document on sampling is intended as a primer for the NEWBIE, who is looking to
form a deeper understanding of what samplers, samples and sampling is (and are),
and what they can be used for. This document is intended to give you the basic
knowledge needed to begin to explore the world of sampling, multi-samples, and
sample manipulation and composition.
I - Introduction
this is indeed a very big topic and we are faced with a very general question,
but lets take a preliminary stab at an answer, it should help to get anyone started.
We will look at what exactly sampling is and means, through to defining common
sampling and sampler terminology, to how we can use the different tools in our
samplers to accomplish a wide variety of tasks.
document has been written in a very general format, and is not intended to be
used as a guide to any specific sampler technology. For this purpose I have avoided
using direct examples of a specific vendors technology I want this document
to be useful as a general introduction to people starting to investigate sampling.
The choice of a specific technology or approach will depend on one's own unique
musical needs and goals, and shouldnt be influenced by this document.
of all, using samples is just a way to make a sound. Indeed, all you want to do
when creating 'digital music' is ultimately make some sounds of some sort.
are a few different ways to make a sound from a digital device like a computer.
of the ways is to use 'synthesis', where physical mechanisms (or digitally modeled
physical elements) interact to generate a sound where there wasn't any before.
These processes usually generate a sound using an oscillator to spit out a big
pile of audible frequencies, then a filter to shape and control the actual frequencies
that get 'played' and thus heard, and often an 'effect' or two that will add character
to the sound. Thus the act of synthesis creates a sound all by itself.
note that the above paragraph was an extremely simplified overview of basic subtractive
synthesis, simply for sake of brevity within this document. There are other methods
of synthesis that differ in theory from this, such as granular, FM, wavetable,
additive, etc. etc., however basic subtractive theory is really the grandfather
of all synthesis, and as good a place as any to begin in an understanding of it
any case, we have not even begun to answer the original question yet. Lets keep
synthesis is purely a way to make a controllable sound.
Samples' is simply a different way of making a sound. Instead of using mechanisms,
or digital models of mechanisms, to create a sound 'on their own', we instead
forget that approach entirely. We simply record a sound beforehand, and then play
it back when we want to hear it. That is the simplest form of using samples.
still have a way to go before we can say we understand our sampler though!
II - The Wonderful World of Samples
we've just seen two different concepts and methods of making a sound - synthesis
and sample playback. Since we are investigating samples and samplers, we need
to look past the gross oversimplifications above, and further into the details
of this art.
are a lot of different ways to use samples. I tend to divide the different ways
to use samples into three mental categories:
look at each of these over the next couple of paragraphs, and by then you should
have a pretty good idea of how sampling can work for you, and hopefully get a
good start on learning more (and hopefully my time spent typing this will have
use samples (one-shots)
Example lets pretend that you have a .wav file with a drum loop, its a nice
break beat, really funky. So you loop it and it plays - maybe in the background
of your song, maybe just in part of the song. That part doesn't matter. Perhaps
you trim the sample to be a bit shorter, and then loop it good for you! You
may also have some synths playing too, nice work.
hey! It turns out that you also have this other .wav file; it's a funky bass guitar
riff. You can stretch it (so it fits the same tempo) and loop it alongside the
break beat! Sweet, you are using some single samples.
like Sony's ACID are all about the 'single sample'. You can get piles of CDs from
them full of these .wav file loops. Programs like ACID let you have them all automatically
time-stretched to your chosen tempo, and you can layer all the ones you like into
'tracks'. Maybe you have a sound effect you really like, and you have a Boss Dr.
Sample machine. You can load that sound effect, and 'fire it off' by hitting a
rubber pad. Yay! Youre using single samples. This is one of the many ways to
programs that work with single samples have tools within them to do things to
'effect' the sample before playback, like filter it, adjust the volume, pan, eq,
adjust the loop points, etc. (But not always! Check with your friendly manufacturer
Im going to talk about the whole concept of multisampling. Please note that this
is a generic term that can be applied to a very wide range of different applications,
so I'll do what I can to at least help it make sense.
look into multisampling, let's start with the idea of a 'single use sample' as
described above, and then extend that a bit.
that you have a handful of sound FX samples in .wav files, and you'd like to be
able to control firing them all off at different times. Heres where a 'sampler'
program will be useful. You could be using any one of many different methods to
trigger the playing of one of your samples, it could be a rubber pad on an MPC
type device, a key on your computer's QWERTY keyboard, a 'note' or 'step' in the
piano-roll/timeline of a MIDI sequencer, or a key from a MIDI-capable 'piano-like'
that the discussion can be as easy as possible moving forward, let's focus on
the idea that we are going to trigger our sample to play by pressing a key on
our MIDI-capable piano keyboard (which we will refer to hereafter as a 'controller
keyboard') - but bear in mind this is just sending a MIDI message, and that message
could just as easily have been created by a rubber pad, a drum machine, a sequencer
etc., however as stated we are going to focus on the piano concept for the time
what we will do is assign each one of our handful of FX samples to a different
key on our controller keyboard. We can now fire these off at will by pressing
the assigned key, and even play more than one of them at the same time by pressing
keys simultaneously. We can record the MIDI data generated by our key-playing,
and edit it if we want, and use that recording to trigger the same 'performance'
from the samples at a later time.
is the most basic way of applying the concept of multisampling. Perhaps the samples
we are using are of a drum set - one bass drum sample, one snare sample, one crash
cymbal sample, etc. We get one mapped to each key, and we can 'play the drums'
by pressing the keys on our controller keyboard (or even by playing a MIDI-capable
the sampler will have a way to save this 'mapping information', relating a bunch
of samples on your hard-drive to a bunch of keys on a MIDI keyboard, so that you
can recall it at a later time - this is the 'programming information' for your
sample set, and will be in a different format depending on the manufacturer of
you have a 'program' for a sampler device, it will consist of two things: the
actual sample data (basically a collection of .wav files), and the programming
information that associates the mappings of these sound files to MIDI input notes,
or keys on a controller keyboard. Some of the samplers wrap all these files up
in a single 'monolithic' file, somewhat like a .zip file contains multiple files
inside it. TASCAM's GigaSampler?
works like this - you could have a single 2.0gb .gig file, that inside contains
thousands of samples of audio data, and lots and lots of programming information.
sampler systems keep all the audio files in a directory, and keep a data file
to hold all the mapping information. There are many different formats of this
type of sample data, and they are not all compatible with each other (although
there are good converter programs available for most types). Most sampler programs
can open up a number of different formats however. Additionally, almost all sampler
programs allow you to drag n' drop in your own audio data files, and create
all the mappings and programming information yourself to create your own 'programs'.
that we have a basic understanding of multisampling, we can now go to the next
step here is where multisampling starts to get pretty serious and impressive.
now know enough to see how you can start to use a sampler to create something
like a 'playable copy' of a different 'real instrument', like the playable drum
set we discussed above. This 'playable copy' is indeed the holy grail of sample/sampler
development and technology.
quest for a better and better 'copy' of the original instrument has fueled an
amazing growth over the years in the abilities and technologies that are used
by samplers. As computers began to take over the real hard-core sampling jobs,
and as these same computers became faster and faster, the 'instruments' that we
can play with a sampler get better and better, and more and more realistic (not
to mention 'larger and larger' as more and more samples are used to create the
'program'). Lets examine how all of this works and we will again go to the old
standby example item, the piano.
that we want to make a playable copy of a piano using our sampler program. The
first thing we will do is get eighty-eight .wav files, one of each key of a piano
being hit. Then we will load each one of these in our sampler, and 'map' it to
the corresponding MIDI note, or key on our MIDI controller keyboard.
you have it - your very own virtual, sampled piano! Indistinguishable from the
real thing! Pat yourself on the back. Well, ok, maybe not. It seems that our wonderful
piano has a lot of problems compared to the real thing. It actually kind of sucks
to be honest! We need to work on this idea some more - let's look at some of the
things that are wrong.
of all, a real piano responds differently depending on how hard you press the
keys. REALLY, VERY differently from the softest press to the hardest press! That
creates a challenge for our static set of samples. Additionally, resonances
build up inside the piano body that affect the sound, and what these resonances
sound and act like depend on what has been played, and how hard, and how recently
it's been played. That creates a BIG challenge! We can also easily see three pedals
on the piano, each of which affects the sound. Weve got our work cut out for
us if we want to create a perfect sampled piano! This is starting to be a very
complex interaction of sounds and responses when we sit down at that Steinway
Grand and start banging on the old ivory keys.
the modern sampler has given us tools to tackle all of these problems. Its a
constant argument about how realistic the 'best' sampled emulations of real instruments
are, but it's fair to say that some instruments can be done very, very well, and
some still cannot tackle all of the nuances of the original yet. Brass instruments
are notoriously hard to do, with the same control of expression that a real player
has. In any case, those arguments are a different topic for a longer article,
and right now I'd like to at least let you know how samplers address some of these
problems before you need to worry about the intricacies of these debates.
are going to first take a look at how samplers address the problem of 'velocity',
which is the problem of 'how hard the piano is played'.
that when we 'tell' our sampler to play back a sample, we do so with a MIDI message.
We are assuming in our discussion that it is a MIDI controller keyboard that is
generating this message (but we also recall that it could be many other things
too!). Within the MIDI specification, which is basically the language that these
'MIDI messages' are written in, there are a few different bits of information.
course one of the pieces of information is 'which MIDI note is being sent' - which
corresponds to the key you press on your controller keyboard. However, whenever
a message like that is sent, it's always accompanied by a 'velocity' value, which
corresponds to how HARD you pressed the key on your controller keyboard (sequencer
programs will let you adjust the velocity of any recorded MIDI notes as well).
MIDI spec allows for 127 levels of velocity, so when you press a key, the MIDI
message may say something like "C1, 122" meaning you pressed the C1 key, at almost
full velocity. A gentle press of the same key may generate the message "C1, 46".
how does this help us make our sampled piano more realistic? You will find out
very soon, but first we are going to have to get a lot more than 88 samples of
our original piano!
originally obtained one sample for each key on the real piano. Now we want to
collect a whole bunch of samples from each key, some hard, some soft. It might
be good to build a machine to make sure that the 'hard' hit is the exact same
strength on each of the 88 keys when we hit them! This is going to be a big challenge.
speaking, we could record up to 127 samples, of 127 different volume levels of
each key on the piano. This would yield a HUGE amount of samples - which may or
may not be what we want. Some commercial sample sets provide an 'XXL' and a 'Lite'
version of the same program - the XXL will use a lot more samples for deeper detail,
but it has a much larger performance cost, memory cost, storage cost, etc.
number of samples that we will record of our piano will depend on the final size
we have targeted for the sample set that we are building. And since this is a
completely theoretical sample set, let's not even bother figuring out the 'target
size' and how many velocity levels we will take. That would be a pain in the ass!
Let's just say we take a 'bunch' of samples per key, maybe 8 or 12 or 24. Cool.
Lets go to our sampler and do some programming!
how we had the 88 samples lined up over the 88 keys on our controller keyboard?
In a sampler's interface, that is usually a horizontal mapping - you do it from
side to side. Keys move from left to right, and the Samples that are assigned
to the keys are layered vertically over each key. You usually map velocity 'layers'
vertically, over the key you are mapping them to. You map the higher (louder)
levels to the higher velocity 'zone' and the quieter sampler to the lower velocity
zone - all 'per key'. So a single key from a MIDI keyboard may end up having
8 or 12 or 24 samples stacked on top of it, and the sampler itself has the job
of selecting and playing the proper sample depending on how hard (velocity,
remember?) the key was pressed.
hope you are following because we've gotten into the tricky territory now. If
it's a little cloudy, maybe have another read through the last two or three paragraphs!
We want to be sure we know what we are doing before moving on..
the good news is that once we have done the programming, our sampler will automatically
take care of playing the louder notes when we hit the keys on our controller keyboard
harder. Our virtual sampled piano is starting to sound a LOT more realistic. Cool!
the trick we just learned about mapping different samples to different velocity
layers is called 'velocity cross fading' - you are using the sampler's programming
to control your ability to play a different sample from the same key, depending
on how hard you hit it.
doesn't even have to be different volume samples of the same instrument mapped
onto one key. Theres no limit to creativity here. You could map piano samples
to the low velocities, and trumpet blasts to the high velocities! Then you actually
have the ability to control two instruments at the same time from your controller
keyboard - playing softly gets you piano, playing hard gets you trumpet. Cool
Ive just introduced a new sampling concept to you - sample cross fading. If you
understand the above paragraph, you'll see that we are controlling the cross fading
of different samples, using velocity messages. There are other different ways
we can control sample cross fading too! Heres where we can tackle more of the
problems of our sampled piano project.
look at the sustain pedal on our real piano - a very important part of a piano
player's expression. OH NO! I THINK WE ARE GONNA NEED TO RECORD SOME MORE SAMPLES!
assume that we originally did 12 velocity layers of each key of our keyboard.
We are going to have to record 12 more samples per key, this time with the sustain
pedal held down on the piano. When that's done, we can take them into our sampler
program and do some more programming!
MIDI spec again helps us - most MIDI controller keyboards have an input for a
sustain pedal. When you press the MIDI sustain pedal, a MIDI message is sent.
When you release it, another message is sent. If you don't have a MIDI sustain
pedal, you may be able to assign the function to something else, like a modwheel.
you can probably see where this is going now - we will program these new 'sustain'
samples so that they play when the MIDI sustain pedal is held down, and the sampler
plays the original 'dry' samples when the pedal is not pressed down. That old
sampler is really starting to do a lot of work for us! And our sampled piano is
REALLY starting to get expressive too, this is cool stuff.
the above concept, again we are controlling cross fading of samples, only this
time we are using a MIDI sustain pedal message to control them, instead of velocity.
Lots of things can control cross fading between different 'layers' or 'sets' of
samples - sustain pedal, expression pedal, modwheel, velocity, aftertouch, etc.
And you can combine any or all of these to create very expressive, controllable
sample sets. And remember - you can cross fade between totally different sounds,
not just samples from the same instrument.
we said that we could switch from piano to trumpet with different velocity layers
- you could do it with the modwheel instead, so that you can preserve the ability
to have lots of velocities of the original instrument, but still have the ability
to crossfade between instruments. Roll the modwheel up, and playing your controller
gives you velocity-sensitive piano notes. Roll the modwheel down, and your same
playing gives you velocity-sensitive trumpet sounds. Good times!
term often given to controlling the switching between 'layers' or 'sets' within
a sampler program is the word 'keyswitching' - this originates from the ability
(found in many software samplers) to assign a NOTE (or key on the controller keyboard)
to switch or toggle between different sampled layers - in lieu of using a modwheel
or expression pedal etc. to do it.
now been able to learn a lot about multisampling - thanks to these concepts, we
have 'playable copies' of instruments we can load up in our samplers - if you
look at the free and commercially available sample sets, you'll see every instrument
imaginable has been multisampled and is available in different formats - and as
the technology keeps getting better, newer more detailed sets are arriving all
the time - it's the power of the sampler that makes this all possible. For the
most intense, cutting-edge example of what high-end sampling is doing these days,
take a look at the Vienna Symphonic Library project, found at http://www.vsl.co.at
final type of sampling application I would like to discuss is what I call FSU
Techniques. Indeed, FSU stands for Fu*k Sh*t Up, and, as you probably imagine,
is an approach used to create something that sounds very different from the original.
Many effect processors and plug-ins specialize in FSU effects, but we can also
harness the power of sampling to create our own FSU results! I actually consider
this use of sampling to be closer in nature to synthesis as it is to traditional
sampling, however it does need to be addressed in this document so that the reader
will have a full idea of what can be done with sampling.
basic idea behind FSU-based approaches to using samples is probably very obvious:
Use the sample (or sampler) as a starting point to create something very different
from what is in the original samples. A simple FSU strategy could be to assign
a random sample to a variety of keys and velocity levels, thus resulting in
unpredictable results when you play your mixed up and random multisample set.
more complex and powerful approach, has to do with raw waveforms. A sample that
is loaded into a sampler typically consists of around a half-second (or more)
of recorded audio material. A second of recorded audio material at 44.1khz actually
consists of 44,100 cycles of a waveform. It is the rapid repetition of this
waveform that creates the timbre of a recognizable instrument.
of working in human ear timelines such as seconds or minutes, we can use the
sampler (or wave editor) to look at much smaller pieces of time we can go right
to the single cycle of the waveform. By combining the waveform shapes from various
sounds, or by taking a single cycle of a recognizable sound and then changing
its shape, we can create something that sounds quite different when the waveform
is sped up and played back to us at audible rates. In fact, this part of the
main idea behind wavetable synthesis, however it is also something that can
be accomplished through sampling. You can take a sample of a bell being hit, zoom
in so that you can view a single cycle of it (or perhaps a few cycles), and the
change the shape.
may change it by drawing a different line using a pen sort of tool in your
audio editor. Perhaps you will process it through an effect, or combine it with
shapes from other waveforms. Regardless, the end result is that you have started
with a recorded sound (the original sample) and then have manipulated it to create
a very different sound. This in essence is Fu*k Sh*t Up approaches to sampling.
The fun thing here is that the sky is the limit as you bend and twist your samples
to create new sonic worlds.
this document has been useful in helping you come to terms with all of the different
elements conjured up by the word sampling. In specific, the understanding of
how a sampler works, and what it can do in particular within the concept of
multisampling is essential knowledge for someone about to delve into the world
of sampling, sample playback, and sample manipulation. I hope that your hands,
eyes, ears and mind are now open and excited about the many possibilities before
go forth and create!
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