OCTOBER 20, 2023

Guide to Using Samples in Music & Digital Audio Production

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The art of sampling is a time-honored technique used in virtually every genre of music. What started as a beat making trend in hip-hop and electronic music eventually spread to rock, country, and every other genre out there. Today, sampling has become a staple in music production, leading to hits from artists like Daft Punk, Morgan Wallen, Sublime, Nine Inch Nails, and Beyoncé.

In this guide, we’ll explore the art of sampling. Beginning with its definition, we’ll navigate through the process of sourcing of samples, hands-on sampling methods, essential techniques, and important legal considerations. So if you’re looking to work on sample-based projects, this guide will be a useful reference. For newcomers eager to experiment as they learn, consider downloading the free Pro Tools Intro to follow along.

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What are Samples in Music?

Samples in music are small segments of sound extracted from recordings, which can be manipulated and reused in various ways to create new pieces of music. These segments can be as short as a single note, a beat, a rhythm, or a melody line, or as long as a full musical phrase or even an entire song—they are typically categorized as either loops or one shot samples.

  • Loops: Loops are segments of music that can be seamlessly repeated, providing a continuous flow of sound, often serving as the backbone of a track.
  • One-shot samples: singular, isolated sounds like a drum hit, a piano note, or a vocal shout.

Both types of samples are integral in modern music production, enabling creators to draw from a vast sonic palette. Musicians and producers utilize samples to infuse their compositions with diverse elements from different genres, eras, or artists, enriching their works with varied and compelling sounds. The careful selection and integration of these samples contribute significantly to the depth, complexity, and appeal of musical projects, serving creators at all experience levels.

What is Music Sampling?

Music sampling is the craft of taking pieces from existing audio tracks or recorded sounds and weaving them into new compositions. This practice isn’t just about reusing sounds. It’s about creatively transforming and incorporating these elements in ways that they become something entirely new and different, often unrecognizable from the original source.

In this process, producers select, cut, and use specific segments from a variety of sound sources, adding unique character to their work. These bits of sound, whether lifted from old records or captured from the ambient environment, aren't just inserted plainly into new tracks. Instead, they are often tweaked, twisted, and manipulated, sometimes subtly, sometimes dramatically, to fit into their new musical contexts. Through this process, each sound snippet gains new life and meaning, contributing to the creation of a piece that is fresh and engaging.

Is Sampling Legal?

Before we get ahead of ourselves, it’s important to think about the legal ramifications of sampling before including samples in music you’re producing. While sampling is a widely accepted practice, using someone else's music without permission constitutes copyright infringement, which is illegal. So make sure to obtain clearance from the original copyright holders or opt for royalty-free samples available for use without legal constraints. Understanding and navigating through the legal framework surrounding sampling is essential to avoid copyright disputes and ensure that your music can be distributed and monetized without legal problems.

How to Use Samples Legally

Below are key strategies to help ensure that the samples you use won’t land you in legal problems:

  • Use royalty-free sample libraries: A royalty-free sample is one that requires no attribution or fee to use. Avid’s Sonic Drop is an example of a library full of premium audio samples to use in your projects, all of which are provided royalty-free.
  • Get written permission: Sampling becomes a bit complicated when you use copyrighted music (anything not explicitly offered as “royalty-free.”) Our advice is to seek artists who are happy to clear samples and get written permission to use a sample from them. For copyrighted music, you'll need two permissions: a license to use the master recording and a license to use the underlying composition.
  • Sample your own recordings: If you record the audio yourself, you have free reign to sample and reuse it in your recordings. However, this would not apply if you reproduce a musical idea from an existing song.

What to Use as a Sample

Having navigated through the basics of sampling and its legal landscape, let’s think through the creative elements of music sampling. Where can you find samples? Samples can be sourced from existing songs, from dedicated sample libraries or packs that are commercially available, or even recorded directly by the artist or producer.

The possibilities are virtually endless, with artists often drawing from various sources to create unique soundscapes. In this section, we'll explore the diverse world of sampling sources, guiding you through the potential goldmines of sound that can be discovered in existing songs, the ambient noise of daily life, and the unexplored territories of field recordings.

Existing Songs

Sampling from an existing song can be a creative way to mix an existing idea with your own. Try sampling a short snippet of a song, a whole chorus, or even the entire instrumental. Whichever you choose, however, make sure you have the proper clearance and permissions. If you’re sampling existing songs, try the following:

  • Alter your samples: It’s also generally a good practice to alter any samples you use, especially if they are long and can be confused with another artist’s work. Even if you get your samples cleared, simply tacking on another artist’s work can confuse the listener. Try to make any samples you use uniquely your own by modifying the sample in some way. In the section that follows, we’ll explore different techniques you can use to manipulate samples!
  • Re-imagine your own music: Aside from being an effective way to avoid copyright issues, sampling your own music and recordings offers an avenue for reimaging musical ideas. This can be a fun way to call out previous work or create a remix that incorporates different themes from your catalog.

Found sounds

Although taking samples from music is the most popular use of audio samples, the everyday environment is also filled with potential samples. Found sounds refer to naturally occurring, often random sounds that are recorded or "found" in the environment. The ticking of a clock, the growl of a motorcycle’s engine, or the hum of machinery can all be used to add unique, intriguing textures to your music. Check out our video series “Beats on Trips,” where we have producers create a beat from scratch using sounds recorded from their environment.

Field Recordings

You can also sample the environment to create ambient soundscapes that add depth and atmosphere to your music. We’ve all heard recordings that sample crowd noises, but have you considered sampling the sounds of a beach, complete with wind, waves, and seagulls, to use in the background of a lo-fi downtempo track? 

Foley

Foley is an inventive domain within the broader field of audio sampling that allows for the creation of unique and tailored sound effects. Unlike found sounds, which are captured in their natural state, foley sounds are sounds that are combined, arranged, and manipulated to create specific auditory experiences. These sounds can be as common as footsteps and door creaks, or as imaginative and unconventional as the fluttering of mythical wings or the sounds of a fictional creature.

Sample Packs

Sample packs provide a convenient and versatile option for producers seeking diverse and professionally crafted sounds for their projects. These are collections of audio clips, loops, and samples curated and categorized by genre, instrument, or mood, streamlining the process of finding and integrating sounds into your music. Typically offered by music production companies and experienced producers, sample packs can be royalty-free or require licensing, so always check the usage terms. Whether you're crafting electronic, hip-hop, rock, or pop, there's a myriad of sample packs available to suit every style and creative vision.

How to Sample Music

Now that we’ve defined samples in music, examined the legality of sampling, and gone over some examples of audio you can sample, let’s take a look at the process of making beats with samples.

  1. Organize your sample folder

    Before diving into sampling, organize your samples by creating dedicated folders on your computer. Categorize them based on criteria like sample packs, instrument type, genre, or mood. This structured arrangement streamlines access and enhances your workflow.

    Audio Sample File Organization

  2. Build your sample library

    Once you’ve created your sample folder, start collecting loop and sample packs so you have a library of sounds to choose from during the sound selection process. Try acquiring sounds that align with your style or the genres you wish to explore. These packs often contain a variety of sound types, from drum loops to melody lines, and they’re available in audio formats like WAV, MP3, or AIFF that are readily compatible with DAWs.

    For those sourcing from external mediums, like vinyl records, the audio needs to be recorded and digitized. This process typically involves playing the sound through an audio interface that captures and converts it into a digital format. Record these samples with attention to preserving their quality and character.

    If you're a Pro Tools subscriber, don't forget to download the monthly Sonic Drop. These collections offer a wealth of royalty-free loops and samples, providing fresh sonic material to keep your library fresh and inspire your next production.

  3. Open your DAW and create an audio track

    Start by launching your DAW and initiating a new project. Create an audio track to serve as the designated platform for crafting and manipulating your selected sample. This audio track acts as a workspace where your sample can be edited, processed, and integrated into your composition. If you plan on using a sampler plugin, then create an instrument track.

  4. Import your audio file

    Once you have an audio or instrument track ready in your DAW, start importing your selected audio files. If you're using Pro Tools, take advantage of Soundbase to simplify this process. Soundbase allows you to quickly search, audition, and drag samples directly onto your timeline from your organized sample folders. With features like filtered searches and in-DAW auditioning, it streamlines the task of finding and selecting the perfect samples for your project, keeping your creative workflow smooth and uninterrupted.

  5. Cut Out the Section You Want

    Listen to the audio file and select specific segments you want to sample. Use your DAW's tools to trim and cut sections precisely, preserving the essence of the sound without extra noise or silence. Save your newly created samples with descriptive names in appropriate folders for easy access.

    In Pro Tools, the Smart Tool simplifies this process. It combines the functionalities of multiple editing tools, allowing you to seamlessly select, trim, and cut sections without needing to switch tools constantly. Hover near the upper corners of the selected region, and the Smart Tool will intuitively become a trimmer, enabling you to adjust the boundaries of your selection for precise editing.

  6. Arrange Your Samples

    Create new tracks for each sample to maintain organization. Place samples on the timeline where you envision them within the song. Experiment with the order and sequence of each sample to find a harmonious arrangement. Pay attention to rhythm and flow, ensuring that samples align with the beat and tempo of your track. Adjust start times if needed to achieve seamless integration.

    Pro Tools users can utilize workspace or dedicated sampler plugins for efficient sample sequencing and manipulation. Take your time during this stage, experimenting with different arrangements until you achieve the desired sound. Arranging and sequencing are often iterative and experimental processes.

12 Sampling Techniques

Sampling techniques in music production include pitch shifting, time stretching, filtering, chopping, reversing, layering, and more. These techniques can transform samples into something entirely different or create specific moods. Here are ten popular sampling techniques:

  1. Layering Samples

    At its core, layering involves stacking different samples—whether loops or individual sounds—to construct a unique sonic texture or a full musical piece. For instance, producers might combine loops of drum patterns, melodies, and harmonies, each being a different sample, to create one composition.

    Alternatively, layering can occur at the micro-level, where individual sounds are stacked to create a complex, multifaceted sound. This technique is often used to deepen the texture of a single note or beat, resulting in a sound that’s dynamic and rich. It could be as simple as layering multiple snare drum samples to achieve a punchy, unique snare sound or stacking various vocal samples to craft a lush, choral effect. Regardless of the approach, successful layering requires careful attention to the balance and EQ of each sample, ensuring that the final output is cohesive and harmonically aligned.

  2. Pitch Shifting

    Pitch shifting is the process of altering the pitch of a sound. You can pitch-shift samples to make them sound higher or lower in tone, but you can also use automation controls to change the pitch of a sample as it plays. This can add new life to an existing sample, making it stand out in your track.

  3. Time Stretching

    Time stretching is a sampling technique that makes a sample longer or shorter. When done correctly using the right tools, time stretching should not alter the pitch of the audio. You can use time stretching to make a fast beat fit with the tempo of a slow song or make the vocals of a track fit with a song of a different tempo. Time stretching is a powerful tool for remixes and mashups.

  4. Chopping Samples

    When samples are imported into your DAW, you can chop them up on your timeline or through various plugins. When chopping a sample into smaller pieces, consider rearranging the order of the audio or shuffling it to create a glitch-type sound.

  5. Reverse Sampling

    Reversing a sample allows you to keep the same pitch and notes but in reverse. A sample that is played backward can be a fun way to introduce something new into a track, but you can also play around with having a reversed version of a sample play underneath the same sample playing normally. This combines the layering technique discussed above with reversing, and it can create “ear candy” that keeps the listener's attention.

  6. Filtering and EQ

    Filtering and EQ are both powerful tools you can use to manipulate samples and breathe new life into them. In some cases, changing the timbre of a sample using EQ and filter plugins can bring out sonic subtleties that aren’t apparent when a sample is played at its pre-produced values.

  7. Granular Sampling

    Granular sampling is similar to chopping a sample, but it uses granular synthesis to create micro-slices or grains of audio. When played back, the audio takes on a slightly robotic or mechanical sound as grains can be duplicated, layered, and stretched out. This can be useful for creating interesting effects or for adding some sparkle to transitions between parts of a track.

  8. Looping and Sequencing

    Looping is one of the most popular techniques for working with samples because looping can turn a single sample into an entire composition. When working with looping samples, particularly samples of beats, take the time to fine-tune your trimming. You need to make sure the audio of the endpoint matches precisely with the start point of the loop so that it plays seamlessly.

  9. Tape Stop Effect

    Emulate the sound of a tape deck slowing down to create dramatic pauses, transitions, or unique effects. Pro Tools users can use the Vari-Fi plugin for this effect.

     

  10. Modulation Effects

    Processing your samples with audio effects is another way for producers to imbue the original sound with a new life and character. Effects such as delay, reverb, chorus, flanger, phasers, and distortion are powerful tools in this transformative process.

    By thoughtfully applying these effects, you can transform a straightforward sample into a sonically intriguing element that not only complements but enhances your overall sound. Experimentation is key here; don’t hesitate to combine multiple effects and tweak their parameters to discover unique sounds that resonate with your creative vision.

  11. Resampling

    Resampling involves processing a sample with various effects, then re-recording it, and repeating this cycle multiple times. Each iteration imparts unique characteristics and nuances to the sound, gradually transforming it into something entirely different and unrecognizable from the initial sample.

  12. MIDI Triggering

    MIDI hardware can also be used to trigger samples through a MIDI keyboard controller or drum pads. MIDI can be used to play samples live or during recording, and these tools add a new level of control over your samples.

    Pro Tip: If you’re using MIDI hardware, chop up a chord progression so that individual chords are their own samples. Set your MIDI mode to mono, and when you hit the key or pad to trigger each sample, it will cut off the sound of the chord played before it.

Start using samples in your music!

Sampling can be a powerful asset in your music production toolbox, and there’s no limit to how creative you can get. Now that you understand the legal considerations of sampling and how to use them in music production, try experimenting and exploring to find your unique sound! The more you apply these sampling techniques, the better you’ll get at creating a sonic landscape that resonates with you and your listeners.

If you’re looking to get started, download Pro Tools Intro for free! It’s an accessible gateway to explore the essential tools needed for sampling and it comes with a library of sounds to get you started. If you already have Pro Tools, make sure you’re downloading the latest Sonic Drop to continue expanding your sound selection.

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