A Guide To Music Sampling

Ableton Live on a laptop with a cup of coffee

Music sampling has a history of creative wonders and copyright lawsuits and it’s in so much of the music we hear. Some of it is obvious, some of it is so obscure you wouldn’t believe it wasn’t “original” (whatever that means). This guide will take you through a brief history of music sampling and offer further resources to get into the discipline. If you’re a fan of Sampleface or stumbled upon the site, you’ll know what we’re about (if you don’t, check our About page). So let’s crack on!

What is music sampling?

Music sampling is the use of a portion of music (called a sample) in another composition. Samples can vary in length and contain any kind of sound, whether that be part of a melody or a drum sound, speech, or even silence. These samples can then be manipulated to the person’s needs.

Often, a person sampling music will layer their samples to create a new composition but they may also change the pitch, loop it, change the speed, or “chop” it to make smaller samples. These actions can be taken using dedicated hardware known as samplers or software like digital audio workstations (DAWs).

The early days of sampling

If we wanted to be pedantic, we could say that the earliest sampling came from manipulations of sound frequencies when creating musical instruments. After all, that is technically sampling nature and its sounds. But we won’t as that would be far too complex to discuss. So we’ll fast forward to the 1940s. A Frenchman named Pierre Schaeffer developed a concept known as musique concrète, which involved recording sounds onto tape, cutting them, and interpolating it to create what was called sound collages.

This lead to the creation of tape loops, where tapes were attached from end to end, creating endless collages. His Phonogene tape recorder could play these loops at “twelve different pitches triggered by a keyboard”. Schaeffer passed away in 1995 but he’s highly regarded as one of the most influential electronic musicians thanks to his work.

Meanwhile, in Jamaica, reggae producers started using rhythms samples on their own tracks (known as riddims) with added effects like reverb and tape delay. This became known as dub music. The two biggest names in dub are King Tubby and Lee “Scratch” Perry and their works are well-renowned across the world. But Jamaica’s influence on DJing and sampling wasn’t specific to dub and reggae. A man named Clive Campbell brought his heritage from Kingston to The Bronx when he was 12 and changed music forever. You might know him as DJ Kool Herc, one of the major pioneers of hip hop music.

Hip hop sampling

The Maschine and some records - key elements of music sampling
Key elements to hip hop sampling

Hip hop didn’t spontaneously create itself in a vacuum. It was the culmination of multiple styles and decades of music, social struggle, and powerful expression. DJ Kool Herc’s influence was significant in its foundation with his unique approach to DJing. He would isolate the drum breaks between two records on his turntables and switch between them over and over to extend the break. Alongside this, he would give “toasts”, a form of talking or chanting over a record, and call out dancers known as b-boys and b-girls.

Kool Herc’s groundbreaking work lead to more music collectors and producers buying break records (through the art of crate digging) and emulate this form of DJing. From there, the likes of Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa started using those techniques with drum machines and samplers.

For more on hip hop sampling, check out these articles:

Music sampling equipment

Music sampling is as easy or as difficult as you make it. You can start with minimal equipment and expand it to hardware for every part of your creative process. Some of the main types of sampling equipment include:

  • Electro-magnetic instruments (like the Mellotron and the Chamberlin)
  • Music samplers
    • Digital hardware samplers (like the Akai S900 and Akai MPC60)
    • Software samplers (often using trackers, also featured in DAWs)
  • Drum machines
  • Tape machines
  • DAWs
  • MIDI controllers (often in the form of keyboards or “plug-in” versions of samplers)

Each type offers a different approach to music sampling. The early electro-magnetic instruments were the biggest introduction to sampling for many professional producers but due to their cost, they weren’t aimed at the consumer market. The Mellotron, for example, cost £1,000 around half the price of a house at that time. Tape machines were popular amongst musique concrète artists but are still used by hobbyists and DIY musicians like Hainbach.

It wasn’t until the creation of music samplers and drum machines that music sampling became truly accessible to the masses. Manufacturers like Akai, Linn, and Roland made a slew of classic machines that are still used today for their analog sounds and they paved the way for DAWs like Logic Pro, Ableton, and FL Studio.

Copyright laws

Because sampling involves extracting portions of recorded music, the use of those samples open themselves to copyright law infringement. The important part is gaining permission. Without it, you could see yourself on the end of a lawsuit.

Acquiring permission is known as “clearance” and often involves acquiring legal permission from the copyright holder of the composition you want to sample. The concept of sample clearance is simple enough:

“Hey, can I use this drum break?”

“Yeah, sure.” / “No, you can’t,”

But in truth, it can be quite costly and take a while to get through (damn, bureaucracy). Because of the potential cost and time, many producers use samples without permission which breaches the copyright of the recording. There are moral implications; if you use a music sample without permission and without crediting the original composer (since you don’t want to alert them to your illegal act), you’re effectively using someone’s intellectual property as your own.

Many artists have seen their work gain popularity through the use of samples but have never seen royalties for it. A notable example is the Amen break, a lynchpin of hip hop and drum & bass rhythms for the past 5 decades. Richard Lewis Spencer holds the copyright but has never received any recompense for its use. Lawsuits for other cases have been won by the original artists and many have detrimentally affected the use of sampling in mainstream music.

In 1991, Gilbert O’Sullivan sued Biz Markie for his use of “Alone Again (Naturally)” on Biz’s album, I Need a Haircut. But rather than demand royalties, O’Sullivan wanted the album recalled until the sample was taken off. Many have called sampling “plagiarism” and downright “lazy” in some cases.

The debate continues on music sampling in this way. While we don’t condone illegal use of samples, we’re aware it happens and it doesn’t impact the quality of the music we enjoy. We’re also not cops so you won’t see judgement from us but if you can clear a sample, do it. Don’t be like Kanye West (ever).

List of popular musicians who sample

J Dilla - one of the greatest producers of all time
J Dilla

This is a list of musicians we’ve featured on Sampleface who extensively use sampling in their music or have otherwise left a lasting impression on the craft. We recommend you check them out and check the original material if you can find it.

Further resources

Articles and essays

Videos

Podcast/radio recordings

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