top of page

Sampling part 1 - The Evolution of Electronic Music

Updated: Jan 9

In popular terms, Sampling refers to a digital recording of a short sound. Sampling synthesis is different from the technique of fixed waveform synthesis explained in the previous post on Bass Synthesis. Instead if scanning a wavetable made up of one cycle of a waveform (the process used in fixed waveform and wavetable synthesis) a sampler scans a large wavetable comprised of thousands of individual waveform cycles that make up several seconds of pre-recorded sound. As the waveform changes during playback the attack, sustain and decay introduces rich and varying sound. Samplers have become one of the key ingredients in electronic dance music and its use can be traced all the way back to the 1920s.

Analog tape was used as a standard recording medium for a century. Digital Audio Workstations now emulate the audio effects of tape by adding saturation and compression effects that are designed to emulate the grit and feel of audio to recorded to tape.
Reel to reel analog tape provides saturation and compression while adding pleasing audio artifacts


Compositions featuring manipulations of recorded sound dates back to the early 1920s, when composers experimented with variable-speed phonographs played together to create original sound compositions. Early composers such as Darius Milhaud, Paul Hindemith, and Ernest Toch were at the forefront of the initial use of samples which inspired the future generation of engineers and composers alike.

Magnetic tape recording was developed in Germany in the 1930s, which allowed composers to cut and splice recordings, making precise and flexible editing of recorded sound possible for the first time. Tape recorders were not available to musicians until post World War II.

Musique Concrete was founded by Pierre Schaeffer in 1950, a dedicated environment in pursuit of the art of manipulating recorded audio to create original compositions.
Pierre Schaeffer and Musique Concrete

After sound experiments with variable-speed phonographs in the late 1940s, the Studio de Musique Concrete was founded by Pierre Schaeffer in Paris in 1950. Musique Concrete refers to the use of recorded sounds using microphones and tape, and then manipulating these recorded sound objects to create original compositions. The next generation of sampling instruments were based on the principles used in photo-electric and tape loop devices such as Edwin Welte’s Light-tone Organ (1930s), Pierre Schaeffer’s Phonogene (1950s). and the Chamberlain (1960s). And the Mellotron (1970s). These devices played either optical discs encoded with photographic images of waveforms, or magnetic tape loops of recorded sound. In principle, as a key is pressed, a playback head recalls the recorded sound on the disk or tape, adjusting the sample rate to create changes in pitch and length.

The Mellotron was an expensive tape-based multisample playback machine that provided access to orchestral and vocal sounds that could be played back in a somewhat portable keyboard based instrument.
An acrylic body Mellotron exposing the mechanics and tapes

The most well known pre-digital sampler was the Mellotron - an expensive instrument that used a keyboard to initiate playback of a number of rotating tape loops. Geared towards professional musicians and studios, early adopters were legendary rock bands like the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, King Crimson, and Tangerine Dream amount many others. These artists paid handsomely for the opportunity to have access to multi-sampled orchestral, vocal and acoustic sounds in a somewhat portable set up that provided rich backing tracks to popular songs. The Mellotron had a complex mechanical design that was temperamental and prone to breaking down and complications. The tape loops wore out due to abrasion and the mechanical parts regularly failed when selecting and running multiple tape loops as chords were played back. Despite these complications the Mellotron influenced many popular artists and best known recordings of the day.

Years later, the rise of digital electronics made it possible to record and store and record sound in digital memory. In the 1970s memory chips were prohibitively expensive, so the first sampling devices were simple delay units that were used in recording studios, designed as a digital double tracking effect by mixing the original sound with a sampled version delayed by several milliseconds (also known as the Haas effect). As memory became cheaper it became possible to store several seconds of sound, making it possible for sample based instruments to become a reality. One of the first commercially based keyboard samplers was the Fairlight Computer Music Instrument in 1979, with a resolution of 8 bits per sample and cost over $25,000. Following shortly afterwards was the E-mu Emulator, introduced in 1981 at a cost of $9,000, it was another 8 bit monophonic sampling device with a total of 128 Kbytes of sample memory.


Modern sample-based music has strong roots in the 1970s and 80s, when influences started to collide and set the framework for the genres we hear today.

Disco was the first genre to employ edits and extended remixes. Pioneers like John Morales created bootleg edits of popular records by looping and repeating sections of favourite records to make them dance floor killers. Early Hip Hop then took this to an extreme at the tail end of the disco era, looping breakbeats and cutting together funk and soul records by using two or more turntables to replay the hottest section of a track over and over and layering this with other loops to create original compositions and legendary styles. Hip Hop and sampling have been inseparable ever since these early days, with samplers like the Akai MPC series, E-mu SP-12/1200 and Ensonique ASR-10 being adopted early on as industry standard kit.

John Morales has produced some of the biggest dance music tracks of all time.
Dance music legend John Morales

In the mid to late 1980s early house and techno artists began using samplers to incorporate samples taken from other existing recordings to blend into their work. One of the first hit records was by MARRS in 1987 with “Pump Up the Volume” which was an international success and put the world on its ear. I can remember my first time hearing this track when it came out and I can personally testify nothing sounded like it at the time. A #1 hit in the UK and Netherlands, and #13 in the US, and nominated for a Grammy, it took elements by the cutting and splicing of breakbeats, vocals and musical elements taken from Pump Me Up by Trouble Funk, I know You Got Soul by Eric B. & Rakim, and Super Bad by James Brown.

Zero-G releases sample libraries for consumers looking for professional sounding audio samples that are easily usable from the start.
Early sample libraries by Zero-G

Commercial sample libraries started to be released in the late 1980s, initiated by Zero-G with their early library ‘Datafile One’ and inspiring what would become the multi-million dollar industry it is today. Artists such as The Beastie Boys and The Prodigy liberally used samples in their early releases when sampling technology became cheap and readily available. Controversy soon followed, as record labels became aware of artists sampling copy-written material, not wanting to lose out on royalties earned from these mainstream hit releases and the proceeds that came from them. Early lawsuits set precedent with aggressive penalties and has coloured the landscape of sample-based music which restricts unauthorized use of copy-written material.

Following success in the Hip Hop and House music genres, Hardcore and Jungle stretched sampling to an extreme, creating high-energy bombastic breakbeats and heavily manipulated vocals, piano riffs and synth stabs making exciting and fresh sounds that gained mainstream popularity for several years. Several mainstream pop artists such as legend David Bowie and Madonna had chart success by borrowing heavily from underground dance music with their crossover releases. These early adopters planted the seed for overwhelming acceptance of EDM, house music and the various other electronic infused genres we hear today.


As music production shifted towards computers, sampling horsepower and flexibility burst wide open, with memory capabilities and software doing the heavy lifting and removing the limitations of early hardware models. Native Instrument’s Kontakt changed the way we sample, offering a software based platform to load curated sample libraries of multi-sampled instruments and entire orchestras recorded in halls not accessible to most consumers, capturing the subtle nuances of individual performances and the natural reverberation of these instruments in their best environment. Multi-sampling also captures variations in dynamics which allows the user to create a lifelike performance using a pre-packaged product. Advancements with multi-sampling technology and perfecting the art has taken over the music for media marketplace, with industry leaders like Spitfire Audio creating realistic and sometimes quirky libraries of highly useable and inspiring multi-sampled recordings.

Simpler is a powerful sampler with basic features that comes included with Ableton Live.