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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Today’s post is a bit of a confessional. Reflecting on Andreas Duus Pape’s post a few weeks back, Building Intimate Performance Venues on the Internet, I can not help but admire how closely Andreas relates podcasting with intimacy, and therefore; authenticity. Although it would be simple to critique this point as a case of circular reasoning (Podcasts are intimate because they are authentic. Podcasts are authentic because they are intimate.), I cannot help but wonder if there is something deeply honest and deftly earnest about this claim. Speaking as a musician, I believe that authenticity is a quality that cannot be conjured. It, like a feedback loop or proof of will, seeks only itself. But, how does the desire to be authentic shape performance? Does it affect what we listen for and who we listen to?
My adventures as a musician started in high school with a second hand guitar and a lot of free time. It only took a year before my pastime became something more like an obsession. First was my high school band: The Nosebleeds. The Nosebleeds played revved up versions of 50s and 60s rock and roll while all the other kids were covering Blink 182 and Operation Ivy. We were cool – really! Even at this early stage it was clear to me, authentic rock bands played old-school rock music. Even my punk guitar heroes from the 1970s like Mick Jones and Captain Sensible knew how to cop a Chuck Berry riff and Little Richard groove. After 3 years of humid Jersey shore dive bars and fluorescent high school talent shows we called it quits. Honestly, we just got bored. Also, our ace repertoire of fifteen songs was beginning to wear a little thin. . .
After The Nosebleeds came The Carpetbaggers. This was a sea-change in compositional direction. Instead of playing punky renditions of Twist and Shout, we affected a country twang and sang songs about travel and broken hearts. If you caught us on a good night, we would even throw a bit of Sonic Youth into the mix and evoke a wall of feedback out from silence. We played in New Brunswick basements and central Jersey bars and recorded an EP on an abandoned Tascam 1” reel to reel. Buzz words being thrown around at the time were: rootsy, alternative and raw. I had pulled the covers back from a revved up Chuck Berry only to find a wonderland of Americana – washboards, harmonicas, and acoustic guitars – waiting. This was, of course, what those rocker’s back in the day were inspired by – right? If The Carpetbaggers weren’t the real thing, who was?
When The Carpetbaggers broke up I joined one last band, The Acid Creeps. At this point, there would be no turning back from my descent into nostalgia. We aimed to resurrect the late sixties go-go bar house band. Taking care to acquire vintage Fender amplifiers, vintage reissue guitars, and even a knockoff Vox Continental organ. If that wasn’t enough, my sister sewed us matching orange paisley shirts which complimented our skinny black ties and sunglasses. We imagined ourselves as a period perfect garage band, exactly the sort we had seen in movies. We covered everything from Iggy Pop’s, I Wanna Be Your Dog, to The Sonic’s, Psycho, and the Detroit Wheels version of Little Latin Lupe Lu (which we all preferred). Only in our mid-twenties, we were experts (or snobs, depending on your perspective) at defining and defending what authentic garage music was, and what it was not. Before breaking up, we created a yellow 7” vinyl tomb to forever keep our music. It was named “The Bananna Split EP,” and at the moment it all seemed perfect. Authenticity, sold for five dollars at a show.
Reflecting, five years later, on these three epochs of music making – it is hard not to blush. Not only did I, for at least a year, consider each band the singular most authentic band ever; authenticity, as an ideal, began subtly to change the way I viewed myself. I transformed from Aaron the Weird Al Yankovic fan to Aaron, the garage rock expert in about 8 years. Wherever I looked for authenticity, I found it, and it was real. Not only that, but at the bar, we convinced ourselves and our friends of this notion. Conversations about which bands got it, and which did not, were frequent – if not mandatory. The answers became standard too: The Exploding Hearts, The Murder City Devils, The Misfits? They all got it. Bands like Metallica; for the most part, they did not. These conversations forever led us to equate the authentic with the obscure; a rabbit hole that twists and darts endlessly.
Authenticity in music is like feedback: powerful, seductive and dangerous. It is a very real, yet elusive concept that invites imitation and when left unchecked, can spread like a contagion. Although I love revisiting the music of my old bands, I cannot help but hear them now as a set of key moments in a greater life narrative. Iterations of myself left behind in an ongoing dialogue about authenticity. A dialogue, which, to this day, affects what music I choose to listen to, and what music I choose to avoid. Although none of my bands were truly “the real-deal,” it would be odd to claim that any were not authentic. Rather, this concept, authenticity animated each band – it kept us all going, and brought our music to life. My bands were authentic because I believed in them. I believed in my bands, because they were authentic.
Aaron Trammell is co-founder and multimedia editor of Sounding Out! He is also a Media Studies PhD student at Rutgers University.
Last month, I braved hail, snow, and just about every kind of plague-like spring weather to hear Karen Tongson’s talk at Cornell about her soon-to-be-released book, Relocations: Emergent Queer Suburban Imaginaries (NYU Press’s Sexual Cultures Series). Karen’s project remaps U.S. suburban spaces as brown, immigrant, and queer, thus relocating the foundations of both queer studies and urban studies. While not a part of the “dykeaspora” of color that Karen deftly details, I am in solidarity with the lives she traces and the soundscapes she amplifies more passionately than Lloyd Dobler with his boom box.
After all, Karen and I grew up together in the dusty, palm-tree lined streets of Riverside, California, meeting at Sierra Middle School and plotting our way the hell out of Dodge. . .only to later realize that our mutual plottings were really survivings—and a hell of a lot of fun—and the Riv—with its raincrosses and dry riverbeds, lifted trucks and low riders—would stay with us wherever we went.
Since leaving Ithaca—Karen’s voice still warm in my ears like it used to be when tying up our parent’s pre-call-waiting phone lines—I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the way in which Relocations also reimagines the power of music. For Karen, music can help us know and love who we are more deeply, to enable us to “make do” with what we have been given in a way that liberates rather than incarcerates. Music is not just about “the differences it makes audible” (as Josh Kun writes in Audiotopia) but also, as Karen argues, about the ways in which sound gives us back to ourselves.
For example, a song that is spliced into Karen and I’s mutual musical DNA is “There is a Light that Never Goes Out” by The Smiths, (from 1986’s The Queen is Dead). Its various revolutions—both on turntables and in life choices—have affected us profoundly. In “The Light that Never Goes Out: Butch Intimacies and Sub-Urban Socialibilities in ‘Lesser Los Angeles,’” Karen uses the song as an affective touchstone for the ways in which sound can create “queer sociability, affinity, and intimacy” (355) while providing sonic moments of “self- and mutual-discovery” (360) and mediating relationships of place, power, pleasure, and privilege.
Karen’s ideas have since helped me understand why I used to listen to the song over and over in my lonely yet womb-like suburban bedroom, as if it were revelation and incantation. As I struggled with issues—identity and otherwise—Morrissey’s silken voice had the power to sound out the shape of my most secret wounds and simultaneously soothe them. Although I now know I am not alone in this, I thought I was back then, alone and waiting for someone to:
“Take me out tonight
where there’s music and there’s people
who are young and alive.”
In a now slightly-embarrassing Anglophilic phase—this was also around the time I was reading The Adrian Mole Diaries, watching My Fair Lady with Karen, and exchanging mixtapes with my British penpal—the Smiths were part and parcel of an England that I imagined as a long lost home. The U.K.’s pop cultural exports made it seem so much more tolerant of misfits of all kinds, let alone more temperate than SoCal for black turtlenecks and Doc Martens. At the time, I thought I was listening to difference—to the most remote space imaginable from the sweltering hothouse of Riverside—but Karen’s work reveals that I was really hearing the maudlin voice of my own longing, the jangly chords of my own desire, the oddball rhythms of my own heart.
I finally got myself to the actual England years later, thanks to the wonders of credit-card leveraged conferencing in destination locations. After the conference—at which I was, ironically, presenting on Los Angeles—I had the pleasure of spending a damp, foggy day record-shopping my way through brick-bound Nottingham. While I was gleefully flipping through velvety fields of plastic covers and comparing American imports with their UK counterparts, “There is a Light that Never Goes Out” came on the shop’s PA. With the first flare of guitar, I looked up from the record bins, startled by the warm recognition I felt at the sound of “home.”
At the time, I remember thinking that my thirteen-year-old self would be totally geeked out. However, I harbor little nostalgia for the volatile claustrophobia of my lonely tweenhood. Karen would describe my flash of recognition as “remote intimacy,” an asynchronous experience of popular culture across virtual networks of desire, a way of “imagining our own spaces in connection with others.”
Singing along for the thousandth time to Morrissey’s bittersweet grain, I realized that I wasn’t listening to my past in that record shop, but rather my thirteen-year-old self had been hearing the future in her bedroom. Dreaming of England had given her a way to grapple with the pains that ultimately produced my deepest longings: to overcome the “strange fears that gripped” me, to one day be able take myself “anywhere, anywhere,” and to feel the “light” of a love that would “never go out.”
It had taken a 5500 mile plane ride for me to realize that “home” was, in fact, a feeling of arrival rather than site of destination . . .and I couldn’t wait to get back to L.A. to give my homegirl Karen a call.
“There is a light that never goes out
There is a light that never goes out
There is a light that never goes out
There is a light and it never goes out. . .”
While there is a rich discussion in cultural studies about gendered representation in popular music, there remains very little about gendered listening experiences—or, more accurately—gendered perceptions of other’s listening experiences. Big Ears: Listening for Gender in Jazz Studies, one of the newest offerings from Duke’s Refiguring American Music series, makes promising headway in this direction, initiating a conversation about the way in which various types of listening practices—that of fans, musicians, and critics—are coded in the largely male dominated world of jazz. In popular music, however, this conversation has remained more nascent. As a female practitioner in the field with multiple identities—fan, vinyl collector, academic critic, consumer, blogger—it is uncomfortable how frequently I find people making very circumspect and circumscribed assumptions about the way in which I listen to music.
I have been collecting vinyl since the days when it was just called “buying records.” My first purchase at age 5, made via my Dad, was The GoGos’ Beauty and the Beat, which I still own, now carefully tucked into a plastic sleeve. And, thanks to my Dad’s gentle lesson in how to handle vinyl, it isn’t in very bad shape, either. Record collecting was a thrill my father shared with me, creating a connection between us that sometimes held when other bonds were endangered. No matter what, I always wanted to call him and tell him when I finally found a mint copy of Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall at a thrift store or Prince’s Purple Rain with the poster still inside.
A number of weeks ago, I was on a routine summer Saturday morning mission: trolling the yard sales in my neighborhood for kid’s stuff, used books, and vinyl. While I never expect to find the holy grail of record albums at a yard sale, I am always willing to flip through piles of Barbara Streisand, Eddie Rabbit, Billy Joel, and Herb Alpert in the hopes I might uncover it. Usually, I just end up taking in the ripe dusty smell and silently cursing the sad condition of the vinyl I find there, hating to leave even the most scratched-up Mantovani warping in the full summer sun. But you never know.
On this particular Saturday, I was vinyl hunting with my infant son strapped to my chest and had my dog, He Who Cannot Be Named, pulling at the leash. In effect, I had suburban motherhood written all over my body as I strained on my tip-toes to reach records at the back of the pile and whispered to my sleeping son about why I was so excited to find a Les Paul and Mary Ford record. In the midst of my record reveries, I overheard a man next to me begin telling the proprietor of the yard sale about his record collecting habit. He went on and on about how long he has been collecting, how many records he has, how he “just got back from buying a thousand records off a guy in Appalachin.”
My hackles were instantly raised by this conversation about record-size. I already felt a bit left out, as this man obviously chose to ignore the woman actually looking at the records in favor of the only other man around. Vinyl collecting remains an overtly male phenomenon, as Bitch Magazine discussed in their 2003 Obsession issue. Although I am embodied evidence that women do collect vinyl, I am used to being in the complete minority at record shows, music conferences, and dusty basement retail outlets and overhearing countless conversations just like this one. In spite of myself, I decided to jump in to the conversation. . I thought I would cast out a lifeline to my fellow vinyl junkie, as the yard sale guy was obviously not interested and just humoring the record geek in front of him in the hopes that he would cart away the entire stack. Plus, I miss geeking out with someone else who loves records. After a lifetime in urban California, I now live in a small town in Upstate New York. While the record bins are not so tapped out here, it is lonely going for a record head. So I said to him, “I collect records too. I can’t believe you found so many records in Appalachin.” My invitation down the path of geekdom, however, was rebuffed. “Oh,” he said, barely looking up, “yeah. It happens all the time.” And then back to yard sale guy.
I tried not to take it personally, but it became impossible after this same scene was re-enacted at four or five different houses down the block. This guy was like a cover version of the Ancient Mariner, compelled to tell man after man all about the size of his enlarging record collection, the beloved albatross around his neck: “Man, have you ever tried to move a thousand records all at one time? They are so heavy and they take up so much space!”
And, I was the invisible witness to his tale of obsession, love, and woe, silently flipping through records just a few steps ahead of him. That is ultimately how I knew he did not see me as an equal rival in the world of vinyl hunting—he let me get ahead and stay ahead in the bins, neither sneaking peeks at what I pulled or, fingers flying, moving faster and faster in the hopes of overtaking me. He just assumed that I, dog in hand and baby on chest, would pull complete crap.
My listening ears then, bear the weight of my gender and the limited ways in which women are expected to engage with music. Women remain perpetually pegged as teeny-bopper fan club leaders and screaming Beatle fans, perpetually deafening themselves to the “real music.” Despite the deft critiques of Norma Coates, Susan Douglas, and Angela McRobbie, in which the early Beatles audience is re-imagined as proto-feminist and teenaged girls’ bedrooms are viewed as sites of cultural competency rather than deaf consumerism, my female ears remain cast as those of a groupie but never an aficionado, as if the two are somehow mutually exclusive. Imagine the Ancient Mariner’s surprise when this vinyl mama plucked pristine copies of The Cure’s Faith, The Fania All Stars Live at Yankee Stadium, and Aretha Franklin’s Live at the Fillmore West right out from under his own blind ears.