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Creative Sampling Made Easy

Tips & Techniques By Paul White
Published June 1994

You don't have to stick to library samples all the time, and you needn't spend hours creating your own. Paul White reveals a few short cuts.

Only a real sampling die‑hard would dream of attempting to multisample an entire grand piano, and to be truthful, there are so many good piano samples out there that you might as well not bother. The same goes for string pads, and indeed most conventional sounds, but often it's the use of something a little out of the ordinary that really makes a recording stand out. In the early days of sampling, we'd blow over a milk bottle, sample the result and then play it back over the whole keyboard span. It didn't matter that it sounded like a penny whistle at the top end of the scale and a demonic fog horn at the bottom — that was part of the magic of sampling.

With rhythm playing more of an important part than ever in contemporary pop music, the sampler provides the perfect opportunity to capture unusual sounds for use in a rhythmic context. The great advantage here is that the sounds don't need multisampling, fine‑tuning or looping, so aside from a little topping and tailing, they're ready to use as soon as you've saved them to disk and put them into a program. After all, Todd Terry, the revolutionary Detroit Techno producer, once claimed that his favourite snare sound came from a sample of him bouncing a golf ball around the narrow alley next to the studio where he was working. Around the same time, Mark Moore of S‑Xpress was using the sound of an aerosol deodorant as an open hi‑hat sound.

Before you can record your own samples, you're going to need a mic, and if your sampler doesn't have a mic input, you'll need to use a mixer or something similar as a mic preamp. Having said that, almost any decent dynamic vocal mic will do for most basic sampling jobs, especially when the result is to be used as a percussive element. You'll only benefit from using a capacitor mic when sampling really high pitched sounds, such as triangles.

But the most exciting thing about sampling is that you don't need any real instruments at all to create some really effective sounds. A multitude of natural sounds can be captured and then manipulated, and usually all you need to do is adjust the pitch, sharpen up the attack by truncating the leading edge of the sample if need be, and adjust the decay rate. Here are some examples of things that can be turned into great percussion sounds. If you have a DAT machine, it's best to record a series of samples to tape first, and then you only need sample the ones that seem as though they're going to work.

  • Slamming an up‑and‑over garage door: This produces a powerful sound that reverberates around inside the garage, so you get a different result depending on whether you are miking from inside or outside. You'll probably want to trim the sound so you only use the bang at the end, and you might find the decay time is too long, in which case you can reduce it using the sampler's envelope controls. Try the sound at different pitches for kick or snare drum substitutes.
  • Door Slam: An ordinary interior door can produce a gratifying bang, if closed with sufficient vigour. Leaving a window or other door open may help, as it prevents air pressure in the room from cushioning the slam.
  • Football: Bouncing a plastic football on a hard surface. This is the UK version of miking a bouncing basketball. Tuned down it makes a wonderful kick drum, especially with the addition of gated reverb.
  • Suitcases: We've all heard of drums that sound like suitcases, but if you get the right suitcase, you can make it sound just like drums. Try hitting it with different things, such as a rolled‑up newspaper or a wooden mallet. Keep the mic fairly close and watch the record levels to make sure you don't go into clipping.
  • Soggy paper: For this, you'll need a lump of soaked newspaper squidged into a ball. Hurl it at various surfaces, and record the results. It can be surprisingly effective, but isn't recommended indoors. Again, it makes a passable kick drum.
  • Baking Foil: Hold up a sheet of baking foil and hit it flat‑on, using a wooden spoon or similar implement. You'll probably tear it, so try to get this one right first time. If you get the mic close enough and pitch‑shift the result downwards, it should sound like an old reverb plate being shot with a Luger!
  • Snapping Wood: A simple length of wooden beading can be snapped in half to provide a satisfying substitute for a techno snare sound. You'll probably have to drop the pitch quite a bit, unless you're strong enough to break logs!
  • Bits of wood: Hitting a couple of offcuts of 2x2 together should produce a nice resonant thunk, which can be shifted up to give you claves, or down to create marimbas or log drums. You can play the resulting sound over a couple of octaves, and if you're lucky, you might have captured enough of the pitch to tune it.
  • Domestic Radiators: Most radiators ring if you knock them, and by hitting them with a felt beater, or even a rolled‑up newspaper, you can capture a useful sample which, when pitch‑shifted down, sounds like a weird gong. Shift the sound up and you have an alternative cow bell. The same applies to most metal containers, so check the house and see what's around. Whilst on metal containers...
  • Drinks Can: Opening a ring‑pull can of coke close to the mic can produce a novel hi‑hat (similar to Mark Moore's aerosol) or even a (wet) snare sound. You may need to play around with the tuning a little, and try not to soak the mic. The great thing about this one is that it provides the perfect excuse to drink on the job — and if the cans contain draught beer (widget obligatory), you can have more fun with the retakes!
  • Speaker Cone: Tap any speaker cone (gently) and you'll hear a noise, but on larger speakers such as those used in studio monitors or instrument amplifiers, the chances are that the noise will be a deep thud, not unlike a bass drum. Mic at close range, drop the pitch further if need be, and voilá! — another kick drum.
  • Paper Bag: Not the most obvious of 'instruments', perhaps, but burst in a tiled bathroom, the most humble of sweet shop bags provides a cracking techno snare sound.

The next few sounds are not really for percussive use, but are to set you thinking about tunable sounds you might be able to create around the home.

  • Vacuum Cleaner: If you sample anything that uses an electric motor and drop the pitch, you'll find you have something that sounds like a monstrous generator. If you can tune the pitch to match the song, you can trigger short bursts of sounds to produce a techno/rave, gated bass line feel.
  • Glass jars: These produce a hawaiian water bell sound if filled with water and tapped. If the water is 'slooshed' around as the jar continues to resonate, the sound is modulated in a most pleasing fashion. This is particularly effective with brandy glasses.
  • Plastic Tube: Whirling a wide one of these around your head (good ones are available at toy shops) creates a tunable sound full of interesting harmonics. The Pet Shop Boys liked this effect so much they used it at the start of their single 'Being Boring'.
  • Spanners: Large spanners suspended on cotton or fishing line produce excellent bell‑tree sounds, though to really capture these at their best, you'll need a capacitor mic. The spanners can be tapped with any metal object or banged together, and if you want to try dropping the pitch, you can end up with some quite moody Tibetan gongs, or bells.
  • Sheep: Punching a sheep in the stomach yields the perfect Simmons tom sound, and I'm told that dry roasting a pan of live cockroaches makes a passable cabasa sound. OK, I'm only kidding, but it was April when I wrote this.

The Practicalities

By now you should have the general idea, but you may be unsure as to how to mic up the sounds, or how to treat them afterwards. As intimated earlier, you don't need a fancy mic unless you want to make high‑quality recordings of bright sounds, but positioning the mic is fairly important. My usual approach when producing this kind of sample is to set the mic up around a foot from the object being struck, and then change the mic position if this initial setting doesn't produce the desired result. As a rule, you'll only need to use longer mic distances if you're miking up something large, such as the garage door or radiator. Because you're not after a natural sound, the only criterion is whether the sound works or not, and not how good the recording is, so in‑depth knowledge of classical miking theory is not necessary.

By recording to DAT or even cassette first, you can experiment with recording levels, and sort the good sounds from the bad before you get down to sampling. If the sound has too slow an attack, it can either be truncated, so that the first few milliseconds of the sample is thrown away, or you could consider adding another sound. For example, if you create a sample of a bouncing ball and then decide it doesn't have enough bite, you could trigger the sample at the same time as a short percussive sound from a drum machine (or another sample) and mix the two together. The mixed sound can then be recorded onto tape and subsequently resampled. Noises like finger snaps, claps, rim shots and other short sounds work well alongside kick samples; the trick is to mix them low enough so that they merge with the sample to create a new sound.

Once you have your sound, you may need to add some effects to make it sound more impressive. Any short sounds will benefit from reverb, and you can also use EQ to shape your creations. If you have a mixer with a sweep mid equaliser, you might find that setting it to about 400Hz, applying lots of boost, and then overdriving the mixer channel input creates an interesting, aggressive effect. Try tuning the equaliser so that it homes in the crack of the sound. Lower settings will provide more of a pop, while higher settings will result in a techno 'crack'. You can also overdrive reverb units set to a gated setting, to add more roughness and edge to a snare sound.

Once you start, the list is endless, and because you can amplify the sound to any level you like, the most insignificant event can form the basis of a huge‑sounding sample. A snapping twig can become a monster snare drum; a kitchen cleaver slammed into a cabbage gives you yet another kick drum; a length of scaffolding provides the basis for tuned industrial percussion; and a cardboard box being hit with a partially thawed haddock sounds just like — who knows? If you own a sampler, don't worry about not owning the latest instrument or drum machine — it's all out there if you're prepared to look for it.

Other Off The Wall Ideas

  • Cracking Walnuts.
  • The 'whoomf'as a gas fire or boiler is lit.
  • Bursting a bag of crisps.
  • 'Sproinging' a steel ruler on the edge of a table (you know what I mean; we all did it at school).
  • Slamming a briefcase or heavy book shut.
  • Glasses: That sound you get when you moisten your finger and run it around the rim of any handy vessel.
  • Breaking glass in the bottom of a metal dustbin (please dispose of glass safely though, folks).
  • Biting into an apple.
  • Shaking rice or dried peas in a tin can.
  • Popping that bubble‑wrap your latest synth came wrapped in (the stuff with the big bubbles works best).
  • Fireworks (albeit a trifle seasonal).
  • Xmas crackers or the kids' cap pistol.
  • Slamming the car door or bonnet.
  • Front door knocker.
  • Flicking two credit cards together — it's a great snare sound, honest!