In contrast to the first post in the series by Mark Davidson, which looked at how we have branded Alan Lomax, Parker Fishel‘s post considers how Alan Lomax fashioned himself—as both a collector and a publisher of other peoples’ music. The complexity of this task is inherent in the social and political ramifications of “saving” sound by making it “ours,” both in terms of singular ownership of singular recordings that had previously “belonged” to a community as well as the extent to which this practice brought these sounds to the wider culture.
Here, Fishel invites the reader to consider this complicated history that surrounds collecting and copyrighting folk music, what (and whom) the practice has excluded as well current performers who have been inspired by this preservation of our sound culture to perpetuate the practice: making it “theirs” and “ours” once again.
— Guest Editor Tanya Clement
The more one listens, views, and reads the work of pioneering folklorist Alan Lomax, the more inscrutable it becomes. Even if we set aside the sheer size and diversity of his collection, we are still left with a set of materials that eludes easy interpretation. Too mainstream for the academics and too academic for the mainstream, Lomax’s defiant, passionate quest to bridge the two worlds pioneered the study of sound as an embodiment of social and community dynamics. Yet in promoting American vernacular culture, Lomax also fashioned himself a folk hero, leaving us a legacy where the collector threatens to overshadow the collection. As arguably the world’s most famous folklorist, Lomax is responsible for much of the sound understood as authentic Americana.
Consider one vignette of many: the “Southern Journey,” a 1959-1960 recording trip that Alan Lomax undertook with Shirley Collins throughout Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. A world unto itself, the story of the Southern Journey reveals how these tensions shaped Lomax’s work and, to an extent, our understanding of a national cultural heritage.
To begin with, the Southern Journey sounded different than previous collecting trips due to the technological sophistication of the field recording set-up. Starting with a 1933 trip accompanying his father John A. Lomax, Alan Lomax’s previous recording expeditions in the South had relied first on Edison cylinders and then on disc-based recorders that had particular weaknesses in terms of fidelity. Surface noise obfuscated certain frequencies and reminded the listener that his or her experience was mediated. During the Southern Journey though, open reel magnetic tape, excellent microphones, and a mixer were employed to make what Lomax, in his tendency towards self-aggrandizement, claimed to be the “first” stereo field recordings in the South. Whatever the reality, the recordings were early efforts to use stereo in the service of field recording to capture more detail and nuance of a performance and its context.
Writing of the opportunity stereo presented for folklore, Lomax noted that “Folk music which, in its natural setting, is meant to be heard in the round, comes into its own with multi-dimensionality, for more than concert music, designed to project from the stage into an auditorium.” According to this reasoning, a good recording in stereo is more inclusive, grounding the listener’s position inside the soundscape of folklore’s community-based practice.
Yet, by nature folklore recordings have certain limitations. As jazz record producer Orrin Keepnews noted, “Our job is to create what is best described as ‘realism’ — the impression and effect of being real — which may be very different from plain unadorned reality.” This murky dividing line is problematic in the context of ethnographic documentation. In the case of Alan Lomax, it’s further complicated by multiple motivations and goals that transform this line into a shifting set of markers.
Luckily, through diligent scholarship and Lomax’s own documentation, we are fairly aware of how this “realism” tension shaped his recordings in real-time performance and its public reception. Lomax sometimes auditioned performers when arriving in a new area; his book The Land Where The Blues Began (in part an reconstruction of the Southern Journey) was written 30-plus years after the fact from memory and a few scribbled notes on the back of tape boxes. However this knowledge impacts the supposed reality of the field recordings, it would be a mistake to reduce the extensive documentation of Lomax’s decision-making process to debunking. Rather, it is an aid for understanding what we’re hearing. By accounting for ethnographic and popularizing tendencies, what is really being developed is a guide for critical listening.
Part of that involved bringing in the recording industry. Starting with the 1939 Musicraft release of Leadbelly performances on 78-RPM discs, Lomax consistently used record companies as one means of bringing folklore to a wider audience. Commenting on the flurry of activity that accompanied Lomax’s 1959 return to the United States after nearly a decade abroad, noted folklorist Roger Abrahams commented, “To this writer it would appear that Mr. Lomax stayed up nights thinking of ways to sell folk-things to publishers, record companies, etc., ergo to the public.”
The Southern Journey was one such project, bankrolled by Atlantic Records. From nearly 80 hours of recorded material, Lomax curated two sets of releases in 1960, a seven LP Atlantic Records collection named the “Southern Folk Heritage Series” and the 12-LP “Southern Journey” series for Prestige International. In notes for reissues of the Atlantic set, Lomax admitted, “The set reflects, to some extent, what the Erteguns [Ahmet and Nesuhi, founders of Atlantic] felt might best reach their pop audience.” Examining how these recordings became canonical is to look at how new modes of cultural transmission affected folklore traditions.
We can hear another tension being negotiated in the way Lomax celebrated performances, which today justly rank alongside those of the Great American Songbook. Yet, to see them that way negates the core strengths of folklore: flexibility to situation and contingency to community. In the field, Lomax asserted that “every performance is original, a fresh and intentionally varied re-creation or rearrangement of a piece.” At the same moment, however, Americanizing processes were transforming these flexible local improvisatory practices into fixed inscriptions of national character. With his public visibility and prestige, the pieces in Lomax’s books and records carried weight as definitive versions – claims Lomax perpetuated in order to unify some of his cultural theories. (It also didn’t hurt that the practice of early folklorists was to copyright these compositions, giving them a financial stake in perpetuating those performances as examples of exceptionalism.) As a result, the public adopted a set of arbitrary songs and sounds as markers of authenticity.
These concerns remain important in the music’s continuing, living traditions. Groups like the Carolina Chocolate Drops or The Ebony Hillbillies perform the full, eclectic spectrum of early African-American string and jug bands traditions. While Jerron ‘Blind Boy’ Paxton forges similar terrain using the African-American songster and blues singer as a model, Frank Fairfield addresses Anglo-American folk traditions. All of these projects remind listeners of the arbitrary divisions of authenticity forced on musicians practices by the race recording industry, which partitioned sounds as white and black and led to our modern taxonomy of genres. These performers use folklore to expose parts of the under-documented past, re-appropriating musical styles and often re-creating that world through the adoption of early 20th century language, clothes, and mannerisms.
Other contemporary performers handle these issues differently. Megafaun, Fight The Big Bull, and Justin Vernon (of Bon Iver) form the nucleus of Sounds of the South, a “loving reinterpretation of the sound, structure, lyrics, and spirit” of the Southern Journey recordings. Engaging both the African-American and Anglo-American traditions documented on that trip, the group finds its sound in their overlap. This a space shaped in part by the popularizing processes Lomax set in motion, a space where generations of listeners have been introduced to Mississippi Fred McDowell through a Rolling Stones cover. Approaching the music from this perspective and not from the background of a Forest City Joe or an Almeda Riddle, authenticity necessarily exists in a different realm: re-interpretation. The resulting arrangements, such as that of Estil C. Ball’s sacred composition “Tribulations,” give one illustration of how these dynamics play out sonically within the world of folklore and music that Lomax left behind.
For this particular piece, the words and melody of Ball’s “terrifying meditation on the end of days” are kept as links to the original recording. This frees the ensemble to follow its muse into the musical landscapes of the intervening 50-plus years, shaped as they were by the introduction of the vernacular into the mainstream (and vice versa). Ball’s melody evokes an archetype, the high lonesome sound of Appalachia; a trope it inspired in the first place. Yet, in this cultural confluence, there is also space for something like Matthew E. White’s soul-influenced electric guitar. In introducing of a style, tradition, and sound beyond the original recording, a color line is crossed that, while maybe not explicitly heard, was certainly present in the Jim Crow context of the Southern Journey. For Sounds of the South, authenticity exists beyond mere re-creation.
What might Lomax’s reaction to the Sounds of the South project be? Reflecting on the 1960s folk scene, Lomax wrote, “The American city folk singer, because he got his songs from books or other city singers, has generally not been aware of the singing style or the emotional content of the folk songs, as they exist in tradition.” On the other hand, Lomax might be heartened that many, whether cultural heritage institutions or record labels, are following in the footsteps of his own Association for Cultural Equity. Working on the scale that digital resources facilitate, these organizations are providing access to field recordings and their context in ways never before possible. (What remains to be seen is how this might impact the process of codification discussed above.)
In another way, the Sounds of the South marks a return to tradition. While the Southern Journey recordings are the primary inspiration, Sounds of the South member Joe Westerlund describes the project as something larger: “We wanted to include everything that we’re into, not just the traditional folk music that’s on this box set…We’re doing our whole experience as musicians.” That experience involves collaboration with folk artists like the Blind Boys of Alabama and Alice Gerrard, as well as investment in their local cultural communities of Durham, NC, Richmond, VA, and Eau Claire, WI.
Lomax’s pedagogy of folklore situates authenticity as a function of these very types of activities. “Folk song lives in a rather mysterious world close to the heart of the human community and it is only through extended and serious contact with living folk traditions that it can be understood.” The particular tradition in which one participates makes little difference; rather emphasis is on the process of engagement and contact, which replicate older patterns of folklore transmission. So even if Lomax may have claimed there was a bit too much bel canto to suit his tastes, one can imagine his appreciation for Sounds of the South’s dedication to the meaning and spirit of the music.
Considering Alan Lomax, his work, and his legacy is a complex and often frustrating enterprise. Yet amidst parts that give us pause, there remain bits of enduring wisdom. Addressing a gathering of folklorists, Lomax asserted that “Underneath we are all morally, emotionally and esthetically involved with our material, and so all of us are artists and cultural workers, and there is no escape from that.”
Few of us devote ourselves to this kind of music (or any kind of music for that matter) as a detached academic exercise. It can take an example of the living tradition like Sounds of the South looking backwards and forwards to remind us of the full scope of our responsibilities. I can’t think of any more fitting tribute on the occasion of his centenary than to re-commit ourselves not to Alan Lomax, but to what caught his ear in the first place: the transcendent experience of sound.
Parker Fishel is an archivist, writer, and researcher living in Brooklyn, New York. Presently he is the archivist at Grey Water Park Productions and an occasional DJ on WKCR-FM. As co-founder of Americana Music Productions, Parker is the producer of a forthcoming set of music, photographs, and scholarship documenting the 1969 Ann Arbor Blues Festival. He is also at work on Georgia Griot, a bio-discography of jazz musician Marion Brown. While getting an MSIS from the University of Texas at Austin, Parker worked with the UT Folklore Center Archives and the John Avery Lomax Family Papers at the Briscoe Center for American History.
Featured image: “This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces It to Surrender” by Flickr user Bee Collins, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
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This week, Sounding Out! kicks off an exciting four-part series exploring the work of Alan Lomax, a key figure in sound culture studies, and one whose legacy is in the midst of being reconsidered and refreshed by many scholars, musicians and folklorists alike.
As Guest Editor, we are happy to welcome Tanya Clement, Assistant Professor in the School of Information at the University of Texas at Austin. Clement has expertise in a wide variety of fields, from scholarly information architecture and digital literacies to modernist literature and sound studies, and she is currently helping to lead the High Performance Sound Technologies in Access and Scholarship (HiPSTAS), a project you should know about that’s using new technologies to analyze and increase access to a range of spoken word recordings.
I’ll turn it over to Clement to introduce the series, an expertly-curated set of reflections on what Lomax and his recordings have meant in the past and could mean in the future.
— Special Editor Neil Verma
Alan Lomax (January 31, 1915 – July 19, 2002) was an archivist, ethnomusicologist, film-maker, folklorist, oral historian, political activist, scholar, and writer and many would say he has had the single most influential impact on the preservation of global music traditions. 2015 marks his centenary and this series of posts will both celebrate and interrogate his tireless and controversial crusade to bring attention to, understand, and preserve sound culture.
Below, Mark Davidson’s piece will introduce our collection with an exploration into the Alan Lomax “branding” as either saint or sinner with a call for transparency, context, and accuracy with regard to current scholarship and repatriation efforts surrounding the recordings Lomax made over six decades of work. In his approach to Alan Lomax’s Southern-based collecting work in our second article, Parker Fishel will consider the complex practice of documenting and preserving transforming dynamic community-based traditions into static texts that Lomax and others touted as authentic. Next, Toneisha Taylor will interrogate how the Federal Writers Project Folklore and Folkways collection projects, first formed by Lomax’s father, has framed how we encounter significant recordings about Black life in the Deep South during and after slavery. Finally, Tanya Clement will explore how Lomax’s ideas about Cantometrics and the Global Jukebox resound in recent work using computers to categorize and analyze sound in the 21st Century.
By revisiting Lomax’s collecting practices and the songs Lomax collected from alternate perspectives in the context of the diverse communities affected by his work, these posts are an attempt to use Lomax’s Centenary to celebrate the enduring resonance of folk songs in our sound culture and to bring awareness to the importance and complexities of its continued preservation.
— Guest Editor Tanya Clement
In 1987, two years after the three hundredth anniversary of Johann Sebastian Bach’s birth, musicologist Susan McClary published a now-classic article titled “The Blasphemy of Talking Politics during the Bach Year,” in which she reflected on her experiences at a number of Bach events in 1985. Using Theodor Adorno’s 1950 essay “Bach Defended against His Devotees” (written on the two-hundredth anniversary of the composer’s death) as a jumping-off point, McClary defied Bach scholars who viewed the German Baroque master’s music as sacrosanct and unimpeachable, and performed a brazen deconstruction of Bach’s most revered works: the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 and Cantata No. 140 (“Wachet Auf”). For McClary, the turn was critical: “we must confront Bach and the canon and resituate him in such a way as to acknowledge his prominence in musical and non-musical culture while not falling victim to it (p. 60).”
What, one might ask, does a canonical “classical” music composer, a contemporary musicologist, and a twentieth-century German theorist have to do with folk music collector Alan Lomax? Aside from a heavy degree of fetishizing by pale male scholars (myself included), it turns out quite a bit.
The “Lomax Year” began on January 31, 2015, the 100th anniversary of Lomax’s birth, with events throughout the United States and Europe including concerts, marathon film screenings, and radio broadcasts devoted to his life and work. Centennial events are ongoing throughout the year, including a panel at SXSW on March 21st in Alan Lomax’s hometown of Austin, Texas.
But the current Alan Lomax revival began long before January 31. Over the course of the past five years there have been numerous books, including Lomax’s first full-length biography, websites devoted to his recordings (e.g., Louisiana, Kentucky), and recording reissues, all of which have garnered considerable attention in the popular media. There has been an ongoing film and recording series, The 78 Project, in which the project’s founders lug across the nation a vintage 1930s Presto recording machine similar to the kind Lomax would have used in search of contemporary musicians playing modern renditions of folk songs. Alan Lomax was even featured on The Colbert Report in March 2012, around the time that the massive Alan Lomax Archive of Alan Lomax’s Association for Cultural Equity (ACE) launched. The TV spot included a discussion of Lomax’s legacy and a performance by Emmylou Harris, Elvis Costello, and ACE executive director and musician Don Fleming, with Colbert helping out the proceedings.
Alan Lomax has become a brand, a larger-than-life figure looming over the entirety of folk music collecting in the United States. His name is the first on people’s lips when one mentions the subject (as I have found again and again in my own research on 1930s folk music collectors not named Alan Lomax). And he went to great pains throughout his life to promote this brand. It was, after all, the way that he was able to continue his life’s work. This branding effort continues to the present day, largely due to the efforts of the Association for Cultural Equity, which Lomax founded in 1983, and the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, where the Archive of American Folk Song (now the Archive of Folk Culture) is housed. Alan Lomax became the first salaried employee of the Archive in 1937, working there until 1942 when he left for the Office of War Information. But Lomax kept in close contact with the Archive for the rest of his life, lording “Ayatollah-like” (I’ve been told) over the collections he did so much to foster.
The Lomax Year has also been the impetus for a healthy reappraisal of Lomax’s life and career, as evidenced by a recent Studio 360 radio segment, produced by Richard Paul and featuring Dom Flemons, Karl Hagstrom Miller, Dwandalyn Reece, and Patricia Turner. In the 13-minute-long spot, Lomax is at once heralded as the potential grandfather of rock ’n’ roll while also criticized for the time that he and his father spent recording black prison inmates in the South, and the overall “folk construction” in which they engaged. The intervention is not unlike McClary’s call to “confront [Lomax] and the [traditional music] canon and resituate him in such a way as to acknowledge his prominence in musical and non-musical culture while not falling victim to it.”
But the “re-situation” suggested by this exposé borders on the same sort of constructed truth of which Lomax himself is accused. By listening to the segment one might come to the conclusion that Lomax had no time for any types of African American music outside of prison inmates: “It would take 14 years before Lomax ever recorded in a black church and he never recorded at a black college.” Or one might think that the Lomaxes’ quest to find “pure” or “unadulterated” versions of songs was unique. Both statements are simply not true. Alan Lomax, in his official capacity with the AAFS, worked with numerous collectors who recorded all types of music. Just one example of many is his collaboration with John Wesley Work III of Fisk University to record African American folk songs and spirituals for use by Fisk and the Library of Congress. As far as fetishizing the untouched or “pure products,” it is a practice that persists in ethnographic research to this day.
Defending Alan Lomax in this way is not a position with which I am comfortable. But relegating him to a decade of his life, and conflating him with “the sins of the father” is no better a stance. There are plenty of places where Lomax can, and should, be justly criticized. There is his practice of taking composer credits for other musicians’ performances (which he somewhat awkwardly defended in a 1990 Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross). Then there’s the instructions he gave other AAFS fieldworkers to actively deceive their informants: “The recording interview can be as significant as the song itself and is valuable as a fresh field document, especially, if the informant does not know that the interview is being recorded, and if he never learns it.” And there’s a statement he made to Federal Writers’ Project historian Jerre Mangione in which he boasted that his father was “a fucking genius at getting blacks to sing” while describing, excitedly, the dangers of recording in the Jim Crow South. Not to mention Zora Neale Hurston putting Alan Lomax in blackface as they traveled the South. And these instances all fall within this same five-year period of Lomax’s life.
What falls away in these discussions is perhaps the most critical piece to this puzzle: the individuals behind the recording. Who were they, and what were their lives like outside of the three minutes that are etched into a lacquered aluminum “acetate” disc? Aside from a few notable exceptions (e.g., Muddy Waters, Jelly Roll Morton), most of these performers remain unknown to the general public. Through this particular sin of omission, we fall victim to the fallacy that perhaps Alan Lomax really was the progenitor for the “never-ending folk music revival,” or that he really was the grandfather of rock ’n’ roll. Few scholars have even approached the problem of dealing with the performers in any substantive way, with the exception of perhaps Stephen Wade through his recent book The Beautiful Music All Around Us. The problem of the individual extends to the various recent “repatriation projects” that have been underway for some years. Given what we know about Lomax’s fieldwork co-creator-credit practices, how transparent have these repatriation efforts been able to be? What do these plans include for the forthcoming “definitive Centennial box set”?
Talking politics during the Lomax Year is not blasphemy. It is necessary. But the overall reliance on knocking down Alan Lomax™ misses an important point. It is nearly impossible to make the overly simplistic and poorly nuanced argument that Lomax was simply a product of his time, when that time spanned the better part of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. The problem of Alan Lomax, then, is acknowledging his importance while resituating him within the larger narrative of traditional music research in the twentieth century, not as a brand, but as an individual in a larger network collectors, institutions, and musicians who fought against what the rapid disappearance—what Lomax called “cultural grey-out”—of music and culture throughout the world. Doing so won’t solve the problem, but it’s at least a start.
Mark Davidson is a Ph.D. candidate in cultural musicology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He is currently finishing up a dissertation on WPA folk music collections, including Sidney Robertson Cowell’s California Folk Music Project; Herbert Halpert’s Southern States Recording Expedition; and the Florida Federal Writers’ Project’s statewide folk music recording survey (which included Zora Neale Hurston and Stetson Kennedy). Mark has also been working with Tanya Clement and the Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas to launch a website of the Lomax family’s recordings in Texas. He received an MSIS from the UT School of Information in August 2014, and has worked for the Journal of the Society for American Music since 2008.
Featured image: Alan Lomax (left) youngster on board boat, during Bahamas recording expedition. All images via the Library of Congress Lomax Collection.
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This is article 2.0 in Sounding Out!‘s April Forum on “Sound and Technology.” Every Monday this month, you’ll be hearing new insights on this age-old pairing from the likes of Sounding Out! veterano Aaron Trammell along with new voices Andrew Salvati and Owen Marshall. These fast-forward folks will share their thinking about everything from Auto-tune to techie manifestos. So, turn on your quantizing for Sounding Out! and enjoy today’s supersonic in-depth look at sampling from from SO! Regular Writer Primus Luta. –JS, Editor-in-Chief
My favorite sample-based composition? No question about it: “Stroke of Death” by Ghostface and produced by The RZA.
Supposedly the story goes, RZA was playing records in the studio when he put on the Harlem Underground Band’s album. It is a go-to album in a sample-based composer collection, because of the open drum breaks. One such break appears in the cover of Bill Wither’s “Ain’t No Sunshine”, notably used by A Tribe Called Quest on “Everything is Fair.”
RZA, a known break beat head, listened as the song approached the open drums, when the unthinkable happened: a scratch in his copy of the record. Suddenly, right before the open drums dropped, the vinyl created its own loop, one that caught RZA’s ear. He recorded it right there and started crafting the beat.
This sample is the only source material for the track. RZA throws a slight turntable backspin in for emphasis, adding to the jarring feel that drives the beat. That backspin provides a pitch shift for the horn that dominates the sample, changing it from a single sound into a three-note melody. RZA also captures some of the open drums so that the track can breathe a bit before coming back to the jarring loop. As accidental as the discovery may have been, it is a very precisely arranged track, tailor-made for the attacking vocals of Ghostface, Solomon Childs, and the RZA himself.
“Stroke of Death” exemplifies how transformative sample-based composition can be. Other than by knowing the source material, the sample is hard to identify. You cannot figure out that the original composition is Wither’s “Ain’t No Sunshine” from the one note RZA sampled, especially considering the note has been manipulated into a three-note melody that appears nowhere in either rendition of the composition. It is sample based, yes, but also completely original.
Classifying a composition like this as a ‘happy accident’ downplays just how important the ear is in sample-based composition, particularly on the transformative end of the spectrum. J Dilla once said finding the mistakes in a record excited him and that it was often those mistakes he would try to capture in his production style. Working with vinyl as a source went a long way in that regard, as each piece of vinyl had the potential to have its own physical characteristics that affected what one heard. It’s hard to imagine “Stroke of Death” being inspired from a digital source. While digital files can have their own glitches, one that would create an internal loop on playback would be rare.
There has been a change in the sound of sampling over the past few decades. It is subtle but still perceptible; one can hear it even if a person does not know what it is they are hearing. It is akin to the difference between hearing a blues man play and hearing a music student play the blues. They technically are both still the blues, but the music student misses all of the blue notes.
The ‘blue notes’ of the blues were those aspects of the music that could not be transcribed yet were directly related to how the song conveyed emotion. It might be the fact that the instrument was not fully in tune, or the way certain notes were bent but others were not, it could even be the way a finger hit the body of a guitar right after the string was strummed. It goes back farther than the blues and ultimately is not exclusive to the African American tradition from which the phrase derives; most folk music traditions around the world have parallels. “The Rite of Spring” can be understood as Stravinsky ‘sampling’ the blue notes of Transylvanian folk music. In many regards sample-based composing is a modern folk tradition, so it should come as no surprise that it has its own blue notes.
The sample-based composition work of today is still sampling, but much of it lacks the blue notes that helped define the golden era of the art. I attribute this discrepancy to the evolution of technology over the last two decades. Many of the things that could be understood as the blue notes of sampling were merely ways around the limits of the technology. In the same way, the blue notes of most folk music happened when the emotion went beyond the standards of the instrument (or alternately the limits imposed upon it by the literal analysis of western theory). By looking at how the technology has evolved we can see how blue notes of sampling are being lost as key limitations are being overcome by “advances.”
First, let’s consider the E-Mu SP-1200, which is still thought to be the most definitive sounding sampler for hip-hop styled sample-based compositions, particularly related to drums. The primary reason for this is its low-resolution sampling and conversion rates. For the SP-1200 the Analog to Digital (A/D) and Digital to Analog (D/A) converters were 12-bit at a sample rate of 26.04 kHz (CD quality is 16-bit 44.1 kHz). No matter what quality the source material, there would be a loss in quality once it was sampled into and played out of the SP-1200. This loss proved desirable for drum sounds particularly when combined with the analog filtering available in the unit, giving them a grit that reflected the environments from which the music was emerging.
On top of this, individual samples could only be 2.5 seconds long, with a total available sample time of only 10 seconds. While the sample and conversion rates directly affected the sound of the samples, the time limits drove the way that composers sampled. Instead of finding loops, beatmakers focused on individual sounds or phrases, using the sequencer to arrange those elements into loops. There were workarounds for the sample time constraints; for example, playing a 33-rpm record at 45 rpm to sample, then pitching it back down post sampling was a quick way to increase the sample time. Doing this would further reduce the sample rate, but again, that could be sonically appealing.
An under appreciated limitation of the SP-1200 however, was the visual feedback for editing samples. The display of the SP-1200 was completely alpha numeric; there were no visual representations of the sample other than numbers that were controlled by the faders on the interface. The composer had to find the start and end points of the sample solely by ear. Two producers might edit the exact same kick drum with start times 100 samples (a fraction of a millisecond) apart. Were one of the composers to have recorded the kick at 45 rpm and pitched it down, the actual resolution for the start and end times would be different. When played in a sequence, these 100 samples affect the groove, contributing directly to the feel of the composition. The timing of when the sample starts playback is combined with the quantization setting and the swing percentage of the sequencer. That difference of 100 samples in the edit further offsets the trigger times, which even with quantization turned off fit into the 24 parts per quarter grid limitations of the machine.
Akai’s MPC-60 was the next evolution in sampling technology. It raised the sample and conversion rates to 16-bit and 40 kHz. Sample time increased to a total of 13.1 seconds (upgradable to 26.2). Sequencing resolution increased to 96 parts per quarter. Gone was the crunch of the SP-1200, but the precision went up both in sampling and in sequencing. The main trademark of the MPC series was the swing and groove that came to Akai from Roger Linn’s Linn Drum. For years shrouded in mystery and considered a myth by many, in truth there was a timing difference that Linn says was achieved by delaying certain notes by samples. Combined with the greater PPQ resolution in unquantized mode, even with more precision than the SP-1200, the MPC lent itself to capturing user variation.
Despite these technological advances, sample time and editing limitations, combined with the fact that the higher resolution sampling lacked the character of the SP-1200, kept the MPC from being the complete package sample composers desired. For this reason it was often paired with Akai’s S-950 rack sampler. The S-950 was a 12-bit sampler but had a variable sample rate between 7.5 kHz and 40 kHz. The stock memory could hold 750 KB of samples which at the lowest sample rate could garner upwards of 60 seconds of sampling and at the higher sample rates around 10 seconds. This was expandable to up to 2.5 MB of sample memory.
The editing capabilities made the S-950 such a powerful sampler. Being able to create internal sample loops, key map samples to a keyboard, modify envelopes for playback, and take advantage of early time stretching (which would come of age with the S-1000)—not to mention the filter on the unit—helped take sampling deeper into the sound design territory. This again increased the variable possibilities from composer to composer even when working from the same source material. Often combined with the MPC for sequencing, composers had the ultimate sample-based composition workstation.
Today, there are literally no limitations for sampling. Perhaps the subtlest advances have developed the precision with which samples can be edited. With these advances, the biggest shift has been the reduction of the reliance on ears. Recycle was an early software program that started to replace the ears in the editing process. With Recycle an audio file could be loaded, and the software would chop the sample into component parts by searching for the transients. Utilizing Recycle on the same source, it was more likely two different composers could arrive at a kick sample that was truncated identically.
Another factor has been the waveform visualization of samples for editing. Some earlier hardware samplers featured the waveform display for truncating samples, but the graphic resolution within the computer made this even more precise. By looking at the waveform you are able to edit samples at the point where a waveform crosses the middle point between the negative and positive side of the signal, known as the zero-crossing. The advantage of zero-crossing sampling is that it prevents errors that happen when playback goes from either side of the zero point to another point in one sample, which can make the edit point audible because of the break in the waveform. The end result of zero-crossing edited samples is a seamlessness that makes samples sound like they naturally fit into a sequence without audible errors. In many audio applications snap-to settings mean that edits automatically snap to zero-crossing—no ears needed to get a “perfect” sounding sample.
It is interesting to note that with digital files it’s not about recording the sample, but editing it out of the original file. It is much different from having to put the turntable on 45 rpm to fit a sample into 2.5 seconds. Another differentiation between digital sample sources is the quality of the files, whether original digital files (CD quality or higher), lossless compression (FLAC), lossy compressed (MP3, AAC) or the least desirable though most accessible, transcoded (lossy compression recompressed such as YouTube rips). These all result in a different degradation of quality than the SP-1200. Where the SP-1200’s downsampling often led to fatter sounds, these forms of compression trend toward thinner-sounding samples.
Some producers have created their own sound using thinned out samples with the same level of sonic intent as The RZA’s on “Stroke of Death.” The lo-fi aesthetic is often an attempt to capture a sound to parallel the golden era of hardware-based sampling. Some software-based samplers by example will have an SP-1200 emulation button that reduces bit rates to 12-bit. Most of software sequencers have groove templates that allow for the sequencers to emulate grooves like the MPC timing.
Perhaps the most important part of the sample-based composition process however, cannot be emulated: the ear. The ear in this case is not so much about the identification of the hot sample. Decades of history should tell us that the hot sample is truly a dime a dozen. It takes a keen composer’s ear to hear how to manipulate those sounds into something uniquely theirs. Being able to listen for that and then create that unique sound—utilizing whatever tools— that is the blue note of sampling. And there is simply no way to automate that process.
Featured image: “Blue note inverted” by Flickr user Tim, CC BY-ND 2.0
Primus Luta is a husband and father of three. He is a writer and an artist exploring the intersection of technology and art, and their philosophical implications. He maintains his own AvantUrb site. Luta was a regular presenter for Rhythm Incursions. As an artist, he is a founding member of the collective Concrète Sound System, which spun off into a record label for the exploratory realms of sound in 2012. Recently Concréte released the second part of their Ultimate Break Beats series for Shocklee.
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