Criminal Record? (Part 2)
The second part of MT's in-depth examination of the sample CD phenomenon. Simon Harris, Norman Cook, Coldcut, Ed Stratton and Pascal Gabriel confess all to Tim Goodyer.
In the second part of this examination of sample CDs, Simon Harris, Norman Cook, Coldcut, Ed Stratton and Pascal Gabriel discuss further ethics and technology.
Sampling is here to stay. The manufacturers who developed the sampler as a means of imitating other instruments have played an unwitting part in a movement that has thrown the copyright laws into confusion and seen musicians facing million-dollar lawsuits.
A logical extension of sampling other artists' music for your own purposes is that of sampling it for use in someone else's sampler - a move which potentially complicates the issue of copyright and its infringement still further. As if all that weren't enough, you've got to address the delicate issue of pricing a sample CD - should it cost the same as a "normal" music CD? Less? More?
"I just believe that you should make things as cheap as possible for the kids so that they can afford them if they want them", says Simon Harris in defence of his £15 CDs (the first six come as three £25 double CDs). "Look at this", he says producing a list of sound effects CDs produced by George Lucas' film company. "£651 for the Starwars sounds - these are too expensive for kids. Sonic Boom, two CDs of gunshots for £875; you could buy a gun and a DAT machine with that!
"I produce about three albums a year, each one contains about 13 new breakbeats and 50 samples and scratches. And the most important thing to me is that it's all useable stuff - it's not 500 sounds of which you end up using one every blue moon. They're easy to manage and they don't confuse you with a million things crammed into two minutes."
"The Datafile discs are more expensive", concedes Ed Stratton, "but what you get is out of proportion to the cost. For four times the money you get ten, 15, 20 times the material. And when people see 1000 samples on one compact disc, they know they're getting value for money. It's actually a very cheap way of getting sounds.
"Also, as the sounds are very short, the bottom end of the sampling market - in terms of what gear they've got, and how much sampling time they've got - are able to really get stuck into the stuff."
"The thing that Ed Stratton has to accept and that I have to accept" counters Harris, "is that many of these are not our sounds to charge for."
"I'm not a big fan of CDs costing ten pounds, let alone 50", comments Norman Cook. "You are paying for two or three years of someone else's collection, but you need only pay for it once, and then you can swap it with your friends. If you sell something to someone expecting them to sample off it, where do you draw the line?"
"Cook: It's ludicrous when you've got the world of drumbreaks to choose from that the same five get used - the point of collecting breaks is using your imagination."
One aspect of musical importance - to samplers at least - is that of sample "exclusivity". In the early days of sampling - certainly in hip hop - finding a hot sample was only part of the job, keeping its origin a secret was almost as important. Stratton's guarantee of excellence for his Datafile CDs was the fact that he was giving his library (and with it, years of research) away to anybody prepared to buy it - and his claim has been adopted by most of the sample CD originators.
"I use all of mine the whole time", claims Harris of his Beats Breaks & Scratches series. "In a way, what I've done is to put my entire sample collection onto CD because it's easy to manage and easy to use. Whenever I want a siren I know I'm gonna use it off Beats Breaks & Scratches because I know that two years ago I put my best siren sound on there. All those samples you recognise, all those hip hop samples - 'Aah yeah', 'Pump up the volume', 'Bass!' - they're all on there. At some point I've gathered them all up and put them there. The only samples I don't use are things that aren't there - 707 kits, Linn kits and so on. But whenever I want a breakbeat I go back to my own set.
"My Stretchbeats CD is another album I use myself because it's nice to have a load of basic breakbeats that you use all the time - 'I'm Coming', 'Funky Drummer', 'Apache', things like that - put at a different speed. Once they're in the area that you want to use them, it's easy to pitch them up or down a little bit if you need to. I'm going to do more of those."
"We've concentrated on Coldcut specialities", counters Matt Black. "It's a mixture of the useful and the weird - the weird isn't going to appeal to everyone, but everything will appeal to someone. There are drum sounds, bass sounds and keyboard sounds as well as good breaks that you're not going to get elsewhere. A lot of the records they've come from are pretty obscure and you won't find them unless you seriously get your nose to the grindstone. This is an easy way in.
"We've got so many records that have got good breaks on that haven't been used yet, so you should find a lot of breaks that'll stretch your mind, and that counts doubly for the 'head noise' selection - good interesting weird noises from reggae noises to hip hop noises, soul, acid jazz and, of course, your hooligan and techno selection. Coldcut tries to cover every base, so we've touched base with everything. We've tried to give people the breadth to seriously mash up some styles. I feel that things have got quite a bit madder and people are looking for weird noises, the sort of thing you can use as just a beat and a weird noise. Something we've called 'something heavy, something stupid' - that's quite a good recipe whether you're doing hooligan or hip hop. Plus a collection of classic Coldcut phrases, some used, some fresh - while compiling this album, we've come across many samples we'd forgotten about which are actually really good and we're intending to use."
Cook admits to having "certain reservations", about releasing his library, "but only for distinctive samples that can only be used once and have their full effect. If we're talking snare drums, bass drums, I've no problem with anybody else having them. Anybody else's libraries I've been through I've been terminally disappointed in. I've thought 'Oh, you've got all the 909 and 808 sounds too...'. But they're the basics - it's like you can't play a guitar without strings. They're especially useful for house music - that way you never have to go out and buy and MIDI up an 808. It's socialism in action."
"Coldcut: We've got so many records that have got good breaks on that haven't been used yet, so you should find a lot of breaks that'll stretch your mind."
Part of the beauty of using samples of music to build new pieces of music is the wealth of recorded material available. Contrarily, the principle of releasing samples on CD invites the sampler to limit his or her choice of material to that pre-selected by another artist. More than any other, this issue divides those currently involved in sample CDs.
"That's what I call the Ultimate Beats & Breaks syndrome", says Cook. "The whole point of sampling drumbeats is that it adds to what you can do - but you still end up with everybody using 'Funky Drummer' and 'Hot Pants'. If you consider that you've got to spend a certain amount of money on material when you start sampling, then one sample CD that covers all the basics is quite a good 'starter pack'. The problem comes when you carry on using the same sounds. But there's well-known producers who have access to all the sounds in the world and they still use the same sounds, so the person's imagination can limit them no matter what samples they have. I think they're a good beginner's kit. I only tend to use those sort of samples as a basis rather than building a whole tune out of them. I'm not sure about them having riffs on them because then I suppose people would be using all the same riffs and vocal samples too.
"It seems ludicrous when you've got the world of drumbreaks to choose from that it's still the same five that get used. The whole point of collecting breaks is using your imagination."
"You're touching on a subject which has screwed up the whole of the British hip hop movement", responds Harris. "Which breakbeats should be kept special and which are useable? It's true, there are some very commercial breakbeats out there which everybody has used. If you're a musician working on a track and you want a commercial element to put in it which is non-musical, the only thing you can use is one of these breakbeats.
"So many people criticise the fact that 'Funky Drummer' or 'Think' has been used on such a lot of records. It's become a well-known thing in its own right - and that's the advantage of it. People slag it off, but the whole point is that you can add a commercial element into a track by having this underlying beat which is very well known. What's wrong with a dozen of those breakbeats that we all know and love becoming like that? There are plenty of others out there for people to use if they don't want to use those ones.
"Simon Harris: Everybody says 'I'll never use 'Funky Drummer again' - then a Public Enemy single comes out with it on and everybody reckons it's all right again."
"George Michael used 'Funky Drummer'", he continues. "And I hate to say that Michael Jackson - or Teddy Riley - has been sampling, but the Lynn Collins 'Shaker' break is all over about four tracks on Dangerous. Either that or the best Lynn Collins impersonator that I've ever heard is. And it's added a commercial element. I don't see that there's anything wrong with a well-known musician making a record with 'Funky Drummer' in it.
"It depends so much on what other artists are doing. Everybody says 'I'll never use 'Funky Drummer' again'. And then a Public Enemy single comes out with it on and everybody reckons it's all right again. Right now the '900 Number' break has died right out. Give it another year and something will pop up with it on. They're all there to use or not use as you see fit. Some of them are cliches and that's good, because nothing should be too special."
The studio that Harris has built up during his career as a remixer and in-house producer for the record company he runs with partner Chris France, Music of Life, is impressive. There's an extensive array of keyboards both old and new, drum machines ranging from Roland's classic TR909 to their current R8M module, and the inevitable Atari ST running Steinberg's Cubase sequencer. Gone is the two-inch, 24-track machine that was here last time I visited, now replaced by two Akai ADAM units. The samplers which Harris used to compile most of the Beats Breaks & Scratches albums have also been Akai's - first an S900 and more recently an S1000. Vol 8 saw Harris move further upmarket still with Akai's DD1000.
"It's been getting better with each album", he comments. "Some of the early stuff was recorded in mono with a bit of 'room' reverb cheekily added to make it sound a bit more 'stereo'. I got a few complaints about that, so I graduated to doing them on the S1000 but to start with I didn't really understand the machine's Note On Sample Coherence function. So on the early S1000 albums you can hear that 'wide stereo' phase effect. Now I do all the Beats Breaks & Scratches albums on the DD1000, which is the best of all. With that I can get things dead on three minutes long, looped, in stereo and in near-perfect quality. It's just a case of digging out all the stuff and getting on with it. Did I ever tell you the chicken story?
"I recorded the entire a-side of the second album while I cooked a chicken. I put a chicken in the oven - roast chicken, you know, it was a medium-sized bird - and I had the entire first side of the album done before the chicken was cooked. That's why you'll find a track called 'Chicken Beats' on Vol 5... The second side took longer because I had to edit leader tape between the samples. That was before I discovered gates."
Since the material that goes into sample CDs isn't original, the final quality is largely determined by the quality of the source. Where possible Harris attempts to take material off CD rather than vinyl and avoids treating it with outboard processing or EQ.
"Sometimes I add a little bit of EQ if it's a bit dull where I've taken it from" he explains, "but then again, I might only be compensating for a dodgy record. I try to trust my ears. My ears are the basis for each one of the albums. I've sort of matched everything. If you listen to a breakbeat on Vol 2 and on Vol 8 you'll find there is a continuity. Although things might have improved technically, you'll still be able to hear there's continuity in terms of sound."
The technical aspects of Ed Stratton's library begin with his samples being spread across four different samplers: an Akai S1000 with 8Meg memory, Prophet 2002 Plus, Ensoniq Mirage and Casio FZ1 with expanded memory.
"I bought each one as it came on the market and built up a library for it", he explains. "I thought the best way to organise it was to get everything onto the S1000 first - that took about two months using Avalon and resampling some things direct. Then I organised the running order on paper and mastered direct to DAT. Any noises were edited out at the CD mastering stage using a digital editing system."
"Pascal Gabriel: I'll buy Coldcut's sample CD and I'll buy JJ Jeczalik's; Coldcut and JJ will buy mine - it's almost as if you're in the studio with other producers."
Pascal Gabriel's Dance Samples library was also prepared on an Akai sampler (S1100) and digitally edited using Digidesign's Sound Tools system. And the applications of technology don't end there, as Harris' recent Stretchbreaks CD (and LP) demonstrates. Departing slightly from the format of the Beats albums, this forsakes the one-shot samples in favour of 14 three-minute breakbeats, all of which have been treated to run at some tempo other than that of the original recording. Take for example the track called 'Funki Drummer' - it began life as James Brown's famous 'Funky Drummer' running at around 100bpm, but now finds itself running at 110bpm courtesy of Harris' S1000 and its timestretching capabilities.
"I'm trying to do the timestretching for people who haven't got S1000s", explains Harris. "Trying to decide what people want is really an impossible job, but it was really a matter of being practical. So I picked well-known fast breakbeats and made them slow, and picked well-known slow breakbeats and made them fast. It's as simple as that, really. We've had requests for more of them. From memory, I wouldn't go more than about 25-30% off of the original - plus or minus - which can be quite a big jump. That's why I've got breaks that would normally run at 104bpm running at 130bpm and that can be helpful.
"Timestretching can be quite complicated and some people may not want to get involved with it, and there are other people who simply don't have S1000s. This album was done on the S1000 but the next one will be done on the DD1000 because the new timestretching software will be through by then. There were just the odd glitches I ran into. If I found something was glitching I would try it at different bandwidths, different sampling rates until it worked."
Raising the question: "What next?" prompts a variety of responses from those likely to be involved.
"I think there'll be more people like me and Coldcut doing them because it allows the interchange of samples between different producers", Gabriel predicts. "I'll buy Coldcut's CD and I'll buy JJ Jeczalik's when he releases his; Coldcut and JJ will buy mine - it's almost as if you're in the studio with other producers: 'hey, here's some of my samples' and we all do a big swap. It's very useful for creative people.
"When you buy my CD or Coldcut's CD you buy a bit of our character, you buy the brains behind the sounds. And I think that's going to happen more and more. If Trevor Horn brought out a sample CD loads of people would want to buy it because he would have selected the sounds on it. It's a bit like people buying Gaultier sunglasses instead of C&A sunglasses."
"Ed Stratton: My samples are going to be available to Amiga users - if they've got something like Sequencer One, that will play a sample if it's in the right format."
"The next thing to do is to make the Datafile sounds more accessible to people by making them available on more formats", declares Stratton as Datafile 3 is about to become available and his resource of "good enough" samples is almost exhausted. "The format I think is going to be the biggest and most influential is the 3.5" optical disc. It's small, very fast and very reliable and you can take it through x-ray machines, for example, yet it holds about 160 times as much data as a 3.5 floppy.
"I'm making the whole Datafile library available on separate 3.5" optical discs; I'm also making the whole lot available on one 600Meg disc. The beauty of all this is that everything's already mapped and looped.
"CD ROM will be the next format - the whole library on one CD ROM. Going down 'below' CD to floppy disks, the samples are all going to be available to Amiga users. Regardless of whether they've got any sampling hardware, if they've got something like Sequencer One, that will play a sample if it's in the right format. So I've picked out the highlights of the library for that and they should be available by the time anybody reads this. There'll be five discs with 200-300 samples in each set. That means that people who've got an Amiga and aren't into the serious music yet can start using these sounds. If somebody wants to buy the optical discs instead of CDs but they haven't got a drive, I supply them a drive and give them the library free."
One of Harris' aims is to make his albums available as MIDI files for direct compatibility with samplers and sequencers.
"If MPC60s were a mass-market item, I'd be releasing discs of loops and complete songs with samples that would run for three minutes", he elaborates. "I can see it happening in the future. You've got to accept technology and move along with it. But I'd still keep the format the same - I'd still be giving 14 breakbeats and samples because you can't be seen to give less value for money as time goes by."
On a musical level, Harris claims to be trying to "grow with each album, if I can put it like that.
"A lot of the early albums were done partly because a lot of the stuff was handy and partly because a lot of the stuff was obvious. If it was easy to do I would grab it and do it. But for the later albums I've spent a lot of time finding and buying £20 jazz albums, hunting through shops for old stuff and digging out obscure James Brown stuff. That's because I feel that it's my duty to give people something that's a little bit special now.
"I also have to say that I'm having trouble with the samples and scratches because I've been putting 50 on each album. There are only so many 'Pump up the volume' and 'Bass!' samples around. What I've been doing is scouring video tapes for bits of old films and using some of the samples that I wouldn't have put on in the early days, I'd have saved them for myself. Now I'm saying 'What the hell...'. So everybody's really got my sample collection and scratch collection.
"I see the whole sample CD thing developing as music develops. I see it changing as the music changes. If people suddenly get into Kylie Minogue breakbeats, then you're going to hear Kylie Minogue breakbeats on them. In ten years time, if people regard all these techno records as incredible breakbeats, then they'll be up there."
Yeah, you could say that sampling has a lot to answer for.
Part 1 | Part 2 (Viewing)
Feature by Tim Goodyer
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