About this Article
Written by: Mingfei Mike Gao
Written on: October 12th, 2004
Tags: entertainment
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About the Author
Mingfei Mike Gao was an electrical engineering student in the fall of 2004. He was producing Hip Hop for six years, gaining international critical acclaim for his work as well as winning the first Project Blowed Beat Battle.
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Volume VII Issue III > Samplers
Engineers have created a tool known as the sampler that allows the user to play a prerecorded sound at any time. The sound can also be pitched, stretched, cut up, rearranged, looped, layered and reversed. Through the sampler, engineers have profoundly influenced music and the way that it is produced as well as interpreted and judged. Hip-Hop producers began sampling vinyl records, deconstructing them to create new works. With millions of records and sounds to sample from, the possibilities are endless.


In the future, music historians will credit the engineers of our century as being some of the most influential factors in music development. They have changed not only the way music is recorded and preserved, but the very concept of music and how it is composed. According to famed French music theorist Jacques Attali, music is the organization of noise. He writes that "in the framework of information theory, the information received while listening to a note of music reduces the listener's uncertainty about the state of the world. Euler even derived from this a definition of beauty as the faculty of discerning an order in a form" [1]. Music is therefore creating order where there is disorder, whether it is through 17th century tonal music or the drum patterns heard on today's dance floors. Modern composers not only create order by writing notes and rhythms, which define frequencies of sounds to be played in a pattern in time, but work with the actual sounds themselves to create music. The sampler, a tool invented by engineers, has given the contemporary musician the power to manipulate and organize sound in ways never before imagined.

When I Was Your Age

In essence, the sampler allows a musician to store sounds that can be played back on command. Though this seems like a trivial function, any instrument can be thought of simply as a device that makes a sound upon user input. An electric keyboard is often merely a sampler. A real piano is recorded or sampled into a Read Only Memory chip and when a key is pressed, the corresponding sample is triggered and a piano note is heard. The first commercial sampler, called the Mellotron (see Fig. 1), was invented in 1963 and utilized analog tape technology. The Beatles used it to reproduce a flute in their famous recording, "Strawberry Fields Forever" [2]. Because it relied on a mechanical motor, analog tape technology generally had limitations on speed and response: there was usually a delay between the triggering event and the note's sounding. Some mechanical motors' failure to maintain a constant velocity caused a phenomenon called tape "wah," which was a fluctuation of pitch. Although some may view these characteristics as engineering flaws, others feel that it adds to the distinctive sound of the instrument. In fact, a company called G-Force has released a sampler that emulates the vintage Mellotron's characteristics (see Fig. 2).
Figure 1: The original Mellotron.
Fig​ure 2: A G-Force virtual instrument that emulates the Mellotron.
Although the use of analog tape in the Mellotron had limitations, its invention was an engineering milestone in music. A layer of gamma iron oxide (Fe2O3), or other easily magnetized material, was coated on a plastic base, creating a reel of tape. During recording, the tape is passed under a recording head, which magnetizes the material in a pattern that corresponds to the sound being recorded [3]. For playback, the tape is passed through a playback head with sensitive electronics that detect the pattern as a varying magnetic field. With the advent of magnetic tape recording, sounds could now be chopped up and rearranged by manually cutting the tape and pasting it back together, a process known as tape splicing. Sounds could be played in reverse, or sped up and slowed down by altering the direction and speed at which the reels of tape would spin.
This technology also gave the composer the power of multi-track recording. Composers could record each instrument individually on independent tracks on a tape and overlay them. Gone were the days of entire jazz bands recording albums in one take. Mistakes could be corrected, and one musician could play multiple instruments on a recording. Analog tape sampling "has fundamentally changed the creative process in the popular recording studio. Rhythm tracks may be recorded in one location, while vocals and other elements are added later at a studio halfway around the world" [3].
In the early 1940s, a form of music emerged known as "musique concrete." French composers such as Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry began to question the nature of sound and experimented with the creative use of tape recording and manipulation. Schaeffer invented the tape loop, a technique involving the splicing of the end of a section of tape to the beginning. This would create an indefinitely repeating section of tape, useful for rhythmic backing tracks.