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Saturday, 10 August 2013

The Art of Sampling

Much has been levelled at producers who stick to using Vengeance sample packs and the like, a quick search on YouTube for a video such as this...


... Sums up the sentiment some producers harbour for these kind of packs and construction kits. 


While it's pretty much inevitable that you'll use some samples from sample packs in your music, there is a lot to be said for being selective, and for going out of your way to find old and rare music or finding alternative sources for your samples. This is because:

1.         When you are sampling older music, such as your parents / grandparent's vinyl for example, you're forced to listen to music you might not normally listen to. This can give you ideas on song structure, transitions and more. If you simply listen to the genre that you produce, you will only use that genre’s clich├ęd ideas.

2.         Listening for samples can spark an idea for a melody or song, or a way in which you might creatively use a sample that you've found. Starting from a sample and / or a particular way of using it in a song (that you thought of while scouring old music) is easier than starting from a blank canvas.

3.         Approaching making music in this way can help you change your sound and push you in different directions, allowing you to become a more diverse artist that doesn’t scroll past the same collection of sounds and synthesiser presets you are familiar with from every other song you've written. Its good not to rely on the same tools too often.

4.         Even if you dislike a particular piece of music you are listening to, keep in mind that often the best samples come from terrible songs. You might be able to find and use a truly unique sound or sample just by looking where others hadn't thought of doing so.

5.         In actively listening for samples, you are forced to be selective. The act of making a decision on which samples you will keep and use is one way in which you will develop your sound into something unique and different that people will want to actively seek out and listen to. If you stick to generic sample packs that everybody has, your music will sound everyone else's music.

So how do you go about this task, which can be quite time consuming, in order to get the most from that second hand vinyl collection you paid $20 for at a garage sale?

Here’s the way I go about it. I set myself the goal of just listening to one vinyl record per day. No need to go over the top and burn yourself out, if you have more time on your hand then sure, bump that number up, but I find one record per day is good for me. You can do the same thing with YouTube videos or any other source where you’re listening to original and different music. Remember the goal here is to listen to something you normally wouldn’t, so if you are using YouTube then subscribe to a channel that posts random old music daily or something.

Once I’ve selected the (in my case) record that I’ll be listening to, I sit down and just listen. You might get the urge to stop and focus on a particular sound, so it’s handy to have a pen and paper handy to remind yourself at the end of what this was, but I find it most productive to listen to the entire song or disc so that I can get a feel for how the artist has used the sample that I want to use, i.e. what it’s original context was.

When I’ve identified all of the sample or samples that I want to lift, the next step is to record them. You want to record them as loud as you possibly can, so that you have the best possible signal to noise ratio. For more reading on this there are plenty of good articles around such as the one here. Leave a bit of space either side of the sample so that you can chop it in your DAW later to get the most natural sound.

Once you’ve done the above, you’ll need to clean up the sample. Put an EQ over it, and set a node up with a tight Q and quite a high boost. Run up and down the sample until you hear where it sounds the worst, and then invert the boost into a cut to remove these unwanted frequencies from the sample. Repeat this process as many times as is necessary. Finally, low pass and high pass the sample to remove any noise in those areas if this is necessary. You may also want to add further processing if the sample sounds flat and dull, maybe a harmonic exciter, some reverb or compression. Trust your ears and judgement as you are doing this. Don’t make the sample unusable and keep in mind that you will probably want to add in further processing later down the track when you use the sample in the context of a song.

Now all that’s left is to name the sample. Always put the source in case you want to find the sample again. It usually helps to have the type in there as well, but beyond this it is up to you. You might have a naming convention for your samples, in which case follow this. Put the sample in the correct location based on type, not source. If you have sampler banks programmed, you may want to add it in here too.

If you follow the above steps, you’ll stock your sample library with a bunch of samples that nobody else has, that you took the time to listen for, carefully select and process. This idea can be applied to sample packs as well, if you are looking for a bunch of samples of particular type, don’t go to a source that is well known. Look for 90s sample packs, go outside of your genre, do anything you can to give your sound a different angle.

Hope you enjoyed this and that it was somewhat informative.

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