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Sampler (musical instrument)

A sampler is an electronic musical instrument that uses stored audio signal samples, generally recordings of existing sounds, and plays them back at a range of pitches.

An early form of sampler was an instrument called the 'Mellotron' (later Novatron due to licensing issues) which used individual pre-recorded tape loops, one under each key on the keyboard. Mellotrons required a lot of maintenance, but had a characteristic sound that was used on many 1970s records by groups such as Yes.

The emergence of the digital sampler made sampling far more practical, and as samplers added progressively more digital processing to their recorded sounds, they began to merge into the mainstream of modern digital synthesizers. The first digital sampling synthesiser was the Australian-produced Fairlight CMI which was first available in 1979.

Modern digital samplers use mostly digital technology to process the samples into interesting sounds. Akai pioneered many processing techniques, such as Crossfade Looping to eliminate glitches and Time Stretch which allows for shortening or lengthening of samples without affecting pitch and vice versa.

During the early 1990s hybrid synthesizers began to emerge that utilized very short samples of natural sounds and instruments (usually the attack phase of the instrument) along with digital synthesis to create more realistic instrument sounds. Examples of this are Korg's M, 01W and the later Triton and Trinity series, Yamaha's SY series and the Kawaii K series of instruments.

The modern-day music workstation usually features an element of sampling, from simple playback to complex editing that matches all but the most advanced dedicated samplers.

Table of contents
1 Examples of Digital Samplers

Examples of Digital Samplers

Em-u Systems

Em-u Systems Emulator (1981) was Em-u Systems initial foray into sampling, and saved the company from financial disaster after the complete failure of the Audity due to a price tag of $70,000! The name 'Emulator' came as the result of leafing through a thesaurus and matched the name of the company perfectly. The Emulator came in 2-, 4-, and 8-note polyphonic versions, the 2-note being dropped due to limited interest, and featured a maximum sampling rate of 27.7kHz, a four-octave keyboard and 128Kb of memory.

Em-u Systems Emulator II (1985) was designed to bridge the gap between the Fairlight CMI and Synclavier and the Ensonique Mirage. It featured 8-bit sampling, up to 1Mb of sample memory, an 8-track sequencer, and analog filtering. With the addition of the hard disk option, the Emulator II was comparable to samplers released 5 years later.

Em-u Systems Emulator III (1987) was a 16-bit stereo digital sampler with 16-note polyphony, 44.1kHz maximum sample rate and had up to 8Mb of memory. It featured a 16 channel sequencer, SMPTE and a 40Mb hard disk.


The Akai S900 (1986) was the first truly affordable digital sampler. It was monophonic, 8-note polyphonic and featured 12-bit sampling with a frequency range up to 40KHz and up to 750KB of memory that allowed for just under 12 seconds at the best sampling rate. It could store a maximum of 32 samples in memory. The operating system was software based and allowed for upgrades that had to be booted each time the sampler was switched on.

The Akai S950 (1988) was an improved version of the S900, with a maximum sample frequency of 48KHz and some of the editing features of the contemporary S1000.

The Akai S1000 (1988) was possibly the most popular 16-bit 44.1kHz stereo sampler of its time. It featured 16-voices, up to 32Mb of memory, and 24-bit internal processing, including a digital filter (18dB/octave), an LFO, and two ADSR envelope generators (for amplitude and filtering). The S1000 also offered up to 8 different loop points. Additional functions included Autolooping, Crossfade Looping, Loop in Release (which cycles through the loop as the sound decays), Loop Until Release (which cycles through the loop until the note begins its decay), Reverse and Time Stretch (version 1.3 and higher).


(S series)

Other Manufacturers

(techno and other dance music)

see also: sampling (music), sample, remix