Sampling: the 80s
Music was transformed by digital technology in the 1980s, in ways that are still reverberating today. The compact disc promised ‘perfect sound forever’, and led to later formats such as DVD and Blu-Ray. Digital synthesizers and signal processors, and the MIDI protocol through which they communicate, made for increasingly compact, sophisticated and affordable production environments, as well as the proliferation of home studios, which can now be powered by just a laptop. And the sampler opened up radical new sonic possibilities, changing audiences’ ideas about music, and leading to new genres such as mash-up.
The sampler is a a type of electronic musical instrument that is a close relative of the synthesizer. Whereas synths typically generate particular kinds of sounds, such as square waves or sawtooth waves, a sampler can record and play back any sounds.
My first encounter with sampling was as a 13 year old boy soprano, on tour with my school’s choir and orchestra. While watching the TV in a hotel lobby, a striking music video appeared, in which a punk child and her accomplices took to orchestral instruments, including a grand piano, with a chainsaw and other power tools, with the music seemingly incorporating the sounds of those tools (it was actually a sampled car engine – a Volkswagen Golf to be precise). The artists had captured the attitude of punk’s year zero, of destroying the past to create the future, but at the same time the work was incredibly catchy. I couldn’t get the sounds or images out of my head. My musical world had changed forever.
The band was Art of Noise and the song was “Close (To the Edit)”:
Art of Noise was an initially faceless group of technicians, producers, composers and writers. The team had been assembled in 1981 by super-producer Trevor Horn, to work on ABC’s classic The Lexicon of Love album. Team members Gary Langan and JJ Jeczalik specialised in programming the then new Fairlight sampler (about which more later). It was while experimenting with sampled drum out-takes from one of Horn’s previous bands, Yes, and combining them with ‘non-musical’ sounds, that the idea for Art of Noise was born. With the addition of classically trained composer Anne Dudley, and NME music journalist Paul Morley, the team was complete.
Morley named the group Art of Noise as a reference to Luigi Russolo’s 1913 Futurist manifesto, The Art of Noises.
Futurism was an Italian art movement of the early 20th Century that celebrated technology, speed, violence and noise. It was the punk of its era, with founder Filippo Tommaso Marinetti declaring that “we want no part of it, the past”.
Marinetti was also a pioneer of sound poetry. His 1912 sound poem Zang Tumb Tumb (also the name of Art of Noise’s record label) inspired Russolo to write his Art of Noises manifesto, which proposed a new form of music: “Today music, as it becomes continually more complicated, strives to amalgamate the most dissonant, strange and harsh sounds. In this way we come ever closer to noise-sound”.
Russolo invented machines, called Intonarumori, to realise his musical ideas. These devices simulated industrial sounds, and could be considered a precursor to the sampler.
Futurist ideas would have a profound influence on art and music in the 20th Century.
The Dada movement which followed on from Futurism, and was considered by some to be anti-art, brought in the use of found objects such as the urinal of Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917), and expanded the use of collage through the cutup poems of Tristan Tzara.
American avant-gardists picked up on these ideas, with composer John Cage predicting in 1937 that the music of the future would include “all sounds”, and suggesting the use of optical film as a medium for composition. This was before magnetic tape, which only became available after World War II.
In Paris, Pierre Schaeffer developed Musique Concrète (“real music”) using recorded sounds and the technology of the radio studio, such as turntables and later, magnetic tape. This electroacoustic approach would inspire other avant-garde composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen.
Stockhausen fans The Beatles brought sound collage to the masses with their infamous “Revolution No. 9”, and used the Mellotron, a keyboard tape loop instrument that was a precursor to the sampler, on songs such as “Strawberry Fields Forever”.
Inspired by Tzara, Beat writer William S. Burroughs and Brian Gysin did their own tape cutup experiments, concluding “when you cut into the present, the future leaks out”. These experiments went on to influence many artists, from David Bowie to industrial pioneers Throbbing Gristle.
Tape became more accessible through the medium of cassettes, allowing a new generation of DIY artists, inspired by punk and industrial to experiment with cutups and found sounds. This was the background from which sampling emerged.
Sydney company Fairlight, founded by Peter Vogel and Kim Ryrie, created the first commercially available sampler, the Fairlight CMI (Computer Music Instrument) in 1979. Way ahead of its time and featuring a light pen interface and three dimensional waveform display, it was also expensive at about £18,000, putting it out of reach of the average musician. Pop stars, however, became enthusiastic users, enabling them to feed an audience hungry for new sounds.
The musical aesthetic of sampling was largely determined by the available technology. The tiny (by today’s standards) memory meant that only short sounds could be used. This staccato approach was exemplified by the Fairlight’s ORCH5 orchestra sample – one of the defining sounds of the ‘80s. One way of overcoming this limitation was to loop sounds, creating drum loops, or atmospheric ‘pads’, often extended through the use of another great 80s sound: digital reverb.
Here’s a cute video of Peter Vogel demonstrating the Fairlight CMI on ABC TV:
Kate Bush’s Never for Ever (1980) was the first commercially released album to include the Fairlight. She had been introduced to the instrument by Peter Gabriel who was a Fairlight enthusiast and whose brother in law became the UK distributor. For artists such as Gabriel and Bush, the Fairlight provided unprecedented control over the sound of their music. As Bush said:
“I took one look at it and said, ‘This is what I’ve been looking for all my life.’ I couldn’t believe the Fairlight. It’s called a synthesizer, but many of its sounds are of natural source. To be able to play with strings, waterfalls, anything you want, it’s wonderful.”
Kate Bush with Fairlight. Source.
The Fairlight was soon embraced by other pop stars, such as Thomas Dolby (“Hyperactive”) Jean Michel Jarre (especially the underrated masterpiece Zoolook) and Yello (“Oh Yeah”), making it one of the most important contributors to the ‘80s pop sound.
By the mid-‘80s sampling had become ubiquitous with the emergence of electro and house music, and a range of more affordable samplers being produced by companies such as Akai, Roland, E-mu, and Ensoniq.
M/A/R/R/S “Pump Up the Volume” is one of the defining tracks of that era.
Synthetic TV presenter Max Headroom represented this new aesthetic with his stuttering, glitchy approach to presentation. He even featured in the Art of Noise song and video clip, “Paranoimia”.
Meanwhile back in Australia, post-punk experimentalists such as the now legendary Severed Heads had long been incorporating found sounds into their music using DIY techniques involving turntables, tapes, and samplers.
In 1986 Severed Heads’ Tom Ellard demonstrated sampling on national television:
Pioneers of multimedia, Severed Heads went on to use another Fairlight invention, the CVI (Computer Video Instrument).
Hip hop, founded on the concept of two turntables and a microphone, was a natural home for the sampler. Instead of laboriously looping beats by juggling records, producers could create loops with the sampler, and layer multiple loops and other samples together. This explosion in creative possibilities led to the golden age of hip hop.
On albums such as It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Public Enemy sampled iconoclastic black artists including Thelonious Monk and Jimi Hendrix, to create a rhythmic noise that was some of the most radical pop music ever made, both politically and sonically. As well as using samples in their music, hip hop artists such as Eric B & Rakim found themselves being sampled heavily by other artists.
Public Enemy’s Flavor Flav famously rapped “you can’t copyright no beats”. Unfortunately for the golden age of hip hop, he was wrong. De La Soul got into trouble for the use of uncleared samples. At around the same time, experimental sample-based artists such as John Oswald (“Plunderphonic”) and Negativland (“U2”) also fell afoul of copyright law, driving such music underground until the eventual emergence of Napster and mash-ups.
However samples continued to be a feature of ‘90s pop. Art of Noise were themselves sampled by many others, perhaps most notably on the Prodigy’s hit “Firestarter” which included the famous ‘hey’ from “Close (To the Edit)”.
Digital audio, as pioneered by sampling, fed into the rise of DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations) such as ProTools, forever changing music production, along with more experimental techniques such as glitch and granular synthesis. These all paved the way for the mash-up culture in which we now live. For this we have the 80s to thank, with its visionaries such as Fairlight, who are currently bringing the 80s back with a retro-looking sampler and an iPad app based on the CMI.