Stepping back in sampling time with Ed Stratton

Ed Stratton
Ed Stratton

At a time when sample library companies are in abundance with more arriving on the scene every month, it’s important not to forget the original developers who paved the way for these new producers. Having been established since 1990, Zero-G are among the few original sample library developers who still enjoy great success with their products today and next year sees the company celebrating its twentieth anniversary. We caught up with Zero-G’s founder Ed Stratton to get his experiences on the history of sampling and his thoughts about today’s market.

Hi Ed, prior to establishing Zero-G, you enjoyed success in the UK charts – tell us about that period of your life.
It was Paul Hardcastle’s ’19’ that first made me realise I could make records if I bought the right gear and put my mind to it. I bought my first gear in 1986 – an Ensoniq Mirage sampler, Yamaha DX7 synth, QX1 sequencer, RX7 drum machine and basic 8 channel mixer – and started making records while still working as a music engineer for Capital Radio in London.

The Jack That House Built
The Jack That House Built

I teamed up with Vlad Naslas, who I’d known from my Surrey University days when we were both doing the Tonmeister course (which was essentially music, recording techniques & audio engineering). We wrote and produced a few jingles, signature tunes and advert soundtracks which were getting a lot of airtime and then when Steve Silk Hurley went to No.1 with ‘Jack Your Body’ it blew us away and we started making a serious attempt at creating a sample based instrumental hit. The result was ‘The Jack That House Built’ which we did in 1987 under then name Jack ‘N’ Chill. It was released on Virgin’s Ten Records with the help of Capital DJ Charlie Gillett who was also our publisher (he owned Oval Music). It got to No.6 in the charts in February 1988 and we went on to make a follow up called “Beatin’ The Heat” which didn’t do so well. Vlad and I then followed different paths. Vlad produced some tracks for Boy George and I got a solo deal with Rhythm King Records under the name ‘Man Machine’. I wrote and produced 4 singles and an album for Rhythm King and took a rig on the road, with about 20 gigs in the UK and France. The Man Machine days were a lot of fun and I did pretty well for a year or two but was unable to repeat the success of the Jack ‘N’ Chill days.

How did you then go on to enter the world of sampling?

Round about 1990 I purchased a sample CD for the first time – “Climax Vocal Collection” by Masterbits. Sample CDs were a totally new idea and I didn’t really know what to expect. I was totally disappointed in it as there wasn’t a single vocal on it I could use in my music. Seventy pounds down the drain. That hurt because by this time I was skint. Then it dawned on me that I had put together a huge collection of samples over the previous 4 years and could easily put together a sample CD of my own that would blow dance producers away. I realised that sounds were going to be a really big deal in the future and saw that I had an amazing opportunity to get into something huge right at the beginning. I compiled 1000 of my best samples onto a DAT tape and had it mastered to CD. I borrowed enough money to have an advert designed for Sound On Sound magazine, to cover the cost of the ad, and to manufacture 500 CDs. This was the world’s first dance sample CD.

Zero-G Datafile1
The first Zero-G sample collection

That first sample CD was called ‘Datafile 1’. It became quite popular even though it didn’t come with a license for commercial use. I released a couple more ‘Datafile’ CDs which also went down well and then I formed the company Zero-G Limited to produce sample collections from other producers which were sold with a license for commercial use. The company’s first release was “The Funky Element” by John Dunne. East West (USA) contacted me to ask if they could sell our CDs over there, and to ask me if we would distribute their Bob Clearmountain CDs. That was the beginning of Time+Space as a distributor. It was an exciting new business to be in, based on new technology and in a niche market that was expanding exponentially on a global scale.

What formats were these in?
In the beginning sample CDs were generally just plain old audio CDs and people sampled the output of their CD player into their hardware sampler. The most popular samplers were the Akai S900, S1000, Prophet 2000 and Casio FZ1. The first products we released in a dedicated sampler format were in Akai S1000 format, then later Roland S700 and SampleCell formats.

What were the most fundamental advances in technology during the first 10 years?

Sampling itself was the biggest advance. It changed music forever and I could see huge possibilities for business opening up. But in the very early days only the rich could afford it. You needed a Fairlight or Synclavier or Emulator – all far too expensive to buy unless you were a successful studio or artist. The big breakthrough in price was the Ensoniq Mirage which was only about £1300. You only got about half a second of sampling time and the audio quality was poor but it started to open up the possibilities of sampling to the masses. After that, the really important advancements were in the reduction in cost of memory chips that allowed longer sampling times. I remember being really excited each time a new sampler came out with more sampling time as it always made a lot more things possible for my music.

Ed Stratton
Ed Stratton

The next big change was the progression from dedicated hardware samplers to using computers as samplers, and we started releasing sample libraries in WAV fomat. This really expanded the market for our business and allowed a lot more people to discover what an amazing and fun tool sampling could be.

The number of sample library companies has grown hugely in the past year or so, no doubt due to the availability of music technology and of course the internet. With Zero-G having been established for almost 20 years, what are your thoughts on this recent increase?

The more developers and the more products there are, the harder it gets to find the really good quality products among the bad. It’s easy these days to make a nice looking website and cool graphics in order to sell sample libraries, but much more difficult and time consuming to produce quality sample libraries. Of course I would say this, but if you buy from a company who has been established for many years with consistently good press reviews, you are a lot less likely to be disappointed with your purchases. With newer companies’ products it becomes very important to read reviews of them and if possible audition them before buying.

What do you think the future holds for sample library developers?
Well we certainly have some serious challenges to face. The illegal sharing of software products on the internet by posting download links on forums etc is a major problem for the entertainment industry as a whole. It’s getting worse all the time and is gradually squeezing the sample library developers’ budgets as their income is more and more adversely affected by the activity of the pirates. I think it is already the case that there would be a lot more great sample libraries on the market if so many people hadn’t chosen not to pay for others’ hard work, and in the future internet sharing and piracy could put many sample developers out of business and discourage many great new businesses from starting in the first place, which is a terrible shame.

Listen to samples taken from the original Datafile 1 collection – I’m sure you’ll recognise some!

 

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Posted by Melanie Doidge

Having worked in marketing for over fifteen years with experience in various industries, Time+Space and the world of music production continues to be the most exciting of them all. With our brands consistently pushing the boundaries of technology with their products, the terrific DJs, Composers and Producers using them and the feedback from magazines and our customers, there's always plenty to tell the world about. Musical experience? I reached Grade 6 in piano back in my school days and am currently in the throes of trying to resurrect my abilities!

Website: http://www.timespace.com

This article has 7 Comments

  1. Its great to see an interview with one of the true pioneers in the sampling world, Ed has laid the path for companies such as ourselves to flourish and we thank him kindly for taking huge risks back in the day to create a sampling industry which encourages creativity and breaks down barriers to enable musicians from all walks of life to make music.

    Well done Ed and Zero-G!

  2. Man Machine never got the exposure or acclaim it deserved, I still have all on original vinyl and play to this day, truly unique work and timeless, remember first hearing on fantasy fm and was just blown away – would love to see that project reignited some day !!!!

    good article btw 🙂

    1. Manmachine ‘Step Back In Time’ – classic. It always does make me step back in time too because I have a really vivid memory of listening to it on a barge at the beginning of a mental Tottenham to WOMAD voyage 🙂

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