IN THE BEGINNING
At the end of the 1970’s, a surprising number of people were experimenting with tape loops and editing, inspired by stuff like German art school music and the more avant garde works of the Beatles a decade or so earlier. They were in bedrooms around the world with little Revox stereo 1/4″ reel-to-reel tape recorders, experimenting furiously, recording odd bits of audio and making a lot of analog tape edits and splicing together all kinds of weird and wonderful things in a musique concrete approach.
Pop culture still celebrates the ingenious work of Sir George Martin and Geoff Emerick at Abbey Road Studios in London, UK, where together they dealt with the calliope organ solo on “Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite” as production work for The Beatles’ simply astonishing landmark album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, released in June 1967.
Poor old Brian Wilson kicked the horse out of his control room, got back in his sandbox and didn’t come out for quite a while :[)
Martin and Emerick located a recording in the Abbey Road archives of a calliope, made a copy and famously chopped it up with a razor blade into hundreds of little pieces. Then, they threw the bits into the air, and watched them fall to the floor. Bravely, they picked up the myriad pieces, and reassembled them into whatever random patterns they happened to get, splicing together a bizarre, otherworldly solo that really is one of pop’s most enduring and magnificent moments. It’s remarkable how musical it is for such a haphazard methodology, even with a few trial and error attempts to get a useful result.
This sort of thing was absurdly labour-intensive, and not for the faint of heart. Something better was needed, and the desire to experiment with audio was not going away any time soon. This helped justify the ridiculous price of the first waves of sampling technology to hit the market, together with the extremely expensive computer equipment of the day.
Fortunately for all concerned, digital sampling appeared on the scene in the 1980’s and suddenly the sounds of breaking glass, doors slamming and stuttering vocal hooks were everywhere.
Hi-hats made from squirts of aerosol cans became a workable concept!
Thumping the phone book with a haddock became a snare you could use. Sounds fishy to me!
Repetition as hook became the order of the day, since sample memory was so limited that mere seconds of 8-bit sound were possible on the first commercial samplers. Repeating the sample was amusing for a while. N-n-n-n-nnineteen. It couldn’t last.
The first samplers also cost a small fortune. In the early 1980’s, you could buy a Synclavier sampling workstation for a mere $200,000 or so. Today’s smartphones have recording specs and features that leave the Synclavier trampled in the dust for a thousand times lower cost.
Soon, the all-too-mechanical feel of primitive sampling became tiresome and people looked for ways to improve the usefulness of this odd technology. It was hard to know what to do with it for many traditional musicians. Some viewed it as a threat to their jobs, but most embraced it as another string to their bow and a fun thing to fool with.
By 1990, you could take whole sections of songs into the sampler and replay them back at will.
The Akai range of samplers, such as the mono S900 and the later stereo S1000, were the most popular samplers in use around this time. People would store their samples on floppy disks and load them into the sampler as needed. They would write a MIDI sequence on their Atari 1040ST or Commodore 64 to trigger the samples in the Akai sampler at the appropriate parts of the song.
It was also very common for the samples to be triggered live, meaning without a MIDI sequence. You would just punch the button at the right moment, and if it wasn’t right, you did another take. in this way, you could use the best lead vocal in a particular chorus in all the other choruses. And folks did that a lot!
So, folks in commercial studios would record the vocals to multitrack tape as usual, but then “fly ” them into the sampler, meaning record the snippets they needed. Then they would “fly” the vocals back to tape, meaning record the sampler’s output back to tape wherever needed in the song. This became really helpful for ad-lib vocals in an intro or outro, because you could move the ad-libs around the song with relative ease and experiment with different pockets. What happened if you moved the vocal yell a quarter note earlier, and so forth?
After carefully editing the sample they had made so that it started playing exactly at the top of the sample when the PLAY key was pressed, they would be able to trigger it with MIDI commands from the sequencer running on their primitive computer.
Making samples became more and more involved as more and more memory became available for sample recordings. Multiple samples (called multi-samples) were needed to prevent having to artificially change pitch of samples too many times across the range of keys on a keyboard. And, multiple samples of each multi-sample were needed to match all velocities that might occur in a performance. As time went by, realism increased as the numbers of samples in use got bigger and bigger. It’s at the point today where there is very little point in making your own sample instruments.
SAMPLE-PLAYBACK SYNTH PLUG-INS
Today, you may as well buy samples online or as sample CDs. They come in five main formats:
Audio CD, WAV/AIFF CD, downloadable files in various formats, CD-ROM and Sample-based instruments.
Downloads and sample-based instruments are the best methods, but the CD formats are well on their way out.
There are some utterly amazing sample-based plug-ins, such as Izotope IRIS and Avid’s Structure. There are libraries of samples for IRIS that are really out there, such as collections of samples made entirely from foodstuffs and things you can do with food. Anything is fair game in IRIS. Personally, I find sampling too intensive, and it’s just too easy to mess up when laying out multi-samples. I only use pre-stuffed instruments, but do whatever turns you on!
If I want to sample something, I just use my DAW to capture and then manipulate the recording I make. Life is too short for anything else, since I want to get some songwriting and recording done as well.
You could even, with a little leeway, include Izotope’s Stutter Edit in that list of cool instruments, if you consider what it does to be akin to a cross between granular synthesis and sampling and effects processing. It is only sampling in the sense that you process audio through it, however, but you can slice and dice the audio to generate some amazing rhythmic patterns, and there are all kinds of presets of stuttering grooves to experiment with. In a sense, the slices are little samples being manipulated in the way many sampling fans like to do it, except Izotope went to town with the grooves and made a unique and highly specialized plug-in.
There are plenty of things you can do with samples to have fun, such as morphing between two different samples. Velocity-switching and cross-fading techniques are very useful in this area. You can record yourself hitting the top of a mic with your hand as a useful kick drum substitute.
Sample triggering is extremely useful for drum libraries and drum instruments. That leads me to…
There is a technique called drum replacement often used in mixing. A famous example would be Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. Essentially, you use the drums you have recorded yourself as audio triggers that make other drum samples sound instead of, or, more commonly, in addition to the original sounds. So, you can use a Black Beauty snare sound triggered by the actual recording on your own snare drum track.
Obviously, there is some finessing involved most of the time, since you have to read as many intentional “ghost” notes in the snare performance as you can, but you also need to reject false triggers, such as spill from other drums.
Steven Slate Audio are my favourite in this area, and their products like Trigger and SSD are highly flexible and there’s a lot of great sounds you can make using them. Here’s a screenshot of one of the many kick drums loaded up in Trigger, inserted across a kick audio track I am replacing.
Drumagog is another great drum replacement program. There are several out there. Try them – they are pretty easy. Free trials are handy for this.
You set up a sensitivity control, in effect, and then it works automatically by itself on the track where you inserted the drum replacement plug-in, substituting it’s own sound for that on the track. If you want the original, make a duplicate track to put the plug-in on instead and leave the original in the mix too.
Well, I should mention that creating and fooling with loops is also a great application for sampling, so don’t forget about them either. See you tomorrow for the next blog, when I’ll be starting to discuss processing in the studio for a while, with a view to what you might apply at home. In my next post, I’ll start by discussing equalization types, processors (EQ), and so on. Bye for now!