What is Sampling in Music?

Sampling is a term that's become synonymous with both music production & hip-hop especially. But what is it? And how can you start to harness this highly creative technique within your own music?

Will Brook-Jones

Will Brook-Jones

What is Sampling in Music?

Sampling in music involves taking a section of audio from another source – in this instance, an existing song – and then reworking it into the creation of a new track. Some ill-informed musicians have described it as blatant, shameless plagiarism, but this is an ignorant view point to take. There was once a time when the Grammys would not consider recognising any song that used a sample for the prestigious ‘Song of the Year’ award. Thankfully, this rule was changed in 2014.

The amount of sound that’s ‘sampled’ varies wildly from project to project. Some producers will lift an entire chorus from another song; others might just take a drum beat and slice it up (taking just the kick drum and snare, for example) to suit their own musical needs. Other popular sections to sample include vocals and basslines. It’s not just songs that get sampled either; spoken lines from film, TV and online videos appear often too. For example, Disclosure’s well known track ‘When a Fire Starts to Burn’ features a sample taken from a motivational speaking clip!

Samples are then usually looped, sliced, spliced and manipulated. While some will honour the original sample more closely, many producers will tweak and mould it even further by altering the pitch, tempo and other sonic characteristics too. This can sometimes result in a completely unrecognisable sample, leading to something that’s truly new!

Sampling in Music: A Short History

When discussing sampling in music, you probably immediately think of hip-hop. However, you can quite easily argue that the concept of sampling predates the pioneering golden era of the ’80s.

20th Century Jazz

With the jazz boom during the early part of the 20th century, many musicians would ‘sample’ sections from other players’ pieces when performing live. This was to pay homage to the skill and creativity of their peers, and was done by working these recognisable hooks and melodies into their own music.

Music Concrète

Fast forward to the 1940s and you’ll encounter a pair of Pierre’s – Schaeffer and Henry – and their ground-breaking idea of ‘Music Concrète’. This principle challenged the root definition of music itself. The duo used rudimentary disc cutters to craft entirely unique sonic palettes that were unlike anything that had been heard before.

The sounds of machinery and trains would form the bedrock of their sound. These pre-recorded samples (which were later captured by other enthusiasts thanks to the introduction of the tape recorder) were heavily edited and looped – with changes made to the tempo and pitch. The most famous example of Music Concrète is the song ‘Revolution 9’ from ‘The White Album’ by The Beatles’.

The Chamberlin & The Mellotron

Technological advances in the late 1940s and early ’50s saw the conception of the Chamberlin – named after its inventor, Harry Chamberlin. This keyboard (with an electro-mechanical architecture) boasted an external library of tape loops consisting of many different pre-recorded instruments. This made the Chamberlin an extremely versatile piece of gear for the time, as you could swap between a multitude of sounds as and when they were required.

Its instrumental successor was actually spawned from the Chamberlin itself. In 1962, a man named Bill Fransen purchased a couple of Chamberlin’s. After taking an in-depth look at what made them tick, he began to manufacturer and release his first clone; this was called The Mellotron. This took the concept of the Chamberlin up a notch, improving the engineering and user experience of the unit, with more modern enhancements across the board. The Mellotron was used by The Beatles on ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and turned up even later on Radiohead’s ‘OK Computer’.

(The Mellotron)

The Rise of Hip-Hop (& House)

Sampling really came into its own in the latter half of the ’70s and early 1980s with the emergence of hip-hop. DJs from New York would make samples on-the-fly while they played a show. This was done through precisely manipulating vinyl records. The most popular example of this was the use of break beats. These were drum breaks taken from notable jazz, funk and R&B tracks of the period. They were chosen because they could easily get a crowd going and could be rapped over too.

House music’s origins can also be traced back to the early ’80s. However, early house artists differed from their hip-hop counterparts in the type of material that they preferred to sample. Back then, classic disco staples were used as the bedrock of house because of their energy and ability to get people onto the dancefloor. To this day, disco remains a go-to component of house music for the genres’ biggest names.

Enter the Sampler

The late 1970s saw one of the biggest technological milestones in music production – the creation of the very first monophonic digital sampler. Dubbed the Computer Music Melodian, it saw use by the likes of Stevie Wonder. Hot on its heels was the Fairlight CMI (which stands for Computer Music Instrument), which is now regarded as one of the most iconic samplers ever. Usurping its predecessor, this sampler combined a polyphonic design with a DAW (digital audio workstation) and a digital synth.

However, it was not a viable option for the average producer or musician due to the sheer cost of the unit. The Fairlight CMI was quickly adopted by the likes of Herbie Hancock, Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel, amongst others.

Akai Accessibility

With the onset of the ’80s, sampling became even more accessible thanks to the engineering ingenuity of new brands like Akai. They managed to design and build a range of standalone samplers known as MPCs – which is short for music production centre. And they were exactly what they said on the tin. When the MPC60 burst onto the scene in 1988, it gave musicians and producers a more affordable, versatile tool that they could use to make an entire song without ever having to step foot in a studio.

The MPC left an indelible mark on the world of hip-hop – becoming synonymous with legendary producers such as J Dilla – and saw an explosion of new music across the globe that made use of samples. You can find out more about how the Akai MPC changed the music production world in our blog here.

(The Akai MPC60)

The Current Day

Nowadays, the potential for high-quality sampling is better than ever before. The majority of the top tech brands have each developed their own unique samplers with distinct workflows, ranging from entirely standalone gear, to equipment that works best when used in conjunction with a DAW. Check out the section on ‘How do you Sample Music?’ below for our recommendations on some different hardware and advice on how to get started with sampling!

Where do you find Samples for Music?

To avoid getting into legal trouble (which you can find out more about later in this blog), these will be your best avenues to follow:

Use royalty-free samples & free sample packs

A quick Google search throws up a tonne of results for free samples and royalty-free libraries. You might have to do some digging around when it comes to these, but you’ll be safe in the knowledge that nobody is going to sue you for whatever you end up using!

Use a Paid-For Sampling Service

For a monthly fee, companies like Tracklib offer a library of pre-cleared tracks that can be legally sampled and used in any music that you release. Their offering spans both well-known songs and more obscure cuts from a multitude of different genres and decades.

Record your own Samples

This is definitely the more creative way of doing it. Take a handheld recorder and head outside for a field recording session, or capture an instrument at home or in the studio and slice apart and use the best sections. If you’ve got the patience – and the time – you could even meticulously capture the full breadth of notes from a piano individually, insert them into Native Instruments’ Kontakt software, and build your own virtual instrument!

Handheld & Pocket Recorders

How do you Sample Music?

Use a DAW

If you prefer the idea of sampling ‘in the box’, a good place to start would be using a DAW like Ableton. The three different versions – Intro, Standard & Suite – cater to different ability levels, production requirements, and budgets. Ableton’s workflow has been designed from the ground-up for sampling. The first step would be to drop the section of audio or the song that you’d like to sample onto your timeline.

Within the DAW, every audio file can work as a sample. This is due to a handy ‘Warp’ function. Using Warp, you can tweak a tracks tempo with Warp markers; you can then click on the track and start cutting away after you’ve positioned them.

You also have access to two plugins built especially for sampling. ‘Sampler’ can simulate a range of acoustic instruments authentically, and will also effectively cover your more straightforward sampling needs. ‘Simpler’ is the best option for complete beginners, as you can only load up one sample at a time. You’ll be able to playback and cut up samples to your hearts content with it too.

Some other additional tips to consider while you’re sampling in a DAW:

  • Make sure that the tempo and key of any sample you use works with your track.
  • Ensure that any sample you use is processed properly. There’s nothing more jarring than a sample that stands out in a mix for the wrong reasons.
  • Samples can be used to thicken up drums – e.g. placing a kick sample underneath your acoustic one should make it far more punchier.

Ableton

Use Hardware

However, the best (and arguably most fun) way to dive head first into the exciting world of sampling is to get your hands on some hardware. We’ve outlined some of our favourite samplers for you below. Our selection encompasses a range of gear with tactile, hands-on workflows at five different price points from the likes of Akai, Roland, Novation, Teenage Engineering and Elektron!

Teenage Engineering PO-33 K.0! Pocket Operator – £81

At the entry-level end of the sampler spectrum, there’s the Teenage Engineering PO-33 K.O! Part of their extremely portable and popular Pocket Operator Series, this micro sampler packs in an integrated microphone, letting you sample anytime, anywhere, as well as 40 seconds of total sample memory – making it the ideal companion for production on-the-go!

You can record any of your ideas to one of eight melodic sample banks, which allows for chromatic playback, or one of eight drum banks (which, you’ve guessed it) allows for drum playback. You’ll then be able to add more sonic intrigue to your beats using a range of 16 onboard effects. It might look like a toy, but this calculator-like sampler punches well above its weight.

If you prefer the idea of a Pocket Operator sampler with more of a pop culture twist, why not check out the PO-133 Street Fighter Micro Sampler, or PO-137 Rick and Morty Vocal Synth, Sampler and Drum Machine?

Notable Features:

  • BPM setting (with an adjustable swing function)
  • Microphone for sampling (with 40 seconds of total sample memory)
  • 8 melodic sample slots
  • 8 drum slots
  • Parameter locks
  • Jam sync
  • 16 chainable patterns
  • 16 contrasting onboard effects
  • Playback patterns in real-time
  • Pattern crafting via the onboard sequencer
  • Additional sampling technique available using the line in (see video below)
  • Battery powered (with 1 month battery life & 2 year standby time)
  • Animated LCD display
  • Built-in speaker
  • 3.5mm audio I/O

Novation Circuit Rhythm – £359

Novation’s standalone Circuit Rhythm focuses entirely on beat-making and sampling; it’s equally suitable for your home studio or live performance setup.

You’ll be able to capture your samples straight into the Rhythm and can even edit your beat entirely in the box – with no additional external software or hardware required! Slice, resample, loop and reverse your beat, or apply reverb, delay, lo-fi tape emulation, stutter and beat repeat to add even more dynamics and variety. If you prefer to work with an old-school methodology, you can cut samples directly from vinyl!

Notable Features:

  • Onboard rechargeable battery – with a battery life of up to four hours
  • 8 individual tracks available for sampling (with each boasting 32-step patterns which can be chained up to 256 steps per track)
  • Incorporate MIDI hardware with full-size five-pin MIDI In, Out and Thru connectors (plus analog sync out).
  • Use Novation’s Components standalone software to backup your creations & load in fresh samples
  • Record samples straight into the unit
  • Integrated resampling capabilities
  • Powerful FX – including reverb, delay, sidechain, master compressor & more
  • Add a loose, or more regimented feel to beats through off-grid or quantised beat capture
  • Beat repeat, vinyl simulation & other grid FX
  • Headphone out & stereo out

Roland SP-404 MKII Sampler – £439

Roland took on board the constructive feedback from producers and beat-makers on their previous SP samplers and have distilled these suggestions into a range of impressive refinements for their latest iteration: the SP-404MKII Sampler.

It packs together 17 velocity-sensitive tactile pads, a larger suite of effects, a crisp OLED display, a library full to the brim with exciting sounds (144 in total) and seamless sampling and sequencing capabilities.

A lightweight, compact design – paired with an even quicker workflow and load/start-up times – plus 16GB of built in storage and an AA battery power option makes the SP-404MKII a flexible, powerful tool for on-the-go production.

Notable Features:

  • Can work in conjunction with SP-404MKII editor software for Mac & Windows
  • 32-voice polyphony
  • 160 samples per project (with 16 in-built projects in total)
  • Cassette Simulator, new lo-fi, Vinyl Simulator, DJFX Looper, Guitar Amp Simulator, Vocoder & more effects
  • Rapid sample editing via real-time or auto-chop mode
  • BPM detect, pitch shift, envelope & resampling (for applying layered patterns & sounds)
  • Low-latency pads (with a no-click design)
  • Access & manage samples, assign them to pads and accurately edit waveforms via the SP-404MKII software editor for Windows & Mac OS

Elektron Digitakt Drum Computer & Sampler – £599

One of our best-selling pieces of gear here at Andertons, the Elektron Digitakt combines the beat-making capabilities of a drum machine and a sampler and squeezes them into one compact, robust unit.

Creative sampling functions and a flexible, highly interactive 64-step sequencer provide you with the tools required to craft melodies and beats without a second thought.

With over 400+ factory samples – encompassing acoustic and digital sounds across percussion, drum kits, synths and more – there’s more than enough material here to work with. And for even more options, you can store up to 128 samples of your own too!

Notable Features:

  • Sound shaping parameters including delay, modulation, envelope filters, reverb, overdrive and more
  • Eight separate audio tracks – assign them to any of your samples or one of the pre-installed factory sounds
  • Easily connect to external MIDI equipment (with 8 dedicated tracks available)
  • 64mb of RAM and 1GB of onboard storage
  • USB connectivity
  • Live performance benefits – including micro timing function & the ability to line-up new beats, or drop tracks in & out

Akai MPC Live II Retro Sampler & Sequencer – £1019

The MPC Live II Retro Sampler & Sequencer follows in the footsteps of Akai’s storied predecessors, bringing the renowned MPC workflow and look firmly into the 21st century.

It functions as a standalone sampler and sequencer; you don’t need a computer or laptop to start getting creative. Based around a layout of 16 velocity sensitive RGB pads, you’ll be able to craft beats in a truly hands-on fashion – editing and slicing up your rhythms via the 7-inch touch screen.

Your sounds will be delivered in astounding detail too due to a carefully designed in-built stereo monitoring system. A dual tweeter woofer ensures every nuance of a beat is displayed, from the crack of a snare, to the boom of your bass.

Notable Features:

  • New colourway that matches classic MPC models of the past
  • 5 hours of battery life thanks to a rechargeable onboard lithium-ion battery
  • Versatile connectivity options let you easily connect a range of different studio equipment
  • 16GB of internal storage & 2GB of RAM
  • Seamlessly integrates with Splice, MPC Software 2 and Ableton Live
  • Built-in monitors
  • Ableton Link, plus 3 months of Splice access
  • Bluetooth/Wi-Fi enabled
  • 2 USB slots for MIDI controllers/thumb drives

Samplers

Is Music Sampling Legal?

Yes, if done correctly. If you make the decision to sample another persons music for a track that you intend to release, it’s imperative that you get the express permission from the rights holder(s) so that you can legally use it. These rights holders will most likely be a combination of a record label and a publisher/and or writer(s); very few musicians nowadays own their own copyright.

To use a sample, you will need to clear two separate pieces of copyright: the written song itself and the actual recording. Clearance is required from the owners of both of these before you can use the sample in your music. This is because a fee will almost always be involved. The cost will likely take into account the popularity of the original track and your standing as a producer or artist. Longer samples will almost always cost more than shorter ones.

When trying to clear a sample, it’s common for many people to run into roadblocks – and it isn’t always because of the fee. Sometimes, the record label might say that you can use the recording, but the publisher (or even just one person from a group of writers) won’t give permission from their side. Some publishers and labels will also ask to listen to the new recording before they grant you a license. If they don’t agree with how it’s being used, you won’t get far.

If any of this does happen, you cannot legally use the sample or digitally distribute your song on streaming services etc – no matter how well it works in your track! Doing so can result in liability for copyright infringement. Even the likes of industry heavyweights such as Jay-Z have gotten in trouble in the past for their use of sampling, with the courts ruling against him in a landmark 2005 case.

The argument of stolen work raises its head again here too – especially when it comes to profiting monetarily off of somebody else’s ideas. Clyde Stubblefield – known for his iconic drumming on James Brown’s Funky Drummer – is widely regarded as the world’s most sampled percussionist. You can hear his legendary beats on projects from titanic hip-hop names like J Dilla and Dr. Dre. However, he never got any compensation for his work whatsoever.

Who Has Used Samples in Their Music?

To put it simply, everyone and anyone. The idea transcends genres and appears in more places than you might expect. It’s likely that a tonne of your favourite songs feature samples that you might not even know about! The list below features some great examples of the differing levels of creativity employed by artists and producers.

If you want to get into even more of the nitty gritty behind how certain samples have been flipped, Tracklib’s YouTube channel is a great resource to refer to. Their range of  insightful ‘Sample Breakdown’ videos really help to pull back the curtain on the entire process. Who Sampled is worth checking out too; just search for any track and find out exactly which songs have been sampled during its creation.

Here’s some of my favourite tracks with their associated samples:

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Will Brook-Jones
Will Brook-Jones
Will is the Tech & Drums Category Marketing Lead at Andertons. The sole drummer in the web team, Will favours TAMA Drums and Sabian cymbals. His love of Hip-Hop and Jazz is known to regularly cause arguments amongst the more (in his words) "musically uneducated" members of the team - especially upon his reclamation of the office speaker.

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