Our resident music theory expert Oliver Curry explains how sampling chords can add timbral complexity, distinctive harmonic character and a healthy pinch of old-school flavour to your tracks.
Sampled chords are a key component of countless techno and deep house tracks, but the whole idea of sampling a chord then replaying it at different pitches might initially seem a little strange. Why not just play the chord with a real instrument? Wouldn’t that give more flexibility?
To understand why the technique became popular, we have to look back to its roots in the mid 1980s. Rather than one definitive reason why so many producers adopted this technique, there are a handful of overlapping, related causes. Firstly, many early house producers didn’t necessarily have the keyboard skills to play complex chord progressions manually and sequencing technology was in its infancy.
Secondly, in the days when gear was relatively much more expensive than it is now and the days of soft synths and virtually unlimited multi-track recording were a distant dream, loading synth sounds into a sampler freed the synth up to play another part.
Thirdly, chords could be sampled from existing tracks (often jazz, funk or soul records), capturing some of the sound of the existing recording.
Finally, although it’s a subtly different sound and technique, it’s worth mentioning that a number of affordable 80s synths including the Roland Alpha Juno and Korg Poly-800 featured ‘chord memory’ functions which allowed chords to be played with a single finger (a technique which became particularly popular in rave and hardcore in the late 80s and early 90s).
At the most basic level, sampling a chord from an existing track or from a synth or acoustic instrument can be a great way to play otherwise difficult or unusual progressions. However, as we’ll also see, the technique also introduces a distinctive sound as the chord gets pitched up and down the keyboard.
Bicep – ‘Feel It’
For an excellent example of sampled chords in action, let’s start by listening to Bicep’s ‘Feel It’, released as a free download last summer:
The track samples a minor 7 chord at Eb (it sounds as if it’s most likely voiced with the minor 7th, Db, as the lowest pitch of the chord, then Eb, Gb, Bb). We can hear that throughout the track the chord switches from Eb minor 7 to identically voiced Ab minor 7 chords either side of it. Pictured below is a piano roll of the chords played at 2:50. You can see how the intervals between notes are identical.
Here’s how the chord sequence sounds when played in using a basic organ patch:
However, in the track we can also hear how the timbre of the chords played is affected as the sampled chord gets pitched up and down. This is most obviously apparent at 3:19, when the chords descend in pitch without the drums and bassline. Note how the sampler slows the recorded sound down in order to reduce the pitch, introducing a grainy feel and slowing the envelope of the sound.
As the sampler pitches the audio further away from its original pitch, the harmonics are shifted accordingly, resulting in a very distinctive sound. While the same chord progressions could be played in or sequenced on the original synth, it’s this harmonic shift that provides chord sampling with its unique feel.