In the modern world of making music, producers will often not want to record a sound from scratch. They will use a sample recorded by an unrelated artist. Legally, they can do this without worrying that the original producer will sue for royalties. The use of samples has become hugely popular in hip hop, rap and R&B music. However, looking back, the use of samples is not a new concept. The Beatles used samples in some of their songs, such as “Yellow Submarine”. There are many types of samples, such as nature sounds, household sounds, and instrument sounds e.g. saxophone or guitar. Then, there are vocal samples, which we will focus on. In this article, I will give examples of how to use vocal samples, and show you where to download free vocal samples that you can use.
When a producer creates a piece of music or a song, he or she will sometimes decide to use vocal samples as the main vocal part or to supplement the lead vocal. A vocal sample is a previously made slice or portion of a vocal recording, usually made by another artist in an unrelated project, setting or studio that can be changed and used in a song or project. The sample is usually manipulated by looping, layering, changing the speed or by altering the pitch.
There are many benefits if you decide to use vocal samples in your production.
The most obvious one is cost. There are many vocal samples available on the web – some are free, and you can legally download them. For some, you need to attribute the original artist, whereas for others you need to pay a fee upfront but can then use without paying royalties thereafter. Also, there are some for which you will need to pay a royalty each time your music is sold or streamed.
The second advantage to using vocal samples is that you can spice up your own production by bringing in an instantly recognisable riff. Consider Nina Simone’s class song “Feeling Good” (below):
This stand out vocal performance has been sampled many times, including Lil Wayne and Juelz Santana’s ‘Birds Flying High’ (below):
Other songs that have sampled Ms Simone are ‘New Day’ by Jay-Z and Kanye West in 2011, ‘Bad News’ by 50 Cent ft. G-Unit in 2002 and ‘How I Feel’ by Wax Tailor in 2005.
A third advantage to using samples is that your creativity can really kick in when you pull in a vocal snippet into your project. This is because usually the tempo, key and style of the vocal does not match your song 100%, and you need to manipulate the sample so that it feels right. Done correctly, the use of samples and your imagination can take your song in an entirely new direction. Having access to multiple samples with different styles, genres, genders and lyrics will allow you to experiment endlessly since you are not limited to one vocalist and their style.
Another aspect of music production that may drive one to use samples is the quality of the vocal performance or recording itself. You may not have the vocal chops or the studio setup to record your own vocals. No problem, you can use vocal samples. There are many producers who have never sung a note or brought in a single vocalist. In fact, they do not even have a studio or the ability to record anything. You may have the wherewithal to produce the bed of music (using the many music generation tools out there) but not perform or record. This is where vocal samples enable you to transform an instrumental piece of music into a vocal masterpiece.
The actual method that you will use to bring vocal samples into your project will depend entirely on what suite of programs you use to produce your music. The process in Ableton will be entirely different to the process in Logic, and different again from the process for Band-in-a-Box. If you are going to use samples, you are unfortunately going to have to dig to find the best method to use for your DAW. However, there are a few general tips and ideas that you can use to give you some direction in how to use the samples in your project.
Using this technique, you can isolate a specific word (or even syllable) and loop it so that it repeats a number of times. Say you have a vocal sample that has the sentence “Oh yeah, I’m gonna make you mine” in it. You can slice and dice the sample so that you just have the exclamation “Oh yeah”. Then, you can loop, pitch shift, put some effects and layer this snippet and drop it into your song.
You can use oohs and aah samples to add backing vocals to your lead vocal. You can layer them up, alter them and play with them to create a great supplement to your main vocal.
Like the example of Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” we spoke about earlier, you can take a well-known vocal phrase or sentence and repeat it a number of times in appropriate places in your song so that it becomes the song hook. You can also use a sample to make a vocal choir. If you take a vocal sample, replicate the tracks and then pitch shift them up and down. Then move them around by a few cents (so that they do not align perfectly), and you can make a virtual vocal choir out of your original sample.
You can stretch and manipulate a vocal sample underneath your music to add ambience, sort of like what you would do with a synth.
I know this sounds counter intuitive and it is, but it is always worth a try. Reversing your vocal will create interesting effects, especially when the sample is an exclamation such as “ooooh”.
Many of us in the older generation will complain that today’s music all “sounds the same”. This might be due to the fact that producers are using all the same samples! With the proliferation of bedroom producers all using the same set of samples, the music will end up sounding the same. When looking for a vocal sample to use, try looking for something unique. Bear in mind that this may be a short snip buried within a longer sample recording.
In addition to the example given earlier, here are a few great examples of vocal samples in today’s music.
In 2009, Jay-Z sampled “Hard Knock Life” from the musical Annie. A strange mix in concept, but it actually works pretty well!
Nas’ 2001 track “You’re Da Man” samples Sixto Rodriguez’s “Sugar Man”. Take a listen below and spot the sample!
Although not a vocal sample, this is one that most of us recognise. Robin Thicke’s hit “Blurred Lines” samples Marvin Gaye’s “Got To Give It Up”.
An interesting crossover of two genres, Rihanna’s “Cheers” highlights how taking a simple sample of ‘yeah’s can add the cherry on top of a song. Head to 2:20 of the second video to hear the original vocal from Lavigne’s track “I’m With You”.
One of the most common questions and concerns over sampling in general is the question of copyright. For example, “can I sample Ed Sheeran’s vocals in my project?” The answer is complicated, and one that I am not going to be able to completely answer in this article. Suffice it to say that you should make sure you have all the rights to use a vocal sample before you use it in your song. If your song takes off and becomes number one on Spotify, you do not want someone coming after you to claim royalties out of your hard earned streaming income. You do not want to end up in court like Robin Thicke, who had to pay Marvin Gaye’s family 5 million dollars for sampling “Got to Give it Up”! The easy way to ensure you have all the sample rights is to create your own samples.
There are a few different ways you can create your own pack of vocal samples that you can use in your own projects or share with other producers.
Yes! Bring out your microphone and start recording. Find a few catchy phrases that you have heard and start recording. It doesn’t matter if they sound corny. Even the phrase “I love you” can be jazzed up to sound original. Don’t be scared to use vocal oohs and aahs. If you don’t have the perfect microphone or studio setup, try recording on your phone. When you import the samples into your project, you will probably be manipulating them so much that you won’t recognise them, anyway.
We all have one or two friends that fancy themselves as the next Idol winner. Send them a backing track and some lyric ideas via WhatsApp and ask them to send something back to you. Note to self, ask them to plug in headphones before recording so that you don’t hear the backing track. Ask them to sing acapella. Ask them to sing a public domain song or nursery rhyme, or even ask them to ad lib. There are sure to be parts that you will want to splice up and use.
There are hundreds of vocalists just dying to record for you, so why not give it a try? Give them something to work with by deciding up front what you want sung, and maybe even provide them with a backing track to sing along to. Don’t forget to ask them to ad lib to the backing track. With the right vocalist, you will find gold at the end of this rainbow.
Generate samples using your computer using Vocaloid technology. Using this software, you can provide often used lyrics and receive samples in various styles, keys and in both genders.
As you can see from the previous paragraph, it is incredibly easy to create your own vocal samples. However, if you want to shorten this process, there are several places on the web where you can download free vocal samples to use. Here are a few examples, but I am sure you will find many more on investigation.
So, there you have it! I hope this article has inspired you to try out using samples. As mentioned earlier, please do make sure you have all the rights to use someone else’s recordings before using them in your project. Try making your own and try downloading some free vocal samples from the resources listed above, and most of all – have fun creating!
Now you have heard our top tips and got access to these brilliant free vocal sample resources, you will hopefully be utilising them when producing your music! Allow us to help you amplify your music, collaborate with others, and even get your music in TV, film and more. Why not try Music Gateway for free?