On The Inner Life Of Sampling

by Thomas Brett

I’m at the computer, headphones on, Ableton Live software open, listening closely to audio sample loops that I’ve made of Wonders, a CD of marimba and vibraphone music I recorded eleven short years ago.  (How time flies!)  Why am I spending my time like this, mouse-clicking around loops of my musical past?  What am I thinking about as I listen through these samples?  What are the looping sounds doing to me?  What are they triggering in me?

As I experiment with various delay settings that add rhythmic echoes to the loops, I think about sampling as a kind of deteriorated memory–not because our memories and digital sampling can’t be faithful to an original event, but because remembered things are always distorted and anyway, I just like the sound of the effects I’m applying so now I’m theorizing about them.  With software it’s easy to distort a sound by re-pitching it to a low warble, or adding delay to make it echo and fold back upon itself (swimming in its own memory), or laying on filter upon filter to mutate the sound into unrecognizability.

All this is enjoyable and interesting to experiment with, headphones on, in close listening mode.  (There are even moments of ecstatic discovery too.)  But as I experiment I find myself remembering the previous life of my sampled material–the life it lead as it was composed and then performed and recorded as live music.  Or put another way: the life this sound once led when it was alive.  All this experience–which goes back almost twenty years now–feels compressed before me in the short four and eight bar loops I’m listening to.  The scale of this archeological dig through my musical life seems a little off somehow: How could my little schizophonic loops ever do justice to the scope of their lived history from which they have been split?

In his recent book Retromania, Simon Reynolds speaks of sampling as a portal “to far flung times and places”, a kind of musical “ghost coordination and ghost arrangement” (313-314).  More ominously, Reynolds suggests that sampling “is enslavement: involuntary labor that’s been alienated from its original environment and put into service in a completely other context, creating profit and prestige for another” (314).  I will almost certainly never profit nor earn prestige from sampling myself, and now I also wonder: What could I possibly add to my already recorded artifact?  And besides, isn’t the practice of sampling short sections of music and looping them effectively reducing the music’s informational content, making it more redundant and more repetitious?

This view–however old-fashioned it is in equating musical change with density of information and “progress”–was my perspective on sampling until it occurred to me that sampling offers other gifts of musical perception and affect.  One thing that had long struck me about Wonders was how impatient with itself much of it sounded. The constant and repeated sixteenth-notes and regular chord changes every four bars or so gave the music a sense of never being settled, never content with just staying put, and like its composer, always on the go.  But sampling lets me take a musical moment and say to it, Hold on.  Relax.  Get comfortable with yourself.  Stay for a while.  Sampling lets me retroactively inject a dose of my current sensibility into my past self–or as Reynolds might put it, enslave the old me.

Sampling is also a convenient excuse to explore how a range of sound-morphing effects impact my sounds.  To start, one of the most dramatic effects I’ve discovered so far–maybe out of laziness because the slider is just there in front of me, begging to be tried out–is to re-pitch a sample into a higher or lower register.  It’s easy to forget how crucial pitch is to a sound’s affect.  If you don’t believe me, record your own voice sometime and re-pitch it lower or higher.  You’ll realize immediately how much your vocal identity depends on its pitch.  And repitching a sample by a few semitones affects the shade of its timbre or tone color too: suddenly a wooden marimba can sound like a low gong or a metallic xylophone.  Re-pitching allows me to hear new things in my looping samples such as hidden inner voices (notes of a simultaneous chord) or harmonies, or even more mysteriously: a (new) feeling I didn’t know was even present in the sample in the first place.  A second dramatic effect is EQ or equalization, which can be powerful in the way it allows me to foreground particular frequencies, drawing in articulations and contrasts, turning a mellow timbre into something more focused.  Next, delay effects also help me hear my samples anew.  Adding the right type and amount of delay can send a sample into orbit, breaking it into thousands of shards bouncing rhythmically around the stereo field.  And finally, just the pure repetition of looping is transforming–if you find the perfect loop point.  Done right, looping is pure groove, pure flow.

So, as I sit at the computer with my headphones on, in close listening mode, experimenting with effects on the looped samples, I find myself thinking about the history of this music’s original production and here’s what comes to mind:

I’m working out its chord progressions on the piano in my parent’s home in the evenings of the summer of 1994, then painstakingly notating and arranging the chords for marimbas; inputting the music into Finale, a computer notation program; rehearsing the music with five other musicians in a subterranean, neon-lit percussion studio and hearing the lumbering piece come alive for the first time and fill the room with a ringing hum; performing the piece live in a recital hall for a few hundred listeners who applaud the moment the musicians all finish together on an upbeat on the final F major chord; learning to play all the parts myself four years later and then multitracking them at a recording studio, the click of an electronic metronome fed through my headphones to keep my playing in sync; putting the piece, along with four other compositions I’ve recorded, onto a CD for independent “release” (if you’re wondering: no, it never did sell enough to cover the cost of making it); storing hundreds of copies of this mostly unsold musical artifact on a high shelf in my closet, the brightly colored jewel cases still shrink-wrapped and lined up in neat rows in what is now an old and discolored cardboard box; taking out one of the shiny CDs and feeding it to my computer, prompting the machine, having just eaten the disc in one swift gulp, to politely ask “Would you like to import the audio cd ‘Wonders’ now?”; dragging an icon of Track 1’s audio file into Ableton Live–all that lived experience squashed into sound waves!–reminding me of a postcard sent from a distant land and then found again after all these years, waiting to be recycled.