If you're anything like us, sampling didn't make a ton of sense at first. And once it became clear, it wasn't obvious how you use the technique to make music. The next stage usually involves being completely overwhelmed by possibilities and not knowing where to being.
Today, we're going to fix that! This article is a general overview of different ways to think of samples in basic categories, give you some ideas to find good sounds in a variety of places, and start working with them in a way that's your own.
A lot of this is focused on techniques you can use with drums and percussive sounds, but the truth is you can put this knowledge to use with anything.
Let's dive in and look at the 3 kinds of sample you'll work with and how to work with them.
As far as percussion samples go, it's helpful to think of them in terms of how you work with them and how they function as you approach sampling with Ableton.
Loops, one shots, and drum chops are some of the most common ways of breaking up your samples into some basic categories to work with. It may also help to think of an FX category and tonal or texture samples.
We'll go into each in further detail below.
A lot of the culture of sampled music begins with loops in one form or another.
Depending on the type of music production you're involved in you may literally have to wait for a "break" in the song to grab a bit of the audio track for use in sampling.
When experimenting with drum loops or any other kind of source material, we recommend trying different loop points to find ideas that work and using different durations of the the loop.
An 8 measure loop will feel quite different from a 2 beat loop and the start and stop points makes a big difference in how it feels.
Sequencing individual samples or one shots is a near limitless technique for creating music. Instead of experimenting with interesting places to loop a piece of audio, every single sample is isolated from one another.
You then fire them off in whatever order or pattern you want.
A practical example, you download a drum kit with kick, snare, hihat, tom, and cymbal samples.
Drum chops are somewhere in between a one shot and a full loop. Generally, they are a loop cut up into slices that contain more than one musical event, which you then trigger in a new way that changes the original timing.
Ableton's Slice mode in Simpler is set up for this as is the MPC and many other drum machines.
Instead of a single drum hit, a chop might have half a second of a breakbeat or the hook of a song.
Much like how the start point of a loop is very important, drum chops can be thought of as a collections of micro loops that you retrigger when you program or play them.
Now that you have an idea of what you're looking for, let's talk about where to get some quality sounds so you can start putting them together in creative ways.
This is the most obvious place for modern producers to get samples is from sample packs. There are entire websites dedicated to supplying them (like this one!) as well as various forums where people trade them.
Sample packs tend to include one shot samples as well as loops. A good pack is already chopped up and ready a producer to use right away.
The classic place to look for a new sample is on great records you're already familiar with. This also comes with the added challenge of being copyright infringement.
Many producers don't care if music production is just a hobby or they have the means to pay for sample clearance.
This is totally fine! Tons of our favorite music has been created this way. Just be careful if you have commercial aspirations with your music. You don't want to get anyone sued and it can cause problems if you want to license your tracks for TV or movies.
You can grab audio from absolutely anywhere. TV shows, old commercials, YouTube videos, Instagram, the orientation video from your job, sky is the limit.
A lot of the magic of sampling is recontextualizing sounds in a completely different way from the original form to create a new kind of music.
You can use a dedicated field recorder rig or use your phone, but the idea is the same. You go out into the world and make recordings from what you find.
The leaves under your feet, people talking at the cafe, the jackhammer outside that woke you up, or anything else you find.
Then you bring that all back in the studio and see if you can process it into something musically interesting.
The fun really begins at this stage.
Regardless of the source of the sounds or the type of sound (loops, one shot, or a mix of everything) you want to start cleaning up the sounds and make them your own by putting your spin on them.
You want to use a low pass filter and a high pass to get rid of any noise that isn't helpful musically. Low end rumble or excess high end needs to go. Good sample packs, especially if they cost money, should do this for you.
You may want to EQ or compress the sample a bit, but you can always save this step for later. At the least, make sure you don't have an extreme changes in volume that would make the sample difficult to make music with.
Without getting too prescriptive (we can talk about making weird, trippy samples further along in the article) we will say it's a good idea to establish a sense of space and position with samples.
With chops and loops you don't have as much control, but this is something to think about when working with one shots.
And of course this is electronic music production so you can technically do whatever you want, but here are some good guidelines to start with:
Bassy material like kicks, 808, or low end focused thuds should be centered. Having some high end content is usually helpful to emphasize the attack of the sound, but otherwise it should be somewhat dark.
Having some brighter, drier sounds mixed in with some more reverbed and dark sounds helps give a collection of samples a sense of space.
Panning should be balanced, by not perfectly symmetrical. This helps create an interesting stereo image.
Support your primary sounds (like kicks/snares/hihats) with quirky percussion, field recording-based sounds, or heavily processed bleeps and bloops that are otherwise unidentifiable. This will help bring more of your personal character to things, even if you are using a stock sample pack.
If you decided to work with sample chops like we described earlier, you want to spend a lot of time trying different start points and end points.
Most producers will map the chops to a MIDI controller and spend some time experimenting with different chops, playing them, then adjusting until they get something that feels good to play.
One place to start with this it have some chops that being on big transients like the start of a kick or snare, then some less obvious places, like even in the middle of a phrase.
Sometimes having one or two pads on your controller that are set to a chop that's a little out can change the dynamic of how you do things in an interesting way.
Usually when people talk about 'flipping' a sample, they're referring to the production process of taking a known song or sound, and re-contextualizing it in some way, often by adding an alternative beat or arrangement to the original sample.
Here's an example of 9th Wonder doing exactly that.
He spends a lot of time listening to recordings that might have some potential to flip well.
There's no way to know exactly how he thinks about it, but from what we see him doing, we can come up with a few general guidelines:
Listen for space. If you want to add rhythmic elements like drum loops, bass, and possibly a new vocal, you want a sample with enough room for those elements.
Melody. Samples with singable melodic elements are great to loop and layer over a drum break because they give the listener's ear something to hang on to.
Call and Response. Whether you create the call and response from two samples, the bass line and melody, or some other combination of elements, this is a timeless production technique that shows up different genres of music for a reason because it creates balance and interest that makes people want to listen more.
Vibe. This is a vague term but the best definition we can come up with is vibe is an emotional feeling the original audio gives you. It may sound nostalgic, spacey, distant, intimate, aggressive or anything else, but a good sample to flip always has a feeling behind it. If it makes you feel something, there's a good chance it'll have the same effect on other people in a new composition.
Effects like chorus, LFO, EQ, heavy echo or delay, flanging, or heavy filtering are all pretty standard to deploy when sample chopping.
And a Drum Rack pad can contain a one shot sample, a chop, or even a loop if you cut your samples carefully. Then load that chain up with whatever effects you want.
Some Ableton-specific effects worth trying on sample pads beyond the stuff built into a typical DJ mixer effects box:
Redux. A basic but very effective bitcrushing plugin. Great for creating crunchy chip tune sounding effects.
Auto Pan. Great for any sustained sound like a cymbal, dub siren, or pad hit to juice up the stereo image.
Shifter. Create trippy, swirling ring modulation sounds.
Resonators. If you need ambience around a sound, but reverb isn't doing it, this plugin adds a completely different feeling that can be tonal or totally non-harmonic.
Grain Delay. A granular delay that always gets wild anytime we throw it on anything. Can be kind of unpredictable, but worth the fuss.
Corpus. A resonator plugin that models physical objects and can be modulated with LFO. Especially great for making sounds feel more metallic and bright.
Extremes. It's completely fair game to take any effect you want to apply to a sample to some crazy extreme just to see what happens. Like the way the Glue compressor sounds on your snare? Why not try 28 instances of it and see how that changes things?
We'd never do this with hardware because it's impractical, so the brain d0esn't always think to go there in software even though a couple dozen compressors is basically another day at the office for a modern computer.
Warping. If you use Ableton, you've probably warped an audio sample or two in your time. If you want weird, glitchy, artifact colored sounds, set up a track below the one you want to do your warping it, arm it for recording, and make its input the output of your warp track.
Then, hit record and start changing the warp markers as it plays back so you can hear it get stretched.
You can repeat this process with different warping modes or try modifying the Flux or Grain size settings, which will introduce different flavors of aliasing to your new audio.
Novel Playback Techniques. Sometimes samples with no additional processing can lead you to interesting places if you find a new way to perform them.
A classic example of novel playback techniques is DJ scratching. There are not any special effects. They are technically just playing back exactly what's on the record, but in a highly manipulated, rhythmic way.
We now have a constellation of interesting effects and plugins to apply to audio, but we also have an equally diverse selection of controllers that can trigger MIDI notes that map to samples of basically any size.
You make a MIDI note trigger a 10 millisecond loop of audio or randomly choose a start point in a WAV file that's 4 hours long.
We can talk about different techniques and effects for days, but its important to have practical examples of masters of the craft applying the knowledge to make music.
We've selected a handful of examples to discuss that we hope you find some inspiration in and better understand how the pieces all fit together.
This video is a bunch of side by side cuts of music J Dilla sampled to create new genres of hip hop.
To make the samples work together, you can hear he often would stretch and re-pitch sounds to get them to fit with each other.
But more importantly we notice is his source material is all over the place, so it's clear that he did a lot of listening.
JD was known for being able to pull a few records off the shelf and very quickly bring something together with the MPC sampler, so we recommend that you do the same.
Listen to a ton of music and keep your ears open for moments that might be useful for sampling. Part of the magic of his music was pulling together influences that many people would never think to combine because the genre or era in time was drastically different.
This is a much more instrument focused way of working.
In this clip of Flying Lotus in the studio, he sequences some drum samples mapped to a MIDI controller by playing them in, then we assume doing what sounds like some light editing. Everything else he simply layers in by playing keyboard and synth parts over his drums.
Here Shadow talks about the qualities and process of digging for novel samples and what makes them great.
In this example, Deantoni Parks uses samples as another percussion instrument in he drum kit. He uses one limb to trigger the samples rhythmically and everything else to add drums to the samples.
We're not sure how carefully planned the start and end points are of his samples, but we love this approach because it is very much a real time exploration of sound. It's a very jazz inspired approach that works in performance or in the studio.
This El-P feature puts a lot together. It's similar to the Flying Lotus example in some ways.
He plays in drums from a controller and plays in synth bass parts, however he spends a lot more time recording sounds from vinyl records into a digital sampler (which apparently isn't working all the way) and has some strong opinions on what does and doesn't make a good record to sample from.