Sampling is a production tool that is fundamental to electronic music. A seemingly simple act – taking small bits of prerecorded sound, often from an existing composition, and incorporating them into a new piece of music – has in the past few decades proven to be a revolutionary cultural force. An essential element for the development of hip-hop in the 1980s, as well as for electronic music scenes concurrently taking shape around the world, sampling helped lower the barrier of entry for potential music makers: No longer did a producer need studio access or a group of musicians to make full and rich productions. Instead, they could dig for loops and breaks from a wealth of existing material and use the pieces they found to create new compositions. The process also allowed the artists to insert themselves into a different type of musical timeline, traversing and connecting decades of sounds in a way that would have been impossible before the dawn of sampling.
With the proliferation of digital production technology, the creative possibilities of sampling are virtually limitless. Today, producers can generously manipulate pitch and time, completely edit and rearrange the order of sounds, focus directly on certain frequency bands or fractions of time and apply a wide range of powerful audio effects, rendering a sample completely unrecognizable. And as sampling techniques continue to evolve, so too does the debate over the validity and the artistic merits of sample-based music. While courts in the United States have continually attempted to rule on its legality, the art and craft of sampling has hardly been diminished, continuing to serve as an essential tool for electronic musicians in particular and as an influential cultural force in general.
Presenting diverse methods of gathering and manipulating samples as well as providing more philosophical musings on how the use of samples fits into today’s production landscape, the artists featured in this edition of Modern Approaches give a wide-ranging picture of the current state of sampling.
(Hamburg - Pampa, Kompakt)
I first discovered sampling around 2001 with the Korg Electribe ES-1. That sampler/sequencer and an old keyboard were the only pieces of equipment I had at the time, and as the Electribe’s memory space was quite limited, I was forced to keep the samples I recorded short and just pitch the sounds (I would also have to delete the stock samples from the Electribe to create more space for my own recorded samples). As a result, I would have to do things like pitch down my own recorded vocals and use them for a bass sound. Sometimes I would start just by replacing the samples in already existing patterns — like replacing a kick drum pattern with a vocal sample. Most of the time, the patterns would sound quite strange, but some of those strange sounds and patterns would lead me to new ideas.
Now, I have an SX version of the Electribe and it is still my favorite tool. Quite often, a sample is the first element that inspires me to build a track. I pull lots of stuff from my music collection, but also create my own samples with guitars, piano or vocals. I also have a big collection of old doo-wop music from the ’50s and ’60s, and sampling those vocals is something that I really like to do. Deconstructing polyphonic vocals by pitching and stretching them can be fun. Even though I don’t always use the results in a song, it’s just interesting to see how far I can go with rearranging them.
(New York - Never Normal, Klipmode)
If I do sample from records, I’ll try to go for 7" records, because you can find singles or b-sides that maybe never made it to an album, especially from gospel recordings and rarer things like that. I don’t really want to sit through a whole record track-by-track just to find a few ten-second sound clips. When I sample vocals from a record, I usually don’t grab a whole word or phrase. Because I’m a vocalist as well as a producer, I usually will try to grab something like a weird vibrato someone did.
If I’m working in the digital realm, I’ll put the whole waveform on my screen and I’ll just move the [beginning and end] parameters on the sampler around to try to find interesting loops; just moving the loop parameters and listening for those cool moments that aren’t exactly on the start of a bar, or something like that. I also have been using a device called the Organelle, by Critter & Guitari. It’s a sampler and a synth and so many things in one box, and it allows me to sample really anything in there, and then I can synthesize on top of it. It’s allowed me to sample and then take things to another level, almost like sampling in 3-D. It’s effect-heavy, which I love because I love to distort my samples, and I don’t want them to be known or found out by the time I’m done. Even if it’s an everyday sound like laughter, I’d want to distort it so it would be hard to figure out what exactly the sound is.
I will also chop up samples and pitch different parts of the chop so it sounds like one melody. For example, on “Now Flex,” I sampled a workout record from some random woman who is going “One and two and three…” over [Junior’s] “Mama Used to Say.” I played around with the timing and pitched different parts of the audio so the voice didn’t even sound like a woman, and then small parts of the underlying instrumental of the song provided the backbone of the melody. That isn’t always how it happens, but on a song like that, it is the sample that leads me through the production process.
(Berlin - Restoration, Hypercolour)
Sampling plays a big role in our work. Most of the time, we start our studio sessions with a couple of samples and then we write and arrange the other synthesisers on the top of those. Most of the time we take samples from vinyl, or from YouTube when we want to sample bits of a movie, an anime, an old videogame or a political speech. (It may sound funny, but we often use the voice of Margaret Thatcher in our live sets, manipulating statements of hers we’ve found on YouTube.) We love to sample everything from grooves, voices and pads to background noises, strings and horns, and we put our needles on everything from hip-hop to jungle and disco to UK garage, pop and world music. Of course, we also sample a lot of house and techno, especially from the ’90s, but we never take grooves that are too recent.
After first buying a Yamaha SU700 that had some SCSI driver problems, we got an Akai CD300, which we still use in the studio today. That was later joined by a Roland SP-606, an Akai MPC1000 and, since two years ago, an Elektron Octatrack, which is our favorite sampler for performing live and has a breathtaking time-stretch algorithm that doesn’t add any unpleasant sound artifacts, even up to +/- 12 ppm. We mainly look for two features on the hardware we use as samplers: ease of use and sound quality. Both the Akai CD3000 and the Octa have a brutal sound, though they are very different – the Akai rack sounds lo-fi, warm and punchy, and the Octatrack sounds very clear and detailed, but can also be very punchy if you squeeze your sampled material with the on-board compression.
We also have a little Akai MPC500 and a Korg Volca Sample, both of which are very portable and still sound quite good. Until recently, we had never used software samplers, but a few months ago we got the Symbolic Sound Paca to use with the Kyma sound design language. The Symbolic Sound Paca’s powerful DSP allows for a kind of sonic manipulation (such as real-time spectrum manipulation and morphing) that is unthinkable with traditional hardware or software samples. We just started to learn this language, and it will take a while to get some tracks out of it, but we are very excited.
(Berlin - Ninja Tune, Money $ex Records)
When I sample, I try to choose things that have a special atmosphere; the atmosphere of the sample itself can bring so much background and energy to the track that you can’t create with just your synthesizer or a microphone and a guitar. I try to mainly sample from vinyl, or sometimes use my own field recordings. Still, I have and will use CDs, MP3s, YouTube, or whatever, but I do try to actually own a physical copy of the sample I’m using. I used to put limits on what I could sample: I wouldn’t sample MP3s, then I wouldn’t sample YouTube, or something newer than ’85, but I moved away from that because I never really found any arguments for myself that made sense. It was just this hip-hop thing, this realness factor that was in my head, but the more I thought about it, the less it made sense.
Back in the day, I used to look for a cool Rhodes chord or a full loop from a record, but now I’m more into micro samples and finding these little bits that aren’t really traceable as samples. I am trying to make the sampled part of my tracks not the most obvious part; just an interesting tone or background noise, or maybe just a click that sounds nice. I also pitch my samples a lot. I almost never leave it at the original speed, which is a weird habit I have, but I just have to pitch the samples in some way – usually down. There’s actually one sample I think I’ve used five times now, but in totally different ways: it’s basically just a three-second Rhodes chord with some background noises. The first time I used it on the MPC, then a Roland SP-404, and the other times I just grabbed the noise part of the sample in Ableton.
I’m not really good at EQing stuff — I don’t really know what frequencies to use, and I don’t really use filters — I just have an 8-band EQ that I’ll use to cut off the bass on most of my samples, especially the shorter micro samples. I also work with groups, so I’ll put all my drums into one group (sometimes the bassline will go in there too), and everything else into two or three more groups, and then I’ll put a limiter on each group, so whatever samples I use will end up in their [corresponding] group, and that can go a long way in helping them match with the other pieces of the song.
(Stockholm - Studio Barnhus, Pampa)
My goal with sampling is simple: I want to find two (or more) samples from different sources that work together to create something new. Different harmonies that wouldn’t work in theory, but somehow create something nice.
For me, a sample is what a prosthetic arm is to a one-armed man. I’m a horrible instrumentalist, but I have good ideas, and a sample can just be a faster way to reach what I’m looking for in music. I look for samples with interesting textures and harmonies, but I avoid sampling hits or things that are too obvious, and I hate saxophones. I’m a sucker for choirs and strings, and African music is often great material to sample from.
I usually sample from vinyl, but recently I’ve also been sampling from CD since I now have an old Pioneer CDJ with a loop function in the studio. It’s great for making loops that are not super quantized, so that I can get that funky feeling from the get-go. When I sample from vinyl, I’ll run it through my E&S mixer, where I can EQ it a bit, then later I’ll run the looped sample through the E&S again, and this time I’ll do a long recording where I turn all the knobs I can and send the sample through effects to get a more live feeling.
(Los Angeles - Brainfeeder, Ninja Tune)
I used to sample a lot from vinyl, but I’ve evolved away from sampling more recently. I still find it to be a real evocative place and there is an aspect that I really appreciate about sampling from vinyl, where you are borrowing from some of the greatest minds – whether it be musical minds, engineering minds, technical minds – and you’re essentially incorporating them into your group, your brand, your workflow. And even though I now sample less from vinyl, I still treat everything in my songs like a sample, because I really like touching audio and I feel like that is when a DAW operates best, when you are intimately interacting with a sound source. That’s one of the powers of sampling: that at any moment you can start to make twists and turns to the actual audio.
The way I sample now is very influenced by the way I perform, with small loops. I like small loops that I can then manipulate and draw out. I like it when every part of the track has these little details that build and can be discovered over time, and if you take a long sample it can be harder to get to the middle of it – to the guts of it – and change things around. Using a DAW like Pro Tools is what allows me to do that detail work.
When working with samples, I think it’s really important to focus on EQing. If you create a space in your song to include a sonic voice — be it your own, a drum machine or sampling — it will pay dividends down the line; every mix choice, every mastering choice becomes easier when you leave space. When you’re working with vinyl records, you’re dealing with a full sound, but it didn’t start that way – it starts with individual spaces that then become additive. So if you start with a sample as your base to then add things to it, you have to leave space for your own production voice to fit, as well.
I feel like the reason sampling has persisted for so long is that it’s inherently dangerous. It is the only dangerous thing about electronic music anymore — it’s still illegal and draws a lot of question marks about ownership. There’s way too much money and way too much party and way too much self-satisfaction going around in parts of the electronic music world, and it isn’t like the drugs are dangerous or there’s really anything left that’s taboo – other than this dangerous act of making music using somebody else’s composition.
One of the proudest moments in my musical life was when I was sampled by Madlib to make the “Accordion” song [on the Madvillainy album]. I was proud for something that I had very little to do with, but I love being on that record and what he did with it, which wasn’t so much to absolutely transform my composition but to expose new parts of it, which is really the power of sampling.
Damiano Von Erckert
(Cologne - ava., DVE Records)
Even if it’s just a drum groove, sampling is probably still the most important element in my music. I don’t consider myself a musician in the classic sense, but sampling is something which helps someone like me be able to produce a full song. Basically, I see samples like they are part of an instrument, and I’m using that instrument to create my kind of music.
In my opinion, most of the tracks which are sampled-based — it doesn’t matter if it’s hip-hop, house or techno — most of the really, really good sample-based tracks, the original tracks used for the samples are amazing. You can hear that in tracks from guys like Moodymann, Madlib or Pete Rock; usually the original material is a really good song on its own. So, I think the most important thing is to take a piece of the original song that is actually good, and — in my case — transform it into a more danceable version. I’m not the kind of person who says it’s uncool to grab a four-bar loop and keep it going. Something like Omar-S’s “Day” track, it’s the perfect loop, and of course he used his own drums and stuff like that, but the loop is basically what it is. It’s always about the right loop, and helping it get into this hypnotizing mode. It’s just important to actually feel the sample – then it’s an honest track.
(Amsterdam - Heist, Dirt Crew)
We grab samples from everywhere. Whenever we are in a new city, we visit record stores, and aside from looking for house and electronic music, we seek out records with a lot of percussion — like Cuban or African artists — and then talk to the people behind the counter and see what they have that’s new or unique. It’s hit or miss. 99 out of 100 records are nice to listen to but not really usable for sampling, but it’s still worth it. When we are just looking for a sound to place more in the background, we’ll sometimes even sample from YouTube; there are times when you don’t really need something that’s high-quality, you just need it to feel alive, and a dirty rip can sometimes even work better.
We use the drum rack in Ableton to chop up our samples into different parts and then we trigger the sounds from a Maschine, and just mess around with the pads and play around to a drum beat or loop to try to find what works. Then, we’ll hit record and record a bunch of passes and then cut and paste whatever we feel works. Later on, we’ll also move around the cue points to give some life to the whole thing and we’ll also side-chain some sampled chords to get a nice, pumping feel. If something about the sample isn’t working quite right harmonically, we can usually just EQ out a certain frequency so it fits better with everything else in the track. If we have vocals samples going on top of each other, we like to side-chain one to the other to make room for the one that needs to be more prominent. It’s all about creating space and playing around.
With sampling, the overall philosophy for us is that you should sample the shit out of anything you like, as long as you can make it your own. There is such a thin line between something that is an homage to what you’ve sampled and something that is downright disgusting. Even between the Europe and the US, culturally there are different ideas about what is “okay” to sample. There’s no written rule, but for us, you just have to turn it into something that is your own. We won’t just use a vocal because it’s catchy and throw in a random drum line, just leaning on something that’s not our own – we really work those samples until it feels like it has a Detroit Swindle feel.
(New York - Ninja Tune, Blueberry)
I live for sampling and it has been at the heart of my productions since day one. I grew up listening to hip-hop and, later, electronic music closely associated with hip-hop, like DJ Shadow. In fact, DJ Shadow was the first person to make me think, “How the hell is the drummer doing that?” before I realized it was a sample that had been manipulated in a sequencer. I got a similar rush from early jungle records as well, wondering “How was this done?” When I started FaltyDL, I wanted to make music that sounded deeper than just the presets, and sampling instantly adds depth to music. From a technical standpoint, you are infusing the recording you sample into your own work, and thus taking on the recording technique of the original sample, the room it was recorded in, and the many generations of degradation the original source material has likely gone through. With a sample, you essentially add time and space. Deep. Also, who can afford a drummer when they are just starting?
When I started sampling, at first I never EQ’d or cared much about the samples’ phase or tone. Things would fall in line perfectly with a little luck, or just completely stand out as haphazard as ever. This was sort of the charm of my early productions: a bit of a who-gives-a-shit attitude. Now I take way longer on every edit and sample and EQ that fucker and make it sit nicely (to be honest, I probably don’t need to do that so much). When I am making club tracks for a loud system on a dancefloor, I take the time to make sure the sample sits on its own and isn’t too muddy in relation to the bass or kick. Playing music very loudly is a great way to hurt people’s ears (I actually feel responsible for my mixdowns now)! In more heady music, I mostly care about sitting the sample in the same audio world as the rest of the song, meaning the same reverb (often a plate reverb) that everything gets bounced off. This helps ensure whatever I’m sampling feels like part of the track and not just something slapped on without consent.
In 2016, sampling is as precious as ever. It’s no longer only a tool or a technique, it’s a statement of where you are from and is often ignorantly abused. The hip-hop part of me says, “Who gives a shit?” and the thoughtful, slightly less ignorant side of me puts the breaks on from time to time. I have lived by one rule: don’t sample friends or contemporaries. That shit’s embarrassing. Or fuck it, do it. I take Ben Klock’s kick drums all the time.
(Stockholm - Studio Barnhus, Numbers)
For me, sampling is just a very natural way of making music, probably more natural than playing on a synth or a drum machine (although I do those things, too). I find potential samples everywhere, not only in music that I actually enjoy listening to. In terms of formats, I’d say about 50% of my samples come from high-quality digital files (WAVs from CD rips, FLACs, MP3s), 40% vinyl come from vinyl, 5% from YouTube, and 5% from my own field recordings. I’ve yet to sample from cassettes (although I have used that format to process samples and other sounds – it’s great for adding lo-fi goodness). I check certain genres and eras of music with an extra interest, such as ’90s R&B and rap, early electronic music and my old jungle records. Recently, my favorite samples have come from things like cheesy Swedish ’80s pop songs and a current ambient record. It’s very random, but I think the key is to keep your ears open, listen to a lot of music, and buy lots of records or get a What.cd account. I do recommend spending the time to keep a neat, well-organized library of your samples.
Personally, I’ve never used any outboard samplers. When I sample, it all goes into the computer and one of Ableton Live’s internal samplers (usually just the Sampler). I don’t get too deep into the parameters in those — I prefer to set a nice start point, mess around with envelope and loop settings and then play samples on a MIDI keyboard (honestly, it’s usually just the laptop keyboard). I try to bounce to audio as quickly as possible, and then cut, arrange, and process from there with outboard effects and VST plug-ins. Reversing is a good thing, as well.
I’ve yet to release a track that doesn’t use sampling in some way. Sampling is as vital to me as hammering a guitar is to a rock band, I guess. If sampling wasn’t a thing, I’m sure I’d be making music in another way, but in this reality, having the entire historical archive of recorded music at my fingertips is simply too big a temptation to avoid.
(London - Blip Discs)
Sampling is essentially the foundation as well as the detail of all of my tracks. I use samples to spark ideas, add texture, and help add structure. I would say the more creative you can be in gathering material, the more fun it’s going to be and the more interesting the results will be as well. Sampling is not just being able to pick out a drum break or vocal. It’s the ability to use sound in a new context to create something new. I love finding percussion breaks (African, Brazilian, Latin, Carnival records from around the ’60s onwards is a great place for these), but there are so many different sounds that have potential. I look for something that I know can make a track special — that can range from a gong sound from an old Japanese record to birdsong or someone messing about on some old modular synths. I don’t normally look for certain sounds, I just listen to records and wait until something grabs me.
When I’m sampling, one of the first things I do is try not to overcomplicate the work process. I don’t think about frequency ranges or compression or reverb time – it would not be fun if I did. I work by ear, not by a book. Having your tracks perfect will take away some grit from the finished product anyway, and humans respond well to imperfection done in the right way. The reverbs and EQs should come automatically: if something sounds wrong, change it, but don’t think too much as it will slow down the process. Having said that, more interesting textures can be created by running samples through hard compression and other FX, but it’s a matter of experimenting, not a formula.
(Berlin - R’COUP’D)
Most of my samples are my own recordings from sessions that I’ve done over the last 25 years and spread over various tapes, DATs and hard drives. I like to work with samples that I have a relationship with: synth lines, melodies, rhythmic loops, or just some piano sounds or voice recordings from the past. When I sample, I like to set the original in a completely different context. I don’t sample just to have a drum loop from a vinyl or something like that in my production. My approach is more to play around with my own recordings, to resample and reconstruct the sounds again and again (especially with field recordings). For me, sampling can be how I create an atmosphere and the bedrock of my tracks in many ways.
Lately, I’ve enjoyed sampling my old tapes through my Elektron Octatrack. I love the way that you can treat your own recordings with this genius machine, and the Parameter Locks of the Elektron machines are fantastic to use when I sequence my samples. I also quite often use the powerful LFOs on the Octatrack when working with samples.
Personally, I think there are no limits to sampling. It’s one of the greatest inventions ever and it has even generated new forms of music. I like the idea that sampling allows you to reconstruct and reform any sound on earth to make something new out of it.
Soul of Hex
(Tijuana - Freerange, CVMR)
I use vinyl mostly for samples, and YouTube can very useful too (it’s the most practical resource to get crazy sounds and lo-fi samples). Freesound.org is a great community to get samples as well. When I can’t get a physical record, I download the best quality file I can find and start from there. I also record keychains, spoons, shakers, tambourines at home with my condenser microphone too.
I love to slice the samples MPC-style and start playing with them, jamming on the pads to create a rhythmic or melodic groove from scratch. I use an MPC 2000XL and an Elektron Octatrack to first mess with the samples; I especially like to assign random locks on the Octatrack, the possibilities are endless on that machine. Then I put the samples into Logic, where I can filter the samples in two ranges (high & low frequencies) and do a lot of tweaking, like pitching the samples down, distorting them, or using Soundtoys plug-ins on them.
I sample all the time, but I like to have a 50/50 balance between sampled and composed bits, so my music doesn’t have that “edit” vibe. I also think you have to be responsible and respectful when you use samples. I always try to educate myself and dig a lot and avoid overused samples. You never know what sounds good looped or sliced – sometimes is the most random song. And contrary to popular belief, I consider it a tribute rather than stealing or ripping off someone else’s music. You should never be afraid to sample.
(Tokyo - Project Mooncircle)
Sampling plays a big part in my tracks most of the time and I dig everywhere for samples: records, VHS tapes, cassettes, YouTube, and old video game consoles. The main thing I look for in samples are Rhodes chords and abstract sounds like white noise, tape hiss, vinyl crackle, and other types of ambiance. I generally check a lot of genres for samples, but mainly focus on jazz, new jack swing, slow jams, and movie and video game soundtracks. The ’80s seems to be my key era for sampling, but I’ll check anywhere from the ’60s up to the ’90s. I also listen to a lot of horror movie soundtracks and look for the tracks in between the more intense minor stuff, like when there is a respite in the movie that has some more melancholic sounds.
When I sample from vinyl, I record straight from my turntable into Ableton, and for everything else (tape player, Super Nintendo, DVD player, etc.), I will record into the line-in on my Roland SP-404SX. I’ll either then just take out the SD card and put it straight into my MacBook to get the WAV, or I might chop the sample on my 404 and use some of its FX, resample it, and then get that WAV from the SD card.
I try to dirty up my samples if they are too clean. Sometimes, I’ll upload a sample to YouTube to get that YouTube compression, then rip it and put it back into Ableton. I’ll also chop out a couple of seconds from a record — maybe a synth hit or something like that — and use a lot of delays and reverbs to make a drone from that sound. I use Native Instruments’ Replika to get that wormhole reverb a lot of the time, and then I’ll resample the drone and then make my own pads from it. If I sample a one-shot Rhodes chord, I will usually EQ out some of the low-end, side-chain it to my kick and send it to a buss (with other similar sounds) that has a Goodhertz Vulf Compressor on it; I use this plug-in a lot, it’s kind of like the 404 Vinyl Sim, and has a lo-fi style filter that I use to take out some of the highs, and it also has a wow/warble effect that can give the sounds a messed-up, non-consistent slight vinyl pitchbend.
Header image © Johannes Ammler