Whether you’re a musician, songwriter or producer, you have undoubtedly come across countless tutorials on becoming better at the very “thing“ that you do, whether it’s wailing on guitar, dreaming up multi-part harmonies, or avoiding that 60hz rumble in mixing the latest track for your clients.
But there’s comparatively very little instruction to be found on creative sampling techniques—that long-misunderstood art form which neophytes often equate to “stealing”, but really just means the reuse of any piece of recorded audio in a new context.
The genesis of sampling is tied to the roots of one of America’s greatest inventions: Hip hop. Early “sampling” just meant playing a specific point on a vinyl record on command. (And with plenty of rhythmic precision.)
The development of hardware samplers however, like Akai’s famed MPC series, meant that samples could finally be looped, chopped up, and sequenced in any order or pattern. With this technological breakthrough came the rapid rise of the bedroom studio, opening the doors of music making to many producers who had no access to players, instruments, or a real recording studio.
Today, every computer is a sampler, and sampling has become so ingrained in contemporary music that it often goes unnoticed. Just have a look at the astonishingly deep archives of whosampled.com as evidence of where that hook is really coming from in your favorite tracks.
Whether you’ve chosen to use samples in your work or not, most modern DAW’s come with a plethora of them right out of the box that are suitable for a number of genres.
But, what if instead of relying on a factory library of samples you had your own custom library of sounds unique to your own productions?
Of course, we all want our own bespoke samples. But how can we create truly unique samples easily on a limited budget?
Here are five ideas to help give you some new inspiration—and get some unique new samples for your own library—all of which you can do right now and, in true DIY style, for free.
1) Practice the Art of Subtraction
In our consumer-centric Western culture, it is much more common to go out and buy something new when seeking a change, or a new source of inspiration. But very rarely do we consider the simple act of taking something away from our setup as being a welcome or productive “change.”
The act of subtraction, whether applied to acoustic or electronic devices, can inspire new ideas and new styles of playing, which can in turn be recorded, captured, manipulated, and then brought back into your productions.
Do you typically plug drum machines and synthesizers into a mixer or an analog processing chain? Choose one instrument, take it outside with a portable speaker and record them in the unique natural ambience of the outside world. Remember that the goal with samples isn’t necessarily “fidelity”. It’s intrigue.
Do you make most of your music with an electric guitar? Try going unplugged and treating it as a physical sound-maker, rather than an electric one. Record yourself hitting, scraping, or rubbing the strings, and then manipulate and reprocess these sounds into your work.
Do you work completely in the box with plugins? Limit yourself to a single VST instrument and a single plugin chain, and explore live takes of you pushing that limited chain to its far out extremes.
Are you used to recording drum kits with multiple pics? Give yourself one drum, one room, and one mic and discover how many unique and unusual sounds you can coax out of it.
2) Mine Your Own Hard Drive for Gold
Whenever you record music into your computer, you are doing your sample library a favor: All that audio, whether you’re planning on using it or not, goes into a folder on your computer somewhere.
What this means is that you already have a MASSIVE catalogue of audio to sort through, all of which can be used for a completely different purpose than it was originally intended.
Approaching this potential goldmine of “found sound” as the starting point of an idea (as opposed to the end result of one) gives each chunk of audio an entirely different set of possibilities, and gives you an entirely different set of choices to consider: Could be this sound be morphed or sculpted into something totally new?
Keeping in mind that each sample can be manipulated in almost any way imaginable—time-stretched, pitched down or up, played polyphonically, filtered, formant-shifted, distorted, reverbed into oblivion—there are new worlds to explore without having to do a single thing but navigate to the appropriate folder.
When recording live performances, be sure to give yourself even cleaner fodder for making samples whenever you land a memorable new tone. It doesn’t take much to ask the drummer to hit each drum by itself, or the guitarist to play a few individual notes through that wild new effects chain.
Listen with open ears and copy interesting snippets into a new folder, or better yet, right into a DAW session with several categories of sound mapped out and organized for future reference.
3) Smarten Up Your Song Search
YouTube may be ubiquitous as a source of samples in these times, but how you use the engine’s search function is going to have a massive effect on the results you get from it.
Given the huge number of videos to sort through, you would be wise to create your own set of rules or filters for interacting with the service. It often helps to offload some of the search process to another engine, one more suited to the task.
For example, instead of typing in the name of a song you think you might like to sample—say a specific old soul number—you can instead find the credits for the track on AllMusic and find a track by the same engineer songwriter, producer or artist.
YouTube is full of professionally made tracks, but it is also chock to the brim of people singing into their phones, serenading their webcams, or just waxing poetic about their latest obsession. Every single one of these makes for potential sample fodder.
Or, as suggested by UK house don Julio Bashmore in his informative RBMA Studio Science session, use a language translator to turn search terms on their head, pushing you further down the rabbit hole. YouTube is such a vast resource that it’s entirely possible to interact with it in a highly idiosyncratic way, making your sample choices follow suit.
4) Use “Junky” Old Gear to Emulate a Vintage Sampler’s Sound
Sometimes a sample is used in a track more for its character, vibe, and grit than its actual musical content. This is especially true when sampling older recordings that used tubes, tapes, transistors, and other analog circuits that are now pricey and inaccessible.
Samples that have been pushed through the crisp AD and DA of an MPC samplers immediately have a different sense of transients. Older samplers, like the SP-1200, are actually known and loved for how they process (and destroy) sample quality.
You can emulate an older sampler’s conversion in a number of ways, including by simply processing your audio with any piece of hardware that uses a lower bit rate than 24.
Essentially, the objective is to reduce the amount of so-called “useful” information present in the audio, and then get it back into your session. Bit reducer plugins, like the one built into Ableton work well for this purpose too, but you’ll find that your samples have much more grit and depth if you can get through the real thing.