‘Computer Music’ magazine, CM77, September 2004

Alex Lowe

Published June 2024


For avid music production enthusiasts, Computer Music Magazine has long been a source of intense bliss providing vast tutorials, reviews, and advice articles. This September 2004 issue represents an interesting period within electronic music. In this era sampling started to move toward digital techniques and the transition provides an insight into how sampling developed into modern techniques and industry. This issue of the magazine comes with a CD with free software and audio samples for use in music production, providing another enticing reason for music producers to fork out money for this particular magazine. 

Sampling refers to the use of a recorded audio file within a newly produced piece of music. This could be an audio file recorded by an individual or an audio file of part of a pre-existing song. A key part of my postgraduate research is the utilisation of sampling methods within artistic practice. In this article I will briefly discuss the history of sampling, explore the sampling methods discussed within this issue of Computer Music Magazine, and consider the complexities of the sample library industry.



In the late 1940s, composer Pierre Schaeffer used a gramophone to create some of the first musical works using raw recorded sounds (aka samples). However, inefficiency of the medium resulted in adoption of reel-to-reel tapes to modify recordings. As a result of this move sampling techniques such as looping parts of recordings, shifting the pitch, reversing audio, and adjustment of speed were developed.



In 1960s these techniques entered the mainstream, for example, ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ by the Beatles used tape loop effects and a reversed guitar recordings to create an intense and impactful atmosphere. In the 1970s, digital samplers emerged, such as the Fairlight CMI. These were expensive but can be heard extensively on Kate Bush’s album Hounds of Love (1985). 

The 1980s brought affordable digital samplers such as the renowned Akai MPC defining the golden age of hip hop, which included groups such as Run-DMC and Public Enemy. The MPC was notorious for the use of funk, jazz, and soul vinyl records to produce looped recordings and one-shots: short samples of an instrument playing a single note, or a drum hit. 

In the 1990s there was widespread use of vinyl records recorded into digital sampling devices, such as the Akai MPC which provided means to trigger, loop, and modify audio recordings. The development of accessible music software throughout the 90s and 2000s allowed for sampling to be achieved entirely within a computer. Programmes such as Pro Tools and Ableton Live, featured in this magazine, increased availability. Samplers within these programmes allowed pre-recorded sounds to be used easily.


Sampling Techniques

In the magazine there is a section titled ‘sampling techniques’ which details several ways of using sampling to create digital instruments. This section focuses on sampling of ‘one-shot’ audio files, short samples of an instrument playing a single note or a drum hit. These samples are then imported into a digital sampler instrument which allows for these audio files to be controlled to play melodies, chords, or drum rhythms using digital Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) notes. MIDI notes inform the digital sampling instrument of which note(s) to play and the loudness of said note.

One-shot samples can also be placed within a linear timescale within a digital audio workstation (such as Ableton Live, featured on the magazine cover) bypassing the use of a digital sampler. This is a popular way to use loop samples. Loop samples refer to an audio file containing an instrumental recording that usually lasts 8-16 bars and can be repeated (looped) seamlessly. Contemporary producer, Kenny Beats, is known for using samples on a linear timescale as shown in his internet series ‘The Cave’


Digital Samplers

A tutorial in the magazine discusses Ableton Live’s ‘Simpler’, which is a simple digital sampler that is demonstrated to chop and modify samples. This tool uses one shot samples like an instrument by using MIDI to communicate musical notes to the computer.

Ableton Live is a popular music performance and production tool used by artists like Skrillex, Diplo, and Avicii. The magazine cover advertises a review and tutorials of Live to target music producers, to entice those interested in buying the software. The tutorials cover fundamentals for beginners whereas the review covers basic to advanced features of Live and gives it a whopping 9 out 10 score, labelling it a "definite must have piece of software".


Personally, I have used Live for years and love its flexible workflow which features effective ways to implement sampling, a major part of my musical work, super-fast. The issue features several tutorials on sampling methods. A range of software is demonstrated, however the discussed techniques can be replicated in other software.


Beat Slicing

In 2006, the release of Ableton Live 6 added ‘Sampler’ a tool capable of complex sampling techniques. For example, beat slicing, where a sample is divided into small segments which can be triggered through MIDI completely re-arranging the original sample. The magazine discusses different software capable of this technique and provides an in-depth tutorial (see image above). Beat slicing is a technique originating from devices like the MPC, but digital software made it vastly easier to achieve. I recommend listening to the phenomenal Donuts (2001) by J Dilla to hear this technique in action.


Sample libraries




This 2004 magazine comes with a CD-ROM, shown in the image below, containing one-shot and loop samples. But around this time there was an elephant in the room... the internet! In competition to CD sample libraries, online digital libraries of royalty free sample gained some popularity throughout the 2000s (e.g. Sonokinetic and Samplephonics). This offered a vastly easier way to directly download sample through the internet and instantaneously use them in your music software. However, this popularity was limited, and CDs still held prominence.

In 2013, the revolutionary subscription service Splice was released which provided royalty free samples on demand. This service gradually reached mass popularity and has become a beacon of music production culture. The popularity of Splice’s one-shot and loop samples has led to several songs using the same or very similar sounds. Producer Decap has noted that his samples distributed by splice have been used in songs by Pharrell, Fetty Wap, Charli XCX , and more. On the one hand, the move from obtaining these samples from CD to online services has made obtaining a range of sounds for music production far easier. However, as the use of Decap’s samples suggests, it has also led to similar sounds being used on many songs. This has the potential for songs to end up sounding too similar and potentially boring or unoriginal.

The popularity of digital sampling instruments has led to large professionally-recorded sample libraries being produced. This includes sample libraries of orchestras, drums, and other acoustic and electric instruments. Companies producing these sample libraries, such as Spitfire Audio and Native Instruments, gained large popularity throughout the 2000s and 2010s. These sample libraries provided high quality sounds for composers and producers who did not have the means to record an orchestra or drums. For example, within my remix of 100 gec’s ‘Ringtone’ I utilised sample libraries by XLN Audio and Spitfire Audio. As this remix was only intended for a non-profit release on SoundCloud, it was not financially viable to record session musicians. This demonstrates how effective sample libraries can be for small producers and artists.

However, alternatives to sample libraries have gained recent popularity. Development of physical modelling synthesis has led to digital instruments of orchestral and acoustic instruments that use this technique. Physical modelling synthesis refers to mathematical models that are used to produce an emulation of a physical sound, in this case instruments. The key difference between physical modelling instruments and sample instruments is the former often allows greater control over expression techniques. This refers to techniques such as vibrato or tremolo which characterises the expressive nature of instruments such as the cello. A growing number of composers prefer the greater control over instrumental expression that physical modelling provides. 

Recently, many sample libraries by smaller creators have emerged such as those available for Decent Sampler. These sample libraries often use audio from recordings of rare and unique instruments, analogue equipment, and handmade instruments. Composer David Hilowitz develops such sample libraries from thrifted instruments and his own handcrafted instruments, such as his Cello made from an old wooden box . These sample libraries are an affordable and unique option which provide an interesting sound palette for the bedroom producer. These indie libraries provide fierce competition to high budget sample libraries. 




Sampling copyrighted material quickly became problematic. In 1991, Gilbert O'Sullivan sued artist Biz Markie for copyright infringement of his song ‘Alone Again’ representing a precedence against sampling others’ music.

In response, royalty free (not requiring clearance) samples distributed through CDs, such as the one included with the magazine, became prominent in the late 1990s-2000s. Electronic musician Fatboy Slim has frequently used CD sample libraries which are heavily present on his album You’ve Come a Long Way Baby (1998).


We've come a long way, baby...

With the historical context in mind, I would argue that the September 2004 issue of Computer Music Magazine demonstrates the solidified move to digital software in music production. However, the presence of the included CD represents a time prior to the dominance of the internet.

Personally, I have used CD technology to sample copyrighted music for my research. The internet provides a vast range of sources to sample from which I sometimes have no idea where to start and using CDs gives me a more limited range of material, a creative limitation if you will.

In line with this, while digital royalty free sampling libraries provide a convenient method of obtaining samples, they also provide an overwhelming number of possible samples. So, I ask the reader, did we ironically lose something here? The limited number of samples available on CDs such as you would find in a magazine or in a music shop may have provided a way to limit your sources and focus on music production; potential for limitations leading to creativity. On the other hand, am I just being naively nostalgic for simplicity?


Alex Lowe is a Master of Research student at the University of Liverpool. His research explores audience nostalgia as evoked by his original sample-based compositions. He employs artistic practice, surveys, and desk-based investigations as key research methods. 

Alex is an extensive composer and producer of disparate styles and has a passion for creative programming of music software.

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