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Organising Your Sample Library

Tips & Techniques By Dave Stewart
Published May 1994

A large, painstakingly assembled sample library is of little use if it's so badly organised that you can't separate your tablas from your trumpets. Dave Stewart gives some tips to help you make your library a model of accessibility.

Building up a sound library for a sampler is a slow, excruciating business, a bit like travelling from London to Edinburgh on a child's tricycle, or making a replica of St Paul's cathedral out of lentils. It has none of the steamy, sweaty, thrusting excitement of rock, belonging more to the world of anoraks and train spotting than leather trousers and hotel‑room trashing, and is generally the sort of thankless task performed by backroom boys, techs, programmers and other hapless music industry slaves. Being one of the fools who rushed out to buy the first commercial keyboard sampler, the Emulator, I got started early on sample collecting. In those days, you could buy a pair of Senegalese bungo drums, a trombone, two dozen assorted xylophone glissandi, the London Philharmonic playing E major, a motorcycle engine revving and a man's voice shouting "Fire!' and still have change from half a crown, but it wasn't long before the Emulator became a musem piece. I replaced it with a Casio FZ1, laboriously re‑sampled my Emulator sounds and built up a collection of hundreds of FZ1 disks, only to see that machine crash into obsolescence when Casio withdrew from the sampler market. Damn. Finally, I did the sensible thing and bought an Akai S1000, much to the amusement of the multitude of friends and colleagues who had done so long ago. I now pray nightly that my current sound library, an insanely large collection of S1000 sounds, will outlive any hellish corporate upgrades and survive, with me, into the 21st century. I mention all this not to solicit sympathy, but merely to establish my credentials in organising a sound library. As the world of available samples grows increasingly huge and our piles of disks, cartridges and DAT tapes grows higher and higher, we need an efficient system to keep track of all our sounds. What follows is a set of suggestions and observations, based on my own experience, which I hope will help establish a logical and comprehensive method.

A Good Sample

First, a few brief words on sampling techniques. Try to record your samples at a good, healthy level, as loud as you can get them without introducing clipping or distortion (unless you want those effects!). A sample is most likely to clip during the attack transient at the beginning of the sound, so use the waveform display to examine the sample's front end — clipping will show up as a flattening of the waveform's peaks. Before sampling, listen on headphones to establish whether the source sound is stereo or mono (it's not always obvious). You can sum the two sides of a stereo signal into mono by using a mixer, or by first sampling in stereo and then using your sampler's internal editing facilities to blend the two sides of the stereo sample into a new mono sample. Having found loop points for those samples which need looping, trim the sample neatly by deleting or cutting any unwanted bits of 'dead air' at the beginning and end of the sound. In doing this, take care not to accidentally cut off the first few samples of the attack — use the 'zoom in' display facility to examine the sample in detail. Once trimmed, the sample is ready to save to disk.

Naming Names

"I'm the guy around here who names things." So spoke the late, lamented Frank Zappa, proving the point by naming his youngest daughter Diva Thin Muffin Pigeen and his mail order company Barfko Swill (or was that the other way around?). To organise your sound library properly, you will need to acquire some of Frank's skill at naming things, and this starts at individual sample level. Believe it or not, there is an art to naming samples clearly and distinctively, with the three important areas of definition to consider:

  • First, the source of the sound.
  • Second, the type of sound.
  • Third, the pitch content (if any).

With only a meagre 12 characters to play with (10 if the sample is stereo, once the sample has appended its obligatory L&R suffixes), one is often forced to use cryptic abbreviations, but the source of the sound can easily be indicated by a two‑ or three‑letter code — such as 'ZG' for Zero‑Gravity, 'ROL' for Rhythm Of Life, 'PAG' for Pascal Gabriel's Dance Samples, and so on. The type of sound can usually be described in six or seven characters (MOOGBS for Moog bass, DRLOOP for drum loop), leaving a space of two or three characters for the pitch: C3, D4, A#5, etc. Unfortunately, the S1000 has no 'b' character, so a Bb trumpet becomes an A# instrument. A typical name would look like this:

PG SLPBSS E1 (= Pete Gleadall Slap Bass, E1)

If the sound has no pitch, it's OK to use numerals to differentiate a series of similar sounds, as in ZG TABLA 1, ZG TABLA 2, and so on, but I prefer to include descriptive information wherever possible: ZG TABLA HI, ZG TABLA LO, ZG TABLA ACC (accent) is better than plain old 1, 2 and 3. The old Italian musical terms can be useful too, as in MAX BD F, MAX BD MF and MAX BD P, indicating loud (forte), fairly loud (mezzo forte) and quiet (piano) versions of Max the drummer's bass drum. Max's cross‑stick snare hits (that 'tock' sound) can be rendered MAX SN X‑STK, and his ludicrous attempts at a drum intro MAX SN FILL or MAX SN CHAOS. (Please, no fan mail for Max — he is entirely fictitious.) Sometimes there is just too much information to cram into a 12‑character name: 'Prosonus sustained forte cello section, Bb2' becomes illegible if reduced to 'PCCESSUSFA#2'. In this case, we could call the sample PS CES F A#2 and the program made out of a collection of such samples PS CES SUS F. All this may seem hopelessly anal, but it is based on the simple idea of being able to tell your samples apart at a glance, surely no bad thing. It also makes programming easier — working out program key zones is always tricky, but it's much simpler when you can read the samples' pitches as well as hear them. If the naming game gets too tedious, do not lose heart and simply give your samples one‑character names like 1, 2 and 3, as one German company did, unforgiveably, on its CD‑ROMs of brass licks and classical choirs. Apart from being hopelessly uninformative, this lazy practice will play havoc with your sampler's brain. As S1000 users will know, their machine's operating system rejects the notion of duplicate names in order to protect its sample‑to‑program assignments, so if you try to load something called '1' from a disk (or CD‑ROM) and a sample of that name already exists in RAM, the S1000 will erase the RAM sample, slowly and painfully, before loading the new one. Up comes the hated message '**** BUSY — PLEASE WAIT ****'. If I could add together all the minutes I've sat waiting in front of my S1000 while it deleted samples and spend them at the pub, I would be very drunk indeed. Give your samples sensible names and this problem will not occur.


The time comes when a hadful of floppies turns into a few dozen or a few hundred, and before you know it you've got a 600Mb optical drive and a 10Gb sound library (and a huge overdraft). That's the time to think about organising your sounds into sensible categories. I've listed some which I've found to be useful, but you may be able to think of more ('Lemurs', 'Bungy Jumping', etc). My categories contain many grey areas; should orchestral bass drums be saved on a disk together with rock kick drums or files under 'Orchestral Percussion?' When does an industrial clang cease to be a sound effect and become a percussion sound? What's the difference between a jazz double bass and a pizzicato orchestral double bass? (Answer: sonically speaking, none.) There will always be such ambiguities, and you should use your own judgement to resolve them. If in doubt, save a sound twice — the industrial clang can go on both your 'industrial' and 'percussion – metal clank' disks. After a while, you'll start to get an instinct for the right category headings and the correct filing of sounds will become routine.

I think it's important to make a clear distinction between your sound library and your song disks. In the course of constructing a song, new samples and programs will be created, and it's convenient to save these together on a disk under a song name. This is OK, but you should also add the new sounds to your sound library disks, filed under the appropriate categories. If you follow this rule, you will avoid the inconvenience of having to look through dozens of song disks to find a particular bass drum or tambourine loop. However, if a sample (for example, a section of lead vocal) is only relevant to one particular song, there is obviously no point in also saving it in the sound library. I find DAT backups (via the S1000's digital interface) a very convenient way of saving all the samples and programs I use in a song. Having saved the contents of each song twice (once to a main DAT and once to a backup DAT) and saved any hot new samples on my sound library disks, I usually also save the song's programs (but not sanples) on a floppy disk for quick reference.

If the naming game gets too tedious, do not lose heart and simply give your samples one‑character names like 1, 2 and 3.

Deciding on a category when saving loops and performance samples can be difficult. As you can see from my suggested loop categories, I tend to sort them by musical/sonic content, but others might prefer to grade them by BPM. Chopping up loops is common practice, and I like to save these loop snippets on the same disk as their source loop. Individual instrument loops and performances I file under the instrument in question on a separate 'performances' disk, so a soul brass lick would go on to a disk labelled 'brass section — performances' and be stored next to 'brass sections'. Actually I have never sampled a soul brass lick, but it's a good example all the same!

Samples of drum machines can cause confusion. There is no great sonic distinction between a sampled Alesis HR16 snare and a mono recording of Max belting his Ajax snare drum down at the local 16‑track studio, so both can be saved as 'snares'. However, Simmons sounds never sounded much like drums, so they can safely be saved under the 'electronic drums' heading. Though the individual sounds of a TR808 should be saved under their respective instrument categories (electronic drums, claves, electronic hi‑hats, etc), an entire sampled TR808 kit should be saved under 'drum machines' in the 'Assembled Percussion' section. Get the idea? 'Assembled Percussion' is also a useful heading for favourite drum kits, cymbal sets and mixed percussion setups; for example, a combination of TR808 kit, real congas and drum kit. If you add instruments like bass and piano to this percussion setup, you're out of song library territory and should be saving these multi‑instrument ensembles as song setups.

Expect to encounter sounds which defy easy categorisation. For example, that repulsive TR909 thing that goes 'kuk' (what on earth is it?) bears no resemblance to any real instrument known to man, but can be saved under 'Misc. Percussion — Electronic' (or, better still, erased from all files). Expect also to find an abundance of misnamed sounds; the young remixers whose sample CDs flood the market are no musicologists, and will happily name a sampled koto note 'twang' or a castanet 'wood click'. The Yamaha Corporation invented the 'karimba', a non‑existent instrument which is neither a kalimba (African thumb‑piano) or a marimba (large xylophone). Akai had me scratching my head with their 'Snow' and 'Concrete' samples (recordings of snow falling and concrete drying? Surely not), until I realised they were different types of footstep sound effects. Some of the General MIDI names are mad, too — what, for example, are the terms 'charang' 'goblin' and 'ice rain' supposed to indicate? "OK, I want a kind of goblin sound for this section.... got any goblin samples?"

Being a keyboard player, I've been able to think of quite a few categories for synth sounds, and I make no apologies for including the ostensibly meaningless 'thip', an onomatopoeic word now widely used to describe the sound of a resonant filter being rapidly closed down by a sharp decay envelope (try fitting that into 12 characters). Genereally speaking, you should save only obviously synthetic sounds in the 'synth' section of your sound library, so if your samples of synth/workstation instruments (eg, M1 brass, 01/W clarinet) come close to the real thing, save them under their respective instrument headings along with 'real' sounds. (Actually, nothing that comes out of a speaker is 'real' is it? Now there's a disturbing thought... Enough on naming and categories. What about storage media?

Saving Graces

The novice samplist with more sense than money will start out on floppy disks before moving up to a more expensive hard disk or optical system. Opticals read a fraction faster (but write slower) than hard disks, but both systems read and write much faster than floppies. Though optical drives are more expensive than hard drives, optical disks are cheaper than removable hard disk cartridges, so if your library is very large, optical may well work out cheaper in the long run. Once your library is transferred to one of these mass‑storage media, it would be tempting to throw away all those inconvenient, slow‑loading floppies, but you should consider holding on to them as a backup for your library. Either that, or duplicate your library on a second set of optical disks/hard disk cartridges. A friend of mine had his sound library stolen from his car recently, and bitterly regretted having no backup. That was it, gone — six years of sample collecting down the drain! If you can't afford to invest in a new set of hard disk or optical media, the relatively inexpensive DAT backup system mentioned earlier is highly recommended. Inflexible and slightly slow it may be — the entire memory is transferred digitally to or from DAT in real time, with no means of saving or loading individual samples or programs — but it's a very economical medium, storing two hours of sounds on one tiny tape costing only a few pounds.

It would be daft to follow all the suggestions above and then ruin everything by labelling your disks with an illegible scrawl, so make sure your disks are clearly and boldly titled. It's probably a mistake to try to list all the individual samples on a disk label (unless you are one of those individuals who can write the Koran on a grain of rice), but you might be able to squeeze in a few key program names under the disk's main title. If working in a hurry, you can use a white chinagraph pencil to write directly on the surfave of the disk itself, sticking on the adhesive label and lovingly inscribing it 'Bagpipes 6' later.

Er... that's about it. As I warned you, this is all rather embarrassingly non rock 'n' roll, the sort of thing your parents would probably approve of (aaaargh), but it's nice to know where all your sounds are, especially if, like me, you have 12 million of them. Or is it 13 million? I think I'll go and count them again. Farewell till next time.

Sample Library Categories


  • Drums
  • Cymbals
  • Latin Percussion
  • Hand Drums
  • Metal Percussion
  • Misc. Percussion
  • Tuned Percussion
  • Orchestral Percussion
  • Assembled Percussion


  • Bass
  • Guitar (Acoustic)
  • Guitar (Electric)
  • Misc. Stringed
  • Piano
  • Organ
  • Misc. Keyboards


  • Brass
  • Strings
  • Wind
  • Bowed/Stroked/Wind‑like
  • Orchestral Ensembles


  • Synths


  • Loops (percussion)
  • Loops (Musical)
  • Loops with Vocals
  • Soundtracks
  • Lead Vocals
  • Backing Vocals
  • Voices (Choral)
  • Speech


  • Human Noises (Vocal)
  • Human Noises (Physical)
  • Human Activities
  • Crowds
  • Animals & Insects
  • Natural World
  • Atmos
  • General Noises
  • Crashes, Explosions, Impacts
  • Electrical
  • Industrial/Mechanical
  • Transport
  • Clocks & Bells
  • Telephones
  • Tools & Appliances
  • Comedy Instruments

Perfect Pitches

Some thoughts on pitches and tuning. Sample CDs often list pitch references for their samples, but these are sometimes inaccurate. If you have a piano, guitar or synth in the house, you can check pitches by ear. Middle C is usually referred to as C3. All notes from there on up share the '3' suffix (C#3, D3, etc) until we get to the Next C up, which is called C4. The same logic applies up to C5, C6, and by C7, you're off the end of the piano. Working down from Middle C/C3, we descend through C2, C1, C0... guitars run out of notes below E1 (the bottom E string), bass guitars end on E0, pianos terminate around C0, but synth basses can go down into the minus range (as can Lee Marvin, the gravelly‑voiced Hollywood actor, who was clocked down at A#‑5 in his marvellous, throaty rendition of 'I Was Born Under A Wanderng Star'). Having established the true pitch of your sample (not always easy — sounds sometimes fool the ear), you should adjust its 'original pitch' parameter (on S1000, EDIT SAMPLE mode, EDIT 2 page), to display this pitch. When played over MIDI, the sample should now roughly correspond to the pitches of your MIDI keyboard's programs. If necessary (it often is), use the PITCOFFSET control to improve the fine tuning of the sample. If you can get your pitched samples bang in tune at source in this way, you will never have to spend time tweaking the tuning of the programs in which they appear.