The Beginner’s Guide to Sampling


Some of the greatest hip hop beats ever made include samples from other music. Even the biggest sampling haters lose control of themselves when they hear a sampled hit from Dr Dre or Daft Punk. Hate it or love it, there’s no denying the power of sampling the right song.

But unlike other forms of production, sampling music is far from straightforward. There aren’t any established rules or theories to fall back on. Instead, it takes patience, a good ear, and a special set of skills.

If you want to sample music but you’re not sure where to start, this article is for you. I’ll share a step-by-step process for sampling music so you can create your own beats.

But first, let’s start at the beginning.

How producers sample music

Producers who sample other songs have a knack for deep listening. Instead of listening to music at a surface level, they’re able to hear nuances that allow them to recycle music in new ways. In fact, they’ll often sample unheralded sections of songs and make them stand out.

Sampling an extended section of music like this is called phrase sampling. It’s different from regular sampling because it builds upon the musical elements of the original composition to create a new one.

Phrase sampling is the practice of using a complete phrase of music – a bar or more – and repurposing it in a new context.

For example, let’s take a look at Touch the Sky by Kanye West:

West samples Move on Up by Curtis Mayfield:

West’s version borrows heavily from the original. It maintains a similar key and tempo, and expands on the original idea by supplementing it with new elements. This is a textbook example of phrase sampling because it borrows a complete musical idea from the original.

Let’s move on to the process of sampling another song.

Finding the sample

Choosing the right song is the most important step. It’s also tougher than it seems. Some producers listen to several hours of music before they find a single sample.

Here are some tips to help you make the right choice:

1. Choose music that hasn’t already been sampled

An unspoken rule of hip hop is to avoid sampling music that has already been sampled. This encourages originality so that each producer approaches their beat with a clean slate. It’s also a sign of respect to the producer who found and flipped the sample first.

If you want to find great sampling material that hasn’t already been sampled, you’ll need to be patient. Try hunting for music offline for a better chance of finding something unique.

2. Narrow your search criteria

Before hunting for samples, come up with a plan. Decide what type of music you want to sample so you can narrow your search.

For example, if you want to make a soulful beat, hunt for Soul music. If you want to make a Lo-Fi beat, search for Jazz music. Alternatively, if you’re not sure what you want to create, try listening to random music playlists until you find something worth prioritizing.

Isolating the sample

It’s time to start sampling by isolating the section that you want to use. Your goal is to find the break, or the musical phrase, that you want to sample in your project. Ideally this would be a section that stands out to you in some way.

This is where the art of sampling comes in. It takes skill to identify a distinct snippet of music that stands out from the rest of the song. It helps to practice training your ear to listen for these special areas.

If you want to speed up your learning, you can study the samples of other professional producers by listening to the original songs they sampled, and comparing their derivative work, side by side. Ask yourself why they chose to sample the part they did, and what effect it had on their own version.

How to get a sample from a song

Once you’ve identified the phrase of music you want to sample, you’ll use your DAW to extract it. Each DAW handles this in its own way, but the general rule is to use a slicing tool to trim around the part that you want to sample, and delete the rest so that you are left with the smaller snippet of the song.

When cutting the audio, try to count the tempo of the original song so that you’re keeping the sample within its natural rhythm. This will ensure that your sampling efforts will go smoothly later.

Now it’s time to arrange your sample in your project.

Arranging the sample

There are plenty of ways to arrange your sample in your DAW. Some tools provide a visual timeline for you to freely move your samples around. Other tools let you to trigger your sample regions using a MIDI controller or pad.

In general, there are only two approaches to using the sample you extract from a song: either as an instrument, or as a motif.

Using your sample as an instrument

When you think of an instrument, what comes to mind, a piano, a guitar, or a flute? At its core, an instrument is a tool that produces sounds in different tones and rhythms. A musician then plays the instrument to produce music.

Similarly, your sample is an instrument. Think about it. You can manipulate a sample to produce different sounds and rhythms. You just need to use the best sampling software that fits the goals of your project.

With a sampler, you can slice samples and map each region to its own pad. This is the equivalent to a key on a keyboard, or a note on a fretboard. You would then play each pad, as if it were an instrument, to make music.

In an ordinary instrument, all notes would make a scale. But in a sampler instrument, all pads make the sample phrase. In this way, the instrument can produce its own musical phrase by using the components of the original.

The most respected practitioner of this method was J Dilla. He would slice tiny regions within a long phrase of music to compose something completely different. His particular style avoided the use of quantization, which gave his beats a more natural and lifelike quality, just like a live musician.

Using your sample as a motif

Not all sampling requires complex arrangements and unique patterns. In many cases it’s preferable to maintain the theme of the sample, and build upon it. This is especially true for remixes or beats that prominently feature a sample. In this instance, you would be using the sample as a motif for your beat.

You can do this by complementing the sample with other elements around it. You might also change the sample by applying effects, so that it’s unrecognizable or distinct.

For example, Dr. Dre often uses samples as motifs in his work. The sample might feature prominently during the hook, or throughout the song. He then includes other elements to enhance the sample and present it in a different context.

How to sample a song legally

Unfortunately for the sample-based artist, modern law has complicated the way we publish our music. Due to a ruling in a copyright case in the early 1990s, it’s illegal to sample another song without seeking permission or clearance from the publisher or license holder.

To comply with the law, many producers choose to avoid sampling altogether instead of seeking clearance. Other artists choose to interpolate their samples instead. (Interpolation is the practice of recreating a song to avoid infringement.) Many others choose to use licensed sample packs to prevent any copyright infringement claims altogether.

If you plan to distribute your work, and have a legitimate concern over copyright infringement, you should contact a music lawyer. They will help you contact the license holder to request permission so you can legally publish your work.

Wrapping Up

By now it should be clear that sampling a song is different from ordinary sampling. When sampling another song, you need to consider the original song, as it will affect how you incorporate it into your own work.

You also need to consider the copyright owner of the song you’re sampling, and whether that will play a factor in what you choose to sample. Because of this, sampling a song requires you to be selective in what you choose to sample and how you sample it.

Although we couldn’t possibly cover every step-by-step process for sampling in each DAW, the principles are universal. And once you understand the fundamentals, you can take these skills into any DAW to start sampling a song very quickly.

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