Sampler (musical Instrument) - Historical Overview

Historical Overview

EMS Synthi 100 E-mu SP-1200

Prior to computer memory-based samplers, musicians used tape replay keyboards, which store recordings on analog tape. When a key is pressed the tape head contacts the tape and plays a sound. The Mellotron was the most notable model, used by a number of groups in the late 1960s and the 1970s, but such systems were expensive and heavy due to the multiple tape mechanisms involved, and the range of the instrument was limited to three octaves at the most. To change sounds a new set of tapes had to be installed in the instrument. The emergence of the digital sampler made sampling far more practical.

The first digital sampler was the EMS Musys system, developed by Peter Grogono (software), David Cockerell (hardware and interfacing) and Peter Zinovieff (system design and operation) at their London (Putney) Studio c. 1969. The system ran on two mini-computers, Digital Equipment’s PDP-8s. These had 12,000 (12k) bytes of read-only memory, backed up by a hard drive of 32k and by tape storage (DecTape). EMS equipment was used to control the world's first digital studio.

The first commercially available sampling synthesizer was the Computer Music Melodian by Harry Mendell (1976), while the first polyphonic digital sampling synthesiser was the Australian-produced Fairlight CMI, first available in 1979. The E-mu SP-1200 percussion sampler progressed Hip-Hop away from the drum machine sound upon its release in August 1987, ushering in the sample-based sound of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Akai pioneered many processing techniques, such as crossfade looping and "time stretch" to shorten or lengthen samples without affecting pitch and vice versa.

During the 1980s hybrid synthesizers began to utilize short samples (such as the attack phase of an instrument) along with digital synthesis to create more realistic imitations of instruments than had previously been possible. Examples are Korg M1, Korg O1/W and the later Korg Triton and Korg Trinity series, Yamaha's SY series and the Kawai K series of instruments. Limiting factors at the time were the cost of physical memory (RAM) and the limitations of external data storage devices, and this approach made best use of the tiny amount of memory available to the design engineers.

The modern-day music workstation usually uses sampling, whether simple playback or complex editing that matches all but the most advanced dedicated samplers, and also includes features such as a sequencer. Samplers, together with traditional Foley artists, are the mainstay of modern sound effects production. Using digital techniques various effects can be pitch-shifted and otherwise altered in ways that would have required many hours when done with tape.

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