Instruments | Sampler | Electric & Electronic

Like the synthesizer, the sampler has had a huge influence on the course of electronic music.

A sampler is an instrument that can record, store and replay brief sections of audio – ‘samples’. In many ways, the Mellotron might be regarded as the earliest example of a sampling instrument. However, the sampler really came into its own with the development of digital technology.

Digital Sampling

Digital sampling is the process by which a recorded analogue signal is analyzed and transformed, through an analogue-to-digital converter (ADC) into digital information that can be easily stored, manipulated and replayed. On playback, the process is reversed and the digital information is passed through a digital-to-analogue converter (DAC) to recreate the original waveform. Two factors influence the quality of the sample:
• Sample rate: the frequency with which the original analogue signal is measured (sampled). Obviously, if more regular readings are taken over shorter intervals, the closer the digital version will be to the original. In 1927, physicist and engineer, Harry Nyquist (1889–1974), determined that, in order to maintain fidelity, the sample rate has to be at least twice the frequency of the sound being sampled. For example, in order to accurately sample a sound that occupies a range of frequencies up to 20,000 Hz (the upper limit of human hearing), sample readings must be taken, and digital values stored, at least 40,000 times per second. (CD quality is 44.1 kHz i.e., sample readings are taken every 44,100th of a second.) Failure to do so results in ‘aliasing’ – the production of undesirable audio artefacts.
• Bit depth: having taken a sample, the bit depth of the system determines the resolution with which the digital samples are stored – the higher, the better. 16-bit (CD quality) is a very significant improvement over 8-bit. It will therefore be apparent that sampling is a very memory-hungry operation.

Fairlight CMI

The Fairlight CMI (Computer Musical Instrument) was the first commercially available digital sampler. Named after a Sydney Harbour hydrofoil service, it was developed in 1979 by Australians Peter Vogel and Kim Ryrie. The original Fairlight was capable of 10 kHz, 8-bit sampling and had an interactive VDU (video display unit) on which the user could edit, or even draw, waveforms with a light pen. Costing around $25,000, its use was restricted to academic institutions and affluent rock musicians, such as Peter Gabriel who used it extensively on his fourth album, including the single ‘Shock The Monkey’.

Musical Sampling

Like its American counterpart, the NED (New England Digital) Synclavier, the Fairlight fell into disuse, unable to compete with the rising tide of affordable samplers produced by companies such as Ensoniq (Mirage), E-mu (Emulator), Sequential Circuits (Prophet 2000) and Akai (S900). Many of today’s synthesizer-workstation keyboards are based on sampling technology, and vast libraries of third-party pre-recorded samples are available. However, like so many other advances in music technology, the world of sampling has come to be dominated by computer software.

The advent of widely available, mass-market sampling...

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Source: The Illustrated Complete Musical Instruments Handbook, general editor Lucien Jenkins


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