Sampler (Musical Instrument)

A sampler is a digital or electronic musical instrument that resembles a synthesizer. The main difference between the former and the latter is that the sampler can produce new sounds with sound recordings of real or artificial instrument sounds, instead of with voltage-controlled oscillators. People call these sound recordings samples.

The Sampler: a Brief History

Digital sampling has been around for a long time. The first commercially available models were the Computer Music Melodian and Fairlight’s Computer Musical Instrument (CMI). Harry Mendell created both models. These two machines revolutionized the music universe by providing sampling that could edit waveforms at 24kHz. The machines were quite expensive, so only well-known musicians had access to them.

Replay Keyboards

Before computer memory-based samplers, musicians used tape replay keyboards. These were able to store recordings on analog tapes. The operation was quite simple: after pressing a key, the tape head touched the moving tape, and it produced a sound. The most popular model was The Mellotron, an expensive and heavy system that involved multiple tape mechanisms. However, this model has a pretty limited range. For this reason, players had to install new sets of tapes to alter sounds. As you can imagine, the digital sampler made things easier.

The Digital Sampler

The first inexpensive samplers launched around 1980. E-MU SP-1200 and Akai S950 were classic pieces of hardware available to studios that couldn’t afford high-costs. Hip-hop was the first music genre to explore the sampler’s ability to recycle musical ideas and reuse them within new contexts. With digital samplers, producers were able to sample their preferred parts of a song by editing them and creating a whole new piece.

How Samplers Work

The user can control a sampler with a music keyboard or an external MIDI source. Every note-message received by the sampler has access to a specific sample. Multiple samples are usually set across the keyboard. Following this idea, you assign each sample to a note or group of notes, known as the keyzone. The consequential set of zones is known as the keymap. By using keyboard tracking, you shift the samples in pitch by both semitones and tones.

The operation of a sampler is quite simple. The key mapping system spreads out a sample over a specific range of keys. In some contexts, this can be desirable. Yet, in others, the side-effects can be quite unnatural. When speeding up or slowing down drum loops, the side-effects tend to be positive. This is not the case when talking about the higher and lower-pitched parts of the keymap. When you set a pitched instrument over a variety of keymaps, the transition between them might be extremely noticeable.

Finally, let’s focus on phrase sampling. The goal of phrase sampling is to simplify the user interface. Some phrase samplers are more improved than others; some might even be able to trigger single one-shot sounds like drum hits! In contrast, keymaps can span only one key at a time. As a consequence, they need more zones with individual settings. All in all, phrase samplers have a groove box set-up, which makes them lightweight, manageable, and easy to operate.