History of the Sampler Part 3: Sampling Comes to the Masses


By Brandon Smith

In the last 2 blog posts (Part 1 and Part 2) we looked at the history of sampling – from pre-digital manipulation of tape to expensive studio behemoths like the Synclavier and Fairlight.  That brings us up to the very early 1980s and a small company with big ambitions called E-mu Systems.  E-mu had gotten its start making modular synthesizers in the early 70s, competing directly with the likes of Moog and Arp.  While their modular equipment had (and still has) its followers, Emu deserves its place in history for other reasons.  They developed the first digital polyphonic keyboard scanners, allowing big modular systems that were previously monophonic (one note at a time) keyboards to play multiple synthesizer “voices” at once.  The more available voices there were, the more notes you could play simultaneously.  E-mu licensed this technology to Oberheim for the 4 & 8 voice and Sequential Circuits for the Prophet 5.  Emu also teamed up with a company that makes integrated circuits (microchips) called SSM (Solid State Microtechnologies) to produce synthesizer module ICs - VCOs, VCFs etc. squeezed onto a single chip.  These made polyphonic synthesizers far more practical and cost effective than early models.  Since companies like Sequential and others were licensing technology from E-mu they all had to pay royalties.  This meant E-mu now had capital to invest in research & development to create something really ground breaking.  They developed the Audity first - a massive computer-controlled analog hybrid synth.  The only prototype in existence is now in the collection at the National Music Centre in Calgary, Canada.  The folks at E-mu showed off the Audity at the 1980 AES convention, but quickly realized that no one was going to buy a $69,200 fancy analog synthesizer when you could get a Fairlight for half the cost.  The Linn LM-1 had also just made its debut as the world’s first sample-based drum machine (not a sampler technically, since it could only play back pre-recorded ROM sounds).  The goal for Emu became creating a sampler for the masses.  One with some of the same functionality as a Fairlight but with a low enough price tag they could actually sell them to non-millionaire musicians.

E-mu System Inc.'s Emulator II

E-mu System Inc.'s Emulator II

In 1981 E-mu Systems Inc. introduced the Emulator – the first under $10K sampler with a list price of $7,900.  It didn’t have a fancy screen or sequencer like the Fairlight did, but the cost made it very attractive.  They would soon smash another price barrier with the introduction of the Drumulator, the first sample-based drum machine retailing for less than $1000.  The Emulator had its own software built in and a 5¼” floppy drive for storing samples.  This allowed users to build up their own sample collections, share with others and obtain pre-made sample libraries.  The Emulator quickly took the world by storm.  Even though the specs were pretty basic, it sounded great.  Stevie Wonder bought serial number 1 and many other famous musicians followed.  The Emulator was also used on Michael Jackson’s Thriller album and several other famous recordings.  With the Emulator proving so successful, E-mu released the improved Emulator II – regarded by many as one of the best sounding samplers ever made.  Unlike the Emulator I which had a very basic filter, the EII had nice SSM 24db/oct. low pass filters, giving it a very analog sound.  The EII was very widely used in the 1980s – it’s in the movie Ferris Beuller’s Day Off where Ferris uses it to sample himself coughing and call in to school sick.  The Shakuhachi flute sound at the beginning of Peter Gabriel’s “Sledge Hammer” is also a famous EII sample.   

Arguably one of the most influential machines Emu ever made was the SP-1200.  The SP-12 (1985) and 1200 (1987) were sampling drum machines.  They had their own sounds built in, but also allowed the user to sample their own.  The SP-1200 quickly became the drum machine of choice for hip hop and dance producers.  The sampling time was short – just 4 blocks of 2.5 seconds each – so you had to rely on trickery.  2.5 seconds is too short for most loops, so producers would chop up a loop into 4 chunks.  Another work around for sampling longer pieces of audio was sampling from vinyl being played at higher speeds therefore when you played the sample back at lower pitch with the sampler the speed was normal. The sampling quality was 12-bit with a sample rate around half that of a CD but it was punchy and gritty in a satisfying way.  It is THE sound of old school hip hop which is why the SP12s and 1200s are still in use in some studios today.


As the 1980s progressed, and computer technology became cheaper, more companies tossed their own budget samplers into the fray.  Akai, a Japanese consumer electronics firm, started an electronic instruments division in 1984.  Their first sampler, the S612 released in 1985 was a 12 bit machine that could only hold 1 sample in its memory at a time.   These samples were loaded in via “Quick Disk” – a seldom used format of 2.5” mini floppy disks.  Sure it was limited by today’s standards – but it was the first sampler under $1000!  The real game changer however was the S900.  At its lowest sample rate it could store a whopping 63.3 second sample in memory at low quality and at high quality It was 11.75 seconds.  It was Akai’s first truly professional Sampler and still has a strong following.   The S1000 which succeeded it proved to be even more popular – featuring true CD quality 16-bit 44.1 KHz sampling.   The Akai MPC-60 was designed in part by Roger Linn (Inventor of the Linn Drum) and was the combination of a sampler married up with a powerful sequencer.  The MPC series became very popular with the bedroom producer crowd – in the days when PCs and full-blown MIDI setups were still pretty expensive.

AKAI MPC 60 ii

AKAI MPC 60 ii

Other companies like Ensoniq, Roland, Korg and even Casio joined the sampler biz as well.  Hard drives and CD-ROM drives started taking the place of floppy disks as memory costs kept going down.  Built in effects, better, larger displays and live performance features were becoming the norm.  By the early 00’s PCs and software had caught up to the capabilities of specialized hardware samplers.  A sampler really is a computer, just not a very versatile one.  So now that DAWs and plug-ins are the norm is there any room in the world for the hardware sampler?  Recently released products like Akai’s new MPC Touch would suggest that hardware sampling isn’t going anywhere yet.  In fact, the trend seems to be going back to having things in dedicated boxes – only this time said boxes contain more powerful computers and things like USB for control and file transfer from a PC or Mac.   Now that the majority of producers prefer to do things on the computer, owning a hardware sampler is more affordable than ever.  A used S1000 can be had for a few hundred bucks usually, although prices are starting to creep up for the older Akais.  Older classics like EIIs and Fairlights still tend to fetch a lot due to their retro status. The E-mu Emax is a good cheap alternative to something like an EII or a SP-1200.  They typically sell for 2 or 3 hundred bucks and many of them even have hard drives built in!   Some folks (me included) have modified their older samplers with more modern storage devices for example, my Akai S5000 has a CF card reader where the floppy drive used to be.  There are USB floppy drive emulators available too, ensuring that these old beauties are still viable well into the future – where the obsolete floppy disk may not be as easy to find.

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