History of the Sampler Part 2: Dawn of the Digital Age

Sampler.jpeg

By Brandon Smith

In the last blog post of this series we looked at the analog pre-history of the samplers we know and love today.  The concept of a true digital sampler – something that could record, play and store sound while being manipulated like a synthesizer – only became practical in the late 1970s.  Even then, most mere mortals would have to wait until the mid-80s and the budget sampler boom to get their hands on one.  More on this to come in the next article.  Early digital sampling machines were dinosaurs by today’s standards – bulky, expensive and equipped with very limited memory which translated into very short sampling times.  On top of that, the digital sampling wasn’t CD quality and usually significantly lower than 16 bit/44.1Khz.  This doesn’t necessarily mean bad sounding though.  In fact, the same things that drew people to Mellotrons and analog sample players are now drawing them to “vintage “samplers.  Older Akai, Emu, Roland, etc. samplers are now often praised for the lo-fi “crunchiness” and overall character they impart onto samples.  It’s amazing how a well-designed 8-bit sampler can actually sound “warm” and better than a poorly designed 16-bit one.  Take that everyone who insists on using the highest possible bit rates!

The earliest attempts at digital sampling in the late 60s made do with the best available computing technology of the time.  At the time personal/desktop computers and inexpensive microprocessors were still almost a decade in the future, so they usually used what were called “minicomputers.” These were actually pretty big machines – the fact they could fit inside just one room was enough to make them “mini”.  These things were still mostly the domain of big business and industry – the concept of a “personal” computer didn’t exist yet.  Two of the first digital sampling/recording systems developed used a minicomputer called the PDP-8, which had a price tag of $18,500 in 1965!  That’s just for the computer, never mind all of the extra hardware like the analog to digital and digital to analog converters.  Needless to say these were mostly developed for research instead of practical music making, although one of them – the Computer Music Inc. “Melodian – was actually used by Stevie Wonder on his 1979 album “Journey through the Secret Life of Plants”.

PDP-8/E

PDP-8/E

As computers became smaller in the 70’s and microprocessors took the place of bulky room-sized mainframes, more digital sampling and synthesis machines were developed.  The first two mass-produced polyphonic digital samplers were the Synclavier (released in 1977) and the Fairlight CMI (released in 1979).  These were both systems comprised of a CPU, a fairly bulky box housing the processor(s), disk drives, converters, a monitor (the Fairlight’s had a cool light-pen you could draw on the screen with), input devices like a mouse, computer keyboard and of course the familiar synthesizer keyboard.  The Synclavier and Fairlight both featured digital additive synthesis capabilities in addition to sampling making them very powerful machines indeed.  This technology was so cutting edge at the time that only the biggest studios and richest musicians had access to them.  A typical Synclavier system was upwards of $200,000 and Fairlights were also well into the $30,000 range for base models.  They were insanely expensive, but in the days before off-the-shelf PC soundcards (or even PCs for that matter) these tiny companies had to develop everything (the hardware and software) themselves.  In retrospect it was quite an achievement – and the fact that there are at least a few of these still around and kicking speaks to how useful and well-built they turned out to be.

By the early 80s Fairlights and Synclaviers became must-haves for big commercial studios.  The Fairlight can be heard on many recordings and soundtracks of the time from artists like Kate Bush and Duran Duran to BBC documentaries.  The Synclavier was also widely used in the film & TV industry – and can be heard on lots of TV soundtracks like The X-Files.  One of my favourite childhood movies is Disney’s Flight of the Navigator, which featured a soundtrack composed by Alan Sylvestri (Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit etc.) and performed entirely on the Synclavier.  The Fairlight and Synclavier are now basically just kept around for just for their nostalgia value, since their computing power is not even close to what’s in our cell phones today.  Nowadays the only practical reason to keep a machine like that around is if you happen to like the “sound” of it.  Even then, the convenience of modern computers and software make using the Synclavier and Fairlight seem quite clunky by comparison.   That isn’t to say the samples themselves aren’t still useful.  Like everything else 1980s – the factory samples on the Fairlights and Synclaviers have become fashionable again.  Remember the big metallic notes at the beginning of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It”?  That’s a classic Synclavier sound.  The good news is you no longer need a Fairlight or Synclavier system to use these sounds in your productions.  There’s actually a Fairlight iPad app available that emulates the original machine’s function and features all of the classic Fairlight samples.  While there is no software-based “virtual” Synclavier (yet) those samples are also available from various sample library suppliers.  

Before DAWs became the norm….before home recordings started rivalling pro studio ones and everything could be done inside a computer… it was the age of the budget sampler.  In part 3 we’ll look at the glory days of the consumer mass-market sampler and revisit the question – do DAWs like Ableton spell the end of the hardware sampler era?  Stay tuned to find out!  

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