Sampling Origins, Mellotrons To Midi

Electronic music pioneers expertly mould music into unnatural rhythms, surreal soundscapes and ambient backdrops, which is impossible without sampling.

I am becoming evermore fascinated with music technology, having lived through most of its evolution. Today I encounter much hostility towards digital technology, which alarms me because musicians like playing with new toys. Computers and synthesisers have been around for decades. People throughout history have always railed against modernity and there’s no escaping nostalgia these days on social media. This got me thinking about the Mellotron, an early sampling instrument. Mellotrons started out as expensive toys for wealthy, hobbyist musicians to impress their family and friends. Peter Sellers could pretend he was Mozart or Beethoven, in the comfort of his own living room. The Mellotron was soon adopted (and subverted) by 1960s psychedelic bands to flavour their art rock with ethereal, fairground-like effects. Mellotron samples have a lo-fi, childlike quality.

By the close of the 1970s, sampling technology was evolving fast, eventually materialising in the music world as the astronomically priced Fairlight CMI (£18,000 to £30,000). Which was a Mellotron for the computer age, due to the sample based make-up of its sound output. Computer power also enables the processing of more complex samples and the ability to manipulate frequencies and create new sounds. Have a listen to the Trevor Horn produced Lexicon Of Love album by ABC. The Fairlight CMI is used throughout the recording via samples and loops of analog instruments. The Fairlight could also be used like a synthesiser.

The Mellotron’s ethereal sound is output from analog tape samples from acoustic instruments such as organs, strings or choirs. Each sample is activated by playing a keyboard, much like a piano.

Midi has, since the 1980s, developed along its own evolutionary timeline. Roland were the first to manufacture a Midi drum machine and pioneered early synthesisers. For me, today’s digital software instruments fuse the various technologies together. Including the analog sampling technique of a Mellotron and the frequency manipulation of synthesisers. When combined with traditional analog, acoustic or synthesised instruments, Midi is a very powerful platform in the production of modern music. In the hands of an expert sound designer or hiphop producer the results are astonishing. In the hands of your Aunt or Uncle you end up with a musical version of painting by numbers, unless your uncle was (the late) Peter Sellers.

Midi devices can be very cheap to buy for non-musicians, with an array of presets and one finger orchestras. Just as Rich Uncles (or Aunts) from yesteryear could be Chopin or Bach (when showing off the Mellotron), they can now be Jean Michel Jarre or Vangelis with limitless samples and beats at their fingertips. And publish all this mindless muzak on SoundCloud. But the progress of sampling technology over the decades has also reached a point of saturation in sound choices. Being a musician also means you must exercise restraint when recording. Software companies want to keep selling you their plugins. You have to be disciplined and focus on the music you want to create. As in fine art, the skill is in knowing how to mix the colours.