The story of the sampler at 50 – the groundbreaking invention that changed music forever

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Bruce Haack

Bruce Haack

With the pioneering technology celebrating half a century, Getintothis’ Mike Hill has a look at its significance in redefining music as we know it.  

It would be easy to think the release of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was the landmark musical event of 1967.

Or that a case could be made for the Summer of Love, the ground-breaking Monterey Pop Festival or the arrival of debut albums by The Doors, Pink Floyd, Velvet Underground or The Jimi Hendrix Experience.

But none of these happenings from 50 years ago would change the musical landscape quite as much as that aired in a brief segment of a children’s television show. The significance of musician, experimental composer and inventor extraordinaire Bruce Haack’s appearance on US show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was was barely noted at the time.

But it marked the first public unveiling of his invention, the digital sampler. Or ‘musical computer’ as he described it to his audience of momentarily intrigued primary school age youngsters.

As a composer of children’s music Haack was a regular on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and so it was, perhaps, natural he would use the stage to showcase his various musical devices with their strange sounds and electronic circuitry. Clips of the black and white show can be found on YouTube including the day his sampled loop of the Rolling Stones Citadel was transformed into a song called Wheels prompting a group of bemused small children to spin ceaselessly round in time to the music.

In this seminal – and frankly bizarre – moment a genie was released from a bottle which would put music on the road to techno and hip hop while transforming every area on the rock and pop spectrum. Although Haack was not credited with coming up with the name ‘sampler’ that was what his homemade synthesizer was with its capacity to record, store and play back whatever sounds he wished.

All of this in a set up fashioned from a suitcase and an old plastic kitchen tray.

Like most inventions there are plenty of others who lay the claim to producing the first sampler, in fact the Mellotron performed some of the feats of a sampler using the limited analogue potential of looped tape. But it seems Haack failed to realise the financial potential of his creation and it was 12 years before commercially available digital samplers hit the specialist shops.

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Among the first artists credited with using one in the studio was Stevie Wonder on his 1979 soundtrack album Journey through the Secret Life of Plants. Although the sampled sounds are not as obvious to the 21st century ear, Rolling Stone magazine’s review at the time noted, “Stevie Wonder creates sounds that are impossible to identify: the high, wafting trills that float through Journey through the Secret Life of Plants’ four sides might have been made by synthesizers, a string section, clarinets, any combination of these or none at all.

Second off the blocks was Kate Bush on her long player Never For Ever providing an early illustration of the diverse appeal of the digital sampler. Indeed, the first industry standard sampler the Fairlight CMI was adopted within its first 12 months of availability by artists as diverse as Duran Duran, Peter Gabriel, Led Zeppelin and Herbie Hancock.

Deploying the digital sampler to manipulate an artist’s own recordings or ambient noises was one thing but the game changer arrived when producers and musicians started to take bits of other artists’ music for their own use.

It is hard to be sure where the musical sleuth should start looking to find the first examples but it’s a safe bet the burgeoning hip hop movement of the early eighties would provide a useful starting off point. The New York neighbourhood block party scene of the era was built around a collection of isolated breakbeats and riffs from the likes of James Brown’s Funky Drummer, The Winstons’ Amen Brother and The Champ by The Mohawks.

It is no coincidence that all three tracks should feature among the most sampled of all time as the first hip hop pioneers deployed the sampler to grab the breaks to make live productions easier than relying on a DJ and twin turntables.

It was only a short step to lay these samples down in the studio for artists like The Sugarhill Gang and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, utilising the new 12 inch single format popularised by disco.
The Sugarhill Gang’s 1979 hit Rapper’s Delight may not quite have been the first record to feature samples of other acts but it did prompt the first high profile copyright case with Chic’s Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards at first unhappy with the use of part of their smash Good Times.

The case was resolved with the pair given songwriting credits opening the door to a slice of the track’s royalties.
This settlement was to have far reaching consequences for anyone sampling either with prior permission or without.

Most notoriously when The Verve ended up having to hand over all of the royalties for their biggest hit Bitter Sweet Symphony after lifting the strings motif from an orchestral version of the Rolling Stones’ The Last Time – a cheque which is reported to run to seven figures. Ouch.

The one bit of good news for Bruce Haack was the ageing rockers’ lawyers never caught up with his use of Citadel. Although he did secure the posthumous honour of having a track sampled by ace producer Cut Chemist.

Five songs you didn’t know were built on samples when you first heard them:

1) The HeavyHow You Like Me Now

The one from a million computer games, adverts and film trailers.

2) BeyoncéCrazy In Love

The one Rolling Stone magazine once ranked as the 118th best song of all-time.

3) Stereo MC’s Connected

The hip hop does indie one, or indie does hip hop with a rather nice, and hard to find on vinyl, Future Sound of London mix.

4) Massive Attack Unfinished Sympathy 

The one everyone loves. Everyone.

5) The VerveBitter Sweet Symphony 

The one that earned Mick Jagger and Keith Richards a Grammy nomination for Best Song.

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