A Beginner’s Guide to Sampling

After sharing articles about sample-based music for years, one of the questions that often comes up is how to start sampling. This post will help you learn how to sample a song in your hip hop beats.

So how do you sample a song? 

  • First, choose a song with a section you want to sample.
  • Second, extract the snippet of the song you want to use.
  • Finally, arrange the sample in a new way.

This process applies to both hardware and software sampling tools.

But don’t underestimate the difficulty of pulling off these steps. If you’ve ever heard sampled tracks and thought it was easy, it’s tougher than it seems. In fact, a big part of sampling is experience and intuition.

If you’re ready to learn the nuances of creating your own sample-based song, then let’s start with the fundamentals.

What is sampling?

Sampling is a production technique that repurposes a sound of another recording into another derivative track. It’s the foundation of Hip Hop and plays an important role in a lot of popular songs, including Pop and Electronic Music.

A sample could be any musical or non-musical recording, such as strings, bass lines, drum loops, vocals or entire bars of music. The art of sampling relates to how a producer transforms, chops, re-arranges or remixes a snippet of audio. Producers also use various mixing and sound design techniques, such as layering, EQ, tempo shifting, and pitch shifting to alter the sampled recordings.

You might think that all sampling is the same. But this couldn’t be further from the truth.

While sampling generally refers to repurposing audio, sampling a song is different. It involves taking the elements from the original song into consideration. Like its tempo, key, instruments, etc. For this reason, sampling a song is more advanced than ordinary sampling. And it has its own customs, rituals and rules.

A Brief History of Sampling

Back in the 1970s, New York DJs would collect old Funk records with a live band and drum solos. They would usually extend the drummer’s solo, otherwise known as “the break”, by using innovative spinning techniques. This would give the dancers an extended opportunity to dance, which is where the term break dancing originated.

Shortly after, hardware sample machines made it possible to record these sections of music and loop them along with other sounds. Producers then turned to sampling entire bars of a song instead of just the drum break.

With this breakthrough in technology, the music of the past reached a new audience of listeners.

What is phrase sampling?

Phrase sampling is the practice of using a complete phrase of music – a bar or more – and repurposing it in a new context. It’s different from regular sampling because it builds upon the musical elements of the original composition to create a new one.

For example, when a producer samples a bar of a song, they are phrase sampling. This bar already has musical elements associated with it, like a specific key and tempo. The producer can then expand upon it, and develop the idea in a new context.

This distinction may seem irrelevant right now, but it’s important to understand when sampling original songs because it informs how you will develop your beat, which we will cover soon.

For now, let’s move on to the actual process for how to sample a song.

Step 1: Find a song to sample

In order to sample, you need a song or sound recording to use as the source. This is trickier than it seems because the real challenge of phrase sampling is choosing the right music to sample. Here are some considerations for choosing a song to sample.

How to choose a song to sample

Choosing which song to sample comes down to two considerations:

  • Which genre of music are you making?
  • Does the song you want to sample fit the goals of your project?

Let’s discuss both of these questions in more detail.

Choosing samples based on the genre of music you are producing:

Depending on the style of music you make, you’ll find that certain genres make for better sampling material. This isn’t to say that you are prohibited from sampling different genres, but there are features of each genre that work better with different production styles.

For instance, Funk and Soul tracks contain great snippets for classic Hip Hop beats. They might feature a funky drum loop, or a vocal hook or melody. Their tempos are also similar, which makes it easier to mash the two styles together. For this reason, choosing a song to sample that fits the genre benefits you as a producer.

Choosing samples that suit the goals of your project:

The primary aim of selecting samples is to find material that fulfills your artistic vision. So the next consideration when choosing a song to sample is whether it’s a good fit for your project.

For example, when Kanye West decided sampled Nina Simone’s song Strange Fruit, it had a big impact on his own song. Besides the controversy it caused at the time, the sample created an ominous mood for the record. Since the original version has its own history and tonal qualities, the sampled version inherited its qualities.

Producers with wider knowledge of music are able to tap into the identity of the original sample to give their composition an added dimension.

Where do you find songs to sample?

So now that you have an idea of what to sample, where should you look? Ideally, the best place to start is your own music library.

The best sources of inspiration are often hiding in plain sight. You should ask yourself:

  • Which songs do you already have a deep connection with?
  • Which music did your family listen to while you were growing up?

If you decide to sample songs that you’re already familiar with, you will have an edge when it comes to identifying the best samples. This is true of legendary producers like RZA and Dr. Dre, who would find samples from songs they had grown up listening to.

Another place to find songs to sample is music playlists. You can use Spotify or YouTube or any other platform to find curated playlists with a particular genre or theme. This will help you discover new songs as inspiration for your own beats.

Remember, sampling is just as much about music curation as it is about production. Listening to other songs is a big part of the process.

Now that you know how to select songs to sample, and where to find them, it’s time to start the actual sampling process.

Step 2: Isolate the section of the song you want to 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.

Step 3: Arrange the sample in your composition

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 construct a virtual instrument.

Each DAW has its own unique way of using samples as instruments. For the purposes of this tutorial, I’ll refer to a hardware sampler as the primary example, since they are modelled by all software DAWs.

A sampling machine enables you to 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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SENzTt3ftiU

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.

I hope this post adds to your appreciation of sample-based music, and gets you started in your sampling journey. If you’ve found value in this guide, please share it with a friend who might also be interested.

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