Digging for Samples

Sampling is kind of prehistoric, given the technology and the textures you can create.”

Macklemore

Before we plunge together into the heart of sampling technique, I should mention that this guide – which is far from comprehensive – makes two assumptions about the reader:

  • He/she owns a music workstation, MPC, or computer with a DAW

  • He/she has at least working knowledge of the chosen technology

With that said, we’re good to go.

Sampling is the heart of classic beatmaking, and has survived into many genres of modern music, utilized by artists as varied as Kanye West, Death Cab for Cutie, and Skrillex. In short, a sample is any sound taken from one recording and reused in a different song. This can be anything from an entire orchestral arrangement to a four-bar bass line to a single drum hit. More broadly, samples can include sounds recorded by the sampling artist, such as ambient crowd noise or the sound of keys jangling.

Nearly anything can be a sample, and an individual sample can be used in a variety of ways. Some beats – and many classic beats – are made of nothing but samples, while modern beats in particular tend to integrate samples with live instruments.

The act of finding samples is called “digging,” as it originally required beatmakers to dig through record crates (many beatmakers still prefer the sound of vinyl and relish trips to bargin bins at local music shops). The key to digging is knowing what type of sound you’re seeking, what role the sample will fulfill, or both. Role and type go hand-in-hand – a four-bar loop of raw drums will probably make a great percussive element – but any type of sample can defy its traditional role through careful implementation. Those four bars of drums, for instance, could be pitch-shifted and transformed into a melody part. A vocal melody might be modified in such a way that it becomes a bass line.

Below are some songs in which I’ve identified samples to fulfill archetypical roles:

Drums

Queen – Another One Bites the Dust

At 1:46 the bass and guitar drop away to reveal totally isolated drums – a beatmakers best friend. Either chop individual hits up and rearrange them, or use the sample as-is.

The Beatles – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)

This great Beatles tune opens with crisp drums backed by crowd noise. In opposition to the previous example, the ambient noise provides the drums with great texture. Chop ’em up or slow ’em down.

Bass

B.B. King – Is You Is, or Is You Ain’t My Baby

The first four bars of this song contain great bass and piano. To snag the bass, use a low-pass filter with a low cutoff. For a short, tinkling piano melody, use a high-pass filter with a high cutoff.

Melody

Michael Buble – Feeling Good

The intro to this song features an almost-accapella performance by Buble. Sample each word individually, rearrange the melody and filter to your hearts content. The string swells starting at 0:36 could also make great texture samples.

Texture

Frank Sinatra – My Funny Valentine

There are a couple good isolated string swells in the beginning of this track that could be manipulated in any number of ways to provide great texture.

A word of warning when using samples: In many cases, the use of samples is not strictly legal. If you’re a bedroom producer and not charging money for your tracks, you’re protected. I cannot, however, offer legal counsel to those looking to sell sample-based beats. Be careful.

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