The sampler versus the music industry: the case for the defence (1993)

This essay is intended to feature contemporary artists and includes references to music composed/constructed in the 1990s, as well as from the previous decade, when the term “sampling” came into common use.

Though samplers are used to a great extent to “lift'” musical excerpts from existing compositions, I intend to stress that this is not the only use of the sampler, even if it is the most criticised and widely-discussed aspect of sampling.

The first artists to gain a reputation from the cut-and-paste technique often associated with sampling were Pop Will Eat Itself and The KLF in 1987; and, with more commercial success, M/A/R/R/S and Bomb The Bass in 1988, both number One singles following Paul Hardcastle‘s breakthrough single “19” in 1985.

“Digital samplers are identified less with modern composers (like Brian Eno) than with dance genres like Disco, Hip-hop, Hi-NRG and House” (from “Sample and Hold”, p.263). This seems to be where the sampler’s bad reputation has sprung from, in that it has been connected with “low” popular culture rather than “high” art.

“Analogue electronic synths were supposed to be “cold” and “unnatural” according to rock’s realist critics and fans at the time of their invention” (ibid. p.265) and as little as three years ago the same things were said of samplers and music created by samplers in the British press.

In an article in The Guardian dated 25/7/92, journalist Neville Audsley contrasted the “soulless, machine beat of techno music” with music created by what he calls “real musicians”. He claims that Techno, and therefore, by inference, sampling, is “faceless and personality-free… reveling in banality and repetition” and that “no musicianship is involved”. This attitude stems from the belief that “lifting” samples from an existing composition displays lack of originality and creativity.

There are many different approaches to digital audio: sampling and the technology can be used in a number of ways.

Creation and manipulation of sounds, both man-made and natural

Linked  closely to theMusique Concrete movement that begun in “art” music in Paris in the late 1940s. At this time “sampling” was achieved through tape-splicing – a method that was also used on The BeatlesSgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album in 1967, where a cockerel is heard crowing at the beginning of the album.

At the end of the 1980s a new genre developed that revived the techniques of Musique Concrete, it became known as Ambient House (though later divorced itself entirely from the dance scene, mutated with the alternative scene and became known as Ambient), music which was abstract and set a relaxing atmosphere by natural sounds such as rainfall, speech, running water and ringing telephones etc.

Ambient’s current leading artists are Britain’s The Orb and Future Sound of London, both of whom are known for long compositions (both released a single that exceeded 38 minutes in length) and Germany’s Jam and Spoon. All these bands create their own soundspaces, where new worlds exist within their music. It could be said that Ambient is the aural equivalent of Virtual Reality.

U2 took the ideas of Musique Concrete a step further in 1993 with the Video Remix of their single “Numb”, joining audio and visual samples of heavy machinery and Aboriginal cries to join the aesthetic that became known as TV Sampling.

The sampler has made it easier to create Musique Concrete, by allowing each individual sound to be stored on disk, to be called up at the touch of a button or triggered by a keyboard instrument via MIDI. This technology allowed Future Sound of London to broadcast live on BBC Radio 1 on 15th May 1994, their vast catalogue of samples each assigned to a different key on a keyboard, and therefore could be triggered at any time during the broadcast, making that particular performance unique in the same sense as any standard rock, performance is unique.

The sampler has also allowed the manipulation of recorded sound, something that was complex, if not impossible with tape-splicing. A sampled sound’s pitch and duration can be changed, it can be reversed, and any part of the sample can be repeated or edited out, to split-second precision. Disk storage allows several, if not hundreds of different versions of the same sound source to be available at the touch of a button. Musicians and engineers have learned to manipulate sounds so that they become almost unrecognisable and therefore offer new sonorities, new timbral and textual possibilities, extending what was previously possible with electric guitars and even with synthesizers.

In his remix of Peter GabrieI’s “Kiss That Frog” in 1993, William Orbit sampled Peter GabrieI’s voice and reassembles its sound as a musical instrument, using the sampler to twist and stretch the voice to achieve effects beyond the capabilities of humans. Other remixers have found the sampler of use when constructing 12-inch remixes, when anything from a singular sound, or a 4-beat drum loop to an 8- or 16-bar phrase can be sampled and stored on disk, allowing the remlxer to extend the track as long as possible, without the need far rerecording or tape manipulation.

The amateur musician can apply the techniques of Musique Concrete to achieve unique percussion sounds that are not available on library sample CDs or on synthesizer soundcards. Slamming garage doors, slapping wood and bursting paper bags can sound like various snare drum hits when equalised or effected digitally. The sounds made by opening a soft drinks” can or by slapping a sheet of tinfoil or other metallic objects create cymbal or hi-hat sounds, wile tapping speaker cones, bouncing plastic footballs, slamming suitcases or (again) snapping wood can faithfully reproduce a kick drum sound, though each with their individual inflections. For different kinds of percussive effects it is possible that switching on vacuum cleaners, tapping glass jars, cracking walnuts or even lighting a gas fire can achieve convincing “techno” drum effects. This is true creative use of the sampler.

Lifting

Though it seems pointless to argue that the methods listed above are not creative, lifting material from someone else’s composition has been a topic of great debate both within the music industry and the media. Many artists have been sued for stealing snatches from someone else’s song or the sound of their voice.

Shut Up And Dance were sued in 1991 for their unauthorised use of Marc Cohn’s “Walking in Memphis”, while The KLF were sued by both ABBA and Whitney Houston for material released in 1987 (including the album Whitney Joins The JAMMS), and Black Box had to re-record their No.1 hit “Ride On Time” in 1990 after being sued by Lolleatta Holloway for using her voice from the acapella track “Love Sensation” without her consent (though they claimed they sampled the track from an album titled Acapella Anonymous).

There are also examples of famous samples that keep appearing in pop music, such as a particular drum loop from the Led Zeppelin IV album (sampled both by Enigma and Sophie B. Hawkins, amongst others), various Games Brown shouts and exclamations, and the drum loop from his “Funky Drummer” track.

Musicians have always used previous influences to spice up their music, from the days of the classical composers to be-bop and jazz, who used the same riffs from one song to the next. There was often an irony or an aesthetic value in referring to other artists” work or to other songs, but the Copyright Act 1986 has created a hysteria surrounding lifting, so that it is now no longer safe to use someone else’s material without permission. (This may protect the original artist’s work, but is it fair for Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine to lose most of the royalties generated by their single “After The Watershed” because Mick Jagger sued them for using the phrase “Goodbye Ruby Tuesday” in the chorus?)

All these examples of court cases raises the subject of ownership of sound, tackled by, amongst others, Thomas PorceIlo in his 1991 engineer’s discourse on digital audio sampling. He states that “sampling from pre-recorded materials is at the least unethical, and, at worst, is outright theft” (p.71). Porcello’s criticisms is aimed mostly at artists and producers of rap music, and their common use of sampled extracts from James Brown’s music as a base. Bomb The Bass” Tim Simenon defends this by arguing that “kids of 18, 19 wouldn’t have heard of him [James Brown] if it wasn’t for hip-hop” (Goodwin, p.271). Goodwin asks if this is a new interest in pop’s history, what he calls “attempts to make the past contemporary” (p.272).

This certainly seems to be the case with bands such as Us3 and Beautiful People, both of whom have been allowed access to old master tapes and been asked to compose new material based around samples from the originals. Us3’s debut album “Hand On The Torch” in 1993 was recorded as a tribute to Blue Note records and one of its founders, Alfred Lion. The album features samples from earlier Blue Note recordings such as those by Herbie Hancock (the piano from “Cantaloupe island'” was sampled on Us3’s debut single ” Cantaloop”), The Jazz Messengers, Horace Silvor and Donald Byrd. Though not a huge commercial success, the album did introduce a young, hip-hop generation to Blue Note’s back catalogue and helped Acid Jazz-rise to popularity. As a result, Blue Note used a new technology to maintain the label’s reputation as a cutting edge institution.

Beautiful People’s debut album If 60s Were 90s (1993) used samples from Jimi Hendrix’s songs as a basis for their own and combined guitar riffs, vocal extracts and spoken words from various songs to create new ones. They believed this in keeping with what Jimi Hendrix was trying to achieve through his music – the idea of having fun and enjoying his music.

Arguments on the ethics of sampling break down when deciding on boundaries between fair use of sampling, and theft. PorcelIo argues that the duration of a sound is important as well as the way in which it is used. it may be unethical to sample a voice, since all vocal timbres and techniques are unique, while one artist’s guitar or drum sound may be similar” if not identical, to another’s. Tim Simenon confirms this – “That sound like Shaft guitar [on “Beat Dis”] isn’t “Shaft.” We sampled one note of wah-wah guitar and reconstructed it on the keyboards. You wouldn’t be able to find that guitar pattern on any other record” (Goodwin, p.267).

But how long can a musical sample be before it becomes theft? Jaz Colman (Utah Saints): “if you extrapolate that argument to an absurd degree, every keyboard manufacturer would have to sue everyone that uses their sounds because they created the sounds” (MT No.82, August 1993). “Do colours constitute a painting? Colours certainly constitute the character and quality of a composition …Is the discoverer of red clay… due credit for that discovery? Can I use it to paint a picture? (Evans, from Porcello, p.77).

A sampled voice is often unmistakable though, and while Orbital sampled the vocals from Opus III‘s “It’s a Fine Day” on their single “Halcyon” in 1992, Utah Saints managed I three Top 20 hits using three different sampled voices (Annie Lennox on “What Can You Do For Me?” in 1991, Phil Oakey’s “Believe in Me” and Kate Bush on “Something Good”, both in 1993). Though they use sampled voices they state “We’d never just use the essence of someone else’s song and use it as the basis for our own” (from XT, Aug.93).

Goodwin argues that artists such as M/A/R/R/S and Tim Simenon are redefining the concept of “creativity” from its 1970s progressive rock meaning of inventing new musical forms and original music and PorcelIo agrees that “taking a short excerpt…and inserting it in a new track constitutes fair use because the original work is given new meaning through the act of being placed in a new context. Creativity is embodied not only by composition, but by transposition of of meaning through contextual – and therefore semantic shifts” (pp 71-2).

Perhaps this explains the critical acclaim received by Portishead‘s debut album “Dummy” (1994), voted Album of the Year in Melody Maker, Mixmag and The Face, amongst others. Their combination of an often minimal guitar style with samples of Johnny Ray, Weather Report, Smokey Brooks and Isaac Hayes earned them interviews in such diverse publications as the NME, Guitarist and Mixmag. To highlight the point made by PorceIlo on creativity, Isaac Hayes” “Ike’s Rap II” is sampled both on Portishead’s “Glory Box” (1994) and Tricky’s “Hell is Round the Corner” (1995). Though the backing track is the same, the effects achieved by the songs are different, One sombre yet relaxing, the other dark and unsettling.

The sampler and the solo musician

Musicians have often felt threatened by new technology in that they believe it will one day replace them. This is an old cry that was uttered when analogue synthesizers came into being and rock musicians feared that they would replace the guitar.

The sampler has made music-making easier for the isolated musician who no longer needs a full orchestra to realise a complex or large-scale work, when one is available digitally. It is now possible to make a professional-sounding recording without the aid of any other musicians since all the sounds needed can be gathered on disk.

Sample CDs are less expensive than musicians and the sound can be manipulated easier. Barrington Pheloung used a sampler when composing the score for the Inspector Morse series. He sampled every instrument of the orchestra with different effects (e.g. muted trumpet, bowed string, plucked string etc.). This helped the composer orchestrate the score so that changes could be made early on before the soundtrack was recorded by a live orchestra.

The solo musician is just one example of how the sampler has brought about musical democratisation, a result of technology becoming more affordable to a greater number of people and therefore results in an “easily-attainable skills threshold for using the technology” (Durant, p.193). The more people who learn to use a sampler, divorced from any traditional musical jargon, the more input people will have into how the technology is used. This means that the technology may be “abused” but as a result, new uses will be found for that technology and therefore increase creativity.

The Art of Noise pioneered the creative use of sampling in the mid-1980s, but now Anne Dudley feels that sampling is no longer creative. “I like to think that we did do different things with sampling, and we had no idea really that it would become so hackneyed as it is now” ( Sound on Sound, April 1995). She believes that the widespread use of samplers is cutting down on innovation. “If you let machines do all the difficult stuff for you, where’s your own personality in that?” (ibid.) This is just another example of how musicians feel threatened by the sampler, which allows the musically-untrained access to music-making, blurring the distinction between amateur and professional, and breaking down the walls of musical elitism.

Musical democratisation means that there may be material of poorer quality on the market, but at least it means that there will be more material in general available to the listener, much of which will be creative and innovative, and surely that can do no harm to the music industry.

Utah Saints see the sampler as a way of breaking away from the limitations of “traditional” instruments such as the guitar or the keyboard, and the technology is still in its infancy – who knows what will be possible with the next generation of samplers? People have always abused technology, while others condemn that technology before even attempting to understand it.

Selected discography

Selected videography

Bibliography/Research

  • ANDREW GOODWIN –   “Sample and Hold” (from “On Record”, Routledge, 1990)
  • PORCELLO – “The Ethics of Digital-audio Sampling” (from “Popular Music Journal” 10/1, 1991)
  • DOM FOULSHAM- “Anything to Declare?” ( from Music Technology” May 1393)
  • ANTHONY BRAINE – “Copyrights and wrongs” (from Music Technology, October and November 1992)
  • TIM GOODYER – “Criminal Record?” ( from Music Technology, March 1992)
  • PAUL WHITE – “Creative Sampling Made Easy” (from Sound On Bound, June 1994)
  • PAUL WARD – “Creative Use of Your Sampler” (from Sound On Sound, February 1995)
  • PHIL WARD – Utah Saints interview (from MT, August 1993)
  • PHIL WARD – Interview with Anne Dudley (from Sound On Sound, April 1995)