History of the Sampler Part 1: The Pre-Digital Age

By Brandon Smith

Nowadays the sampler is just another tool in the arsenals of the musicians, producers, and DJs.  Although popular music created in part (or entirely) with samplers is a relatively new, the idea of using snippets of sound to create new music has been around for a very long time.  Since the 1920s, composers have toyed with the idea of composing music just for being played on phonographs. At that time, audio recording technology had been around a few decades and some composers were starting to wonder what else could be done with the new technology. “Musique Concrete” was a term coined by French composer Pierre Schaffer in the 1940s for a new kind of music made from found sounds which were then heavily manipulated and stitched together.  The invention of tape recording made this new art form easy to execute because it could be edited.  Cutting and pasting audio in those days was quite literal if not tedious, using razor blades and splicing tape. Admittedly this kind of music had fairly limited appeal to the masses, being seen as “avant-garde” or experimental. But that’s often the case with any new art forms - it begins on the fringes and eventually becomes mainstream, such as electronic and sample based music today.  By the 50s and 60s tape manipulation techniques, effects and electronic music had become standard practice in radio stations and recording studios worldwide as more composers were pushing the capabilities of the equipment. As the art evolved, new tools were invented to create it.  The new tools in turn inspire more new art forms as artists figure out how to use them, sometimes in totally unintended ways.

Pierre Schaffer with a Phonogene in his studio, 1951.

Pierre Schaffer with a Phonogene in his studio, 1951.

In the late 1940s, after recording himself playing the organ, an American musician named Harry Chamberlin got the idea of building a type of musical instrument for home entertainment using tapes.  Out of this concept the Chamberlin was born.  It had the look of a traditional home organ with keyboards and pedals, with the main difference being how the sound was generated.  Each key had a tape mechanism underneath it that triggered the playback of a tape when the key was depressed.  Anything could be recorded on these tapes – instrument sounds, whole band accompaniments or sound effects.  In response many other organ manufacturers at the time started building cheesy rhythm units and tabs with orchestral instrument names into their products to compete with the Chamberlin’s versatility.  Harry Chamberlin intended his instrument to be for home use mostly, although later on more portable “pro” versions were developed.  Unfortunately for Harry, the AFM (American Federation of Musicians) were trying to limit live performances using Chamberlins because in their eyes it threatened livelihoods of musicians.  If that wasn’t bad enough, his “salesman” / business partner who had gone to England with the original intent of getting parts made for Chamberlains basically stole the idea and start manufacturing a British version called the Mellotron.  Before long Mellotrons outsold Chamberlins and became a staple of mega rock groups like Led Zeppelin, The Moody Blues, King Crimson, Emerson Lake and Palmer, the Beatles. Interestingly enough, Chamberlins and Mellotrons continued to be made into the early 80s as digital sampling technology started to take hold in the market. 

The Chamberlain

The Chamberlain

One reason the Mellotron did so well commercially compared to the Chaberlain was the attention paid to getting them into the hands of musicians on the cutting edge.  Harry Chamberlin didn’t care for popular music and assumed his instrument would be used mainly to plunk out big band tunes in granny’s living room.  Mellotron also started with a home version, but soon developed a “portable” one for live performance.  Both Mellotrons and Chamberlins have since become classic sounds.  While the 80s digital technology temporarily killed most peoples interest, some artists in the 90s started to revive them.  Ironically it’s things like the inconsistent wear on each tape, warbly pitch instability and weird truncated sound when you first hit a key (or that strange slowdown sound if you play it all the way to the end) that made them popular again.  In other words, they have a distinct sound, that can be describe as pleasingly, dirty and lo-fi. 

Under the hood you can see the Mellotrons tape mechanism.  The Mellotron was famously used in the introduction of "Strawberry Fields Forever" by The Beatles.

Under the hood you can see the Mellotrons tape mechanism.  The Mellotron was famously used in the introduction of "Strawberry Fields Forever" by The Beatles.

You can’t talk about early analog samplers without mentioning the grungiest sounding and most lo-fi of them all: the Optigan.  The Optigan was never intended for professional use.  In fact it was a kid’s toy made by a subsidiary of Mattel.  Mattel had lots of experience building dolls with pull strings that make sound. Remember the big wheel?  “The cow says….” those devices use little plastic phonograph records with little needles – which is why you can actually scratch the samples with some of them (try it next time you see one at the Thrift Shop). Mattel originally intended to build a small organ for kids that used a big wax cylinder with needles for each key to play back a looped instrument sample.  It isn’t clear if they ever made a real prototype of this. They later stumbled upon an even better technology to sample with: optics.  The Optigan made its debut in 1971 and came with a library of optical “disks” – clear celluloid things the size of an LP (but floppy) with images of audio soundtrack printed on them.  These disks were inserted in a slot where they would rotate over a light bulb, and a photocell array would pick up the light variations and convert them into sound.  This is exactly how film projectors in the pre-digital days used to reproduce sound.  A unique feature of the Optigan were its chord buttons that played back real accompaniment backing tracks recorded by actual musicians.  There were different styles like Dixieland, rock, country etc… that were arranged as 1 bar loops that were always in sync with the others – kind of an analog version of Ableton Live!  Not to mention the ability to speed up and slow down the disc’s rotation affecting the playback speed and pitch.  The keyboard played extra-grungy looped samples of organs and other instruments.  In fact the whole thing sounds downright dirty – everything sounds like it could have been sampled from the dirtiest vinyl record ever.  Indeed just like records, dust and gunk that gets on the discs will create audible noise.  Yet just like the Mellotron and Chamberlin, the Optigan’s charm is in its very lo-fi nature.  Just like the Chamberlin, the Optigan had its offshoots.  There was essentially a clone version produced by a different company called the Chilton Talentmaker and there was also an ill-fated attempt at a professional version called the Vako Orchestron.  The Orchestron had no chord buttons but that same crusty lo-fi sound.  There were supposedly a few different types made, and although they didn’t have nearly the commercial success that the Mellotrons did, they have been used by some big names.  The Choir sound in the Kraftwerk song “Radioactivity” is supposed to have come from the Orchestron.

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Stay tuned for History of the Sampler Parts 2, 3 and 4.  Next time the beginning of the Digital Age.