There's nothing like hearing a track with the perfect set of samples looped in. When done right, you can even make a name for yourself. Look at guys like Kanye West, the RZA, the Alchemist, Just Blaze, and on and on. They made their name as sample based producers and are now either at the top of the rap game, becoming actors while doing soundtracks for movies, and being tapped for the biggest records by all of the stars. That's who you want to be.
But I hope you have several qualities to yourself before you try to learn how to sample. You need to first and foremost be patient, because choosing the right sample and then pulling it out of the original recording takes time and effort. Beyond that, you need to have a passion for all types of music. So many producers are using the most insane samples and pumping out hits with them. Guys like Timbaland are sampling Indian music. You've got dudes like Necro sampling classical music and old spaghetti westerns and 1950's horror flicks. You'll need to be listening to a lot of music from a lot of genres.
Beyond that, you've got to have the vision and creativity to recognize a hot sampling opportunity when you hear it. Lastly, and not remotely the least, is that you'll need to have the technical ability to rip the track, cut the sample, pitch shift it, modulate the volumes and tempos, loop it, hack it, and so much more. By the end of this article, you'll have all of the information you need to get it done. But that doesn't mean you'll be nailing it right off the bat. Practice will make perfect. Perseverance is the final quality you'll need. Let's get to it.
If you don't have an idea in mind before you start, go back to the drawing board. Without an end destination, you're going to get lost in the ocean of possibilities. The reality is there are literally millions of songs to sample and they could all be hits. So know what you want first, and then set out to find the best option.
The first and most important set of questions to ask after you find a potential sample is...
Can I clear the rights to use the sample? Is it public domain? If not, what will it cost me? Can I afford it?
While diverting into that discussion is beyond the scope of this article, we'll be returning to it in a future column post.
Keeping finance and legality out of the picture, you need to know the kind of song you're wanting to produce and the emotions you want to provoke in the listener. There are producers that I know that have entire notebooks full of various songs by artists, noting which album they are from and the time stamps of the portions they want to sample. I've seen them organized by genre and even by emotion. Taking notes over the years passively as you enjoy music will speed up the process of finding the right sample when it comes time to make a beat.
The last consideration is whether or not you want vocals to appear over the sampled segment of your instrumental. If you do, remember that as you match the tempo's the voices and instruments will be pitch shifted up to sound like a chipmunk or down to sound kind of demonic. If you don't want a sampled segment that features vocals, you'll have to hunt for the perfect portion to loop. If you can't find that but are determined to use the specific song, then you'll have to take various pieces and chop them together to create a smooth transition and loop.
So how do we work with these sections with or without vocals?
If you find the perfect section of a song to sample that doesn't have overlapping vocals or other instruments joining the orchestration, then consider yourself blessed. You've managed to get by on easy street this time. Otherwise, get ready to chop, automate volumes, and much more to get rid of vocal blips or some random drum break.
Here is where the science of mixing comes in. Let's say you've found the perfect four measure section to loop, but at the tail end, a trumpet starts blaring a 1/2 note early. This is a time when you'll want to listen closely to the entire song again and see if you can find a similarly orchestrated section of the song that ends the four measures without the interruption of the trumpet.
To "mash" these two sections together, you'll need to use your preferred DAW (digital audio workstation) such as Pro Tools, Cubase, Logic Pro, etc. Open up the multitrack and drop each separate recording into a different track, but align them so they play in time together, overlapping on beat. Now the goal is to silence the bad portion while introducing the good portion at the right volume, and doing this smoothly enough that it's not detectable.
Don't expect to just use the Scissor Tool and cut at the same spot on each track and delete the bad parts. You'll end up with glitches, pops, cracks, and jumps where the tracks transitions into one another. What you want to do is enable what's called volume automation, which is meant to replicate the function of "riding the faders" on a mixer back when we recorded to tape and walked to school both ways uphill in the snow.
Now zoom in to where the two tracks will transition into one another. At the point where the official cross-over happens, drop the volume on both tracks to about the halfway point, so that as they both add together it will return to the original volume. Of course, do this by ear, not visually, since the multitrack will likely be logarithmic and not linear. You'll want to experiment to see which sounds best in each case, but your options are usually a linear cross-fade or a sinusoidal fade. You'll be fading out the bad portion of the good piece and fading in the replacement part. The cross-fade will remove any chance for blips and weird sounds coming through. If you can detect it but barely, then rest assured your listeners won't hear it, especially as you continue building more instruments and vocals around the sample.
At this point, once it sounds good enough, you can bounce a full loop to be used in the actual production of the beat.
You'll find that although you have your loop sounding great, it's not necessarily at the right beats-per-minute that you would prefer. But as you speed up or slow down the BPM's, the sample becomes higher or lower pitched. That's because tempo and pitch are directly related to each other. You can, with the modern digital plugins, change the tempo while maintaining the pitch, but it's not always perfect nor will it sound natural. Listeners are accustomed to and expect to hear pitches vary away from the original song the sample comes from anyways, so don't sweat it. Just choose your tempo and move on. However, break the mold if you wish and use a time-shifting algorithm to maintain the original pitch as you increase or decrease the tempo. It could work!
Heads Up: If you try to change the pitch too much, you'll expose or introduce noise, wavering artifacts, and transient sounds that destroy the usability of the sample. Try not to change the tempo more than 4-8% to avoid these problems.
Ok, so now you're at the right tempo, but you sampled a live band and they wavered a bit and lost the beat here or there. Time to zoom in and grab that scissor tool we mentioned earlier, because it's time to quantize the beat using beat-slicing. Where ever the timing is off, splice the sample at the lowest point in volume, usually off-rhythm where a strong beat is not being hit. Splice around the beat that's off and move it around slightly to bring it back into time. You may have to fill gaps that are created by splicing and duplicating lower volumed segments. Just go back to the cross-fade method and you'll manage just fine without it being obvious what's happening.
Well... now you're sample loops fine, is at the tempo and pitch you want, and is playing in perfect time. But as you start adding drums and bass beneath it, you realize that everything is clashing with what's already in the sample. The sample might have a bass line in it, or a kick drum, etc. Can't a producer catch a break? Nope. Luckily we have the tools and the brain to survive this harsh reality.
The main tool that will save the day in this situation is the equalizer. I prefer to use high and low pass filters and a parametric EQ to really adjust the sample to the perfect levels in the various frequency ranges. For instance, I don't want a kick drum or a bass to get in the way of my own or any other lower frequencies to clash with the instruments I'm going to add and mix in. So I immediately slap a high-pass filter on the track and adjust the threshold higher and higher until the kick drum and bass are no longer in the way of my own. I'll start around 100 Hz and sweep my way upwards till I find the sweet spot. I'll do the exact same with a low-pass filter to remove harsh cymbal crashes or anything that might get in the way of my synths, hi-hats, etc.
At this point, you're far enough along to start layering in and arranging the rest of your song. You might go ahead and build the entire drum track, add a synthesizer and a bass, and then record vocals. And that's when you realize your snare is clashing with the existing snare, just for example. There are likely to be several points of "clashing" going on, and this is where using a parametric EQ plugin on the sample will fix everything.
Let's say that your sample has some unintelligible vocal blurb in it that's getting in the way of your rapper or singer's voice. On the parametric EQ for the sample, use a medium-width Q curve right around 5 kHz (move up or down to find the perfect spot, of course), and start reducing the volume at this frequency by about 1-2 decibels at a time. You'll find that clarity begins to return to your lead vocals, but don't be tempted to push too far to the point where you begin to get too destructive on the sample, affecting other instruments too. My rule of thumb is to go where I think it's perfect, and then back off just a tad. Repeat at every frequency that's clashing until finished.
With modern plugins, you can change the stereo width of a sample to suit your purposes. Perhaps you sampled a mono track and want it to cover more the of the sonic landscape, but only during the chorus. You can easily achieve this these days and should take advantage of it. Consider this while building the rest of your arrangement. Just watch out for issues like comb filtering. Always drop the master track down to mono and check the mix to make sure it still works out. This will help you catch any issues you may not have noticed in stereo.
With stereo positioning, don't forget that a stereo recording is simply two mono channels panned hard left and hard right. You can separate them and treat them differently with EQ's, reverbs, and delays. Just beware if you have centrally panned instruments in there and what affect you're having on them as well.
Our preference for mixing has changed a lot in the past few decades, and if you're sampling records from the 50's up to the 70's or even 80's, you're going to notice that there's a lot more dynamic fluctuation and headroom going on compared to modern records. This is tricky though, because you'll want to compress more, but you'll have to precisely dial in the attack and release so you don't create a pumping sensation in the sample.
Also, consider the time-based effects already applied to the sample. If you begin compressing it where there is reverb, too low of a threshold and too high of a ratio might cause that reverb to become far too prevalent in the mix. You'll have to find that delicate balance. You can always isolate and compress specific frequency ranges or even use ducking if needed. Don't be afraid to spend most of your time here, testing options. You need to get it perfect for the audience to accept it as perfect.
If you prefer to work outboard with racked equipment, take a look at the FMR RNC for a decent entry level professional compressor. I've got mine racked side-by-side with their RNP pre-amp using the Funklogic faceplate. They look nicer that way and fit into a standard rack.
And that's all there is, folks. You now know how to sample. It's always easier said than done and will require plenty of practice, but with diligence this information can take you through the beginner level and beyond the intermediate level of sample based instrumentation.
Just remember that all you need is your DAW, the multitrack, volume automation, the scissor tool, tempo adjustments, and EQ's. Cross-fading, quantizing, and mixing is the entirety of the technical side of the sampling game. Getting it right is not an option. The rest of the success will come from your ability to choose creatively and build around the samples affectively.
Check out this example from Kanye West called "Through the Wire" where he sampled Chaka Khan's "Through the Fire." He changed it to Wire because he had just had his jaw shattered and wrote and rapped the song while he had his jaw wired shut.
That's how it's done. Even if sampling isn't your style, learn how to do it. What are you going to do when the random rapper of the future who's coming up in the game wants you to produce a sample based beat for his major label debut record? Are you going to say no? Know your craft from every angle and be prepared! Practice, practice, practice!