The sampler is one of the most influential bits of music gear ever created – here are 5 landmarks in its evolution

There are some bits of musical equipment whose appearance didn’t so much change the landscape as detonate it and rebuild it. The electric guitar is one such bit of gear, and the sampler another.

So omnipresent and powerful is the influence of the sampler that in many cases, you don’t even know its there. The MP3 player is based on sampling technology, as is the audio CD.

The vast majority of keyboards and synthesizers are based on samples, these days, and ROMpler plug-ins have revolutionised computer-based productions.

Whole genres of have grown out of sampling. But where did it all start?

Here’s a potted history of the sampler, in five landmark developments.


The Mellotron

There’s a common conception that limitations force you to be more creative. The Mellotron is an amazing illustration of this. A precursor to the sampler, it employed reels of analogue tape loops played at different speeds when keys were pressed to create its sounds.

The results had a unique, otherworldly, ethereal quality. This was the first time a ‘real’ sound recording had been used as the source for an instruments sound, however. Most famously, perhaps, the Mellotron was used for the flute intro on The Beatles’ ‘Strawberry Fields’.

The Sampler – A History In 5 Landmarks

The Fairlight CMI

The Fairlight CMI is legendary for many reasons, not least of which its cost. At the time of its release, most would have needed a hefty mortgage to buy one. It epitomised the eighties vision of the future, with its computer monitor and light-pen interface.

Crucially, though, this was the first true audio sampling musical instrument. Ironically, it was the Australian developers’ (Peter Vogel and Kim Ryrie) ‘plan B’.

Fairlight CMI

Initially, they had worked on a precursor to a modelling synth (the Qasar M8), but found their ideas outstripped the computer processing power available. They decided to use a sampled waveform as the source wave, and changed music forever.

Akai MPC-60

Akai MPC-60

Akai has done more for the development and widespread use of the sampler than any other brand. One of its most iconic products was the MPC-60.

Designed in conjunction with Roger Linn, the combination of Akai’s sampling tech and Linn’s intuitive interface design resulted in one of the most enduring designs in music technology.

Sixteen velocity sensitive pads allowed easy input of drum parts, with a powerful on-board sequencer to record them. It was the first ever sample production workstation.

One of the key elements of its success was the legendary MPC swing. This uniquely quantise setting allowed the user to add distinctive, loose swing to parts. This made the MPC the tool of choice for countless Hip-Hop producers.

The new MPC controller range has added a new, powerful, hardware-software hybrid version of the original, but still underpinned by Linn’s classic design and feel.

Kontakt 5

Native Instruments Kontakt

Berlin-based developer, Native Instruments, have been similarly pioneering, but in the world of software development. Kontakt was among the first software samplers, and quickly established itself as a de-facto standard.

Using a computer as the ‘engine’ behind the sampler had several major advantages over a hardware equivalent. Firstly, sample time on a hardware sampler was limited to the amount of onboard RAM. A computer was capable of streaming much longer samples from a hard drive.

Native Instruments Komplete 11 Ultimate

Secondly, the huge amount of storage offered by computer hard-drives meant that sample libraries (even for individual patches) could be huge. This has led to the rise of hugely detailed sample re-creations of pianos, strings and other instruments, each with many velocity layers and articulations.

Kontakt (which is a key part of the Komplete packages) has evolved to be a hugely powerful sound creation tool, with intelligent scripting, effects, along with a gargantuan included sound library. It could, quite conceivably, be the only plug-in you’ll ever need.

Native Instruments Maschine MK2

Native Instruments Maschine

Native changed the game, once again, when it launched its first hybrid product – Maschine. This combination of software and hardware took the concepts established by those early sample workstations, and supercharged them with modern technology.

So, sample-lengths and sample library sizes were now expanded to Kontakt-like sizes, but the interface was via the intuitive, sixteen-pad hardware controller.

Maschine 1.8 Software

Effectively, it offered the equivalent of having several hardware sample sequencers running simultaneously.

More than capable of being used to create a track standalone, with no other software, Machine will also run as a plug-in in your DAW of choice.

It’s impossible to say how will the sampler evolve next, but with such powerful tools available already, who cares? 😉