Sample History Origins
We are so used to hearing manipulated sounds that we are rarely aware of it any more. Imagine how today´s sound world would shock someone from the era before recorded sound, when all sounds were heard ´straight´ ie never reversed, stretched out, speeded up or transformed in any way.
In today´s digital world recorded sounds are utterly flexible and the ways in which they can be altered are limited only by one´s imagination and because the price of the technology required is getting lower all the time, ever increasing numbers of people are discovering the pleasures of creating music with sound samples.
The little bit of history that has brought us to this point is intimately bound up with the development of the modern world, spanning the development of the phonograph and moving pictures to the electronic and digital age in which we currently live. And at every step of the way musicians and composers have been right there, playing with the latest technology and always asking themselves, ´What can I do with this?´
That question, the entirely natural response of the creative musician, has been the main driving force that has brought us the incredible sound technologies we have today. This brief history of the sound sample aims to introduce some of the major themes, ideas and developments of the past 100 years of Sample History.
A sound sample can be thought of as just a chunk of recorded sound that has been used out of its original context.
Since the earliest use of sound effects in film, sound samples have been used ´straight´ and would often go unnoticed in scenes of busy traffic, battle scenes or to create the sound of machinery and other things that could cause problems on a film set.
Sounds used in this way were not known as ´sound samples´ at the time, but they were the forerunners of today´s samples because of the way they were used.
However it was in comedy films and animation that the manipulation of sounds was most prominent. For example 1930s Laurel and Hardy films used not only the latest film technology to create spectacular effects, they were also able to enhance the comic mayhem by being at forefront of sound manipulation technology.
A marvellous example is the huge number of different piano sounds they used in The Music Box as they gradually destroy the unfortunate instrument. The piano prop used in the film is quite obviously not a real piano (it would have been far too heavy for a start) but the movie is filled with perfectly timed crunching, jangling and scraping piano sounds.
For composers it was the advent of magnetic tape that gave them a whole new medium with which to explore sounds and launched the sample era. With tape you could easily:
- chop up the sounds and insert other bits in between
- speed sounds up
- slow them down
- reverse sounds
- add new sounds over the top of others
- play sounds through different speakers to create interesting spatial effects.
Composers such as Pierre Schaeffer in the 40s and Edgar Varese in the 50s realised that with this technology they didn´t need to write music for humans to play at all: they could compose for the tape player or a mixture of tape, vinyl and live musicians.
Schaeffer coined the term Musique Concerte for this new kind of music that manipulated real sounds in different ways. He also invented loops and the first sampling machine with which he wrote a piece using sampled locomotive sounds.
Several sound technologies came into their own in the 1960´s that were to massively expand the possibilities for work with sound samples, the most significant were multi-track recording and effects.
Many people thought that one of the Beatles´ great innovations in the 1967 album, Sergeant Pepper was the extensive use of tape manipulation. Indeed tracks like A Day In The Life or Strawberry Fields were technically very innovative for the pop world and there is no doubt about the impact that they had on the sound of 60s psychedelia, but the techniques of repeated overdubbing and the assemblages of sound samples in various manipulations were all techniques pioneered and established long before. It´s simply the case that more people liked what the Beatles did with it all.
That they did it all with a four track tape recorder now seems utterly remarkable. Within four or five years the world´s recording studios would be filled with 8 or 16 and later 32 track recording machines which would make recordings with large numbers of overdubs so much easier to create.
Developed in the 60s, used on Strawberry Fields and immensely popular in the 70s, the Mellotron (and its originator, the Chamberlain) were the first real sampling musical instruments.
They used an ingenious system of tape loops containing recorded sound samples which were operated by the keyboard. Due to their distinctive sound they have survived and are still being built today.
In the 60s, few people loved the new ways in which you could manipulate sounds in the studio more than Jimi Hendrix, but he is particularly remembered for his extraordinary live performances and prominent use of guitar effects and in particular the wah-wah pedal.
The 60s saw the creation of numerous devices whose sole purpose was to alter, distort and transform sounds. Many which were originally designed for guitarists later became built into recording studio mixing desks and other equipment along with reverb and other effects.
Nowadays adding effects to recorded sounds is standard practise, in fact it is extremely rare to hear any modern recording that has not been processed in some way.
In the following two decades the ability to sample sounds, record performances, mix sounds, generat sound and add effects to aler them would all converge into large computerised systems that do everything but at the end of the 60s these things were all separate and depended on completely separate technologies.
During the Seventies electronic synthesized music took off in a big way. The machines of the previous decade, such as the Moog had already had a tremendous impact, but during the seventies that the synthesizer became embedded in the aural landscape by its extremely widespread use in films, TV, advertising and on innumerable records. Very often synthesizers were used in the background such that one was unaware of their presence, rather than in the overt manner of 50s sci-fi movies or the 60s ´hey-listen-to-my-far-out-synthesizer´ music.
At the same time computer music was going through some big changes. Since the earliest computers of the 1950s, composers such as Milton Babbit had sought to use them to create music, but what was happening in the 70s was the development of micro chips and hard drives which would soon unleash the computer as a major musical force by giving it the ability to record and process music and generate sounds, all in real time. The whole business of making and manipulating sound was about to go digital.
The most significant event in the history of the sound sample happened with the release of the Fairlight. New digital synthesizers such as the Yamaha DX7 were becoming widespread and the brash sounds of Eighties electro-pop rejoiced in new technology, but the Fairlight was a different thing altogether. Any pop band that had made it big usually dragged theirs into the Top of the Pops studio, perhaps because they cost as much as a house and you didn´t have one of these unless you really had made it.
With the Fairlight you could record a sound, any sound, such as a clink of wine glasses and immediately it would process that sound so that you could play a tune on the keyboard using the wine glass sound. This was amazing and when used with a sampled musical instrument such as a trumpet, the result could be far better than any synthesized trumpet sound.
The origin of the term ´sound sample´ comes from the way in which a keyboard like the Fairlight records the sound. Rather than try to take in the entire sound, as a recording onto tape would do, a ´sample´ of the sound would be recorded every fraction of a second.
In this way a single trumpet note would be recorded as a rapid series of snapshots of the sound. This is similar to the way that high-speed photography captures the movement of an object. When all the snaps are played back at the right speed the result sounds indistinguishable from the original. The speed at which the snapshots are taken is called the ´sample rate´.
In the Nineties the computer replaced the tape machine as the hub of the recording studio. The computer could not only generate music whether from synthesized sounds or sampled sounds it could record at higher quality than was possible on tape.
Following on from this, recording companies and film studios discovered that the combination of sound sampling and computers was making it possible to avoid using real musicians, who were expensive and may not perform as reliably as a computer controlled sample.
So, in much the same way as the 70s saw the synthesizer become embedded in our sound world the 90s brought sampling and the digital manipulation of sound into almost everything that we hear and it's often there in very subtle ways.
On TV and in films, producers began to recreate the sound of orchestras with great accuracy such that it became difficult to tell if what one was hearing was a ´real´ recording or not.
Sound Samples also became a new type of product which were worth a lot of money to studios. CDs of top quality instrument sound samples began to be sold specifically for this type of use, because even if a full set of orchestral samples cost the studio £2000 and takes a huge amount of studio time to turn into a film score that sounds orchestral, this may be cheaper than using a real orchestra.
Examples in film where sampling technology has been irreplaceable, aside from all the special effects of dinosaurs, light sabres and explosions has been in the film Farinelli where a man and a woman´s voices were blended together to recreate the effect of the opera singing castratos, of whom there are none alive, and so the technology was able to provide a perfect solution.
The other big users of samples have been DJs and creators of dance music. The 90s saw a complete turnaround in the fortunes of DJs who had become rather marginal figures in the music world. Suddenly they were back and not just to play records, but creating and mixing music on the fly.
A major part of their revival has been to do with the extensive use they have made of sound samples. Frequently the samples used are not simply recordings of acoustic instruments, but will be samples of other pieces of music which they recycle and transform into something new.
These samples along with keyboards, drum machines and software synthesizers are also used extensively (joined together with the power of MIDI) to create ´loops´.
A loop is a small pattern of sound such which may be sampled, synthesized or a mixture of the two and is constructed in such a way that it can be repeated over and over. These loops are then used as samples in their own right and are bought, sold, created and distributed by huge numbers of musicians all over the world, which brings us to another big piece in this technological jigsaw puzzle, the internet.
The evolution of the internet has enabled an explosion in the sharing of digital music samples. The widespread availability of the internet and the growth in musical creativity with sound samples has been the inspiration for the Philharmonia Orchestra to create its sample libraries and build The Sound Exchange.
One of the key aims of The Sound Exchange has been to make the sound of the Philharmonia Orchestra freely available on the internet, so that musicians who cannot afford £500 for a CD of woodwind sound samples might be able to obtain top quality samples with which to create their music.
Certainly as far as the Philharmonia is concerned, ever more people playing and creating music can only be a good thing for the future of music making and if they are using our sounds to do it with, so much the better.
Today sampling technology is everywhere and getting cheaper. Many people´s mobile phones are even capable of recording and manipulating samples. What the future holds is difficult to predict, but it is likely that just as online computer gaming has taken off we will in due course see the arrival of popular ways of play music online. It´s already possible to play music interactively using the internet, but truly popular it ain´t, not yet. All it needs is someone to do for the internet what the Beatles did for magnetic tape.
In other areas of the media, the sample is just getting going and is set to continue to make inroads, but the technology has many other applications and will be at the centre of many other things that will effect all our lives apart from music, such as the ever increasing numbers of machines that talk.
Orchestras: No Future?
People often wonder if all this sampling activity will replace the orchestra and live music. It is true that in the past 10 years, film recording work has decreased tremendously.
Cameron Mackintosh has even sought to replace half of the live musicians in his show, Les Miserables with digitally sampled, computer manipulated substitutes and church organs the world over are being replaced by karaoke type organs with thousands of hymns in their memory banks, but new markets usually open when others close and the sound sample business may be one example that continues to grow. Certainly mobile phone ringtones have become a huge and most unexpected growth industry.
Another new media area that has experienced massive growth over the past few years has been computer gaming, which has had some unexpected benefits for the Philharmonia Orchestra as we recorded the music for the Harry Potter computer games.
And why would a computer game have a real orchestra for its sound track and not a sampled one? Perhaps because the real orchestra sound is so rich, complex and subtle in its variations that you can´t really replace the real thing. Besides, if you can afford the real thing, why not have it?
Quality of Sound
Perhaps the main reason why the orchestra will survive is because of the unique nature of the live experience. No two performances are ever the same of course, but what also strikes people the first time they go and listen to a top orchestra is a sound unlike anything even the best samples or synthesizers can produce. You could spend a small fortune on hi-fi equipment, but it never comes close to the effect of a real orchestra for several reasons...
- CD or radio sound is always compressed, because at realistic volume levels the quiet bits would be almost inaudible and the loud bits would blow the windows out of your house and entertain people three streets away!
- The orchestra sound also comes at you from all angles: 100 musicians each creating their own individual sounds spread across the stage create a sound that envelopes and surrounds you in the music.
- The sound is entirely pure and distortion free, something that no noise reduction system can ever improve on, only seek to attain.
- It´s not an ´either/or´ situation the orchestra has acommodated all types of music, musicians and instruments over the centuries and someone adept with digital technology who feels they can use a real orchestra is welcome anytime. Have you got a plan? Just contact us!
But finally, the fact that the live orchestra is a real, breathing thing made up of individuals creating musical sounds for you personally, there and then, is something that will always be appreciated no matter how automated, digitised, and sampled our world becomes.