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Copyright Law and the Ethics of Sampling

Contents

Part One - Sampling

1. What Is Sampling?

2. A Brief History of Recording

3. Improvements In Technology

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Part Two

Part Three

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Part One - Sampling

1. What Is Sampling?

Before we can understand how the law of copyright can affect sampling we must first know what sampling is. A dictionary definition states that 'A sample is a small separated part of something illustrating the qualities of the mass', (The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English, 1940). In this document the term 'sample' can refer either to an individual recording of the instantaneous amplitude of a sound or a whole series of individual recordings which together form a complete sound. So a sample could be a one byte number in an 8-bit system (or one word in a 16-bit system); or a whole series of data that together forms a longer sound. The term 'sampler' can also be used interchangeably to refer either to the electronic musical instrument or the musician/technician using the instrument. Sampling in the musical sense is the conversion of sound into a binary numeric representation of the sound (digitisation). Sound is a series of vibrations or changes in air pressure. When these waves hit the diaphragm of a microphone they cause it to move back and forth in sympathy. This inturn generates a fluctuating electrical signal that rises and falls about a centre line.

A conventional analogue tape recorder works by imprinting these fluctuating electrical signals as continuously changing (analogue) magnetic variations onto the moving magnetic surface of the tape. A Sampler or digital tape recorder however works differently; it does not record the actual sounds but a series of discrete numbers which represents the amplitude of the signal at a given instant in time. When these numbers are played back in order at the correct rate, passed through an amplifier and speakers, the original sound is reproduced. So instead of recording a continuous copy of the input audio signal, the sampler measures the amplitude of the input audio signal (i.e. the input audio signal is sampled) thousands of times per second, and each value is stored as a number in memory.

Fig .1. Block diagram of a digital audio system.

(The Sample and Hold, ADC and DAC are all synchronised to fs- the sampling frequency. )

(ADC- Analogue to Digital Converter. DAC- Digital to Analogue Converter. For a further explanation of the sub-systems used in the construction of an electronic digital audio sampler please refer to appendix II.)

There are two main measures that determine the quality of a sample which are:

  • the sample rate and,
  • the resolution.

Sample rate determines the accuracy of the sample to the original sound in the 'x' axis (see fig.2.) and is also directly related to frequency response. To produce an almost perfect frequency response of 20 Hz - 20 kHz a Compact Disc works with a sample rate of 44,100 samples per second or 44.1 kHz, now the industry standard. If the sample rate is varied the pitch of the output wave is varied and so a sample taken at one frequency can be replayed at many others and can be played musically.

The Resolution or quality of the system is determined by the number of bits (amongst other factors) as this determines the degree of accuracy on the 'y' axis i.e. for an 8-bit system there are 256 (28) possible values Higher quality systems use 16-bit numbers and with advancing technology the best systems utilise 24-bits or even more where the steps are so small the input signal is changed so little human ears cannot hear it.

Fig. 2. Diagram showing an Input Sine Wave and the Stepped Result of Sampling.

For a further explanation of the sub-systems used in the construction of an electronic digital audio sampler please refer to appendix II.

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2. A Brief History of Recording.

Since the beginning of civilisation music was live and as time progressed increasing numbers of households owned musical instruments and more and more people played them. By the 19th Century more prosperous families would have a Piano as the musical focus for the family entertainment, but as the number of people playing the piano satisfactorily was small, several solutions have developed.

One of the first forms of 'recorded' music is the piano roll which is a set of instructions for a mechanical piano to follow, enabling it to reproduce an identical performance to the one recorded each time it is played. The 'roll' could be made by either enlisting a professional to play the piece into a special recording Piano in 'real time'; or it could be stamped out by an expert, enabling pieces to be heard, that would be impossible for a human to play, because of their complexity. Piano rolls can be equated to a modern day M.I.D.I. sequencer connected to a M.I.D.I. sound module. These piano roll instruments became quite advanced and the larger ones could reproduce many instruments and complicated music.

The discovery of electricity in 1876 by Michael Faraday was to change the way most people hear music. Although the history of electronics is relatively quite brief, there have been incredible advances in the short period since its discovery. The first cylinder recorders made by Thomas Edison around 1877 were very crude and only a faint crackly recording was audible. The potential for a 'Dictaphone' and other uses was seen and soon better machines with increased clarity were made.

During the 1920's and 1930's, radio and 78 r.p.m. gramophones were developed, the new music industry became organised and expanded. At this time artists or performers would sing or play into a 'Horn' that would be acoustically coupled to a needle. The needle would vibrate and etch the performance onto a Lacquer disk making a 'Recording'. Presses to mass produce and make more durable, longer lasting disks were developed and so these performances could be duplicated, distributed and sold.

By the late 1930's valves were well developed, which made amplifiers available to both professionals and consumers. This was a major turning point which made electrical recording and reproduction possible. On recording equipment the simple needles became electrically driven styli, and the use of microphones instead of acoustic horns allowed several sound sources to be mixed together. The quality and clarity of recorded sounds took a leap forwards and 'recording engineers' matured to control all the new equipment and develop new techniques.

In 1947 Phillips conceived Magnetic tape, which was to reduce the need to record a performance all in one take. This meant that the recording on tape could be altered i.e. effected or edited etc., before it is committed to vinyl disk. Some ten years later multi-track recorders were launched which increased the flexibility of recording techniques, and in the 1960's and 1970's Rock and Roll stretched the limits of the new technology.

In the 1980's another major advancement was made with the introduction of Digital Audio. Initially the quality was poor with low sample rates and 8 bit resolution, but as the speed of microcomputers increased so did the quality of the digitally recorded or reproduced music. Now the standard is a sample rate of 44.1 kHz and 16 Bit resolution which allows very wide dynamic range of 90 dB+ and a frequency response of 20Hz-20kHz. Other advantages include almost noiseless reproduction and perfect copies/ clones.

Consumer formats for digital audio were developed and sales took off. The prices of digital equipment also tumbled due to economies of scale, newer technology and improved manufacturing techniques. Digital audio is an important development because the sound is represented as 0's and 1's, which enables computers to be involved in sound reproduction, widening the possibilities. Soon the micro processors available could manipulate sounds in real time using complicated algorithms, enabling sounds/ music to be processed and effected.

Today even home computers are capable of making, recording and processing music and a growing percentage of the population now own their own computer and even more have access to one. In the last couple of years the price of RAM - Random Access Memory (or SIMMs- Single in line memory modules), fell dramatically although it rose briefly due to immense consumer demand and the Kobi earthquake destroying a key factory. The price of hard disks has fallen at the same time as the capacity has greatly increased. All this has led to the wide spread availability of 'Tapeless' (Hard Disk) recording systems which are now replacing analogue and even the first generation of digital multi-track tape recorders in recording studios, and has brought professional sound quality within reach of the home user.

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Footnotes.

The term 'live' music generally refers to acoustic instruments played by a musician or group of musicians as opposed to a recording of them playing. Today 'live' can also refer to a performance of music that may be electronic and sequenced, but has some acoustic element such as a vocalist; or a real time element such as muting instruments or adjusting filters, etc..

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A point should be made that the recording made by a piano roll or MIDI sequencer is not actually the audio waveform produced by the piano but a record of which keys were pressed at a certain time.

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'Real time' is when an action is completed the instant a command is made. In computer terms this means that the user does not have to wait while functions are completed or whilst data is loaded. In the case of the piano roll the performance is played normally whilst it is recorded, the player not needing to adjust their style, there also being no delay.

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3. Improvements In Technology.

In the 40's and 50's composers and musicians became very interested in the new electrical technologies and continued the traditions of creating and adapting inventions to make new types of music. Having obtained funding, laboratories and studios from the likes of the BBC and Radio-Diffusion Françias the national broadcasters of France, and CBS in America, they produced soundtracks and sound effects. Tape loops were made laboriously using razor blades to splice tape. They were then used to make the first samplers where actual recorded sounds or pre-prepared musical accompaniments could be synchronised into live performances. Many techniques that are now found as functions on modern day samplers were developed at this time for tape, such as cross-fades, layering of sounds, multi-tracking, splicing, looping, playing sounds backwards aswell as forward and playing them at different speeds. These composers also experimented with oscillators to produce tones, made the first synthesisers and the first purely electronically generated music. In 1955 Harry Olsen and Herbert Blair constructed the RCA synthesiser and in 1959 a MKII model was made. These musicians/technicians formed a close-knit group whose music became known as 'Music Concrète'.

During the 60's Robert Moog worked on Voltage Control systems for synthesisers and Donald Buchala created electronic sequencers. As ever technology was ceaselessly developed and by 1970 sophisticated synthesisers (but still mono-phonic), with a reasonable price tag were available such as the Minimoog and the ARP 2600.

In the late seventies digital synthesisers such as the Synclavier appeared and computers were also incorporated into Sequential Circuits and Roland products to recall patch information. All these technological advancements meant that (all) the necessary ingredients for the construction of samplers now existed, including the desire from musicians. The first people to be able to digitally 'sample' as we do today were big time producers and artists who in 1979 could afford a 'Fairlight CMI (Computer Musical Instrument)' with a price tag of approximately 20,000. Even a Fairlight could only sample small snippets of sound (about 1 second at 15 kHz bandwidth), such as drum sounds. As money was not a problem with these musicians, they could also afford to pay any damages incurred by breach of copyright.

Concurrent with the technological advances in the mid seventies a new form of music appeared from the ghetto's of the South Bronx, New York, which would evolve to utilise and promote the sampler more than any other music form. The music is Hip Hop and amongst the originators were DJs like 'Kool Herc', 'Afrika Bambaataa', 'Theodore' and 'Flash' who created the new sounds by blending rhythms from Africa and Jamaica, with the Soul and Funk found both in the underground and pop charts. M.C.s then chatted over the instrumentals to hype up the crowd in a party and this vocal style developed to become Rap. The DJs used two turn tables and a mixer to spin out a complex collage of old music and sound tracks. Breakbeats developed where two copies of a record with a 'Break' are lined up on the turntable, and the DJ seamlessly extends the 'Break' by playing first one copy then the other. Originally the breaks were the instrumental drum breaks but over time the length of a break has diminished, they have become more abstract and the art of selecting a break has developed so that one must now use a great deal of skill and knowledge to find new, unused, interesting and musically worthwhile 'Breaks'. The turntable is also used by Hip Hop DJs to insert small audio snippets (previously cued on headphones), this use as a musical instrument can show us the closest origins of today's use of samples. In this sense a turntable can be thought of as a poor mans sampler. In Hip Hop all musical rules and conventions have been discarded which has prepared the ground for a great deal of invention and ingenuity, and is where a large proportion of fashions, musical styles or new trends have found their origin.

In 1980 Casio moved into electronic keyboard instruments, and with their mass production techniques again forced prices down. In 1981 Dave Smith of Sequential Circuits proposed the USC (Universal Synthesiser Interface) which became MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface), and by 1983 the first instruments were produced to utilise it. MIDI enables many instruments to be linked together so that one may be controlled by another and enables performances to be recorded and played back or modified at a later time.

During the 80's the low cost samplers (with which this document is mostly concerned), were developed by firms like Emu-Systems, Ensoniq, Roland, Casio and Akai whose products later became the industry standard. Over the last ten years the capabilities and functions of the instruments has vastly increased and the clarity of audio reproduction has improved with the resolution increasing from 8 bit to 16 bit quality and the sample rates have increasing to 44.1 kHz or more.

The equipment has become much easier to use upto the point that a musical novice is now able (with a little creativity), to create very complex and professional sounding music. Over the last few years after audio quality reached an acceptable standard, a great deal of design effort has been put into improving the user interfaces of these instruments to improve their ease of use further still, i.e. the displays have been made larger and although individual buttons for each function would be too expensive, icons and menus can make navigation through the system simpler. This newly found ease of use through better interfaces and vastly reduced prices has led to an explosion in the numbers of people sampling; which leads us to the increase in the (arguably) illegal use of samples commercially.

With all this technology surrounding a musician it is possible to produce, very quickly and with very little effort, endless streams of mechanical sounding repetitive dross. This music is rightly condemned but I think that many critics group all sampled music into this category which is wrong as good and bad can be found in every sphere of life.

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Part Two

Part Three

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Copyright Law and the Ethics of Sampling



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