If you are looking for a way to expand your sonic capabilities or create unique and compelling music, a sampler might just be the right tool for you.
Versatile, powerful, and rife with possibilities, samplers can help you recreate old-school hip-hop and house music productions to a ‘T’ or explore previously uncharted musical territory. If you want to know the basics of how to use a sampler, you’ve come to the right place!
First… What is a Sampler?
A sampler is a device that allows you to play back bits of audio called ‘samples’ in a musical manner.
Samplers come in various forms, from standalone musical instruments to rack units and desktop devices. They can be hardware samplers, or software, in which case they can be standalone apps or VST plug-ins.
Software samplers may be played on a computer, a tablet, or a smartphone.
Samplers vs. Sample Players
Strictly speaking, “sampling” is the process of recording audio for later playback on the same system. By definition, “samplers” are devices that have the ability to record audio without the use of any other piece of equipment.
Devices that only play back samples are more accurately referred to as “sample players”…
These days however, the term “sampler” is often used in reference to any device with sample playback capability, regardless of its ability to actually sample audio.
The Birth of the Sampler
The precursors of modern electronic samplers are keyboard instruments that played back tape recordings when the keys are pressed.
The most popular of these instruments was the Mellotron, which was featured on recordings by the Beatles, the Moody Blues, and King Crimson, among others.
Despite being an innovative instrument, the Mellotron was too costly and too cumbersome to achieve widespread popularity. The advent of digital technology made sampling more practical, but digital sampling systems such as the EMS Musys and the Synclavier were still too expensive for most musicians. It wasn’t until E-mu released the first of many Emulator instruments in the early 1980s that the masses finally had access to an affordable sampler. Companies such as Akai and Ensoniq soon released their own samplers.
The Early Samplers
Most of the early mass-produced samplers were keyboard instruments with sampling and sample playback capabilities. But the aforementioned companies soon also released rack-mountable samplers that were meant to be played via external keyboards. E-mu and Akai also released sampling drum machines that let you create beats from electronic and acoustic drum samples, found sounds, and any other audio material you could think of. Instruments such as E-mu’s SP-1200 and Akai’s MPC range played a significant role in the development of hip-hop and electronic dance music, and are still widely used today.
From the mid-1980s through much of the 1990s, hardware samplers were common fixtures in live and studio rigs all over the world. Apart from E-mu, Akai, and Ensoniq, companies such as Roland, Yamaha, Korg, and even Casio produced a wide and varied array of samplers. From keyboard instruments and rack units to desktop samplers and sampling grooveboxes, it seemed that hardware samplers would always be a part of the modern musicians’ and producers’ toolbox.
The Decline of Hardware Samplers
But hardware samplers slowly fell out of fashion toward the end of the 1990s and into the early 2000s. The advent of more powerful and more affordable computers made it easier to work with audio in a digital audio workstation (DAW), which reduced the need to work with samplers. Software samplers also came onto the scene around the same time, many of which provided the same functionality as hardware samplers.
Of course, software-based sampling systems had already been around for a few years previously. But many of these–such as the Fairlight CMI, for example–required costly computer equipment to run. With the new crop of affordable computer systems, it became more practical to use software samplers with desktop computers or laptops instead of bulky rack units or oversized keyboards.
Hardware Samplers vs. Software Samplers
The main advantage of software samplers over hardware samplers is higher memory capacity. Hardware samplers have traditionally been hamstrung by memory constraints, which limited the number of samples that they could hold. This meant that compromises usually had to be made in terms of file size and audio resolution.
Software samplers, such as these, aren’t subject to the same restrictions, and some can even play sample libraries consisting of gigabytes upon gigabytes of audio. This makes it possible to produce stunningly realistic performances from sampled instruments and instrument ensembles.
Hardware Samplers Make a Comeback
Despite the apparent limitations of hardware samplers, they have since made a huge comeback and continue to be popular among musicians and producers to this day
Many older samplers have lower bitrates and resolutions than modern equipment, which often results in a characteristically gritty or ‘grungy’ sound. This ‘imperfect’ sound is considered desirable by many producers who consider it an added bit of authenticity and ‘attitude’ to what would otherwise be sterile digital samples.
In fact, music genres such as LoFi Hip-Hop and Lofi House rely heavily on the sonic character of samples processed through older 12-bit samplers.
Examples of Sample-based Music
Samplers have been used in almost every type of modern music production since the 1980s. Hip-hop and the various kinds of electronic dance music are among the most obvious examples. But even rock, jazz, and orchestral productions have utilized samplers and sampling to varying degrees.
Unsurprisingly, one of the high watermarks of sample-based music is in the hip-hop realm: the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique album. Released in 1989, the album features samples of soul, funk, rock, and country music, and anything and everything in between. “Looking Down the Barrel of a Gun” combines the drumbeat from the Incredible Bongo Band’s “Last Bongo In Belgium” and the guitar riff from Mountain’s “Mississippi Queen”. The bone-crushing rap-rock tune is further accented by organ plinks from Pink Floyd’s “Time”.
Cypress Hill’s “Hits From the Bong” off the 1993 album Black Sunday samples the opening guitar motif of Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man,” and the group’s own “Stoned Is the Way of the Walk” from their 1991 self-titled debut album. Although iconic in its own right, Springfield’s 1968 tune was practically transformed into a Cypress Hill signature.
Almost everything that Public Enemy has produced is a sampling tour de force. From the group’s 1988 album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, “Fight the Power” contains samples from no less than 21 songs. A partial listing shows that James Brown’s “Funky Drummer”, Syl Johnson’s “Different Strokes”, and The Isley Brothers’s “Fight the Power” were some of the samples used. Produced for Spike Lee’s 1989 film, Do the Right Thing, the tune is a furious, blistering slice of urban sonic assault and a great example of Public Enemy’s “maximalist” sampling approach.
Massive Attack’s “Safe From Harm” from the 1991 album Blue Lines includes samples from Funkadelic’s “Good Old Music” and Johnny Guitar Watson’s “Looking Back’. But it is the insistent, sinister drum and bass groove that steals the show. Lifted from jazz fusion drummer Billy Cobham’s 1973 album Stratus, the sample shows how previously familiar musical elements can be re-contextualized to assume an entirely new identity.
The Most Sampled Drum Breaks in Popular Music
One of the most intriguing aspects of sampling and sampled music is the use of drum loops, particularly in hip-hop and electronic music. Throughout the 1980s and even today, musicians and producers seem to be inexplicably drawn to drum breaks from classic soul and funk records from the early 1970s.
It is practically a rite of passage for hip-hop producers to search out drum breaks from sampling old vinyl records and incorporate them into their music. Although most breaks lasted only a few seconds at most, many of them were looped and extended to form the basis of entire tracks. Among the most commonly sampled drum breaks in recorded history are:
Led Zeppelin’s “When The Levee Breaks”. Recorded in a stairwell during the recording sessions for the group’s fourth album, this massive drumbeat has held down the bottom end on such tracks as the Beastie Boys’ “Rhymin & Stealin,” Dr. Dre’s “Lyrical Gangbang,” and Massive Attack’s “Man Next Door”.
James Brown’s “Funky Drummer”. This is considered one of the most sampled drum breaks in history, having appeared on everything from Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power” to Sinead O’Connor’s “I Am Stretched on Your Grave”. The Roots’ Questlove has called it “the most perfect beat you can loop.”
The Winstons’ “Amen, Brother”. That other “most sampled drumbeat in history”, the “Amen break” is arguably the drum ’n’ bass counterpart to hip-hop’s “Funky Drummer”. Practically the default drum beat for jungle, DnB, and hardcore, it has an instantly recognizable sonic character that remains intact despite routinely being diced, sliced, and chopped to oblivion.
The Winstons were never actually accredited for the Amen break. In fact, the drummer died poor and homeless. But there has been an ongoing GoFundMe program taking place to give back to the remaining member of The Winstons, Richard L Spencer, who actually wrote and arranged the piece. Read their story and check out the donation page here.
Lyn Collins’ “Think (About It)”. The so-called “Think Beat” is yet another drum and bass mainstay, most often heard in liquid DnB. The crisp skittering accents are pretty hard to miss and are a large part of the distinctive flavor of atmospheric DnB tracks. Kanye West also sampled the beat in “Lost In The World”, and it was used by 2 Unlimited in “Get Ready For This,” and by Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock in “It Takes Two.”
The Honey Drippers’ “Impeach The President”. From a tune about the infamous 1972 Watergate break-in, this ubiquitous beat has been used in numerous hip-hop tracks, most notably MC Shan’s “The Bridge” and Nas’ “I Can” and “The Message.”
How to Use a Sampler
A sampler is one of the most versatile musical tools you can have in your arsenal. It can fill multiple roles in your set-up and take the place of many different instruments. A capable sampler could serve as a drum machine, a keyboard or piano, or even a full orchestra. It could substitute for almost any musical instrument in existence, and even a few that you haven’t dreamed of. Here are some of the most common ways to use samplers:
Samplers as melodic instruments
Hardware samplers were traditionally used to play standard instrument sounds such as pianos, organs, keyboards, and string instruments. This is still a popular and practical use for samplers today.
To use samplers in this way requires having differently pitched notes assigned to the keys of a keyboard. You could sample your instrument of choice yourself, which is a great way to create custom sampled instruments. You could also use any of the many free or paid sample libraries available, which gives you a wide range of readymade instruments.
Multi sampled libraries are a great way to expand your sonic palette without having to purchase rare or expensive instruments. If you don’t have the cash for a vintage Moog synthesizer, for example, you could simply buy a Moog sample library and have a reasonable facsimile of the sounds in your sampler.
This goes for choirs and orchestral instruments as well. Few producers have the means to record a symphony orchestra. But with a capable sampler and a few high-quality sample libraries, you can put together some pretty convincing orchestral compositions.
Creating unusual atmospheres and textures
A sampler’s ability to play ‘real’ instrument sounds convincingly is definitely one of its strengths. But samplers are capable of so much more. Sampling real-world sounds and re-contextualizing them is a great way to come up with unique tones and atmospheres that you wouldn’t be able to create otherwise. Many samplers have extensive slicing, looping, and processing capabilities, allowing you to warp, twist, and mangle sounds in different ways.
Try this: sample a long, sustaining sound such as the hum of an electric motor or even your voice saying ‘aahh’. Pitch the sample down a couple of octaves in your sampler, and set up a loop point so that it plays back smoothly when you hold a key down on your controller keyboard. Next, try reversing the sample, doubling it, and detuning the second voice by a few cents. At this point, you should have an interesting pad sound that bears almost no resemblance to the original sample.
Samplers as drum machines
Samplers are especially well suited to creating unique and interesting drum parts. Finger drumming beats on drum samplers such as an Akai MPC is always great fun, particularly when you work with chopped samples. Many styles of hip-hop are in fact based almost entirely on beats pounded out on an MPC.
You don’t have to limit yourself to banging out drum sounds. The grid-based pad system of an MPC or a pad controller triggering a software sampler is an excellent interface for creating instant mashups of existing songs or your own music. Slice up a tune into loops and assign each to different pads, and you could perform a fresh new version of it live simply by punching the pads in rhythm.
Chopping up drum loops
As far as rhythmic applications go, one of the most intriguing uses of samplers is the creation of new and interesting grooves from existing drum loops. This process is integral to the skittering and rhythmically complex beats characteristic of Drum ’n’ Bass music and its various offshoots.
Here are the basics of creating a DnB beat with your sampler. Sample a 2- or 4-bar drum loop, preferably something with a clearly-defined snare on the 2 and 4 of the beat. Pitch it up a few semitones and make sure it loops smoothly. Assign the sample to a key on your keyboard and replicate it a few times, assigning each copy to a different key.
Next, set the start point of each sample to a different transient. For example, leave the first sample as is, then set the start point of the second sample to the first snare. Set the start point of the third sample to the next kick, and so on.
At this point, you should have a series of drum hits or slices from your original sample. Play a rhythm on the keys in a characteristic DnB pattern. When satisfied, program the beat into your DAW or sequencer. You could also layer additional drums and record another beat on top of the pattern you just created. When done, you should have the makings of a basic DnB beat.
Don’t neglect the possibilities offered by resampling. This refers to taking the processed audio and recording it back into your sampler. With samplers that have a resampling feature, the process takes place internally. This means that you can resample audio without having to plug a cable from your sampler’s outputs into the inputs.
Resampling lets you process a sound more extensively than you would be able to otherwise. Resample a beat or a vocal chop a few times, and you can make it practically indistinguishable from the original.
These are only some of the most common ways to use samplers in your productions. You really are only limited by your imagination when working with samples. Samplers can do so much more than add vocal chops or old-school breakbeats to your tracks. And despite the ease of use by which you could manipulate audio within a DAW, learning how to use a sampler is still a worthwhile skill for modern music production. Whether you go for the grungy sonic character of a vintage 12-bit sampler or the clarity and precision of a software sample player, sampling will definitely have a huge effect on how you produce music.