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Sampling Through The Ages

There's an awful lot of hi-hi-history involved, y'know

"ANYWAY," quoth the sage, puffing on his pipe, "t'all started back in '76, 1876, that is, with Alexander Graham Bell, and that microphone thing he invented. Before that, you recorded by shouting down a big horn like an ear trumpet, which meant bandwidth of only 164Hz-2kHz..."

You can't sample without something to record on to, the wise man explained, and despite the invention of the Blattnerphone metal strip recorder in 1929, the idea of using recording devices to make music rather than just preserve it didn't really catch on until the appearance of the AEG Magnetophon in 1937. This interesting tool, later to be known as the 'tape recorder', used a plastic backed strip of magnetic material to record on. For the first time, recordings could be edited. "You could cut 'em up, and mess 'em about. And they did. It were a Frenchy, Pierre Schaeffer, who started that, after the war. He started messing round with records — playing 'em at different speeds, using continuous grooves, sort of scratching, in a way. And over the top of these, he'd bang things: saucepan lids, toys, pianos. Musique concrète, they called it, and the French National Radio set them up a studio in 1951 with these new tape recorder things." He inhaled a deep lungful of pipe smoke. "It were John Cage, the composer, who really saw the potential — as he said, 'We didn't have to bother counting 1-2-3-4 any more... we could put a sound at any point in time.'"

He paused while we both considered the ramifications of Cage's remark. And then we were in 1963, examining an unwieldy looking box called The Chamberlain. "Ah yes — this was the prototype for the famous Mellotron tape-based keyboard. That Mike Pinder of the Moody Blues was one of the first, those Beatles used it on 'Strawberry Fields', and lots of others all through the late sixties and seventies — it didn't quite sound like a real string section, y'see, more weird than that." If I wanted to know more about the Mellotron, the old man said, I should look it up in January's Making Music on page 30, as that would tell me about all the bands like Yes, Genesis, King Crimson, and even the Cocteau Twins, who have used Mellotrons.

Next, we came to the good part: the Fairlight Computer Musical Instrument, which was designed and manufactured in Australia. "It was called after the hydrofoil in Sydney Harbour, by the way. It took Peter Vogel, Kim Ryrie and Tony Furse almost six years in the seventies to develop the Fairlight. And the whole thing only became possible because of advances in digital technology, and the availability of the silicon chip."

The Fairlight I appeared in 1979, with a price tag of just under £20,000. Richard Burgess and John Walters of Landscape were the first people in London, perhaps the UK, to have one. They used it on Kate Bush's "Never For Ever" album. Martin Rushent claims that Altered Images' 'I Could Be Happy' was one of the first records to feature one (those bell-like noises). It appeared on Tomorrow's World — its three dimensional display of waveforms (Fourier analysis) looks particularly attractive. There were still less than 100 Fairlights in the UK four years later.

Then came the 'cheap' copies, like the Emulator at less than half (£8000) the Fairlight price — though when it arrived in 1980, it only had two seconds of sampling memory. There were modular systems, like the Kurzweil 250, the Synclavier, much favoured by T Horn, and the PPG Wave System, as employed by Tom Dolby.

"These little silicon chippy things were the business," enthused our guide. "Roger Linn sampled drum sounds onto some, linked them up to a sequencer, and called it the LM-1. From 1981, Linn's digital drum machines dominated the charts. In one week there were six records in the UK Top Ten which used Linn's sampled sounds. And it was this Linn bloke who designed the Linn 9000 (Feb '85), a huge dedicated sequencer/drum box that was the first percussion machine to allow you to sample your own sounds into it.

"But you needed a mortgage to buy that lot, good though they were. It wasn't until Electro Harmonix brought out their Instant Reply pedal in spring 1984 that cheap sampling started happening. Remember the Instant Replay? Well, don't worry if you don't, because EH went bust pretty soon after, and Akai took over the designs to turn them into the S612 rack mount expander — the first sampler for under a grand.

The S612 arrived in Europe in early 1985, around the same time as the Ensoniq Mirage was beginning to create a stir at trade shows in America. The Mirage was the first truly affordable digital sampler (£1795), with its own keyboard and built-in disc drive. Sound quality is good, eight bit sampling with four seconds available at 8kHz, there's a basic onboard sequencer, looping facilities — a real breakthrough at the time. It was designed in the USA, and is now built under licence in Italy.

"And didn't they steal the thunder from Sequential Circuits' Prophet 2000, which came out at the end of 1985? Even though the Prophet is 12-bit, sounds better, had a better keyboard, and was more reliable than the early Mirages, Ensoniq got there first. And Ensoniq dropped their prices first — they're only £1300 or so now — which stopped any kind of value for money comparison. Clever."

British firm Greengate produced their DS3 in 1984 primarily as a drum sampler based on the Apple IIe micro-computer. It turned out to be the first in a line of micro driven sampling software packages that now include programs for most popular PCs.

"That was it for innovations for a while. There were improvements on all these keyboards: rackmounts, up-grades, models from other firms, but all variations on that same theme. Digital pianos with sampled noises made a showing in 1986, and E-Mu gave us (in exchange for a lot of money) the powerful SP-12 sampling drum machine.

"Then suddenly, things got cheap again. Casio made the RZ1 'sample yourself' drum box for £450. Then Yamaha did the VSS100 sampling home keyboard for £180. And then Casio came back with the SK-1 teeny weeny samplerette for £99, which seems to be starting off a whole spate of budget home keyboard samplers."

Sampling is sorting itself out from either end of the price range: the good quality semi-pro MIDI keyboards, like the Mirage and the Rolands, are getting cheaper, while the low-fi mini samplers are getting better, and gaining more facilities. Expanders like the Akai S900 are beginning to find a place in studios and MIDI set-ups. "And this month, we get the new Casio FZ-1, which will be the first 16-bit sampler for only £1500: that'll make the others look to their laurels..."

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The Jay Arthur Column

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Akai MG614 Recorder

Making Music - Copyright: Track Record Publishing Ltd, Nexus Media Ltd.


Making Music - Apr 1987


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> The Jay Arthur Column

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