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.