THE BIRTH OF FRANKENSTEIN
Most of you who read Beats, Breaks and Basslines know what samplers are and how MIDI works, but do you know much about their history? When, where, how, why, who came up with these concepts? This month I'm going to take you back to where it all began; back to a world where the personal computer didn't exist; when it would take an entire room to house 64K of memory; where money was shiny pebbles and shells.... maybe that's a bit too far back. Okay, let's go back to where the first sampler was made, let's go back to the 60's man.
The first keyboard that actually played samples was called the Mellotron and was built in the mid sixties by Street Electronics. Later named the Novatron (notice the word Nova is still used by Novation), the unit was more of a replay keyboard than a sampler. When a key is hit the Novation would play back a tape that contained the sound you had pre-recorded in the appropriate pitch, eg. A, B#, etc. It was often used to mimic other musical instruments such as flutes, brass or a piano. However it was also used to trigger other sounds that were recorded elements of the real world. The concept of sampling has been around since the 40's, where a dude called Pierre Schaeffer came up with his idea of Musique Concrete or the "transformation of natural occurring sounds by a tape manipulation", so the Novatron finally allowed a platform for artists to include these sounds as part of their performance. Considering the keyboard took four men to lift, was five feet tall and needed continuous tape head alignment to replay in key; one would ask just how good this device actually was. I mean what a bitch to carry around to your gigs!
The first real digital sampler however, didn't really poke its head up until 1979, when two Sydney based guys, yes that's right, Sydney Australia is where it all began, got together and created their own little Frankenstein, the Fairlight CMI or Computer Musical Instrument. Kim Ryrie and Peter Vogul are the men responsible and their names are etched in history as the inventors of the sampler named the Fairlight. With 8 note polyphony and wait for it, 8 bit sampling, the Fairlight used addictive synthesis to produce its onboard sounds. They really stumbled upon it. Whilst making a digitally controlled analogue synth, they discovered an all digital system that used two microprocessors - one controlling the input and output of information, with the other manipulating the data. Upon adaptation of this digital system, they managed to construct a sampling keyboard, and it only took one bloke to lift it! Now although the keyboard sounds were fairly good for the time, there were other analogue synths on the market, but the Fairlight sampling option was this unit's strongest feature and orders started arriving from all over the globe. Mike Oldfield, Stevie Wonder, The Pet Shop Boys and the legendary Jean Michale Jarre all added the Fairlight to their personal studios and were quite happy to part with the A$25,000. You think about it, twenty five grand is a lot of cash now, but in the seventies it was worth the equivalent of nearly $100,000 now.
But as we all know, electronic equipment prices drop quickly and now we have samplers a hundred times as powerful for a fraction of the cost. The Fairlight was good, without a doubt, but it wasn't long before that wasn't even enough and people were trying to synchronise different pieces of gear together giving birth to MIDI.
Musical Instrument Digital Interface was released in 1983 and in the last fourteen years, has become a standard protocol of connecting musical instruments. It started with synths, drum machines and drum pads and then moved on to software driven sequencers. It was basically a way of controlling an instrument through either a computer or another MIDI instrument. It uses a form of serial transmission that has a transmission rate of 31 2950 bits per second. What is that musically speaking? About 400 notes per second.
That's really useful because most synths now are multitimbril or able to produce more than one sound simultaneously and polyphonic where more than one note can be played simultaneously. This when combined with a modern sampler, and a room full of cool effects and things that go whiz bang, allows the creation of the wicked sequence driven music that we all know and love.
Well there it is, the who, the where, the how... and what about the why? Why does a dog lick his.....! You know, the answer to that! Anyway that's not really important, but what is really important is that we have this technology available, largely thanks to us Aussies. And don't worry if you're not Austraaaaaalian, we're happy to share.... but it'll cost ya!
text - Craig Obey