What do Queen, Michael Jackson and Marvin Gaye have in common?
They’ve all been sampled, 100’s and if not 1000’s of times.
Sampling is a key part of electronic, hip-hop and music in general. No doubt you’ve heard a record containing a snippet of another’s music. But learning the art form is a process that involves understanding complicated tools, knowing where to look and having an ear for good material. It’s a craft that needs time to master.
But don’t worry – in this guide, we are going to cover everything you need to know about sampling, how to sample music and where to start with it. We’re bringing the secrets and knowledge out of bedroom studios around the world and putting it all in the one place.
Let’s start with the foundations.
If you’re new to the world of music (or at least computer/electronic music), sampling can be summed up as the exploiting of recorded audio in a new composition and recording, often with differences from the original recording. The original sample may or may not be recognisable, depending on the artists’ intention to either pay homage to the sample or to entirely recontextualize it.
Despite a lot of debate within the larger musical community as to whether sampling is a legitimate art-form, most people today would consider it a unique form of creative expression, with a large number of the top 40 pop and hip-hop tracks paying homage to the past through the use of a sample or two.
Many producers, especially those getting into EDM, start off their production journey thinking all sounds have to be created from nothing. That was the case for me, loading up FL Studio and trying to process bad kick drums into good ones for the sake of ‘skill’. Yet it’s simply not true. While synthesis is a massive part of producing music, sampling is an equally important skill within the broader art form of music production. Why? It yields interesting and unique results that you can’t get with synthesis alone.
Beautiful layers of instruments, weaving in and out of each other, recorded in exact ways. Those textures and tones would require unnecessary amounts of effort to create the same result, only to use it in a different way anyway. It’s using something old in a completely new way – like you’re finishing a painting started many years ago.
It’s been around for a long time, and only now is the art form being understood by the general public as it should be. If you haven’t watched this great TED talk from Mark Ronson on how sampling has impacted music, you’re missing out.
Replace ‘sample’ with a phrase of your choice and you’ll be well on your way to finding all sorts of weird and wonderful sounds.
Apart from this cool trick, simply search for anything sample-related to find music and sound to sample. Here are a few example terms:
If you want to find some curated resources, check out these websites. For obvious legality reasons, many of these sites don’t offer the samples or sounds as downloads, but act as a list of quality finds.
Reddit is a goldmine, especially for free sounds. Why? Because a dedicated community is a great way to find quality sounds that not everyone is necessarily using. Once again, not all of these have download links included and are simply showcasing good material to sample. Here are a few of the best subreddits for sharing samples and sounds:
Apart from all these methods or resources, there are a few interesting sampling or samplable resources I thought I would include in here:
Now that you’ve got some material to work with, you’ll probably be wondering where you go from here. How do I turn an existing sound into something that’s my own?
The methods have certainly evolved over the years, and where MPC’s and hardware samplers ruled, DAW’s and digital methods are now the norm. That being said, a lot of the workflow carries over between platforms or methods, so we’ll explain a few general approaches to sampling with examples from the past.
The general approach to sampling would involve taking a portion (or more) of audio, whether it’s a piano, guitar, drums or multiple things happening at the same time, and looping it. This loop can be pitched, chopped and arranged in a completely new way. In the past, this workflow would be achieved by using something like an MPC to scan through a track and find a portion of audio to sample and loop, and then finding different start points around the track to jump between, creating a new sort of phrase.
The sound can be processed with effects like EQ to deliberately isolate a portion of the audio. For example, if you want to add your own drums over a sampled track, you may want to high-pass it to remove the kick drum and rhythmic elements. Like the bassline? Grab a low-pass and filter it down low to get just that part.
This can be replicated in modern DAWs by importing audio into a digital sampler, like Ableton’s Drum Rack or simpler, and assigning slices to different MIDI notes.
Alternatively, if you want to get more precise, you can chop the audio directly in the DAW’s sequencer, allowing you to get more precise with timing and see things visually over time.
Beyond that, sampling is an art that can be adapted to your workflow. If you’d like to see how other artists sample, check out this great resource from Red Bull Music Academy.
Ableton Live is a sampling powerhouse, with the DAW including three main instruments dedicated to working with samples, in addition to its powerful raw audio processing tools with warping and the like. Depending on which option(s) you prefer, you might want to save a template that is ideal for your workflow.
Working in the arrangement view with audio in Ableton is the best place for forging magical ideas.
You can warp a sample by enabling the warp button on the clip. Once done, you can click and draw in warp markers to adjust the timing of the sample to the current tempo.
You can also do manual chops from a selection of audio by using Cmd + E (Ctrl + E on Windows) to split a clip in two. Then you can rearrange the parts and adjust each slice individually, getting a very smooth and precise phrase from any piece of audio.
If you’re using one shot samples, even if you aren’t chopping, the transposing tools allow you to tune drums, melodies and anything to whichever pitch you want. Also, the fades can help to tighten up the sounds and change them into something completely different.
As I mentioned earlier, there are 3 main tools you can use to manipulate samples in Ableton Live: the Drum Rack, Simpler and Sampler.
Simpler has a great new function as of a couple of years ago, where you can activate ‘Slice’ mode and it will chop the audio loaded in into specific intervals. The slice mode allows you to trigger each slice on a different note, like a Drum Rack. You can set it to ‘Trigger’ so that it plays after you’ve held the note in, or ‘Gate’ which stops it from playing once you let go. Beyond that, you can slice it by the transient, which analyzes the sample for definitive ‘sections’ in the audio, you can chop by a defined beat value, by splitting the sample into a number of even sections or by manually assigning slice markers.
By the way, right clicking on the sample with Slice mode on will allow you to ‘Slice to Drum Rack’ if you prefer that type of workflow.
The big brother if Simpler is the Sampler. Funnily enough, it has a lot more features (like more looping modes) but it doesn’t have a native chopping or slicing function like Simpler. You can replicate it by using Zones up the top, but it’s a bit of a workaround. So if you’re looping, taking one segment or doing complex modulation, Sampler is the better choice, but best to stick with Simpler if you want to slice things up. You can always convert between the two by right-clicking on the title and selecting ‘Simpler > Sampler’ or vice versa.
If you haven’t checked out our full guide in under 15 minutes, give it a watch. We cover every aspect of Sampler, allowing you to use it to completely mangle and screw the original audio into completely new textures.
Sampling in FL Studio
FL Studio also has some great ways of working with samples, and they’re fairly similar to Ableton Live. If you’re new to FL Studio and don’t have a clue where to begin, check out our beginner’s guide. Once again, you may want to customize your template based on your preferred workflow.
If you’ve seen our FL Studio Plugins article, you’ll know that Slicex is a super powerful tool with lots of editing capabilities. Although it’s the strong point is with chopping drum loops, it can be a great way to chop any kind of sound.
To give you a general idea, it chops each sample into a region and each region has individual processing capabilities. One of these features is the articulator, which is a filter envelope that accentuates certain sounds.
For a full guide to Slicex, check out Internet Money’s tutorial.
Edison is an endlessly powerful way to process audio, and it’s perfectly suited to sampling. You can delete parts you don’t need, add fades, process with FX and add markers for later slicing, all inside the one plugin.
My personal favourite is the ‘Blur’ tool, which turns any audio into a wash of sound, which has the added benefit of disguising the sample besides sounding lovely.
Similar to working with audio in Ableton, the slice tool (pictured 4th from the right) allows you to chop audio into different components that can be rearranged, like a collage. Simply click and drag with the tool selected to cut a piece of audio into two.
To take full advantage of this feature, you can right-click on each sample to ‘Make unique’ and adjust each slice individually. Now you can treat each slice like its own sample, adding fades, stretching, changing pitch and adding envelopes.
Of course, Ableton Live and FL Studio aren’t the only DAW’s that you can use to sample music. 99% of modern DAWs should be able to handle it in one way or another. Here are some resources explaining the processs of sampling in other popular DAWs:
Now I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but all the techniques and resources we’ve covered so far have a condition in their use, and that condition is that you must legally have the right to use that audio. I left this part to last because otherwise, I would have to mention it a hundred times over, but it does need to be considered and it’s something you’ve most likely about heard before.
If you plan on releasing a track with a sample you don’t have rights to, you risk legal trouble and you technically are breaching copyright. So, you might be thinking, “Simple, how do I get the rights to use it?”
Well, it’s a complicated, timely and costly process that often ends up in nothing happening, which is why a lot of artists sample anyway, preferring to ask for forgiveness and not permission. I can’t recommend this strategy, but the chances are that you probably won’t get caught if you do this, unless you make a lot of money from the use of the sample. Furthermore, depending on how you use the sample is another matter, which we’ll unpack a bit more now.
This talk from lawyer and artist Abid Hussain at Ableton Loop is the best explanation of copyright law in relation to music I’ve seen to date.
In summary, there are 3 court cases in the US that have given 3 separate precedents for how sampling should be treated, which makes it very confusing and contradictory.
The first case says that sampling is always infringement, no ‘if’s, ‘but’s or ‘maybe’s. However, the second case argues that only if it is substantially similar, then it constitutes copyright infringement. Lastly, if the work using a sample is transformative enough (recontextualizing the sample), then it won’t be classed as copyright infringement. Confusing, right?
Basically, it’s not clear, but it’s still very risky, especially if the original is recognisable. But people sample differently, which is why it’s not always the same answer. These cases could develop in years to come, and are always open to change with changing laws and new sampling controversies.
Regardless of whether you are in the US or not, there are a lot of similarities between the courts in Western countries. That being said, before proceeding with releasing tracks containing a sample, you should do the research to make sure your country has similar laws.
If you’re too worried about getting sued by sampling copyrighted sound or music, the alternative would be to use royalty-free music and sounds. These sounds are usually found in sample packs and don’t require royalty payments to the artist or sound designer who made them. A lot of DAWs come included with a variety of royalty-free samples and loops for you to use however you want.
If you are sampling full songs, the best thing to do would be to look for music that has a Creative Commons or a license that allows for use in commercial recordings. There is a difference between using the song and modifying the song, so make sure to read the license carefully and make sure you have the right permissions to do so.
Now that the legal stuff is out of the way, I thought I’d end on a few creative ways you can use samples to get the most out of them. Sampling is a boundless art from that, like music production in general, has endless possibilities.
It’s one thing to sample, chop and arrange a sound one way, but processing it with FX is a whole other dimension that can generate unique results. Rhythmic effects and time-based FX are a great example of this, like LFO’s automating the volume or filter, envelopes changing the pitch, adding timed delay to create new textures and much more.
Combine Sampled Sources
Using one sample in a track can be a great way to come up with a cool result, but combining multiple sources works especially well, mostly when sampling other completed music. You get to hear sounds together that were never intended to be heard like that.
What’s this wizardry, you ask? Well, if you’re familiar with music theory or the circle of fifths, then you’ll know that you can move between keys seamlessly by moving up or down in fifths. The same principle applies when sampling – you can pitch chops or samples up or down to come up with a unique phrase.
If you’ve listened to some classic house before, you’ll notice an iconic sort of rave-esque sampled chord sound. This is an incidental music theory technique called parallel chords, which is where the intervals between notes do not change. In the case of sampling, the notes are embedded into the chord sample and cannot be changed, so changing the pitch will alter the pitch of all notes in the sample by the same amount.
This universal truth is always important to come back to – less is more. What does this mean in terms of sampling? It means that leaving a sample in it’s original form as much as possible usually works better than any sort of over-processing would.
Think back to the Ice Ice Baby example we gave earlier. It’s nothing more than a sampled phrase from the original Queen track, with drums, a bass line and vocals. But it’s a wild success and considered a classic.