Thomas Dolby on Sampling

Mix magazine's interview with Thomas Dolby, who has been at the forefront of music technology since he burst onto the scene with his 1982 album The Golden Age of Wireless.

This article originally appeared in the June 1989 issue of Mix, and is used by permission.

Thomas Dolby has been at the forefront of music technology since he burst onto the scene with his 1982 album The Golden Age of Wireless. We solicited his views on the ethics and legality of sampling.

Many of your past recordings have featured synthesized and sampled horns. Do you consider a sampled horn less "real" than recording a live horn player directly to multitrack?
Once anything is encoded on magnetic tape, it's already electronic. The fact that you can take that tape, take jam sessions from successive nights and sequence them one after another, you're already cheating time. So if you take one line of a saxophone player and put it in a different place, then it's really no different. You can't say one is real and one is synthesized.

But if you modify what a horn player does through sampling, it's no longer the horn player playing. He or she is not physically doing it anymore.
As soon as you record what he's playing, he's not physically doing it anymore. If he's in a club and he's going through a sound system and you put effects on the horn sound, would you say he's not playing it anymore?

The person's still playing, but the sound is colored.
But where do you draw the line? Where do you say it's no longer a horn player? The point is this: why draw the line anywhere? Is someone going to make a moral judgment and say, "I don't like this piece of music because it''s not real," or are they going to make an intuitive judgment and say, "I don't like this piece of music," period.

I heard a song on alternative radio by an obscure new wave group that used actual samples of the Jackson Five singing their hits. Should there be a way to prevent such a blatant misuse of sampling.
The answer to that is, if you don't like the record, don't buy it. And if you're the Jackson Five and you feel you've been cheated, then sue them. For the rest of us, there's no need to pass judgment.

But how would you feel if you spent weeks developing an intricate sample and some upstart band took it off your CD and used it?
I wouldn't feel the least bit upset by that. I feel that as soon as I release something, it's public domain. I've been sampled a zillion times, going back to "She Blinded Me With Science." The drum sound at the end of that is one of the easiest things in the world to sample. But I don't get offended by that, because I don't think anyone can make a record as good as "Science" just by sampling the drums. When it comes to a sample, it's not how big it is, it's what you do with it.