My Riff or Yours?

Sample collections let anybody sound like the world's best musicians

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Serious musicians struggle to make everything they play -- every whole note, bent note, attack, and interval -- unmistakably their own. But now more and more top players are selling their uniqueness piecemeal, in the form of 'signature' sample collections on CD-ROM and audio CD. The musicians record individual notes and riffs rather than songs -- or they sample bits of their own previous performances. Then anybody equipped with a computer and a MIDI keyboard can buy one of these pricey ($200-$300) collections and borrow bass notes as played by legendary session man Steve Gadd, or tom-tom rolls the way LA studio ace Jim Keltner lays them down.

As it's explained in an issue of Musician (Aug. 1995), 'signature' sampling offers genuine advantages for players. Most of the users of the collections are professionals -- film score composers, record producers -- and a sample collection is, after all, a sort of deconstructed solo album that may work to publicize a session player's skills and get him or her more gigs.

There are down sides: recording single notes or riffs is tedious work, and the special energy that comes from playing with other instruments is missing. And when a sample user puts a bunch of Jim Keltner notes (perhaps filtered, distorted, slowed, sped up, or otherwise electronically rejiggered) into a new context, the delicate question of whether Jim Keltner has actually 'played' on the new song arises. 'They shouldn't be allowed to say [I played],' Keltner told MUSICIAN, 'unless I give them permission. After all, it could be something I wouldn't have wanted to be involved in.'

Bassist Marcus Miller feels that when you buy the CD-ROM you're buying a musician's services, and the musician should be notified and further compensated when his or her notes are used. (A handful of highly ethical sample users have done just this.) At the same time, he doesn't believe that sampling 'freezes' his creativity into a series of signature cliches. 'The ideas on the disc are just the ideas I came up with one day,' he says. '[They don't] define me as a player.'

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