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Inside The Producer's Studio (Part 2): On sampling

by +FE on May 5, 2009 at 9:05 AM · Comments
In the prologue and the first part of this series, Nicolay opened up his studio to the public for a virtual overview of the tools that he likes to use. For the next several parts, he will zoom in to the actual music making process, from the initial idea to the fully arranged and mixed production.
So far, we have had over 4,000 unique visitors logging on to our 'Inside The Producer's Studio' series, and I would like to sincerely thank everyone for their attention and for their kind words of appreciation and encouragement. I'm thrilled that so many of you have shown interest in our blogs. Please do continue to help spread the word!


Record shopping in Shibuya, Tokyo November '06 | Uploaded by Nicolay Music.

On sampling

Because I am a musician first and foremost, I have never had to rely on sampling alone. Still, there's no question that technique involving sampling makes up an important part of my music production process. Earlier on in my career, a new idea would usually present itself in the form of a sample that I would find by randomly going through my records, in search of that next "Oh shit!" moment. Even though I love to go record shopping like any fan of music, I am not much of a "digger" because my collection is fairly small, especially after moving from one continent to another. I have personally never seen the point of owning thousands of records, knowing that I would never be able to listen to or study most of them in my lifetime, and so I only buy and hold on to records that are significant to me for one reason or another. As a result, I have a personal connection with each record that I own, and those are the records that I turn to for inspiration.

What makes a "good" sample is hard to define and, as everything involving 'taste', incredibly subjective, as what appeals to me may not appeal to you, and vice versa. If you ask me, a beatmaker's choice of samples should say something about their personality and their background. There can be a lot of fun and fulfillment in "flipping" a well-known or recognizable sample in a totally new and unique way, but I think that any beatmaker ideally wants to be the "first" to stumble upon and use a good sample. However, as the internet by now brings virtually anything that's ever been released within the grasp of virtually anyone, that is easier said than done.


Record shopping in Shibuya, Tokyo November '06 | Uploaded by Nicolay Music.

There are no rules

And do not believe anyone that tells you otherwise. In art, rules are meant to be broken, or at the very least not taken too seriously. There is, however, such a thing as "sampling etiquette". I'm far from an authority on the field, but if you are a genuine fan and student of music, and you have some common sense, chances are that you are well on your way. If you'd ask me what I think is the essence of sampling etiquette, I'd say that it boils down to knowing, understanding and respecting your source material. If you use a sample by a certain artist, KNOW that artist. Know the significance of that specific track, or the album that it's included on, as it compares to the rest of that artist's work, or the work of similar artists in the same genre. Know who produced the track, who mixed it and who played on it. Know when and where it was recorded and what equipment was used. On the sleeve of a vinyl record or in the booklet that comes with a CD you can easily find most of that information, and research online can fill in the blanks. MP3's however are still being delivered without any real background information, leaving you much more in the dark.

I'm not a follower of the ideology that one should only sample from vinyl; it just depends on the sound that you are after. In general, vinyl records are louder, more bass heavy and "warm", and they deteriorate over time, resulting in by-noises such as pops and crackles that are well-loved by the majority of beatmakers, including yours truly. But I have always been just as comfortable sampling from CD's and in some instances even from cassette tape. I know of beatmakers that use MP3's as source material, which, to some, is worse than cursing inside of a church. Because of the lower sound quality of a lot of MP3 files, especially poorly encoded ones, I have personally never wanted to use them as a sample source, but outside of that I don't have an issue with someone chosing otherwise. Coming back to "sample etiquette" though, what I DO see as an issue is that with the rise of file-sharing, the "hunt" for that good sample no longer really is a "hunt". Knowledge, understanding and respect no longer mean the same if you downloaded the track that you are about to sample together with literally thousands of others, sorted by genre and/or year and ready to be loaded up. Our generation is at risk of losing touch with a wealth of musical knowledge and experience, and I believe that it is our responsibility as artists, musicians, producers, beatmakers and DJs to try and fill that void.


The rare vinyl release of 'City Lights Vol. 1.5' at Jazzy Sport, Shibuya, Tokyo | Uploaded by Nicolay Music.

Sampling technique

Back to music production. Once I have decided what I am going to sample, I record it into the computer. Samples from a vinyl source go from my Numark DJ mixer into computer via the Digidesign 003, and samples from a CD source I usually "rip" directly using my wave-editor, which is SoundForge. SoundForge allows me to make extremely precise cuts, and before I load the sample up in my sequencer, I normally will "prepare" it by cutting it up into several smaller pieces. If the sample includes a drum or other rhythm track, it should be fairly easy to cut it up into separate bars or even smaller units of 4th or 8th notes. It is a bit of a tedious process, but doing this will pay significant dividend later on in the programming process, as you have more control over the timing of the sample as well as over the order of all of the different smaller pieces.

Looping vs. chopping

The word "looping" already says it all: You take a really great sounding piece of music, preferably the most climactic moment of a song, and you loop it. A lot of classic hip-hop productions are based on loops of some sort, whether it's a full sample or a drum-loop. You can use a loop "as is", you can pitch it down or up, or you can EQ, filter or otherwise process it, but there's a limit to what you can do. More importantly, depending on the notariety of the sample, a "loop" can be easy to recognize. To prevent that, you can also "chop" the loop up into smaller pieces, as mentioned above, and re-order those pieces so that they form a completely new melody or phrase. There have been and continue to be many fantastic sample choppers around, but the O.G. has got to be DJ Premier, whose discography will provide hour upon hour of study material. The best example of his genius in my opinion is his beat for 'You Know My Steez' by Gangstarr. Search for the original sample, and you'll know exactly what I mean. If there is such a thing as a "textbook chop", this is the one!


Record shopping in Shibuya, Tokyo November '06 | Uploaded by Nicolay Music.

Filtering and other forms of variation

Once I have the sample chopped up and re-ordered in a way that I like, I start looking for ways to add some variation. Most hip-hop beats are fairly repetitive, which I believe is part of the attraction of hip-hop, but I always like to break out of that repetition by making sure that the various parts of the arrangement are different enough from each other. To do so, you could either go back to the original track that you sampled and look for additional material to use, or you can manipulate the sample itself to alter its sound. One of the most used ways to make a clear distinction between the chorus and the verse of a song, for instance, is to put a "filter" on the sample during the verses. This will generally be a low pass filter that removes all of the high frequencies over a certain frequency, leaving only the mids and lows. Most low pass filters also have a resonance control, allowing you to add an EQ boost around the frequency the filter is set to. Filtering a sample this way makes it sound darker, as though it was wrapped up in a blanket, and when you remove the filter in the hook and bring the high frequencies back in, the sample opens up as it were. Some examples of sample filtering from my own discography: 'Let's Move', 'The Answer' by The Foreign Exchange (from 'Connected'), 'There's No Guarantee', 'We Can Fly' (from 'City Lights Volume 1.5').

There are many other ways to "process" a sample and make it sound different. You can apply modulation effects, such as a chorus, flanger or phaser, to the sample. Good results can also come from applying more "extreme" effects, such as a wah-wah or a vocoder. (For 'All That You Are' by The Foreign Exchange I used a vocoder on the sample in the verses). A trick that works especially well with older records, is to separate the two channels of the stereo file. The difference between the left and right channels is usually more pronounced in older records, and when you separate the two using a wave-editor, you can for instance use the left channel panned to center only during the verses, and the right channel panned to center only during the hooks. If you have never tried it, give it a shot... it can lead to very interesting results.


A good find in Shibuya, Tokyo November '06 | Uploaded by Nicolay Music
Big shout-out to our good friend, Mr. Ronnie Laws. I hope the fishing in Hampton was to your liking!
(And don't worry, of course I did end up picking up this copy of 'Every Generation'.)

Sample clearance

During the last two years or so I have moved away from sampling almost completely, a decision that I made for practical reasons more than anything, as I don't have any moral obligations to sampling whatsoever. For an indie artist or producer however, it is virtually impossible to exploit music productions in the publishing and licensing (the use of music for mediums such as TV, movies and games) realm if they contain uncleared samples. And even if you DO end up getting them cleared, there'll be a significant price to pay in the form of either an upfront sum of money or in the form of royalty points that you miss out on. Sure, you can painstakingly recreate the sample (an "interpolation"), as I have done on occasion. But not every beatmaker has the skills to pull that off convincingly. Either way, using a sample can complicate things in ways that using 100% original material never would.

I feel like I have only touched upon the subject of sampling, but I still hope that you'll take something away from this installment. As always, your questions are more than welcome. Nowadays, when I sit down hoping for inspiration to strike, a new idea will present itself in the form of a chord progression on the keys, a guitar-lick or a drum rhythm. Much more on that in future parts of his series. In the next part, I am going to talk about drum sounds, programming and processing, including an up-and-close look into my sequencer of choice, Modplug. But before that, I will be breaking down the production and mix of 'Raw Life' by The Foreign Exchange, upon popular request. You don't want to miss that one, so stay tuned!

Until then, thank you for listening,

Nicolay
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