The process of clearing samples can be financially crippling, as well as causing havoc with release schedules. Rinse Productions specialise in helping producers and labels by recreating problematic samples to order.
Two words that can strike fear into the heart of any dance producer are 'sample' and 'clearance'. Fall foul of copyright law, and you can top the singles charts all over Europe without receiving a penny in return — just ask Richard Ashcroft of the Verve. If you use a musically significant sample in your track, the chances are you'll be forced to give up most of the publishing royalties, but the real killer blows can come from the owners of the mechanical copyright. Record labels will often demand astronomical sums up front for the rights to use something as basic as a one-bar loop taken from one of their tracks, even assuming you can track down the owner and reach an agreement without delaying your release until it's gone off the boil. Add to that equation the potential nightmares that await over international licensing, and you could be forgiven for giving up and writing an original song instead.
Alternatively, you could contact Steve Gibson and Dave Walters of Rinse Productions. Their speciality is recreating samples to order, and so far they've helped secure legitimate releases for over 120 records which had originally been created with uncleared samples. Notable examples include their version of Busta Rhymes' version of the Knight Rider theme, which was featured in Panjabi MC's hit 'Mundian To Bach Ke', a number of vintage samples for Lemon Jelly's album Lost Horizons, and the central drum loop from Rob Dougan's 'Clubbed To Death' — while Richard Ashcroft is obviously being a bit more careful these days, having hired Rinse to recreate the Sammy Davis Jr samples for his 'Check The Meaning'.
Clearing A Path
Perhaps surprisingly, excessive clearance fees are not the principal reason why most producers and labels turn to Steve and Dave. "Sometimes it's cost, but only about 10 percent of the time," says Dave. "Ninety percent of the time it's speed. Most of the jobs we get are people 'phoning on a Thursday night and saying 'I need something doing by Friday.' They've got a release on Monday and they've just been told by their artist that they've got an illegal sample on it. The record company's in America somewhere with a request to clear a sample, sitting on the paperwork for six months, by which time the record's gone completely out of fashion and there's no point in doing it any more. With us, we can do it in a week's time, you can have a usable sample in your track in a week's time. When you pay us, you buy the copyright of our cover from us, so go and sort out your publishing and you've got a legal record. If you've got promos out there and interest, you sometimes need to do it as quickly as a week to keep the interest there."
Nevertheless, cost is an issue, and the availability of producers like Steve and Dave who are willing to meticulously recreate samples seems to be reining in the demands of some copyright owners. "We've noticed that the original record companies that hold the mechanical copyright are starting to drop their prices," says Dave. "I think there was a point where they held the monopoly, and certain old disco labels and so on would charge ridiculous amounts for a four-bar loop — 30 or 40 grand — and it makes the record that that's going into completely unviable. If you've got overheads of 40 grand before you start it's ridiculous unless you're Fat Boy Slim. We know that our quotes are being used in bartering situations. When somebody comes and approaches us for a sample, we give them our quote, and a lot of the time they'll return to a clearance house somewhere and say 'Look, I can get it remade for this,' and a lot of the time the clearance people have priced themselves out of it."
"There's a bit of confusion about the process," acknowledges Steve. "It's basically the same as doing a mini-cover version in legal terms. The publishing's got to be cleared, and the writers are not affected at all — it's purely the mechanical copyright that's affected."
There are also occasions where the reasons for having a sample recreated are technical or musical, rather than purely legal. "Sometimes they love the sample, but want to be able to drop the guitar out," says Dave by way of example. "And obviously they can't do that if they've just sampled a record. We can give them several passes of different mixes — just the drums, just the music, just drums and bass — especially for funky house and stuff, they love that. You can break it down into certain areas, and they start getting really excited. It's as if they can pull apart an old record. You can also help with the quantising if they're having trouble with the timing. A lot of the European clients want English or American-sounding vocals but they can't find singers over there, and they want to engineer an a cappella — they love the track but they can't lift the vocal because they haven't got the multitracks. So it opens it up artistically, as well as the legal side of things. But that's only when we get involved early in the production, while they're still making the record."
Unsurprisingly, the process of recreating a sample begins with an intensive listening session. "A lot of people ring up and say 'How are you getting on?' and a lot of the time we'll say 'Well, to tell you the truth, we're still listening to it after two days,'" says Dave. "But you need to do it, you need to sit down and pull it apart. We use centre cancelling and phasing to try to hear what's in the mix."
"We split the samples, as well," adds Steve. "A lot of old records have all the reverb on one side."
"You can have drums on one side and all the reverb return on some mixes coming back on the left-hand side," agrees Dave. "We use the left and right balance on our amp loads, we end up listening to the left-hand side only, and if you can hear all the effects returns that's really helpful. On the right side you've got almost dry instruments and that's really helpful too. We filter as well, filter everything out from the top and bottom and listen to guitars in the middle. That's more for musical aspects, to find out what they're playing. You can push an instrument out just to hear what it's playing and get the notes more accurately. We use tempo maps, we use Recycle on the original sample and find out where all the hits are. You can use that from sight to stretch."
Although Steve and Dave often get sent samples without even any indication of who performed the original track, any information they can obtain about the original sample is valuable. "Some people are very clued-in and they'll send you information that they've got," says Steve. "Adamski sent one in, and sent a complete interview with the original band about how they'd recorded it."
"That stuff's very valuable, especially when they've used the recording chain to change the sound," agrees Dave. "That's where you really have to listen to how it was recorded, what era it was from, what machines they used. Every new job seems like a bit of a challenge. Some of them you put on and think 'How the hell are we going to do this?' Then you start listening to it and thinking 'They've done this, they've done that.' We get on the Internet and make a few 'phone calls and try to find out what amps people were using and so on. If you can't find the information on the Internet, you just have to experiment with mic positioning on guitar amps and stuff — position the mics as you think they were, and then tweak it to get the closest result. When we're recording vocals and so on, we obviously take proximity into account. If it sounds like they're standing 10 feet back when they're singing, we stand the singer 10 feet back."
The Full Range
The samples that Rinse Productions get asked to recreate are many and various. Perhaps the most prominent this year has been a loop from Busta Rhymes' 'Fire It Up', which itself sampled Glen Larson's theme from the TV series Knight Rider. Busta Rhymes' track was in turn sampled by Panjabi MC for the hit 'Mundian To Bach Ke', before Rinse's note-for-note cover was substituted.
"It's happened quite a lot that somebody's sampled a sample, and it often helps to hear the original and then hear what Busta Rhymes has done to it," says Dave. "It gives you a head start on the original sound. That's all completely programmed using the internal synths in Logic. When we gave them that they said 'Bloody hell, you've even done all the wind noises in the background.' Well, it's part of the sample! We've got about 50GB of sounds that we've collected on our drive, and I think we had wind and bell trees on that to create the sweeping sound. I looped the bell tree, and the wind coming up was a GRM Tools filter, the top end opening up. We layered loads of different sounds to try to get the effect."
Rinse are usually asked to recreate only small sections of a track, since producers often use only a two- or four-bar loop in their sampling exploits, and if so, they'll only record the necessary number of bars. Occasionally, however, they're called upon to reproduce an entire track, as was the case with two recent jobs for the BBC.
"The BBC wanted a version of the Only Fools And Horses theme without vocals, but they couldn't find an instrumental mix — so it wasn't for clearance purposes, just to make it usable," explains Dave. "The strange thing about this was how dull-sounding the original mix was. We copied it exactly and it was really weird mixing it, because you're used to trying to make everything nice and open and bright, and for this I was screwing compressors on the mix, screwing it to hell, and chopping all the top off — really doing a bad mastering job on it, because that's how it sounded. Obviously someone had done a bad mastering job on the original!"
Similarly, they were asked to recreate the memorable theme from Grange Hill: "I think they'd lost the multitrack for it and they wanted to use certain parts, so they had to have it recreated. There's actually a drummer playing the drum part through a Linn kit on our version. It's MIDI triggered drums, but it's played live."
When I visit, Dave and Steve are working on recreating a loop from an old Freda Payne soul ballad for a new artist, Michelle Lawson. It's an epic affair featuring a trumpet melody and a dense backing track, and the key here, according to Dave, is to isolate the details: "If you listen to the piano, you can hear the effect we put on it, it's chorus on the reverb return, which I put on to recreate a swirling effect I could hear on the original. We actually effect the effects return sometimes. You can't immediately hear that in a sample, but it helps. Steve heard a tremolo guitar, right in the background of the mix, that I didn't hear at the start. You have to sit there for a day and pull it apart.
"The drums are from Vinylistics, and it's a live bass. We couldn't decide whether the chord stabs were guitar, piano, electric piano, or whatever, so we did guitar and piano together, and it got exactly the sound we wanted. Then there's a baritone sax line that Steve heard at the end. There's little things like that that are almost subconscious, but when they are looped in a track, it becomes a major part, and you think 'What is that sound that's repeated every four beats?' It's got to be there to fill it out."
There's a fuller discography on Rinse's web site: www.rinseprods.com.
When they've listened in detail to the original sample, isolated the musical elements and worked out what production techniques have been used, it's time to decide how best to recreate what they're hearing. "Sometimes it's just obvious that you need to get session players in," says Dave. "With broadband now, we MP3 the original sample to all the musicians, and they come in and they know their parts. It's almost a necessity, because sometimes the timing's not straightforward, and exactly what they're playing can sometimes be clouded by the rest of the mix, so we basically send them the sample and what we think they're playing — Steve will often work out the chords and say 'We think it's this.' We always listen to the musicians, and they often say 'No, it wouldn't be like that, it would be like this.' We do a lot of recording in Cycle Record mode — we get them to play to the original that we're recreating so that we can check the timing and the sound immediately. It makes it easier to get into it and concentrate on it, and we comp it all up from there.
"If it needs to be recorded in a studio we just slam the lids on our portable rack and take it down and record it, or if they've got Pro Tools we'll use it there. We've been around a fair few studios now, and we know which places are best for strings or pianos or whatever. We can do vocals here, guitar and bass and so on. We run tie-lines through to the living room, there's a lovely sound in there which is perfect for vocals and instruments."
Portability was one of the main aims behind Dave and Steve's choice of equipment, a Mac-based Pro Tools system running Logic and a lot of plug-ins. "The whole idea was to keep everything as portable as possible, because we do need to get around to do things, and then as an experiment we decided to try mixing everything internally," explains Dave. "We bought the Mix Cube system, and I said 'Let's give it a go mixing internally instead of using desks and outboard.' If anything it's easier, and the plug-ins available are absolutely brilliant these days. Anything becomes possible with the amount of plug-ins that you've got. If you're in a studio with a certain amount of rackmount gear, there's only so much you can do, but with plug-ins it's great, because you can very quickly bounce things and tweak things and try different ideas, and automate all the plug-ins."
"For the first two years we were using an analogue desk, and since we've had this it's been miles easier, thanks to the instant recall," agrees Steve. "The only stand-alone things we've got are the Emu and the JV2080, and they just go straight into the computer."
Using plug-in effects also allows more flexibility for fine-tuning at the mixing stage. "We'd try and do as much as possible on the day, and you get to the stage where you're confident — 'Yeah, I'll be able to do that in the mix, or tweak it with plug-ins,'" explains Dave. "If it's not close enough, we keep going with the mics and amps and try to get it as close as possible. Mic Modeler has been a good help. I've never actually sat and tested mics against it, but we use it as a tool to get what we can hear on the sample. A lot of the time we'll use it to dirty vocals up. We're getting a lot of old '60s and '70s samples with guitar on them, and Amp Farm really helps us tweak it at the end — you can do a lot in the mix, as opposed to doing a lot with the mics and the amps when you record. Sometimes it's safer to take a decent signal from an amp and then really mess with it in Amp Farm. You can do a lot with the plug-in reverbs to actually create the space where you can hear things recorded. You really have to listen to the lengths of the decay and whatever on reverbs, to try to match them exactly.
"There's sometimes I wish I had a nice stereo valve EQ, and if I do, we get one in. We can add to our system at any point by hiring things, but I do most of the stuff with plug-ins, just the basic ones in Logic, or if I want something a bit more special we've got the Fairchild and other stuff in the TDM system. Anything that's just basic EQ or compression, I'll throw it straight on from the Logic bank of stuff. With sample recreation you have to match every mix you're given, and since we've run this system, we've matched every single sample we've been given. If you want to use a nice 1176 from years ago you probably do get a bit more warmth, but the plug-ins are so close now that it's splitting hairs. I used to be a vintage gear nut, but I've been a bit converted by all the new stuff coming out."
Getting Away With It
Some jobs, such as recreating a cappella vocals, are simply a matter of finding the right session musicians and having them play or sing along to the original, before using plug-ins to tweak the mix. More often than not, however, the basis of the recreated sample is detailed programming in Logic by Dave and Steve, where their main sound sources are the EXS24 soft sampler and the JV2080. "We often surprise ourselves with how far we can go," says Dave. "Sometimes we cost up prices for jobs and reduce the price at the end, because we've thought we'd need a real bass or a real drummer, we've had a crack at programming it and thought 'That sounds fine.' We can record any live stuff straight away without having done any programming at all, so things like trumpet or live bass are often just recorded to the original loop. Then we start building from the drums."
"There are certain sounds where you can't get away with it, and maybe it's because I'm a trumpet player, but I think brass is one," says Steve. "You can't program brass stuff unless it's hidden in the mix. You can't get away with strings either. We get certain samples to remake, and you can't get the articulation of what the strings are doing unless you get a string section in."
"What we've found is that if we do some programming of strings or brass and create a base or a pad, then we can get players in to play over the top," adds Dave. "You marry the stuff that we've programmed with the live stuff and it sounds like you've got a full live section. It's down to experience to know how far to go with the programming and how far we need to go with the live to balance it exactly. Often if you program a few strings and then get a live quartet in over the top and track them loads and loads of times, you can build up huge orchestral-sounding strings."
The classic problem for record producers is knowing when something is finished. Steve and Dave, at least, have a pretty good benchmark: it's finished when it sounds like the original. "There is a stage when you start thinking 'Is that ours, or theirs?'," says Steve. "That's when you know that you're nearly there."
"If you're confusing yourself, then you're in the right area!" agrees Dave. "It's nice when they come together. Sometimes you hear a sample and you think it's going to be a bit of a bitch, and you get the musicians in, and by the end of the day it's already sounding pretty close. Sometimes I've sat there for days because there's things that need to be done in the mix. Each one's different. We've done over 120 samples now, and we've only ever given up on two or three, and I think we've only ever had one person come back and say 'No, it's not usable.'"
When Dave and Steve do turn down a job, it's more often because the record company are being unrealistic about what they want than because it's technically impossible. "There are some that we've had a go at and not been able to do, and some we've not attempted because we didn't think we'd be able to do them," says Steve. "For instance, the other week we got one through from Italy which was an Alice Cooper sample, and we could have done it, but it would have cost them a lot of money because we wouldn't have been able to do it with programming. We'd have had to hire a band and completely emulate the original conditions, which we can do, but it's expensive."
"They often don't understand that we're hiring a band to do it, and it costs the same money as if you were recording a whole song," adds Dave. "The band still want their session fees and we still want our fee. The record company think 'Well, it's only four bars of music,' but not everybody's going to do it cheap because it's just four bars. A lot of the time, four bars takes us a week to mix.
"The ones that technically we can't do is if it's a very, very characterised vocal that's right out front. The chances are we know somebody who can do it, but not always."
"There have been a few where there's samples within samples, and you get a mush of different ambiences and you can't pinpoint what is what," says Steve. "You could spend at least three weeks working those out."
"When you've got several generations of samples on top of each other from different eras and stuff, sometimes there's just too much to pull apart," agrees Dave. "We're not often beaten, but for the time it would take, if we've got a lot of jobs on, we're better just getting on with the ones that you know 100 percent we can do."