To sample or not to sample, that is the question.
After much eager anticipation on the part of the modern music fraternity, it now seems that affordable sounds sampling is becoming a reality. The idea that all sorts of new musical avenues open up before you whenever you record a sound and store it in digital memory is hardly a new one, but for the first time, sound-sampling of decent quality is available at a reasonable price level to the average musician in the street, whoever he is.
Within a matter of months, the black art of sampling will no longer be the province of advance-laden musicians and residential studio owners. It'll be a technique that almost anybody with a sufficient overdraft facility can become involved in, regardless of their financial, musical or professional background. At long last, the common muso will have the means to record any sound that happens to catch the ear (assuming it's at a level high enough to be committed to memory), and then shape it, filter it, reverse it, loop it, layer it on top of another sample, and generally muck about with it until it's almost totally unrecognisable.
And judging from some of the exhibits at last month's Frankfurt Musik Messe, there's going to be more than one route open to people seeking this sort of manipulative musical mangle. If you fancy a keyboard that has sound-sampling built into it as the centrepiece of its operation, the American Ensoniq Mirage will probably fit the bill at under £2000.
If you prefer the idea of adding a sampling machine to an existing MIDI-based music system, so that you can play samples from a MIDI keyboard and mix them with synth sounds, the Japanese - in the shape of Korg and Akai - will be happy to oblige. Korg's SDD2000 digital delay uses its Hold facility to store sampled sound data in memory, whence it can be triggered monophonically from the controlling keyboard. The Akai S612, on the other hand, is a custom-designed polyphonic sampler with everything except the pitch-controlling keyboard onboard. You get what you pay for in the music world but, in this particular instance, the amount you pay isn't really all that much - £700 for the Korg, £1100 for the Akai when they arrive in the UK this summer.
The third option is to go for a product that incorporates sampling as part of an existing computer music system, and it's here that your choice remains at its widest, from the Synclavier's polyphonic sampling update (about £100,000 for a complete new system) to Music Sales' sampling package for the Commodore 64 (less than £50 when it becomes available in a few months' time). Bringing samples under the direct control of a computer is still the most versatile way of going about the whole business, but it isn't necessarily the most cost-effective, or the most user-friendly.
So, within little more than a year or two, E&MM's offices will be full of demo cassettes from young hopefuls experimenting with sampled sounds. The only problem is trying to foresee what sort of music those musicians will be creating. Will its composition become dependent on the wonders of sound-sampling, or will it remain a reflection of the composer's personal taste, with the samples performing no greater function than varying tone colours in a spectacular and (we hope) inventive fashion?
It's arguable that, so far, the process of sound-sampling has done little to change the way music is written. It's certainly altered the way music is produced, but even as far as arrangement is concerned, the furthest most composers and producers have got is using sampling as a means to create orchestral sounds without an orchestra, percussion noises without a drummer, and so on ad infinitum. More a few steps sideways than any positive move forward.
Our hope is that the increased availability of sampling technology will lead to a genuine expansion of the sonic vocabulary, and that the many musicians who take the plunge and invest in a sampling system of one sort or another derive real satisfaction and fulfilment from their purchase. Sampling isn't the gateway to instant musical nirvana, but it is a technique of great inherent flexibility whose artistic potential really is limited only by your own imagination. Let's hope the samplers of tomorrow prove that to be the case.
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