Chris Lyth considers some of the different sources you can mine for samples
With Daft Punk calling it a day after 27 years, it’s oddly appropriate that this month’s article is about something that was integral to their career… namely, sampling. The duo had an almost uncanny ability to identify the most visceral, potent hooks from disco and funk, trim the fat and backlight them in a way that reflected them back at us for modern day consumption.
Sampling has radically changed the way that music is produced from both a technical and a cultural prospective. It raises many questions, both moral and legal, as it's essentially digitally re-processing existing culture into new and variant forms. Intellectual property, while not being tangible like bricks and mortar, is real and exists in the slightly less tangible world of ideas and, er, the law! The debate around whether sampling was art or theft raged for some time when sampling first became mainstream, until – tellingly – an acceptable template for sample clearance was devised by record companies and their lawyers.
Sample clearance is worthy of a small book in itself so I won’t touch too much upon it here. Needless to say If you plan to release it and it’s not very cunningly disguised, you will have to take steps to clear your hoard. If you want an easy life, under no circumstances sample ABBA!
Which is the point of this article, really, as we look at some of the other options that are available to you instead…
A brief history of sampling
Sampling began in the 1950s as an analogue concept, with Musique Concrète artists like Karlheinz Stockhausen who used tape splicing and short tape loops in a way that recycled previously recorded music. Paul McCartney, a fan of Stockhausen, would later make great use of tape splicing in tracks like Tomorrow Never Knows and Revolution 9. Fast forward to the 80s, skipping unfairly (but for brevity's sake) over the frankly unaffordable Fairlights and E-mu Emulators and a few other early attempts, and we land at the first truly commercial sampler, the wonderfully grungy Akai S900 – a revolutionary product, but a pitiful specimen by today’s standards.
This was to be superseded by the Akai S1000, which was the first sampler to offer CD quality and decent sample time. Others soon joined the fray, including Roland, E-mu and Casio. Producers were often incredibly partisan where samplers were concerned, because each unit offered a slightly different sound or functionality, but ultimately they all did the same job. And by the time DAWs became standard, hardware samplers had taken a backseat and all but the most dedicated hardware fetishists couldn’t resist the ease of use, massive sample time and large bundled libraries of products like Kontakt etc.
Taking about large sample libraries neatly brings us to how we find our samples. Back in the early 90s, the only real affordable pro sample material came as CDs on the cover of magazines such as FutureMusic and The Mix. Professional sample CDs by the likes of Loopmasters and Time+Space would cost £60 per disc, so the choice was either get your wallet, or get out the sampler!
Producers would spend hours listening through their record collections, identifying clean enough passages of drums (for example), then recording them into the sampler (often through a rough-sounding DJ mixer) and chopping the hits up into kicks, snares and hats etc. so they could be used to create their own beats. Or, conversely, lifting big hooks from records to loop and repurpose. Often I hear people talking about how records of this era had a great gritty sound that is unachievable in DAWs: this lo-fi approach was part of the reason for that, as sampling and reconstructing from vinyl imbues the recording with its own tones and textures.
Nowadays, sampling is a huge industry in itself, with companies like Splice and Loopmasters dominating the market to make finding content quicker and easier than ever. You can now browse by genre, instrument, BPM, key and style, and within moments you can find a sound and have it loaded into your DAW fired up and ready to go. This is undoubtedly a very useful tool to have – but as any superhero film will tell you, with great power comes great responsibility. With every producer in the world having access to the same professionally created samples, how do you stand out from the crowd?
I’m not for a second suggesting that sample libraries shouldn’t be used, but if you want your productions to really stand out, take care that you're not just reassembling professionally made samples like a musical jigsaw. There needs to be something of ourselves in the music to make it uniquely ours and the question must be asked, are we making art or content? True creativity, however, will always find a way. It’s not where you take things from, it’s where you take them to!
So where should we be looking for samples? Your own music collection (or perhaps your parents') is a good place to start. I would recommend dedicated sampling sessions where you sample anything and everything. The samples don’t have to be used in their original form, as once inside a DAW or a sampler they can be radically reshaped.
If you were wanting to use a hook from a well-known track, you might to consider sampling a cover version, either to offer a different take on it or to avoid legal entanglements. The sadly departed MF Doom sampled Space Oddity as the main hook on his track Rapp Snitch Knishes, but tellingly he sampled a cover version of it by Dave Matthews Band. We will never know for sure, but I imagine that it was a bit easier to deal with Matthews’ lawyers than Bowie’s and probably less fiscally bruising!
On that note, our editor also brought up those tacky TOTP albums from the 70s and early 80s which, for the uninitiated, contained dubious cover versions of hit tunes of the day. They were, generally speaking, awful… but even if the rendition as a whole was poor, that doesn't mean they didn't get the sax part right! The point is you can sample anything and everything: library music, TV ads, YouTube, sound effects records, there’s even albums that feature music from old BBC test cards. Old disco records are not the only fruit!
One of the nicest places to look are old VHS tapes, if you have any. Not only are they a repository of family history, they are likely to feature lots of arcane sample material from a bygone age. Complete with tape wobble, hiss and assorted smudges they can be a treasure trove of leftfield sample material. Videos taken from your phone can be another personal source to explore: they'll often sound very lo-fi, which can obviously work to your advantage.
The term “found sounds” refers to self-recorded audio, for example from a walk in the hills or a city. One of the best things about this is that it gets you out and about and you are limited only by your imagination. A decent handheld recorder won’t break the bank and you will have completely unique recordings with your own personality stamped on them.
Sampling our own work can be another great way of recycling a promising idea that perhaps didn’t make it. I always approach sampling my own work with the thought in my head, if I was a thief what would I steal? Perhaps you could grab the entire track and split it into micro fragments and have fun reassembling it like an audio mosaic. It’s all up to you.
The sample is just the start
Remember that using samples doesn’t have to mean simply dragging and dropping them into your track and using them as they are: they can be radically reshaped and twisted beyond all recognition. Timestretching, for example, can turn your sample into a thick, valium-hazed dreamscape or a hyper-digital glitch fest within a few seconds. And almost any sound will start to generate a perceived rhythm when looped over a short period: even some background ambience, when looped, will become in a way propulsive.
In short? The audio world is your oyster. So dig deep, use your imagination, and above all – have fun!
Words & pics: Chris Lyth