can also go one step further and map two samples to one key each controlled by the velocity of how it is triggered, giving a more intense sound.

Polyphonic Samplers can play more than one sample at the same time, while if it is monophonic, it will only be able to play one note at a time, with the previously triggered note being cut off.

Samples can also be set to loop from a particular point within the audio file, so that when a key is pressed, once the sample is finished it will replay indefinitely from that point.

Figure 1: As an example of an old hardware sampler, I will be using the E-mu Emulator released in 1981.


In order to record your own samples into the Emulator, the sound has to be an analogue line level or Mic level input 2 seconds in duration. where it is then digitised via the Analogue to Digital converter, which samples it at a rate of 30Khz.

Once the sound has been recorded it was held in RAM (128KB) where you could edit it, until you where happy and save to a floppy disk (storage capacity of 1.2MB) where it can be reloaded at any time. Once it is loaded the sample is keyboard tracked along, so by pressing higher keys will result in the sound being played back at a higher pitch and vice versa. It also featured a 4 octave split, allowing simultaneous control of two independent sounds.

It also comes with 5 discs worth of pre-recorded samples, which have to be inserted and reloaded to use.

Once the key triggers the recorded sound, the sound is then decoded back to analogue and is heard through an attached speaker.

Below is a flow chart of its signal flow:


Figure 2: Fast-forward a couple of years to 1986, Akai brought out the Akai S900. Unlike the E-mu Emulator, It had a sampling rate of 40Khz, giving it a larger bandwidth, a 12 bit Depth, giving an increased dynamic range, and a RAM of 750KB so it processed information much faster than the E-mu Emulator. It also had 8 outputs for each of the different voicing’s.


The downside of the S900 is that it required you to plug in an MIDI input device, so acted more as a sound module rather than a stand-a-alone piece of kit. The S900 is still being used by today’s musicians and at its time of release was probably more expensive then the Emulator, given there was 5 years between for it to drop in price.

Task 3: Comment Critically on an area that has been affected by the development of your chosen music technology. This could be a genre of music ,a performance technique or an artist’s career, for example.

1980’s Hip Hop

The development of the digital sampler had a significant effect on the hip hop genre in the 80s, where sampling other records via non digital means, such as turntables, was a crucial part of how a song was created. A lot of Hip-Hop producers embraced this new technology, as it had a number of benefits over the conventional turn-table based method of the time.

It allowed them to edit the samples they were using for the first time, changing the pitch and length of the sample opened up a number of new creative possibilities. Its main benefit being that the edit was printed onto the sound, unlike a DJ who would have to manually drag the vinyl slower or faster to create the change in pitch and speed.

Looping became so much easier with the advancement in technology as well, as it was a case of setting “loop points” where when a sample was played back, it would repeat itself if the trigger was held down, unlike on a turntable where two of the same song would have to be “cued” up and changed at the right time in order to get a perfect loop.

Multiple samples could now be layered on top of each other, as well as being assigned to a single trigger, allowing for more dense and dynamic sounds in the mix, as well as freeing up roles for other performers to play other instruments or sing. This can be heard on the Public Enemy’s 1987 album Yo! Bum Rush the Show, which was produced by The Bomb Squad, of which their production style features a sample heavy aesthetic.

The Akai MPC60 was released in 1988, which was followed by the Beastie Boys album, Pauls Boutique a year later, which utilised the emerging technology to create a album made up of a dense mix of samples, with the Dr Dre produced N.W.A’s debut Straight Outta Compton, also exhibiting the sample heavy approach.

The most popular type of samplers in the 80s where the sequencer based models, such as the Roland TR-808 and the E-mu SP-1200, as it allowed producers to created the backbone of a song with a single piece of hardware, plus as the decade went on the amount of time the samplers could use increased, with more and more artists recording their own sounds and playing them back.

Modern Use and moving forward:

Outside of the 80’s the digital sampler has help create some musical aesthetics which can now be found in many different genres, as well as hip hop. During the 90’s, sampling time continued to increase, allowing producers to sample larger sections of existing songs, which producers such as Puff Daddy used on The Notorious B.I.G’s album Ready to Die released in 1993, which contained whole sections of well know songs.

This also lead to Remixed tracks appearing more frequently, which started to flourish alongside both the Hip-Hop Scene and the creation of digital sampling. It made it easier for artists to take parts from existing songs as mentioned and put their own take on it, such as using the vocals of one song with other samples or new instrumental elements being added.

Taking influence from Newcleus’ song “Jam on It” which features pitched up samples, 2 decades later it inspired Roc-fella producer Kanye West to popularise the “Chipmunk” technique, using higher pitched samples over an original vocal take. Trap music also makes use of the opposite, having segments of audio played back with a lower pitch accompanying the original.

As the cost of samplers has come down and the technology has increased, Looper pedals have become widely available, giving the option for musicians to record themselves in a real time environment, and then layer multiple parts on top of each other. This uses similar technology to that of digital sampling, but literally repeats the segment which has been recorded, allowing single musicians to create a backing part without the need for a full band. Acts like Beadyman, KT Tunstall and Ed Sheeran have all found success in using them creatively.



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