Sampler (musical instrument)  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

A sampler is an electronic musical instrument closely related to a synthesizer. Instead of generating sounds from scratch, however, a sampler starts with multiple recordings (or "samples") of different sounds, and then plays each back based on how the instrument is configured. Because these samples are usually stored in RAM, the information can be quickly accessed.

The sampler has become an important instrument in hip hop, electronic music, and avant-garde music.


The emergence of the digital sampler made sampling far more practical, and as samplers added progressively more digital processing to their recorded sounds, they began to merge into the mainstream of modern digital synthesizers. The first digital sampling synthesiser was the Computer Music Melodian which was first available in 1976. The first polyphonic digital sampling synthesiser was the Australian-produced Fairlight CMI which was first available in 1979.

Prior to computer memory-based samplers, musicians used tape replay keyboards, which stored recordings of musical instrument notes and sound effects on analog tape. As a key was pressed, the tape head would contact the tape and play a sound. The Mellotron was used by a number of groups in the late 60s and 1970s. Such systems were both expensive and quite heavy due to the multiple tape mechanisms involved. These same factors limited the range of the instrument to at most three octaves. If the user wished to change sound, they would often have to change out many tapes -- not practical in a live setting.

Modern digital samplers use mostly digital technology to process the samples into interesting sounds. Akai pioneered many processing techniques, such as Crossfade Looping to eliminate glitches and Time Stretch which allows for shortening or lengthening of samples without affecting pitch and vice versa. The limiting factors in the early days were the cost of physical memory (RAM) and the limitations of external data storage devices.

During the early 1990s hybrid synthesizers began to emerge that utilized very short samples of natural sounds and instruments (usually the attack phase of the instrument) along with digital synthesis to create more realistic instrument sounds. Examples of this 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. This made best use of the tiny amount of memory available to the design engineers.

The modern-day music workstation usually features an element of sampling, from simple playback to complex editing that matches all but the most advanced dedicated samplers. The primary difference is that the workstation also includes additional features such as a sequencer to provide flexibility for composers.

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.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Sampler (musical instrument)" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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