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Creative Sampling: Part 1

Tips & Techniques By Nicholas Rowland
Published December 1998

Creative Sampling, Part 1

These days, samplers are the electronic musician's bread and butter — but they need not be used in commonplace ways. In the first part of a short series, Nicholas Rowland looks at ways to spice up your tracks with samples from unusual sources. This is the first article in a two‑part series

Sampling has become such an integral part of recording and remixing music that it's sometimes difficult to appreciate how the first digital samplers to hit the kind of streets where ordinary folk tread were regarded with as much suspicion as they were curiosity and awe.

Unlike synthesizers and sound modules, which were ready to make music straight out of the box, samplers were regarded as potentially bad value for money — being nothing more than empty boxes which you had to put sounds into before you could get anything out. And while it was true that most samplers came with a small collection of factory disks, in terms of numbers, these hardly compared favourably to the scores of preset sounds to be found on the average synth. Hence, early samplists would be seen, professional Walkmans in hand, rushing around recording everything from major industrial accidents to duck farts just to 'fill' their samplers with some sort of sound.

Nowadays, of course, the plethora of sample CDs, plus other sources like magazine cover CDs and the Internet, mean that you can access millions of pre‑recorded sounds, riffs, loops and sonic textures without ever needing to leave the comfort of your studio chair. For that reason, it's easy to overlook the basic fact that the whole point of samplers is that they are empty boxes, into which you can record absolutely anything you want. More to the point, it's also easy to overlook the fact that DIY sampling usually offers a much quicker (not to mention cheaper) route to getting the sound you want than trawling through hours of sample CDs. As a simple example, I was recently looking for a sample of an old country blues vocal to loop under a middle eight section of a song. After spending hours scouring record shops for something that might be appropriate, I realised it would be a simple matter to do my own Howlin' Wolf impression, pitch it down a few semitones, pass it through a EQ to simulate the narrow bandwidth of an old vinyl recording and the add in some vinyl crackle.

In the interests of promoting the DIY approach to sampling, the first part of this two part series simply looks at a few 'found' sound sources for the trigger‑happy samplist. It's not exhaustive by any means, but it's intended to stretch the thinking beyond the usual 'ready‑made' solutions.

Speak Your Mind

  • The human voice is the most expressive instrument at your disposal, so don't be afraid to use it. Legend has it that when a well‑known, but now‑defunct manufacturer of electronic drums was launching a new product, a technical hitch prevented them from demonstrating the product directly. So some bright spark stepped up to a microphone and did vocal impressions of what the new equipment should have sounded like. It's probably an apocryphal story, but the point is, if you know what sound you want, why not vocalise it? Those erstwhile crooners, the Mills Brothers — originally subtitled 'Four boys and a kazoo' — built a successful international career on close harmony coupled with vocalisations of big band instruments which they were initially forced to perform when they lost the kazoo. Yes, really.

Bottle Of The Little Big Noise

Some noises which are insignificant in real life can sound huge when pitched down and turned up.

  • An obscure electronic modern opera, which I once handed over good money to see, made much use of what sounded like the door to a cavernous medieval torture chamber creaking shut. This earthshaking and somewhat macabre noise was, in fact, a sample of the squeaky handle of the composer's flightcase.
  • Big sheets of paper being shaken or flicked from behind can be turned into thunderous noises by pitching down, turning up and routing through big reverbs. This is a variation on the old theatrical thunderboard, more famously reincarnated as the Rolf Harris wobbleboard. Try also tin foil, baking trays, flapping pillowcases and flicked wet teatowels.
  • Metal garage doors are also good for thunderous noises. Persuade some local kids to practise their goal‑scoring skills while you stand around with a tape recorder (but be prepared to leg it if the garage is not your own).
  • Blown bottles are a bit passé these days (see the box on clichés on page 68) but, pitched down, can create some superb foghorn sounds.

Percussive textures

  • Doors slamming, popping paper bags and crisp packets, drawers full of cutlery, dustbins and most components of a domestic central heating system are all you need to produce a wealth of industrial or junk percussion sounds — techno weirdsters Spooky based their entire Found Sound album around samples of radiators in their houses, if memory serves. And they were on to a good thing, as generally speaking, metal objects tend to sound more interesting than wooden ones when pitched down, because lowering the pitch brings out lots of gorgeous undertones. Try also capturing the sound of a squash ball hitting a court wall for an instant gated snare substitute — Todd Terry (the producer who resurrected Everything But The Girl's career with his remix of 'Missing') used a sample of a golf ball bounced around a narrow alleyway out the back of his studio as his staple snare sound for quite a while. Oh, and I'm sure I read somewhere about an album being recorded largely from samples of plant pots struck in various ways which, when treated accordingly, sounded like spooky ethnic drums. And let's not forget the fabulously splashy, distorted open hi‑hats that graced S‑Express' number one hit 'Theme from S‑Express'. They were hissy for a reason — they were actually samples of aerosol deodorants.
  • If you have kids, then raid their toy cupboards for anything that makes a weird sound. Old electronic or mechanical toys often yield some interesting results — U2 used a theme sampled from a music box at the start of track 2 on their Zooropa album, 'Babyface', for example (though whether the musical results are as interesting as the story behind them is a matter of taste).

The Sound Of One Hand Clapping

  • Of course, you're not always going to be looking for pitched sounds, melodic phrases or rhythmic racket which can be played or sequenced into your compositions (after all, the attraction of playing Mozart concerti in dog woofs or trimphone rings, much beloved of early sampler demonstrators, palled fairly quickly — ie. by about 1982). Some samples are unmusical, but highly effective in a track as 'ear candy', such as snatches of famous quotes from films, or weird room ambiences sampled from the Buddhist temple you visited on holiday. The artist Scanner has made a career out of this kind of thing; he is notorious for building tracks around snatches of mobile phone conversations. Another technique I've come across for gathering such material (though you have to live in the right place for it to be effective) involves simply hanging a microphone out of the window around pub chucking‑out time. Plenty of 'ambience' to be had there, I suspect. Other sources of ambient sounds are trains and railway stations — particularly any large terminus with a huge glass roof and a vast tiled floor — and any place with big machinery such as car‑crushing scrapyards, real‑life factories, fairgrounds and building sites. Much of the metallic racket on Depeche Mode's Construction Time Again album came from extended periods lurking around Brick Lane British Rail depot and various London scrapyards looking for industrial cacophony to sample, apparently. Or perhaps the members of the 'Mode were just making up an musical excuse to explain away their trainspotting activities...

Radio Daze

  • Even before sampling became a technique for the masses, a tried and trusted approach among early experimenters in electronics was to get hold of a shortwave radio and then rotate the dial between stations while recording the resultant noises to tape. And what noises they were! Clicks, pops, buzzes, fizzes, static and general interference, along with obscure Ukrainian Communist broadcasts and (if you were really lucky) SOS messages from distressed nuclear subs sinking in the Pacific. From this process came a lifetime's collection of percussive and ambient samples and 'atmospheres' of various political persuasions — some random examples on record include: the Orb ('Little Fluffy Clouds'), KLF (much of the Chill Out album), The Shamen ('Jesus Loves America'), The Grid ('Are You Receiving?')... oh, pretty much anyone with a sampler and access to a radio, really.

My feeling is that this technique is due for a revival, though a modern twist on this approach makes use of the auto‑tuning on present day radios — ie. that function which scans the airwaves and then locks on to the next strongest signal. Often when idly scanning between stations on long boring car journeys, I momentarily tune in to odd snatches of conversation or bursts of noise which sound like instant sample classics. Even common or garden words, taken completely out of context, can take on a near‑mystical quality — especially if they happen to come from those regular Radio 4 discussions on the history of whaling in the 19th century.

Is This An Akai I See Before Me?

  • Less obvious, but often rich sources of obscure phrases are story tapes, recorded plays and poetry readings — of which many and various are usually available from your local library. A friend of mine used to have great fun with an old vinyl recording of famous soliloquies from Shakespeare, delivered in those rounded tones which are peculiar to English actors whenever they do the Bard. Admittedly, you might have difficulty building an Ibiza‑shaking classic around "My kingdom for a horse" or "Hey nonny the roistered cuckolds" but hey, just because it hasn't been done before... In fact, my friend's trick technique was to chop out individual syllables and use the resulting recognisable but incomprehensible speech to add colour to rhythm loops, to much more interesting effect than the usual 'Yeah', 'Hey' and 'Pump, motherf**cker' that seem to be the staple diet of many modern sample CDs.

It may look like just another piece of hi‑tech gear, but it'll put more strange sounds into your mix than the largest modular synth...It may look like just another piece of hi‑tech gear, but it'll put more strange sounds into your mix than the largest modular synth...

Sound Affects

  • Consider the BBC sound effects records that were the staple of every parish hall amateur dramatic production of Don't Look Now But I Think The Vicar's Here. Death and Horror was always one of my favourites, involving erstwhile BBC sound technicians, no doubt wearing white lab coats, doing all manner of unspeakable things to cabbages to imitate the sound of heads being severed, hot pokers inserted in tender orifices and other amusing activities.

TV, video and film are clearly also ripe for sampling, though I'd be failing in my duty as a responsible member of the technical music press if I didn't point out that sampling any such pre‑recorded source is actually illegal unless you have permission from the owner of the copyright — and that even includes music which is never heard outside your own headphones.

Indeed, take note that not all sample CDs are actually completely copyright‑free if you intend to use them for a commercial recording. A few sample‑clearance issues are covered in the box elsewhere on the page, though the subject is worth a whole article in its own right. The good news is that because the music industry has generally wised up to the use of samples (and particularly how they can make money from it) clearance has become a lot easier. Look for an SOS article on that very subject in the near future.

There is a simple way round this, however, and that is that, if you use a pre‑recorded spoken vocal sample as the inspiration for a song, make sure you then record your own imitation of the phrase. Again this is not completely free of pitfalls, because if a phrase can be readily identified with another work (if, say, you used the words "You played it for her, now play it for me", from Casablanca) you may also run into copyright issues. But in principle, this is the route I tend to favour, as it literally makes a sample your own. If you want to make it sound as though it has been culled from a recorded source, you can always mix in some vinyl crackle, fake distortion or dodgy EQ as appropriate.

On a slightly different tack, one technique I use to generate samples for my own material is to mic up the room you're working in and then leave a DAT or tape recorder running for part or all of the session. This way you pick up a lot of extraneous noises between takes — chatter, laughter, sneezing, the odd disagreement, throwing of chairs through the window and so on. You also end up with alternative versions of vocals and acoustic instrument parts, including various ad libs between the 'real' takes. When you listening back to these out takes you often come across some real gems of sounds, noises and loop fodder which can then be fed back into the mix.

And F‑F‑F‑Finally

As I've said, the above list is far from exhaustive. The secret of good samples is partly developing an ear for an interesting sound, and partly having the technical capability to manipulate that sound with the equipment at your disposal. But the best samples often come about purely by accident — and for that, all you need is the ability to plug in a microphone and see what happens!

In Part 2, we'll look at the various ways in which you can mangle digital audio using both stand‑alone samplers and hard disk recording techniques.

Sampling Tips 1: Is DAT A Gun In Your Pocket?

No self‑respecting sample collector should leave their house without a highly portable audio recorder, such as this tiny MD Walkman, about their person.No self‑respecting sample collector should leave their house without a highly portable audio recorder, such as this tiny MD Walkman, about their person.If you want to become a truly dedicated collector of weird noises, don't leave home without some sort of recording device. The truly wired (and wealthy) will no doubt want to keep a portable DAT or Minidisc recorder tucked down their trouser leg.

However, you can get perfectly respectable results using an inexpensive tape‑based dictation machine, even with the built‑in mic. You can always 'fix' your recordings to a certain extent when you get back to the studio — for example, turn down the treble EQ to get rid of tape hiss, or load the sounds into your sampler or hard disk recorder and 'normalise' them to increase volume without distortion. But as it's often the imperfections in the samples which make them interesting, particularly when you start to transpose them or loop them, you don't need to worry unduly about sound quality.

Sampling Tips 2: And... Stretch! (Or, Indeed, Compress)

To work out the stretch/compression ratio so one rhythmic sample loop fits the tempo of another, take your target tempo in bpm (beats per minute) and divide it by the tempo of the loop you are stretching. Certain samplers will offer different levels of sophistication in how they timestretch samples. On the 'crude' settings you can get some interesting distortion effects, particularly when dealing with larger stretch/compression values. As always, it's worth experimenting.

If you want to time‑stretch or compress a sound so that it will stay the same length but play at a different pitch you need to get out your scientific calculator. First take the pitch difference you're aiming for in semitones, then divide it by 12. Press 2 on your calculator followed by the x^y button, then the number you just came up with. This will give you the necessary compression value (if you want the pitch lower) or stretch value (if you want the pitch higher). Time‑stretch or ‑compress the sample with this value, then play at the required new pitch. You should find it's the same length it was originally.

Sampling Tips 3: Is That A Cliché In Your Sampler?

Certain samples have been somewhat overcooked, so it's best to get them out of your system early on before moving on to the more creative stuff.

Within the Cliché Hall of Fame are:

  • Dog barks (though there's still some mileage left in reversed barks — or 'skrab'. Oh, and no‑one's tried cats, hamsters or guinea pigs yet.)
  • Smashing glass (but has anyone tried smashing pumpkins?).
  • Blown bottles (although you can get some superb foghorn sounds this way).
  • Cars starting, skidding to a halt or being wrecked by a JCB.
  • Saucepans.
  • Stuttering vocals à la "N‑n‑n‑n‑nineteen".
  • Anything from a James Brown record. Not only will you get arrested by the cliché police, you'll get sued into the bargain.
  • American evangelists on radio or TV. Not so much done to death, rather done so well on the Brian Eno/David Byrne collaboration My Life in the Bush of Ghosts that they are best left well alone.

Sampling Lore

When any work is recorded, then the recording is copyright, over and above any copyright that may exist in the work itself. So while Shakespeare's words or Mozart's notes may no longer be in copyright, a recorded performance of those works will be copyright of the performer.

If anyone records their words, say for radio or TV, then they have a share of ownership in that recording. That means a sample of speech (a news broadcast, say) from the radio or TV will be copyright both to the person who said those words and the radio or TV station. If it's a play, then the author will also have copyright. If it's music from a film broadcast on TV, then five copyrights could be involved: one in the script, one in the music, one in the recording of the music, one in the soundtrack and one in the broadcast. Phew!

Music and sound on video and computer games is also copyright as a sound recording, so watch it!