How to Sample Music: A Guide to Sampling Music and Using Samples

Written by Adam King

August 30, 2022
How to Sample Music: A Guide to Sampling Music and Using Samples

Written by Adam King

August 30, 2022

The art of the sample – not to be confused with the art of The Samples, the ubiquitous Colorado jamband sticker that seemingly came with every Subaru in the late ’90s. We’re talking about the magic that comes from taking a previously recorded sound and repurposing it into a new musical context.

When falling down the rabbit hole of learning how to sample music, start with the fundamentals. Sampling is the process of reusing an existing audio recording as an element in a new recording. With a more knowledge of the history of recorded sound, you’ll have a more diverse palette for using samples in your music. We’ve gone through the origins of sampling before, and we’ll cover similar territory here for context.

The Origins of Sampling

Sampling emerged as a prominent technique in the 1980s, after more experimental usage in the musique concrète movement in the 1950s. It forged the genre of hip-hop and inspired a deep lineage of other genres. With each new generation of artists and technology, the potential of sampling continues to expand beyond its perceived limits.

The Fairlight CMI (Computer Musical Instrument) changed everything when it hit the market in 1979. The Sydney-based company actually coined the term “sampling” when it first began developing the CMI. Competitors quickly introduced products that pushed the envelope, most notably the E-Mu Emulator and the Akai MPC hardware sampler. When DAWs introduced even more sophisticated sampling features via software, the floodgates burst wide open.

Two Different Approaches to Sampling

At a high-level, there are generally two basic approaches when creating music using samples.

Phrase-Based Sampling:

Phrase-based sampling starts with a complete musical phrase. This could be a drumbeat, a bass line, a vocal melody, or even a full arrangement. The phrase is then typically looped in the new track. Early on, DJs started sampling songs and looping breaks from records for MCs to rap over. And while rhythmic drum breaks became the foundation of phrase-based sampling, the technique became quickly more expansive. Isolated instrumentation, full bars, or even complete song samples became the norm.

The best samples never die. In terms of drum samples, the ubiquity of The Incredible Bongo Band’s “Apache” break is topped by the purported 1,500+ samples of James Brown’s “Funky Drummer” break which itself is dwarfed by the supposed 5,000+ samples of The Winstons’ “Amen Brother” break.

When phrase-based sampling is used properly, famous riffs can take on dichotomous personalities, existing in a mirrored but alternate form. Think of how Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” turned into A Tribe Called Quest’s “Can I Kick It.” Or how Chic’s “Good Times” turned into The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight”. Queen’s “Under Pressure” became Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby”. The Clash’s “Straight to Hell” morphed into M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes”. Funkadelic’s “Can You Get to That” transformed into Sleigh Bells’ “Rill Rill”… the list goes on.

Sampling as an Instrument:

Sampling as an instrument involves using a more discrete snippet of recorded audio as a one-shot (not continuously looped). For percussive sounds, playing the sample generally means adding the sample to a drumkit, then arranging it however you see fit. For more tonal sounds, playing the sample generally means chromatically transposing the sample’s initial note (aided by native capabilities in a sampler or your DAW), and playing the sample on a keyboard and/or via MIDI.

While phrase-based sampling often highlights the sample’s origin, sampling as an instrument tends to focus on the mystery of a sound. A producer can take a very short song snippet, then repurpose it as either a percussive or melodic element. The sound could be combined with others to create a new beat, or just used in an isolated moment.

For example, listen to how Icelandic band, Múm, uses the sound of a pool ball to start their 2002 song, “Now There’s That Fear Again.” They then develop an entire beat based on a Zippo lighter opening and closing:

In more creative uses, an artist can take a sample and transform it beyond recognition. Daft Punk, J Dilla, Peter Gabriel, Kanye, and Herbie Hancock are all artists who’ve mastered taking snippets and transmuting them into something novel.

Sampling copyright-protected music requires legal clearance. This is especially important (but not limited to) easily recognizable samples. There are plenty of ins and outs when it comes to fair usage, and even if you think you’re small potatoes and nobody will hear your work… eventually everything comes to light. We’re going to skip the scary stuff here, but check out what Spotify and LANDR have to say about avoiding copyright infringement claims.

Just remember to do your research. Copyrights expire but can be repurchased, and laws (and penalties) may have change over time. For instance, The Beastie Boys’ 1989 classic Paul’s Boutique would have most likely never been released if they had actually tried to clear all the samples beforehand.

How to Find and Create Samples

Now that we have a basic understanding of sampling’s origins, approaches, and legal considerations, let’s look at how to find and create samples. Methods vary slightly for phrase-based sampling vs. sampling as an instrument.

For Phrase-Based Sampling:

Phrase-based sampling will rely heavily on your personal music taste. The key is to listen for the elements of a track that sound the most compelling to you. Then you can identify when those compelling qualities are the most clearly represented in the initial recording. By isolating the specific part of the recording you want, you can use sampling capabilities in your DAW (or other audio editing tools) to trim that part out of the larger recording. It’s especially important to trim rhythmic phrases precisely so they work with the tempo of your new track when looped.

Below are some suggestions for finding that perfect phrase.

  • Revisit your personal music collection. Don’t sweat the medium either: the cracks and ambient noise from a vinyl record often produce a warmer, more desirable sound than an over-compressed digital track (or, vice versa). Think of music that resonates with you. Is there a part of a song that you find yourself rewinding to or humming to yourself regularly? Try isolating that part, looping it, and imagining how it would sound in a different context.
  • Find commonalities between two songs (similar genres, lyrical references, melodic phrasing, tempo/rhythm… anything). Then blend them together with your own instrumentation, beats, etc.
  • When in doubt, take the old FM radio dial for a spin. Sometimes the best ideas are discovered by hearing something familiar from a new perspective. Maybe a quick stop on the classic rock station ends up with you hearing an ABBA song based off the wrong downbeat. There’s no rule that says your sample needs to start at the beginning of a bar. Case in point, Animal Collective’s 2009 single, “What Would I Want? Sky”. The song featured the first officially licensed Grateful Dead sample from a nearly unintelligible vocal line in the middle of a stanza.

For Sampling as an Instrument:

Sampling as an instrument can be as straightforward as recording a simple bell tone and playing it chromatically. It also lends itself to very imaginative musical uses of audio recordings that might not seem that musical on the surface.

Below are some suggestions for finding “instruments” to sample and use in your music.

  • You are the instrument. Record yourself talking in your sleep, filling your cat’s food bowl, mowing the lawn, tripping up the steps, or yelling from the closet. The fact that these sounds come from you will give them an inherently unique character.
  • Have a field recorder ready to record environmental sounds. The more peculiar the sound, the better. Sometimes a sound will immediately invoke a rhythm or melodic phrase, and other times it will be something that only makes sense after tweaking and tinkering.
  • Embrace accidents in the studio. Record those intriguing glitches and noises coming from your gear. Feedback, odd modulation patterns, rhythmic effects, and that AM radio station that murmurs through your amp during thunderstorms are all possibilities.
  • Go beyond music to other sources of recorded sound. Film dialogue, sound effects in movies/TV, books on tape, or really any recorded sound can be musical. There are tons of these kinds of samples used in very creative ways. In hip-hop, there is RZA’s use of his old kung-fu VHS tapes for Wu-Tang Clan. In EDM/ambient, Scottish audio wizards Boards of Canada would commonly sample clips from public broadcasting. Their 1998 tune, “An Eagle In Your Mind”, takes a sample from the documentary On the Tracks of the Wild Otter. Guns N’Roses open up their 1991 album, Use Your Illusion II, with a long quote from Paul Newman’s Cool Hand Luke. On Halloween night 2014, Phish performed an entire live set of new material completely based off of samples from Disney’s Chilling, Thrilling Sounds of the Haunted House.

How to Use Samples

Okay, now that the wheres, whats, whens, and whys are out of the way, let’s really dig into the how. Below are some initial considerations when learning how to use samples: 

  • Musical qualities – Learn the nature of your sample. For phrases, what key and time signature is it in? What’s the bpm count? For one-shot instrumentation samples you plan to play melodically, make sure you know what the note is. That way, you know how to make it work with your track’s other tonal elements.
  • Arrangement – Where is the sample going to fit into the track? How does it interact with the track’s other music elements? Is it a featured component of the track, or is it more for background ambience? 
  • Uniqueness – Is it a unique “hidden gem” that you found or recorded yourself? Or is it a somewhat well-known sound? The latter may require more diligence to both make it unique and to make it gel, whereas a hidden gem may not need modification at all. Of course, if you’re using a well-known sound with the intent of the listener recognizing it, than clarity may be more important than transforming it with effects.
  • Era – When did the sample come from? Production styles over the decades range widely and evolved with recording tech of the era. So when that sample came from can help inform how to use that sample.
  • Frequency range – Knowing the frequencies the sample covers relative to other layers gives you clearer insight on how to EQ and mix it. The tonality and timbre of your sample may not seem important until you’re trying to align it within your song.

Once you are familiar with the inherent musical qualities of your sample, it’s time to create.

Start by experimenting with transforming it:

  • Try different sample playback start times. Don’t let the way the sample starts in its initial source define how you use it. Experiment with starting it in the middle of the sound wave on a weird upbeat, or towards the end of the sound wave to remove the transients.
  • Reverse the sample. Playing it backwards yields strange and often compelling results. Think of the reverse drums that define the Beastie’s classic, “Paul Revere”, or when Missy Elliot owned 2002 with the backward vocal hook on “Work It”.
  • Change the pitch. There was a time when DAWs didn’t have the capability to change a sample’s pitch without changing its speed. Now we have time-stretching algorithms to sort that out, making it easy to match your track’s key or tempo. Try pitching the sound all the way down or up an octave as well (Alvin & The Chipmunks have sold over 5 million albums, so pitching the sound up an octave can be very well-received).
  • Change the sample’s speed. By speeding up or slowing down a sample, you can take familiar samples and bring them into a wholly unexpected place for your listener (for example, speeding up a longer recording so fast that it becomes percussive).

Effects processing is an obvious and fun way to start transforming a sample’s sonic character:

  • Saturation and distortion effects add warmth, color, and grit to alter the timbre of the initial sample.
  • Delay and reverb effects add a sense of time and space.
  • Dynamics effects like compression and limiting can alter the sample’s presence and make it cut through the mix. Compression’s attack and release settings can drastically alter the sample’s sense of groove, which is especially important for loops.
  • Modulation effects, including phasing, chorus, and flanging, can add a psychedelic, sweeping quality.
  • Note that when the initial recording already has obvious effects in it, it may not need more. Always feel free to experiment, but also don’t be afraid to accept it when something sounds great as is.

Layering can also go a long way in creating a sound that is greater than the sum of its parts.

  • Double the sample, then experiment with other techniques described in this section to modify one or both of the layers. Minor modifications tend to thicken up the sample while retaining its initial sonic qualities, while more drastic modifications begin to create a new sound entirely.
  • Layer in a different sample altogether to add a wholly different timbre to the initial sample.
  • Processing one sample with effects and mixing the two samples’ relative volumes helps dial in the sound you’re after.
  • Pan one layer hard left and the other hard right to create the illusion of extra space across the stereo field.
  • Change the pitch of one of the layers. Start by pitching one layer up a third or perfect fifth to create chordal textures. Experimenting with other intervals can also yield interesting (though typically more dissonant) results.

Amplitude envelopes are also worth experimenting with. This can be especially important in making samples played as an instrument sound more organic and sit better in your mix.

  • Most samplers include an ADSR envelope, with attack, decay, sustain, and release. Tweaking the attack and release times yield the most immediate results. Change the settings of each component and listen for how it affects the sample’s interaction with other elements.
  • On a related note: if you’re playing the sample with MIDI, it often sounds much more natural to swing it against the grid. Whether slightly early or slightly late sounds better will depend on the sample itself, and how it’s working in your arrangement.

The Art of Sampling

Sampling is a powerful creative tool that has been essential to the recording industry for decades. While critics have tried to dismiss sampling as theft, in reality it has broadened the horizons of sound beyond the reach of any creator’s prior imagination. Sound, music, and humanity in general all evolve through collaboration and expansion. We become by growing out of what came before.

When working with samples, you’re really learning how to rekindle the echoes of existence. Sample, create, and most importantly, experiment.

Lunacy Audio’s CUBE includes a powerful set of sampling capabilities and a massive set of unique samples for you to tweak into new sounds. Experimentation is the name of the game when sampling music, and we believe CUBE and its expansion packs are perfect tools to experiment with and learn how to use samples in your music.

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