How to Sample: A Guide to Sampling Music

Written by Adam King

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

Written by Adam King

August 30, 2022

Sampling is the magic that comes from taking a previously recorded sound and repurposing it into a new musical context.

When getting started, avoid the temptation to download tons of sample packs and libraries. Begin by learning the fundamentals. Sampling is reusing an existing sound recording as an element in a new recording. With more knowledge of the history of recording, you’ll have a better musical palette. We’ve gone through sampling’s history 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 eventually helped forge several genres of music, particularly hip hop and electronic music. With each new generation of artists and technology, its techniques continue to expand.

The Fairlight CMI changed everything when it hit the market in 1979 as the first digital sampler. The Sydney-based company actually coined the term “sampling” when it introduced 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, the floodgates burst open.

Two Different Approaches to Sampling

At a high level, there are two basic approaches to sampling.

Phrase-Based Sampling:

Phrase-based sampling starts with a complete musical phrase. This could be a drum beat, an individual drum hit like the kick drum, a bass line, a vocal, or a full arrangement. The phrase is typically looped in the new track. Early on, DJs sampled songs and looped breaks for MCs to rap over. And while rhythmic drum breaks became the foundation of phrase-based sampling, the technique quickly expanded. Isolated instrumentation, full bars, or even complete songs became the norm.

The best samples never die. In terms of drum loops, 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 a mirrored, 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”. 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 discrete snippet of recorded audio as a one-shot (not continuously looped). For percussive sounds, playing the sample generally means adding it to a drum kit. For 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 with a MIDI controller.

While phrase-based sampling often highlights the 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 Icelandic band, Múm, using 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, artists and sound designers transform samples beyond recognition. Daft Punk, J Dilla, Peter Gabriel, Kanye, and Herbie Hancock are all artists who’ve mastered transforming snippets into something novel.

A Quick Legal Disclaimer

Repurposing copyright-protected music requires legal clearance. This is especially important (but not limited to) easily recognizable tracks. 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. You can avoid these concerns with royalty free samples from companies like Splice (although even those aren’t foolproof – more on that here).

How to Find and Create Samples

Now that we have the general context of sampling, 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 relies heavily on your personal taste. The key is to listen for elements of a track that sound the most compelling to you. Then identify when those qualities are clearly represented in the initial recording. After isolating the specific part of the recording you want, use sampling capabilities in your DAW 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.

Below are some suggestions for finding that perfect phrase.

  • Revisit your personal 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. Think of music that resonates with you. Is there a part of a song that you find yourself humming to yourself regularly? Isolate that part, loop it, and imagine how it would sound in a different context.
  • Find commonalities between two songs (similar genres, lyrics, phrases, tempo/rhythm… anything). Then blend them together with your own instrumentation, beats, etc.
  • When in doubt, tune into the radio. Sometimes the best ideas are discovered by hearing something familiar from a new perspective. Maybe after a quick stop on the classic rock station, you hear a Led Zeppelin song on 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 line in the middle of a stanza.

For Sampling as an Instrument:

Sampling as an instrument can be as straightforward as recording a simple tone and playing it chromatically. It also works for imaginative uses of recordings that don’t seem “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 make them inherently unique.
  • 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 phrase. Other times it will be something that only makes sense after tweaking.
  • Embrace accidents in the studio. Record those intriguing glitches and noises from your gear. Feedback, odd modulation patterns, rhythmic effects, and that AM radio station that murmurs through your amp during thunderstorms are all possibilities.
  • Look at sources of recorded sound beyond music. 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, RZA used 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. The list goes on.

How to Use Samples

Now that the what, when, and why is out of the way, let’s dig into the how. Below are some initial considerations: 

  • Musical qualities – Learn the nature of your sample. For phrases, what’s the key and time signature? 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 other tonal elements.
  • Arrangement – Where will the sample fit in the track? How does it interact with other elements? Is it a featured component, or for background ambience? 
  • Uniqueness – Is it a “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.
  • Era – When did the sample come from? Production styles over the decades range widely and evolved with recording technology. So when it came from can help inform how to use it.
  • Frequency range – Knowing the frequencies the sample covers relative to other layers gives you insights on mixing. The tonality and timbre of your sample may not seem important until you align it with 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 playback start times. Don’t let the way it 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, time-stretching algorithms have sorted that out. Try pitching the sound 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 speed. By speeding up or slowing it down, you can take familiar samples and bring them into a wholly unexpected place. Try speeding up a longer recording so fast that it becomes percussive, for example.

Effects are an obvious way to transform its sonic character:

  • Saturation and distortion effects add warmth, color, and grit to alter the timbre of the initial sample.
  • Delay and reverb effects alter the sense of time and space.
  • Dynamics effects like compression and limiting can alter its presence and make it cut through the mix. Compression’s attack and release settings can subtly change the sample’s 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 don’t be afraid to accept 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 while retaining its initial sonic qualities, while more drastic modifications begin to create a new sound entirely.
  • Layer in a different sample altogether for a wholly different timbre.
  • Processing one sample with effects and mixing the 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 things sound more organic and sit better in your mix.

  • Most samplers include an ADSR (attack, decay, sustain, and release) envelope. Tweaking the attack and release times yields the most immediate results. Change the settings of each component and listen for how it interacts with other elements.
  • On a related note: if you’re using MIDI, it often sounds more natural to swing against the grid. Whether slightly early or 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 it as theft, in reality it has broadened the horizons of sound. Music and humanity in general evolve through collaboration and expansion. We become by growing out of what came before. When sampling, you’re really learning how to rekindle the echoes of existence.

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

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