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Traveling with Electronics: Sample This!.....A History Lesson

January 2012.....I have seen the future of sampling.



Sampling is the act of taking a portion (sample) of a sound recording and using it as an instrument or component in a musical composition or sound design. The roots of sampling date back to the 1940's and Music Concrete. My history in the art of sampling began in 1969  with the Akai M-10 open reel tape recorder with "cross field heads" (sound-on-sound capabilities). It had built in speakers, 3 speeds, forward and reverse modes and the ability to bounce tracks to build up multi-track compositions all on a two track recorder.

My first "mobile" sample collection and playback device came in 1976 in the form of the SuperScope C-105 cassette recorder with vari-speed control. This little mono machine (with a built in mic), began my sample library and I still to this day can pull usable sounds off of cassette tapes dating back to the mid seventies.

Also in 1976 I began my love of "Live-Looping", by playing my trombone through a Roland 301 Chorus Echo with sound-on-sound recording. This amazing tape based delay had a huge impact on how I would create sound compositions in the future.

One of the things that was so attractive about sampling was the fact that you could create large scale compositions by yourself, like a painter can and the idea of doing this live led me to put together my first "performance sampler" in 1981/1982. This crazy rig was comprised of a Sony TCD5M cassette recorder, a Sony Walkman and a Tascam 244 Portastudio 4 track cassette recorder and a table covered with cassette tapes.

The 2 Sony decks recorded and played back the normal way cassettes worked - 2 tracks on one side and 2 tracks on the other side. The Portastudio recorded all 4 tracks in one direction (one side of the tape) and it recorded at a speed twice as fast as the regular cassette recorders. I used 60 minute tapes (30 minutes a side), so if I wanted a percussion part I played the part for 30 minutes and recorded it on one entire side of a tape. I would then record something else on the other side of the tape. On the Portastudio I could record 4 parts that could or could not be in sync (depending on if I listened to the previous track or not). In the end I had hundreds of tapes with something recorded on both sides.

For a performance all of the tapes were fast forwarded to the middle of the tape so you basically had 15 minutes of something (sample, loop, texture), on each side of each tape. If you put a tape recorded on the Sony into the Tascam everything would be twice as fast, an octave higher and two tracks would be playing in reverse. If you put a tape recorded on the Tascam into one of the Sony decks it would be half as fast, an octave lower and depending on which side you put in, it would be going forward or in reverse.

I know this sounds quite insane but that was how you had to do it back in the day. That was sampling at that point in time (unless you could afford something like a Fairlight or an Emulator but those early 8 bit digital, very expensive, keyboard samplers only lived in high end studios) I found it very interesting when there was a brief revival of cassette performance groups around 2005/2006.


I had been dragging around my RE-301 chorus echo for 8 years and then in 1983 everything changed when Electro-Harmonix came out with the 16 Second digital delay, the Instant Replay (a one second digital sampler) and the Super Replay (a four second digital sampler). All of the Percussion parts that I played on Jon Hassell's recording for ECM called Power Spot were live loops I made of myself playing acoustic percussion parts into the DDL16 and samples I made on the Replays (I think we had 2 Instant Replays and one Super Replay in the rig) and triggering them while playing other acoustic parts. On tours to support that recording I had to load (re-sample) the audio, from cassette into the replays in-between tunes just by the counter numbers on the cassette deck.....fucking insane!


The first reasonably priced keyboard sampler was the 8 bit Ensoniq Mirage (1985). It had 2 seconds of sample ram, stored samples on floppy disks and had a hexidecimal display which made it a very tedious machine to work with but you heard it on hundreds of hit recordings in the late 1980's. Sampling was now offically mainstream.

The Akai S900 Sampler (1986) was the first 12bit 40khz sampler and the first full featured sampler that you could actually do "Live-Sampling" on. It was a great machine but was soon eclipsed by what I found to be the best digital samplers for Live-Sampling and performance ever created. The Ensoniq line of Performance Samplers: EPS (1988), EPS16+ (1990), ASR10 (1992). All of the Live-Sampling performances and recordings I did from 1989 through 2001 were done on Ensoniq gear. There really wasn't anything out there that could even come close to what you could do with sound in real time on those machines.


I made the reluctant move to a Laptop based Live-Sampling rig in 2002 when it became clear that if I was going to travel with electronics I was going to have to come up with a rig that I could walk on the plane with. But first a little story about sampling pre and post ACID.

In 1994 Propellerhead came out with ReCycle which was the first commercial software that could change the tempo of a sample without changing the pitch. Up until that point if you played a sample twice as fast it played an octave higher. Half as fast was an octave lower, when you got into 4th's and 5th's you got into 2 against 3 - it's just the math of harmonics. In 1995 Steim came out with LiSa which was the first software designed to be used specifically for Live-Sampling. In 1998 Sonic Foundry came out with ACID which was the first multi-track recording software that could change the speed of a recorded track without changing the pitch. This piece of software changed the paradigm of sampling and multi-track recording completely. It was eclipsed in popularity in 2001 when Ableton introduced Live.

Now there are things that old school pre-acid sampling can do really well and things that post-acid sampling can do really well, but so far there isn't anything that can do both really well.

Since 2002 my Sampling/Live-Sampling rig has been a Mac Laptop running Live and LiSa together, a MOTU 828 firewire audio interface, various USB controllers and an Air-FX. I have been extreemly happy with this rig as it is very flexible, very powerful, rock solid and it all fits in a Pelican 1510 carry-on case and a small computer backpack so I just walk on the plane with it.

As you can see from all of this, for any number of reasons the actual "instrument" of a sampler player is almost always in a state of evolution (like it or not), that is the nature of working with technology as opposed to an acoustic instrument like a guitar which has pretty much been the same since it first appeared on the planet.

So what is up with my opening statement (I have seen the future of sampling.....lithium). Well, on Friday January 6th 2012 I was invited to attend a Beta Launch Workshop at the Santa Fe Complex, hosted by software designer Jim Coker  to see a demo of his new Sampler/Live-Sampling software LITHIUM that is just now going into beta testing. All last year Jim was collecting research on how different people use sampling technology and not just from Live-Sampling crazies like myself or CK Barlow, but from 4 on the floor techno kids to control freak academic sequencer types and keep it simple guitar loopers as well. He took all that information and put it into one KILLER piece of software that can deal with pre-acid to post-acid sampling paradigms and beyond. Here is a screen shot of Ck's rig from the workshop. If you are interested in ANY form of sampling or live sound manipulation I suggest you keep an eye out for the public release of LITHIUM.

Until next month then.

Safe Travels.....dino