Sampling 101: The Ultimate Guide

Akai MPC Drum Machine Sampler for Trigger Drum Samples and Loading Sample Packs

Intro

Most beat makers know what sampling is. At the very least, they've heard of it. A few things come may to mind when talking about the art of sampling- for some it is the Amen Break , the "most sampled loop in history" - or that time when Vanilla Ice tried to argue that he didn't owe Queen/Bowie songwriting credits (or royalties) because he had added a note to Under Pressure and therefore made it his own.  (He was not successful and ended up having to pay.)  

When you think of sampling, you might immediately think of a few particular music genres: hip-hop and rap of course, modern electronic music, but we'll go one step further. With easy access to a whole universe of sounds, we're entering a new era of sampling that transcends genre in its entirety. Sampling is an undeniably integral component of today's mainstream music.

Let's take a couple of songs and show just how prevalent sampling is.


Dababy - rockstar

Take a look at DaBaby's Rockstar, which is currently at the top of the Billboard Top 100. DaBaby raps over a melodic trap beat which is centered around a sampled guitar played throughout the song. Besides the vocal, Rockstar is constructed entirely of sampled instruments. 

The guitar played in Omnisphere, the hard hitting 808s pulled from the Roland 808 drum machine, the kicks, the hi hats, the claps- all were sampled to create this chart-topping hit.

Producer Sethinthekitchen gives us a glimpse into his use of samples on the track.

This isn't surprising. Rap and hip-hop have been all about sampling from the start. While some of the arrangements and styles have changed over the years, the presence of samples remains constant.   

What about other styles of music? Let's take a look at the Billie Eilish track, everything i wanted.


BILLIE EILISH - everything i wanted

everything i wanted starts off with a hazy, soft sounding piano. Her brother and producer, FINNEAS, is known to use keyboard patches and is credited with the piano arrangement on this track. 

The term "patch" refers to a collection of multiple single-samples which are arranged together to create a playable instrument. Sample patches are created by recording real pianos, which then are triggered on a keyboard depending on the note and velocity (velocity being how hard a key is hit).

FINNEAS tends to use a lot of personal and pre-recorded samples in his productions, not all of which are immediately musical. He has sampled Billie lighting matches in the bathroom and even incorporated loud explosions into his mixes.

In everything i wanted, the instrumental starts with sampled percussion sounds, including a kick, clap, and other miscellaneous sounds like soft clicks and chimes. Unlike Rockstar, this song is not entirely made of samples- there are various synths and live bass, which were probably tracked live along to the beat. Despite this difference, it is clear that sampling played a major role in this track, and in many of Billie and FINNEAS's productions.  

It's undeniable. In 2021, no matter what genre of music you are working with, you should explore and learn the art of sampling. It's one of the most important skills in music production today. 


So, What Is Sampling?

Essentially, modern musicians have three ways to produce sound in music: Recording, synthesizing, or sampling

Sampling is the process of taking a pre-recorded and/or pre-processed sound and re-working it to make a completely new musical composition.

To help explain this, let's compare music production to visual art. 

Recording and synthesis are much like painting and drawing. The artist is using raw materials to create something completely new. Sampling on the other hand is more like the art of collaging. 

Synthesizer / MIDI Controller, Mixing Board / Drum Pad, and Waveform

Much like a collage, sampling can be use in a simple and straightforward way, but it can also be used to create radically new and different pieces of art, indistinguishable from their original components. 


A LIL Bit of Sample History

The earliest known use of sampling can be traced back to French experimental music from the 1940s called " musique concrete." 

It doesn't exactly slap like a trap banger, but it's interesting to see where the idea came from. Back in the 1940s, most pop music consisted of swing bands and singers, typically recorded in large rooms using multiple microphones. While highly unpopular at the time, the French artists who were playing with splicing tapes together were far ahead of their time. 

Some of the first mainstream sampling occurred in the 1960s. As usual, The Beatles have some excellent and influential examples. Take for example Strawberry Fields Forever.

The beatles - strawberry fields forever

That unique-sounding flutes at the beginning are from a now-obsolete instrument called a Mellotron, which is an analog sampling instrument. 

Mellotron, courtesy of Buzz Andersen from NAMM 2007


The Mellotron is a keyboard, with each key connected to a super short tape loop of a note played on a flute or violin. This is similar to how modern keyboards work- the note is pre-recorded and loaded into the keyboard, which is then played when the user hits a key. While modern keyboards use digital technology to accomplish this, the Mellotron used actual analog tape to reproduce sound.

The Beatles continued to experiment with sampling in Tomorrow Never Knows. Tomorrow Never Knows is considered one of their most  ground-breaking tracks

 

The Beatles - Tomorrow never knows

Other than the basic instrumentation of vocals, drums, and bass, most of the sounds you hear are random sounds that The Beatles recorded, spliced, looped, played backwards, and processed every which way. 

The seagull-sounding noises near the beginning are Paul McCartney laughing, played backwards and sped up. This was one of the earliest mainstream tracks to truly integrate sampling into the creative process. 

Technology continued to develop, and new genres such as hip-hop began to appear that used sampling centrally. Rapper's Delight , the first mainstream rap hit from 1979, is based on a sampled bass line ("Good Times" by Chic.) In 1990, MC Hammer's U Can't Touch This was the first hit song to sample not just a few bars, but basically an entire song.

Other producers, such as the revolutionary J Dilla, chopped and replayed samples to create entirely unique productions from existing song. These innovations in sampling had lasting impacts that still influence hip hop production today.

As time wore on, the influence of sampling continued to spread. The classic orchestral hit sound was originally created by sampling a single note from a Stravinsky piece, and then pitch-shifting it both up and down, allowing it to be used to create new melodies and chords.

Bittersweet Symphony by the Verve is an alt-rock hit built around a sample of an orchestra playing a symphonic Rolling Stones cover. Another group, The Avalanches, create music that is essentially a collage of hundreds of samples - dialog, sound effects, drum loops, orchestral melodies, it goes on.


Popular ways to use samples

The digital revolution sealed sampling's fate. Sampling is now so easy, that a producer can make an amazing piece of music without knowing a lick of music theory or playing a single note- simply by being skilled at sampling. If you're just starting out, you may be asking "How do I sample music?" For modern producers, there are a few popular methods used. 

Creating a Drum Track with Samples

Drums are one of the most high-maintenance instruments to own, play, or record. Yet they are also incredibly important to the way people enjoy music. For these reasons, it's no surprise that creating percussion and drum tracks is one of the most common uses of sampling today. Beats made of samples are standard in pop and hip-hop, and also increasingly common in rock, alt, indie, and even country.

 

Beatmaker using a sampler instrument to create a drum track

Triggering Drum Samples with Live Drumming

Even if you are using a live drum kit in your song, it's extremely popular to use that drum track to trigger samples. This practice is essentially the norm in many genres.

The process goes like this- the kick, snare, and tom tracks have noise gates on them, and every time the gate detects that the drum is being hit, it automatically plays a sampled sound. So every kick drum hit has extra kick sounds layered onto it. This gives modern drumming that huge, clean sound that's so prized.

 

MIDI Drum set used to trigger drum samples

It is not unusual for drummers to be brought into studio sessions where no actual drum recording takes place. Many times, drums are outfitted with sensors which turn drummers' performances into MIDI tracks, which are then used to trigger samples within the track. Essentially, these drummers are playing the sampler.  

Creating Instrumentals with Sampled Loops

Other than creating beats and fattening up drum recordings, there are more popular ways to use sampling. As mentioned with the DaBaby and Billie Eilish tracks above, you can build your instrumentals by finding or creating loops, and sampling them throughout your track, then layering more instrumentation on top. Wu-Tang's C.R.E.A.M. is a classic example of an instrumental built around a great sample. 


Step Editor

Adding something extra

You can even layer samples on top of your track at key moments, just to add interest to the whole experience. For example, listen to the instrumental in Billie Eilish's Bury a Friend. Starting at 0:47, that short scream/squeal sample really adds to the overall bizarre feel and power of the beat. 

The more you actively listen for these details, the more ideas you'll discover.


Layering impact hits help to create more dynamic sounds


Where To Find Samples

Producers have a few avenues to get started with sampling. You can sample music yourself, find sample packs, or even use a mic to make your own samples from your environment. 

  • Sampling commercial music (and other kinds of media like movies and TV) is risky. Legally speaking, you are required to clear the sample with the owner of the material. Not to say that this always happens, and there are dozens of examples of hit songs that end up in legal battles because they skipped this step. But it's also understandable why a musician would hope to get away with it- you have to figure out who owns the rights, figure out how to contact them, and risk being told no or told to pay a fee. I will say that many, many artists get away with illegally sampling- but many other artists live to regret that decision. To solve this issue, companies like Tracklib are changing the way artists can license original music for use in their productions.

  • Another option is to use royalty-free sample packs . These are packs of sounds that can be downloaded and then used to your heart's content, with no fear of infringing copyright. There are tons of sample packs available all over the internet. Some sites offer a subscription-based model like Splice and Sounds.com. Some boutique sample houses offer more curated collections like Racks Stevenson and the Kingsway Music Library. Don't worry about other musicians who use the same sounds- the average listener will notice way less than you think! 

  • If you have a mic and recording interface, or a handheld recorder, you can even get creative and  make samples yourself . Drop a glass on the ground, rip up that absurdly long CVS receipt, tap on a can, honk your horn, rustle some leaves, whatever... all can be recorded, repurposed, and used in your next beat. The sky is the limit - and you'd be amazed what you can turn into music with a little creativity. 

Getting Started: The basics

Depending on what you want to do with sampling- create a drum beat, work with loops, or just add a one-off sound effect- there are different ways to work with samples. And each DAW has its own processes to learn. But the basic principles always remain the same.

Producer making beats on the MPC

Creating a Drum Pattern

The simplest way to create a beat out of samples is to use a drum machine or sampler- either a physical machine, or a virtual instrument that can be loaded into your DAW. 

Many samplers also have a step editor, which is often a row of 16 buttons. This editor can be used instead of MIDI input to create a multi-bar pattern that will loop. This can be a great way to get started experimenting with patterns too.

Beyond this, many samplers have expanded functionality that really opens up doors beyond simply programming drums. You may be able to change the pitch of each sample, edit its length, process it through effects, and more. This is extremely helpful with melodic instruments like pianos and strings. 

More complex sample libraries may not just pitch a single sound, but will have individual sounds recorded for each and every note and velocity. This helps to create a more realistic sounding instrument that emulates the real thing. 

If you're just getting started, and all this is making your head spin- don't worry! It is easy to start by exploring your DAWs stock sampler sounds, and then slowly start to customize them as you become more comfortable. This is a great way to learn, and soon you'll be creating patterns from scratch.

Triggering Drum Samples

If you're working with a drum track and want to layer samples into the drum sounds, the process is actually easier than you might assume. 

This is such a popular process that many DAWs have built-in functionality, without any need to use extra VSTs or gear.

Logic Pro: Replacing Drum Samples

Logic Pro 
Replacing Drum Sounds

FL Studios - Make a Drum Trigger Track - Unofficial Video

FL Studio
Make a Drum Trigger Track

Ableton Live - Convert Audio to MIDI

Ableton Live
Convert Audio to MIDI

All have features that allow you to convert the audio signal to MIDI to replace or layer with other samples.

Wave forms and loops can help with the initial building process of new compositions

Working With Loops

Whether you are using a drum loop, a melodic sample, or some other type of sound, loops are a great way to start building a track and finding inspiration. 

The simplest way is usually to import the loop into your DAW and work with the waveform directly. This can involve cutting, splicing, or rearranging your loop. Once you have it sounding the way you like, you can simply copy and paste it within your arrangement.

It's possible that the loop will already be the right key and tempo for you, buy if you want more control, you may want to get comfortable with pitch-shifting and time-shifting. Different DAWs have different names for these functions, but the major ones all have their own tools for this.

If your sample has notes or tones in it, you can pitch-shift it to make it match your song's key signature. If your sample's key is not labeled, some music theory knowledge is helpful here, but you can get started by using a stock piano or other instrument to find which notes fit with your sample. 

Logic Pro Flex Editor includes a Flex Time and Flex Pitch function

Still confused? There are third party plugins like Mixed In Key's Studio Edition which will automatically detect the pitch of your song. Remember, in music, if it sounds good, it is good. 

Time-shifting is incredibly powerful and gives you the ability to make the timing of your sample match the beat of your track. You can play the entire sample at a slower or faster pace without altering the pitch, or even shift individual notes within the sample. The possibilities are endless. Logic Pro makes this possible with Flex Time, FL Studio with Newtime, and Abelton with its' Warp feature. 

Once the loop is in the right key and tempo, you can also add further processing to work better in your own song. If the loop feels unnatural, you can play with EQ to make it "fit" more smoothly. If the samples are drums or percussion, you can experiment cutting down some of the mid frequencies, leaving the highs and lows. If it's a guitar or piano, try cutting around 500-2k Hz to make room for the vocals. 

Fruity Reeverb is a classic stock plugin that can be used to provide more space and depth

Reverb is also a powerful tool. By using a similar kind of reverb on the loop as other instruments on the song, you can give the impression they are in the same "space" together. 

If the loop contains rhythmic elements, some compression can work wonders to make the loop sound more audible and present, without overpowering other instruments. 

Working with One-Shot Samples and Sound Effects

If you want to have a one-off sound effect (like the squeal sound in the Billie Eilish track bury a friend) you can simply import the sound and cut/paste to an audio track wherever you'd like it to play. This may save you time if you're only looking to add a single isolated sound. If you plan to work with multiple one-shot samples however, this is a great time to open your sampler back up. The great thing about samplers and drum machines is that you can load whatever wav forms you like into their slots which can open up a lot of doors for creativity. 


Conclusion

As you can see, sampling is an integral part of today's music creation and a necessary skill for producers in 2021. It doesn't hurt for any musician to know his or her way around it. While we covered some possible uses for sampling, we've only just scratched the surface when it comes to the experimenting with this technique. So, get out there. Break some things, test new ideas, and gather inspiration. You have new sounds to discover. 

Happy Sampling!