Monday, 3 March 2014

REVOLUTION 90's Sampling Culture from Public Enemy to My Bloody Valentine

1990S SAMPLING CULTURE the tools and the producers,

The idea of sampling had its roots in analogue technology with technological developments in tape allowing sound to be easier to record, store and manipulate as demonstrated by tape replay keyboards such as the mellotron, as introduced to popular culture by The Beatles. These machines were not versatile and were incredibly expensive for the time. The advent of digital audio technology created a new world of possibilities through the early 1980s into the 1990s and beyond.

Technological Process Modern Sampling Technology

It is important to understand the actual process and theory that lies behind sampling and to also look at the advances in digital audio technology which have allowed sampling of audio to be as commonplace in music technology and production as putting a microphone in front of a sound source.

The advances in digital audio technology have arguably been the single biggest driving force in the changes to the music industry in the last 25 years. Digital audio theory can be a complex subject, covering a wide range of issues, but, for the benefit of this review, the basic principles will be covered with a look at how this technology has advanced since the 1980’s

The Basics  ( Boring theory Bit)

At it’s most basic, digital audio technology is the process where analogue signals are represented digitally by numeric values. The process involves encoding, processing, storing and then reproducing the analogue signal in a digital form. Digital systems use binary code to perform all the processes involved in analogue to digital conversion and vice versa.

 Digital audio can be simplified into two main components, sampling and quantization. Sampling represents the component of time whilst quantization represents the signal level component. The sampling rate is the number of samples taken per second of an analogue signal. In the case of a standard CD, this is 44,100 times per second or44.1Khz. 

The quantization process uses binary digits (bits) to store and translate the amplitude levels of the signal using incoming voltage levels. The converter samples the incoming voltage level briefly and outputs the signal in a set of binary numbers representing the original analogue signal. 

The accuracy by which this binary word represents the original signal is determined by the bit rate (standard CD 16-bit). The standard level for CD is 44.1 KHz at 16 bit but most digital systems are now operating at higher levels for most applications. Sampling technology gathered momentum in the 1980’s and 1990’s when the company Akai produced the first relatively affordable hardware samplers operating at 44.1 KHz 16 bit. This technology forms the basis of sampling from the earliest outset through to the modern DAW software platforms that are used today.

The First Sampling Tools

The very first digital samplers were still fairly cumbersome in comparison to the rack mount digital samplers that would come to dominate the sampler market in the 80s and 90s. The early digital samplers would include models such as The Computer Music Melodian, EMS MUSYS and Fairlight CMI.

 The former two, were the precursors to the famous Fairlight which emerged onto the market in 1979. The Fairlight was expensive even for professional studios, and excluded the mass market. It wasn’t until 1984 that digital samplers would become exposed to a wider audience.
By this time, the machines had become more portable and companies such as Esoniq, Sequential, E-mu and Akai were beginning to put products on the market which were closer in reach to producers and artists than they had been previously. Sampling would soon become part of the mainstream popular music culture.

 The first samplers that made the biggest impact at this point were the E-mu SP1200 and the Akai S900 samplers. Both of these samplers were at the forefront of modern music production with artists such as Public Enemy, The Beastie Boys, DJ Shadow and countless others tapping into the potential that these instruments afforded them. When looking at the specifications of both of these instruments, it seems unimpressive by todays standards but many creative producers exploited these instruments to their full potential and created some important records in the process.

E-MU SP1200

This machine became a favourite with early hip hop producers and can still be found in use in some producer’s studios today. Recent artists such as Daft Punk, Stardust and Stereo MC’S still use this machine for production. The E-mu SP1200 had fairly limited specifications by today’s standards, working at 26.040 KHz and 12-bit resolution. It is this “Lo –Fi “sound that many producers consider to be the sound of early hip hop productions.

The SP 1200 was produced between 1987 and 1997 and allowed the user to sample and edit those samples. The samples could be stored on a disc drive housing floppy discs. The sliders on the front of the machine could be used to tune or de tune and pitch samples as required.. The element, however, that seems to overwhelmingly give this machine its definitive sound is the lower bit rate which produces a grittier tone to the sound of any sample put into this machine. The SP 1200 also used specific SSM 2044 filter chips which also contributed to the gritty sound that these samplers gained a reputation for. The production of the machine stopped in 1997 when the SSM 2044 chips no longer were available.

Artists using the SP1200 also had to be creative in their use of samples. The machine had little more than 12 seconds sampling time so samples had to be edited together into one shot hits and very small harmonic stabs. This ruled out the possibility of taking large chunks of music and simply looping it and forced the early producers of hip hop /house music into creating their own beats rhythms and musical phrases from pre existing records.

Akai was the next company to take digital audio technology a stage further. Akai had started to produce a range of samplers in rack mounted form which were capable of more sampling time, higher fidelity and time stretching algorithms. This meant that the sampled sound could be sped up or slowed down without affecting pitch. The first of these samplers from Akai was the Akai S900. The specifications of this sampler were a step up from the E mu SP1200. The S 900 had 12 bit stereo sampling, sampling rates from7.5 KHz up to 40,000Hz and was capable of 63 seconds at 7.5 KHz (at greatly reduced quality). Samples could be stored on floppy disc and Akai increased the specifications of their S series samplers with every release making the Akai S series a dominant force in the sampling market for nearly 20 years. Many artists used the Akai samplers during the 1990s as the convenience and relative affordability of these machines helped bring sampling to the mass market.


Sampling technology has been responsible for some of the most creative forms of music in the last 25 years and has also encouraged many producers to be innovative in their use of sampling from other records and also in re sampling themselves and manipulating the sampled audio to create new sounds.

With samplers such as the E Mu SP- 1200 and the Akai S series in many studios and independent producers homes, a new way of creating and producing music had become accessible to a huge amount of producers and musicians.

This led to an explosion in electronic genres of music such as Hip-Hop, House, Techno and ambient Electronica. Production techniques were developed using this new technology which would be embraced further a field until many of these techniques of sampling, editing, processing and re-sampling became accepted parts of modern music production.

 The following are some examples of some of these producer’s techniques and how they influenced other artists with their innovations in sampling and production.


Public Enemy were one of the most innovative groups of the early Hip Hop period. Their production team was called “The Bomb Squad” and Hank Shocklee was often at the helm for most of their productions. Shocklee describes their approach to production, “Public Enemy was all about having a sound that had it’s own distinct vision. We didn’t want to use anything we considered traditional R&B stuff, bass lines, melodies and chord structures, things of that nature”.

The Bomb Squad and Shocklee’s productions used sampling in a creative way as opposed to lifting sections of records and looping them. Shocklee explains more on their approach to sampling. “ We were taking a horn hit here, a guitar riff, a little speech a snare from somewhere else. It was all bits and pieces”

Public Enemy incorporated the sounds of everyday life into many of their tracks including snippets of air raid sirens, police sirens, radio interference and speech. These ideas are similar to the ideas of the Futurists and other innovators such as Schaeffer who all explored the idea of incorporating real world sounds into a musical context.

 In terms of sampling, Shocklee also explains how Public Enemy utilised the sampler to create new and original sounds which would not have been possible without digital sampling technology. Shocklee on creating their track “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos”. “ New techniques had to be developed in the studio such as parallel compression. We didn’t do parallel compression like everybody does today, we, had to invent it. If we had a main loop on something, bringing up a second copy of the main loop on another track meant putting massive amounts of compression on it so it would distort and placing it in the background of the main loop to give it some body. Part of the sound was in the dirt that we could get from the samples, whether it be hiss from the record or a crackle on top of the kick”.

As mentioned previously, Public Enemy were early innovators in the use of samplers but had a more creative and innovative approach to their production techniques than many of their peers. Below is an insight into how they would take inspiration from James Brown’s Funky Drummer beat (sampled extensively at the time) and try to recreate it’s feel using samples obtained from other records chopped and looped.

 Hank Shocklee explains “Funky drummer is a tricky ineffable thing ,full of ghost notes. The bomb squad pressed the buttons on the samplers in unison making sure the beat never looped perfectly. Flavour Flav tapped the snares in by hand on the Akai S 900 sampler".

 Hank Shocklee would later fill the Nation of Millions album with near silent ghost notes to make sampled snare hits sound like real drum fills and breaks and to ensure that loops didn’t repeat themselves”. “There are 4 beats in Rebel Without a Pause, all programmed differently with a different turnaround so nothing is repeated”

This technique shows how samplers were starting to be used as instruments rather than loop machines therefore creating a live humanized feel to sampled material. This is a trend which is very much at the forefront of current live sampling and performance.

My Bloody Valentine

Although many artists were using samplers to make beats or percussion based loops, some artists were using samplers in an entirely different manner. These producers viewed 
 the sampler as an empty box with the potential to be filled with whatever sound they wished and for that sound to be manipulated in whichever way the artist wanted. 

My Bloody Valentine were one of these artists, deviating from their traditional guitars, drums , bass and vocals set up, this group started to encompass creative use of the sampler within their productions.

Kevin Sheilds explains

One of the things that flipped other musicians and producers out about Loveless is that the sampler is used as more than a phrase machine largely because the band were sampling themselves”. Kevin Shields from the band goes on to describe their use of sampling technology.” We chose organic sounds, that’s why people didn’t immediately think that’s a keyboard even though it was. There are multilayered parts to the same songs, like the opening of Only Shallow. I’m playing the same thing 3 or 4 times with the two amps facing each other. I sampled it and put it an octave higher on the sampler. For us, where the sampler had a great value was that instead of having the option to play things on a keyboard based on some sounds you could find anywhere, we’d sample our own guitar feedback, which, instead of just being one tone, it could be a tone having bends and quirks in it. By using the human voice as well, for the top end you’ve got these organic things happening. Most of the songs from Loveless have samples on them .Everything we did is now stock, normal, standard techniques for making music. We were just using the technology to achieve our aims. What we did and which then became the prominent way of using samplers was to make it sound like you weren’t using a sampler.”

The above quotes from Kevin Shields give an insight into how he viewed the potential of samplers to manipulate the material that the band had created themselves through recording and show a more creative use of the sampling technology of the time.

 MBV were using the sampler as another tool for further digital audio signal processing and these techniques and ideas are massively influential in the sample libraries created by papas st germain.
enjoy the post there's more coming soon.peace and respect papas st germain

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