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The Father of Sampling and the Birth of 21st Century Music

January 22, 2018




Sampling is defined as the technique of digitally encoding music or a sound and reusing it as part of a composition. The music of the 21st century is completely dominated by sampling. Like Les Paul -  the other 20th century genius who shaped the sound of modern music, the inventor of sampling was a Wisconsinite. Harry Chamberlin (above photo) invented the worlds first sampling keyboard at his home in La Crosse, Wisconsin in 1949. Like all great ideas, the concept was simple. Harry recorded a variety of instruments playing every single note of a keyboard. He then designed a mechanical tape playback system so that each key, when pressed, could play its corresponding note. In other words, each key had its own tape cassette mechanism. Chamberlin then added a rack-over system that allowed multiple tape choices. At the simple flip of a switch, the keyboard could play flutes, a small violin section known as three strings, horns, bass, sound effects -  anything that could be recorded. Harry succeeded in capturing the accuracy and dynamics of the original instruments. In skilled hands, it was almost like the real thing. All the early Chamberlin models sampled members of the Lawrence Welk Orchestra playing their various instruments.  Don't laugh. The Welk orchestra was a large group of skilled session musicians, paid for hire pros and some odd hepcats playing in the corniest orchestra on earth - a great, steady paying gig for any musician. Harry soon added real drum loops - very common today, but almost unheard of in the mid 50's.  By 1956, the Chamberlin keyboard was an industry sensation. Harry moved from Wisconsin to Los Angeles in 1951 and by the late 50's had a factory that could put out a handful of keyboards a month. He envisioned his keyboard in every home. In his mind, Mom and Dad could, with the touch of a key, lead sing alongs to the real sounds of a big band or string orchestra. As with any revolutionary invention, there was opposition from both without and within. The American Federation of Musicians was worried that this keyboard would create an army of one man orchestras and thus eliminate jobs (and empty their union due coffers). Another set of problems was that Harry didn't care for Rock and Roll and did not want his company to expand too quickly. Here's where the story gets good. Bill Fransen was a former window washer at the Chamberlin factory. Through hard work and constant travel he had become a successful salesman for the company. Fransen wanted to set up a wide range of distributors and also pursue the exploding youth market. The keyboard, although sonically perfect, was very delicate - it was built to stay at home and not be moved. In 1962, the overly ambitious Fransen vanished. He turned up in England with two Chamberlin keyboards in tow, he presented himself as the inventor of the new instrument and went to work to find a company that could reproduce it.  Within a few months, Streetly Electronics became the manufacturer of the of the "n