The Sampler & The Soul
With its ability to manipulate sounds and music, the digital sampler has probably caused more arguments than any other musical instrument to date. Peter Ridsdale takes an alternative view.
ALONE AMONGST INSTRUMENTS THE DIGITAL SAMPLER HAS BROUGHT ABOUT A CRISIS IN MUSIC: HOW TO DISCRIMINATE BETWEEN CREATIVITY AND CRIMINALITY.
IN THE INTERESTS of musical innovation, I recently approached a number of cathedrals in the South West of England with a view to recording samples of their mighty and majestic pipe organs. I was, however, somewhat disconcerted to find that my proposals were completely rejected after I explained to them exactly what it was that I intended to do. Now, if I had simply proposed to come and record a piece of music with a bona fide organist - one with short hair, clean fingernails and a minimum of visible tattoos - there would have been no problem. The matter would have gone before the inevitable committee and then I would simply have had to pay the not inconsiderable hire charge for the cathedral space, use of the organ and, of course, the poor verger's overtime fee. My undoing came as soon as I mentioned the word sampler.
I suspect that most readers of this magazine will be unfamiliar with the world of the average chapter clerk but I can tell you for sure that the average chapter clerk is blissfully, even wilfully, unaware of yours. The average chapter clerk does not know what a digital sampler is and, surprising as it may seem, this is true of many cathedral organists as well. One of the almost obscenely clean, softly spoken men that I talked to still doesn't know what a sampler is even though I explained it to him very carefully, three or four times, in words of no more than two or three syllables. He does know, however, that he doesn't want one in his cathedral. You can say all you like about modern advances in technology, about CD quality and hi-fidelity, but like a Papua New Guinean in front of a camera, the chapter clerk knows that what you're really trying to do is to steal his soul. He knows that the Holy Sound of his beloved organ is going to be turned into a cheap gimmick for awful people to laugh at in some hideous den of iniquity in one of the Gomorrahs of the Western world.
Now, you may think that there is nothing strange about all this, as we've all met people from every walk of life who do not know what samplers are. What strikes me about it is that (a) cathedral organists are musicians (even though they may be somewhat distant cousins) and (b) they play an instrument that makes complex tones from the admixture of simple ones - literally, a synthesiser. I'm sure that if there was ever a Baroque publicity brochure for the 17th century state-of-the-art pipe organ it contained the phrase "the only limit is your imagination". Why, then, is there absolutely no point of contact or empathy between the defining technology of one age and the defining technology of today?
Marshall McLuhan believes that each new technological innovation is an extension of ourselves1. He also believes that each time a new technology comes into existence we experience an initial numbness towards it. We cannot perceive the "message" of the medium. An obvious example of this would be the microphone. It enables us to make quiet sounds very loud and that has become its primary function. The very word microphone though, indicates that it was perceived differently at its inception - it is only in very special circumstances now that it is used as an aural equivalent of the microscope - as a device enabling us to hear what we cannot normally hear. When Edison invented the phonograph he saw it as being primarily a dictation machine and a device for preserving the last words of the dying. Its use as a musical medium was grudgingly admitted but was given a low priority by Edison himself - it would make it "appear as though it were no more than a toy"2.
WHAT I FIND particularly strange is that many people who own and use samplers often exhibit signs of Technology Numbness Syndrome to a greater or lesser extent, and the less music these people know the greater the extent. The infamous "N-N-N-Nineteen" effect is one example of this. Have you ever noticed how people who are having their first go with a sampler often get stuck on this. Initially amusing it may be, but the novelty soon wears off. (Although people as diverse as Roger Daltrey and Alvin Lucier have in the past used the stutter as a musical device; Mr Daltrey out of an excited idiolaliac enthusiasm to tell us about his generation and Mr Lucier because he had a stammer.)
Paul Hardcastle hit a teenage nerve with his 1985 No. 1, '19', and got his well deserved 15 minutes of fame for his trouble, but let's not talk about creative use of the latest technology... We are in the province of Edison's toys here.
It's all a question of the musician using the technology rather than being led by the way the machine works into lazy thinking and dubious practices.
Let's take a hypothetical example: DJ Disc Doktor samples a TV Evangelist in full froth and lays it down over the killer rhythm track that he has put together after a poaching trip through his record collection (you have, of course, noticed that at the bottom of the mix is the famous bass and drums riff from Led Zeppelin IV). The preacher sample is good - it consists of a clever catch phrase, it is eerie, emotionally intense and has the extraordinary musicality of impassioned oratory. The first time you hear the sample you sit bolt upright and say "who is this?". It's a hard act to follow, and the sample has taken up all of the memory space left in the Doktor's sampler. So what happens next? It gets repeated. Now, only having two of them sounds somehow incomplete so... Yes, the Doktor presses that inexpressive button one more time and you slump back into your chair in despair. Later in the song the same thing happens again; you reach for the bleach...
Someone once said that listening to music is a process of making predictions - if your predictions are right more than 50% of the time you find the music boring. If your predictions are continually confounded you find the music "difficult". If only someone would tell the Doktors of the world about the first part of this equation.
On the other side of the equation we have the curious case of Adrian Belew's 'Cruelty to Animals'. Belew is, and I presume always has been, an enthusiastic proponent of fantastic sounds - he is renowned for his ability to make an ordinary electric guitar sound like a wild animal. His excellent Mr Music Head has on its CD manifestation what is known in the trade as a bonus track. The track consists of all the samples that are used on the album suitably arranged into some kind of artistic order. What I hear in the first part of its four minutes and 23 seconds is as follows:
An American toilet flushing (accompanied by an acoustic guitar playing a blues lick).
What sounds like a backwards harmonium followed by a chicken clucking, a glass being smashed and a telephone ringing.
Underneath this I hear low rumbling feedback, what sounds like an orchestra tuning up and a rock guitar track backwards.
A cow moo and someone coughing.
Agitated birds in an aviary along with the strumming of a piano's (?) strings.
Someone calling (he's either Albanian, or the track is yet again backwards).
An elephant washing itself.
South Sea Islanders chanting (I also have a copy of Island Music of the South Pacific).
I needn't go on. Even if you've never heard the track you have an idea of what it sounds like. It's interesting but difficult to listen to and the reason for this is contained in the formula above. There's no way you can predict what's coming next. Much as I admire Mr Belew's working methods when it comes to use of sampled sounds amidst the working of his songs, I find that samples on their own do not stand outside of the bounds of musical sense - no matter how interesting they are. The chimera of a Music of Noises is as elusive now as it has ever been.
This was all ascertained in the first decades of the century, first by the Futurists with their Noise Machines and later by the proponents of musique concrete - the only reason that there is any manifestation of it now is that it has simply become much easier to do. What used to take weeks of careful splicing on bulky and noisy tape recorders can now be accomplished in an afternoon. Nagging doubts remain however as to whether or not some vital element gets lost in the whole process. Is "painstaking" somehow evident in the final result, perhaps as what Walter Benjamin has called the "aura" of a work of art?3. Are there still, despite the clarity and lack of hiss, subtle clues given to us that what we are listening to has been easily achieved and is maybe the less for it?
Some of these clues may not even be that subtle - they range from various degrees of quantisation distortion to outright loop glitches and munchkinisation. These examples indicate that we are all inspired by the possibilities inherent in the nascent technology but we are still to a certain extent numb to the true nature of the beast.
I OFTEN ASK people who have samplers what is the weirdest thing they've ever sampled and I am nearly always disappointed with the reply.
People may talk about a mystic door-hinge squeak or a transcendental spoon-hitting-the-table experience but out of all the possible sonic events in or out of this world, it would seem that most people do not spend much time or thought seeking out the unusual. After sampling various items of kitchen paraphernalia, the family dog and the bits that fall off the car and finding nothing that seems to fit in with the practically institutionalised rock combo, most people return to the more serious business of finding the perfect grand piano plunk or the ultimate snare drum creck (sic). This is usually done not by recording these sounds but by swapping disks like people with card collections. (Swap you a Phil Collins gated bongo for a genuine Run DMC backwards disc scratch?)
An escape from this dull scenario is offered from a rather unlikely source - that of the increasingly common "sound workshop". Due perhaps to the gradual breakdown of traditional family structures, child care and play scheme groups appear to be mushrooming around the country despite the lack of adequate funding and governmental concern. There is a growing need for ways in which to engage children in creative "fun" activities, and this is being met largely in the voluntary sector by a growing body of the artistically inclined. Couple this with a dash of green recycling consciousness and what do you get? The Batphone. This phenomenon consists of a length of piping which is simply struck at one end with a cupped hand or if the pipe is too wide with a table tennis bat - hence its name. The idea has been around since mankind first met scaffolding, but you sometimes come across people who actually claim to have invented the thing. It is elegant in its simplicity - cut five or seven lengths of unwanted plastic pipe in Pythagorean ratios and presto - a musical instrument with a peculiar but pleasing set of inharmonic partials.
The idea arises of designing instruments expressly for the purposes of sampling. Building homemade instruments may not appeal to many, merely on the grounds of not being able to find the time to do it, but there are time saving advantages when it comes to the making of instruments-for-sampling as opposed to instruments-for-performing:
1. Only one note need be played at a time. The instrument may be completely reassembled if needs be after every successful sampling.
2. Only part of the sound might be required - there is no need for the whole length of the note to sound good.
3. The instrument need not be durable or have a Sunburst finish with crawling mother-of-pearl vine on the fretboard.
In addition it may only require cheap and easily available materials.
Consider the humble ping-pong ball. As a percussion instrument it belongs to a category all of its own, being perhaps the only spherical bouncing instrument in the world. One bounce on a hard surface provides a usefully percussive sound when sampled. It can also be rolled slowly down a one-and-a-half-inch diameter metal pipe for a very special effect. It can be placed inside two empty tin cans sellotaped together and a series of these modules can then be mounted on the rim of a bicycle wheel attached to a suitable frame. The resulting sound; a demented tin Gamelan cascade, will not be suitable for SA&W productions. You can however call the thing a sound sculpture and start to get part-time work in the voluntary sector. The ping-pong ball can even be fired out of a special gun, available from most toy shops, which can be useful if you want to record a drum or cymbal without stick noise, for instance.
"Musical wire" can be bought for a pound a roll and classical guitar machine heads can cost as little as 50p each. An 18-foot monochord can be discreetly installed underneath a bookshelf or any other suitable plank. For that secret Indian Tanpura effect use a flat bridge and a piece of cotton under the string. Piezoelectric pickups costing an unbelievable 32p each can be attached to a jack plug and connected directly to a mixing desk or sampler. The Electric Bookshelf brings a whole new literal shade of meaning to the currently fashionable term "plank spanker". Primitive harps, berimbaus and zithers can be made using these same materials.
Ideas for these instruments need not be startlingly original, as you will find that they will sound quite different to their professionally made counterparts. After all, if you study the worldwide history and morphology of musical instruments you'll find that there are very few materials that have not been struck, blown, plucked, bowed, stroked, rubbed, raspberried, hummed, hammered or otherwise coerced into making some kind of musical sound.
Some materials have not caught on due to purely practical considerations such as their innate fragility or massive bulk, but such considerations are irrelevant when samplers enter the picture. It would be foolish in the extreme to expect a series of glass gongs to survive the average 30-day tour at the hands of even the least exuberant of percussionists. Sampling them, however, is easy enough once you've overcome the initial difficulty of having suitable holes installed so that they can be suspended. Drilling holes in glass is a tricky business and it's probably best entrusted to a glazier. I was charged three pounds per hole for my gong, making the holes five times more expensive than the glass. I knew all about the concept of "something for nothing" prior to this but this was my first real experience of "nothing for something".
The margins for true originality in the making of new instruments are very narrow indeed but new juxtapositions of materials and structures are still possible and even desirable. Unforeseen and unexpected effects tend to arise in the process of construction and these (sometimes) happy accidents can often act as triggers for new ideas. I recently tried to sample a Slinky descending a wooden staircase and the result was nothing to write to Music Technology about, but when I attached one end to the bridge of an old violin that happened to be hanging in the stairwell and hit the other end with a short metal rod - Eureka, a wonderfully abrasive Star Wars laser effect which fitted perfectly into the music I was working on at the time.
I am not suggesting that every sound one uses has to be an aural revelation or that the sounds of sampled traditional instruments do not have their uses. I am merely suggesting ways of extending our palette of sounds into "new" areas.
Furthermore, this whole process carries no sense of guilt or fear of being sued. No feeling that you are tapping into someone else's creativity or stealing fire and thunder from the gods. And speaking of gods brings me neatly back to the cathedral project.
I eventually did manage to find a sympathetic organist and I had a wonderful two-hour sampling experience in a well-known and truly impressive cathedral with a natural reverb time of eight seconds. Imagine my chagrin when I got back home, tried to edit the samples and found that not one of them would loop satisfactorily. Put this down to the richness of the sound, the complex acoustic environment or maybe just the will of God. In any event, all I managed to salvage out of the session was a single note complete with natural reverb which sounds great on its own ("wicked" being hardly a suitable adjective in this context) but which seems to disappear as soon as it goes into any mix of a secular bent. I'm not superstitious by nature, but I admit that as I was leaving the somewhat eerie atmosphere of the crepuscular cathedral in question with my samples in the bag, I felt for a moment as Lord Carnarvon must have done, walking away from the tomb of Tutankhamen with something valuable in his hands and the Pharoah's Curse ringing in his ears...
Has any other technological development ever had such an effect on our sense of guilt (assuming that we had one in the first place)? But wait a minute, surely sampling from instruments is OK between consenting adults? Relax, Peter, you've been sampling organ notes, not the first four bars of ELP's 'Toccata'. You see, I'm sure that these quasi-ethical feelings are yet another manifestation of the dreaded Technology Numbness Syndrome. Whilst the sampler in itself does not physically define the limits of found sounds as opposed to created ones, it does very clearly define a line between "absorbed influences" and outright theft. It does not, however, ensure that an "absorbed influence" is a more honest way of referring to another piece of music than by playing it yourself. And in the absence of adequate legislation to deal with both theft and plagiarising, you are left only with your conscience as a guide. May your God go with you.
1. McLuhan, M. (1964) The Medium is the Message. London: Sphere Books Ltd.
2. Attali, J. (1985) Noise: The Political Economy of Music. Translation by Massumi, B. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
3. Benjamin, W. (1955) The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. From Illuminations (1973) London: Fontana.
Feature by Peter Ridsdale
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