Sampling is the use of someone else’s recording within your own to create something new. It can range from lifting sections of drums or other isolated instruments to entire musical ideas and right down to milliseconds of material. It’s such a common technique that we’ve developed instruments to solely perform this function, it’s studied at universities, there are even laws governing sampling and companies based around exploiting loopholes and workarounds.
There are a number of reasons why we might sample something: It can form the basis of a new song, inspire musical offshoots, work as a layer or contextualise other ideas. Whether or not we lift an entire chorus or a drum break, verbatim or completely reprocessed, we use a tiny slice or four bars, the law on the matter is the same: permission needs to be sought.
- 1. Before Sampling
- 2. The Eighties
- 3. Hip-hop
- 4. UK Hardcore/Jungle/Old Skool
- 5. High Profile
- 6. Microsampling
- 7. Legality
- 8. How to Clear Samples
- 9. Royalty-Free
- 10. Recreating Samples in your DAW
- 11. Five Best Software Samplers
The technique came to prominence during the late 1970s and early 1980s with the emergence of hip-hop in New York, where DJs would loop sections of soul, funk or disco records creating a platform for MCs to rhyme over. However, the origins of repurposing recordings go way back to France circa 1928, with acousmatic composers such as Pierre Schaeffer creating what we now know as musique concrète.
The invention of the wax cylinder meant recording sound was now possible for the first time and the musique concrète school of composers exploited this through their music; juxtaposing sounds not commonly heard together, at various speeds and often playing in reverse or treated in other uncommon practices. It was the first time recorded sound has been manipulated for musical purposes. It could be argued this was the precursor to turntablism.
The instantly recognisable and classic sounding Mellotron was developed in 1963. It was based on looped magnetic tape, one for each key. When a key was depressed, the tape met the head of the player and sounded.
The was arguably the first instance of what we now might know as multi-sampling. There were two other instruments that appeared about 15 years later that took this idea further, the Synclavier and the Fairlight CMI (both used by Stevie Wonder amongst others). Both would have cost more than the average house and would need extremely in-depth knowledge to operate.
New England Digital Synclavier was revolutionary in the development of sample technology.
The Synclavier, developed in 1977, was a very early digital polyphonic workstation, that stored 8-bit samples and replayed them with a combination of FM and additive resynthesis.
The Fairlight CMI came in early 1979 and was an even larger, but more powerful successor to the Synclavier. It has its own onboard computer with an internal sequencer.
CMI’s Fairlight is probably the most famous example of an early sampler.
Both of these instruments, considering their cost and size, could only really be afforded by large faculties and rock stars, so despite their massive influence of music, it didn’t really open the world of sampling to the masses.
In 1976, Walter Murphy recorded ‘A Fifth of Beethoven’, a famous disco recorded that sounds almost identical to Beethoven’s ‘Fifth Symphony’ (first movement). Despite the almost identical sound, and though there may well have been legal disputes or remuneration of sorts in regards to the publishing of the song, this was not actually a sample and pre-dates traditional sampling as we know it, by a few years.
Similarly, in 1979 The Sugar Hill Gang embarked on a similar path, with their hit ‘Rapper’s Delight’; which is perhaps the first mention of the word rapper in a hit single. The bassline is a replayed version of Chic’s ‘Good Times’.
Really, the story starts proper in the 1980s, with the availability of sampling to the average producer. Originally intended to execute similar jobs to the Synclavier and Fairlight, the Akai S-series of samplers were the size of a VHS player, used floppy disks to store their data instead of hefty onboard CPUs and were affordable to the average home studio musician.
Now, you could purchase any instrument you like, sampled onto disks, and you’d have that in your own productions.
Importantly, you didn’t need to know how to play the violin, or saxophone to have one. You didn’t even really need to know how to play the keyboard! It didn’t take long for the world of home sampling to cross over with the movements in hip hop, which had previously crudely looped ‘break-beats’ and other instrumental passages through the use of turntables. The invention of the MPC and EMU SP-1200 changed music forever.
People were beginning to sample anything, from the aforementioned gold mine of soul, jazz, Motown and disco to rock, electro, classical and even spoken word, preachers, television. Anything. Here’s an interesting documentary from 1988 about sampling in its primitive years:
In America, hip-hop was beginning to take off. Groups like Public Enemy, N.W.A, Slick Rick, Eric B and Rakim, A Tribe Called Quest and others were sampling the records they grew up with, and re-contextualising them, bringing the sound of their parents to a new generation.
Ice Cube’s ‘It Was A Good Day‘ famously samples The Isley Brother’s ‘Footsteps in the Dark‘. J Dilla’s ‘So Far To Go‘ lifts a brief instrumental section from another Isley Brother’s tune. And perhaps more recently, Dr Dre’s ‘Next Episode‘ is almost a direct lift of David Axelrod’s ‘The Edge‘.
Hip-hop is perhaps the genre most in debt to the invention of sampling, and although it’s moved away a lot from the sound nowadays, sampling was a mandatory part of the history of hip-hop and finding samples (known as crate digging) was considered a skill in itself.
UK Hardcore/Jungle/Old Skool
Around this time in the UK British youths were creating their own homages to records they grew up with. Acid house was already in full swing (a genre also indebted to technology in the Roland TB-303), and home sampling also meant the inclusion of non-synthetic sounds was possible.
Like the Americans, UK producers were sampling vocal hooks and breakbeats but were speeding them up, rather than keeping them at walking pace hip-hop tempo. Breakbeat hardcore, rave or oldskool (as it’s confusingly now known) was the sound of the M25, encapsulated in a counter-culture movement.
As the years went on, technology improved and people were doing more and more creative things with the chopping of their samples, slicing up breakbeats and re-ordering them to make super fast and frenetic rhythms, impossible to be played by drummers themselves. Jungle was perhaps the genre to exploit this the most.
Whereas the Americans were sampling mostly American music, the Brits were sampling Jamaican music, most notably reggae, dub, dancehall and ragga, combining these sounds with the sound palette from the rave scene, big sound-system sub-bass and the schizoid programmed breakbeats.
Jungle (and later drum ’n’ bass) were founded on hunting for breaks in songs, often funk records. A break is a section where the drums take a short solo, meaning it’s easy (or easier) to isolate the hits and grooves you want. Here’s WhoSampledWho’s list of the top 10 most used breaks in their database.
And from the same site, a list of popular vocal samples that you might not know the origin of.
Sampling quickly was everywhere. The law hadn’t caught up with this new development, and it was ripe for exploitation. Liam Howlett of The Prodigy is perhaps one of the most talented samplers of our time. Not only find great samples but uses them in a way that isn’t at all obvious. Below, is a great video, detailing the rigours work that went into creating The Prodigy’s controversial hit ‘Smack My Bitch Up’, and all the samples used.
Fatboy Slim is another legendary sampler, but perhaps more of an obvious choice, as he made no secret of it. His 1998 album You’ve Come a Long Way Baby was probably nearly entirely produced with samples. His 1999 hit ‘Praise You’ is a good example of using a number of different samples together (the gospel like acapella, honky-tonk piano funk loops and percussion) to create something totally new, that is more than the sum of its parts.
Daft Punk are also held in high esteem as sampling gurus, with much of their back catalogue owing to France’s rich history of importing rare US disco, soul and funk. Subsequently, the culture of French house is built on sampling, and together with their classic Alesis 3630 sidechain compression sound, formed the foundations of their first album Homework. However, their 2001 epic Discovery really caught the attention of the world, particularly with their first single ‘One More Time’, with guest vocals from the late Romanthony.
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There have been countless examples of what’s called microsampling; taking incredibly short segments of music and sequencing them together to make a new glitchy canvas, almost mimicking the sensation of tuning an FM radio. The pioneers of this sort of sampling are the french camp of artists on Ed Banger Records. Justice famously admitted sampling up to 400 records for their album † including the likes of Slipknot, 50 Cent and Queen.
Examples of this can be heard in the likes of Sebastian, Akufen and Phonat, artists known for their attention to detail when it comes to crowbarring in minute intricacies into their tracks. From a production point of view, it’s extremely difficult to get such a plethora of sounds to sit together in a mix; a lot of processing, filtering, EQing, compressing and re-processing is needed. By the time you’ve finished, the sources would be almost unrecognisable, even to the artist they’ve sampled.
The use of another recording in your own music without permission, whether or not you sell it or not, is illegal. Even giving away music for free is technically illegal if it contains an uncleared sample. Julio Bashmore (producer for the likes of Jessie Ware) notably ran into this issue a few years back releasing a track for free download on his SoundCloud.
It contained a sample from Jimmy Castor’s 1972 hit ‘Troglodyte’. The rights holders caught up with him issuing him with a cease and desist as well as forcing him to make a public apology (below). In addition, he paid an undisclosed fee to the rights holders. You can read more about this case here.
Julio Bashmore was forced to issue a public apology for his unauthorised use of Jimmy Castor’s ‘Troglodyte’, despite the track being a free download
This highlights an often lax attitude or ignorance towards the law on sampling, where often it’s assumed producers have carte blanche to use other people’s material if it’s not being sold. Of course, knowing the law is one thing, obeying it is another.
Where the legality is extremely important is if there’s likely to be any commercial exploitation of your music. This includes TV play, regular radio rotation, synchronisation with computer games, film, advert, corporate etc. The companies that license this music would not take a risk. This is where processes like interpolation are useful.
There have been many high profile examples of illicit samples that have gone to court. MC Hammer’s ‘U Can’t Touch This’ uses a sample from Rick James’ 1981 boogie number ‘Super Freak’. Hammer, of course, wrote his own hook, but the basis of the track is undeniably lifted. James sued Hammer for copyright infringement. The case was settled out of court when Hammer allowed James to be credited as a co-writer.
Vanilla Ice’s 1989 smash Ice Ice Baby also came under some scrutiny, as the bassline was sampled from Queen and David Bowie’s ‘Under Pressure’ and at the time, neither Queen nor Bowie received any royalties or writing credits. This was amended some years later.
One of the more interesting but perhaps lesser-known examples of this going to court was Biz Markie’s ‘All Samples Cleared!’ album, and this was perhaps a landmark moment for both hip-hop and sampling.
After disputes on his previous album, having being taken to court, the lawyers and publishing representatives were beginning to cotton on to sampling, so it meant that clearing samples were now a very real thing. You can read more about the case here.
How to Clear Samples
So how do you go about clearing a sample? Should you bother? What do you do if you get caught? What are the alternatives? What’s legal and what isn’t? Are sample packs okay?
Clearing samples would normally be dealt with by a label. If you sign something to a label, it’s normally the done thing that you declare your samples before signing the contract. For some genres (such as golden era hip hop, D’n’B, nu-disco etc) it’s almost a given that samples are going to be included, but it’s really down to the label as to what (if anything) they clear.
“A general rule of thumb amongst copyright owners is that if you ask people’s permission they’re amenable – as long as the clearance terms are accepted. I’d say that seventy to eighty percent of the time samples get cleared.”Alison Hook – Sample and Infringement Manager, EMI Music Publishing
To clear a sample, you would normally need to be granted permission from two camps, as to use a sample illegally you would be infringing two different copyrights; the recording (often referred to as ‘master’) and the song, or publishing. The recording is owned by the record label, the song by a publishing company.
How these are accounted for is probably different for each example, but ordinarily, you would pay for a license of the master recording (a one-off payment). This would depend on how long the sample is and how much it’s been processed/cut-up and how integral it is to your composition.
Then, assuming that some of the original song’s composition is intact, a percentage of the publishing would be paid to the original songwriter(s). Similarly, this depends on what of the chords/melody/lyrics have survived. This sort of deal could be brokered by lawyers and musicologists or just by the publishing arm and songwriters, depending on the size of the case in hand.
From this, we can ascertain that you’ll need to find out who released the song and who owns the publishing. Normally this can be found on the physical format (CD or vinyl) or some digging on a site like Discogs. There are third-party companies that can help with sample clearance, but of course, they take a cut. You can also check with services like the MCPS or PRS (more on those later).
Certain labels and publishing outfits make a great deal of money from people sampling their catalogue, so try and make it as easy as possible to make a claim, and sometimes have dedicated systems on their site or even departments that deal solely with clearing of samples.
This can be a lengthy process and can cost a large swathe of the budget too. Famously The Avalanches’ 2000 plunderphonics album Since I Left You reportedly sampled over 3,500 songs, and the clearing of these samples delayed the release by two years. They probably made very little from the publishing deals associated with these songs too, as so much of their source material was sampled.
All of us would have probably heard of sample packs and no doubt either bought or downloaded them. Sample packs as we know them surfaced around the early ’90s with companies like Zero-G capitalising on the advent of sampling being available to everyone. Though companies were releasing floppy disks back in the ’80s of multi-sampled instruments and drum kits, and even the BBC released vinyl records of their sound FX libraries back in the ’70s.
The normally accepted deal with such products is that their license allows use for global commercial purposes (songs, adverts, film etc) on a non-exclusive basis for the period that the copyright is protected. This means you’re almost free to do what you want with them. However, it’s important to read the license agreement with whichever pack you’re using. Vengence prohibit certain uses of their samples in certain commercial environments. With that said it’s unlikely they’re going to go after you for using a kick drum!
Another interesting example is the god of pads Omnisphere by Spectrasonics, which is what used to be known as a ROMpler. This term has sort of faded away into the ether, as we don’t really use CD-ROMs anymore, but what they did was play audio samples stored in ROM chips to generate sound.
In contrast to samplers, ROMplers did not record audio and have limited or no capability for generating original waveforms. The term rompler is a portmanteau of the terms ROM and sampler. The reason I’m bringing this up is down to Omnisphere’s baffling license agreement, prohibiting certain uses.
Recreating Samples in your DAW
To circumnavigate buying out the master, some artists and labels have resorted to what is known as interpolation. Companies like Replay Heaven has worked on countless records from both sides of the Atlantic, painstakingly recreating samples from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s to be slotted into modern records.
While this isn’t within everyone’s budget, it’s certainly the best way to reduce the payout for clearing your track, especially if the sample is integral to it. Some artists might opt to interpolate the sample themselves though. Not only is this cheaper but it allows more flexibility chaining the tempo, key and sound. Tensnake’s 2010 hit ‘Coma Cat’ interpolates Anthony and The Camp’s 1986 ‘What I Like‘:
In the below video, liquid D’n’B producer and owner of Hospital Records Nu:Tone describes the process he uses to recreate samples. It’s useful to do some research around the records you’re trying to imitate; what drum micing techniques were used in this era? What kind of guitar, pedal and amp combo was used? How was that mic’d? How was reverb achieved (plate, spring, natural, digital etc)? What compressors were used…
A lot of this information can be worked out or deducted. Read SoundOnSound classic tracks, learn about the producers/studios/musicians, learn about the history of recording and instruments. Native Instruments Guitar Rig and Kontakt, as well as convolution, reverbs like Logic’s Space Designer are great starting points to get old sounds out of your modern DAW. It’s useful to keep as much as you can in the MIDI domain too, as it’s possible to change musical ideas around once the sound has been achieved. This way you have maximum flexibility.
Live and Logic both contain time-stretching algorithms that don’t retain the pitch information of the audio material. This can be a great way to speed up and slow down samples much like they would have sounded on vinyl.
On the subject of vinyl, iZotope’s imaginatively named Vinyl (which is free) and your DAWs bundled EQs can help ‘age’ a sample; reducing super low and high frequencies. You can lather with vinyl crackle and tape hiss too, check out some authentic crackle and hiss from sites like FreeSound.org.
Many compressors these days will include various vintage circuit emulations like that of the 1176 (F.E.T), LA-2A (Optical) and SSL bus compressors (VCA). These can help add some pleasing harmonics into drums, vocals and more.
Finally, finish off some of your pseudo-sampled sounds with some bit depth and sample rate reduction courtesy of your DAWs in-built digital distortions. This can fake the sound of old samplers from the 80s where RAM was harder to come by and file sizes were a little more precious.
Five Best Software Samplers
Native Instruments Kontakt 5
The daddy of modern soft sampler, Kontakt from Native Instruments is in its fifth incarnation and still seems to gather steam with each new release. The library it comes bundled with is immense but as a sound design tool Kontakt is nearly unparalleled. Capable of multi-sampling, chopping up breaks and even pseudo granular synthesis, it’s not hard to see why this multi-timbral beast is so popular.
Ableton Live Sampler
Available only in Ableton Live Suite, the imaginatively named Sampler instrument is the closest thing to Kontakt that that is native to Ableton users. Live’s latest update (9.5) Ableton oversaw an upheaval of the filter algorithms, including many analogue simulations added. Unlike its younger sibling Simpler, Sampler allows pendulum-like looping, multi-sampling, key zones and all the modcons expected with a high performance sampler.
Togu Audio Line
TAL Sampler Something a little different, Togu Audio Line’s “Analog Modelling Sampler” comes bundled with the traditional features found on most sampler but also comes with some neat sample engine emulation that closely emulates some of our favourite sampler from bygone eras, and at £55 this won’t break the bank. Combining sample rate and bit-depth reduction with jitter and hiss, a meaty filter and onboard EQ, reverb and delay, this is a fine addition to any studio.
Sample Magic Stacker
While not technically a straight sampler, Sample Magic’s Stacker aims to be the last drum sampler you need to buy. Best suited to working with drums, the sampling capabilities allow fine-tuning of pitch, phase, pan position and sample start point but where it gets interesting is the layering. Like Logic’s Ultrabeat and other drum computers, we can stack the samples with carefully tuned oscillators and even sequence within the plug-in! For what it does it’s unparalleled.
TX16Wx Software Sampler Last on the list is another vintage emulation sampler. Some of the features it boasts that impressed us the most are two assignable LFOs per voice, tempo detection and a handy bipolar step sequencer but where this really excels is the price: free!
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