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Music Production

What Is A Sample?

Photograph of the blog post author, Richard Gilbert-Cross

Richard Gilbert-Cross

17.3.2023

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Introduction

Samples have become an increasing part of music production in the modern day. Perhaps you have heard of samples being used in the latest hit songs or maybe you’re starting out as a producer and you’re interested in exploring the use of samples.

This article will provide you with everything you need to know, including what a sample actually is, how to use samples to create great songs and how to ensure you can legally do so.

What is a sample?

A sample is a small portion of audio recorded from an existing audio recording with the intention of reusing it in another musical track. A sample can vary from a quote or sound effect to an entire melody or rhythm.

Once recorded, the sample can be looped, manipulated or layered into another audio recording to create a new sound or supplement an existing one. Many modern hit songs have used a looped melody from an old song to form the rhythm for a verse or chorus. 

For optimum sound quality, a music sample is typically derived from digital or vinyl records.

How do you sample from digital or vinyl records?

Sample

To sample from a digital or vinyl record, you will need a turntable and a computer with audio recording software such as Audacity, WavePad or Adobe Audition.

Once downloaded, open the software and connect the turntable to the computer using an audio cable (if using vinyl records) or load up your audio music service.

For vinyl records, load the record onto the turntable, set the turntable to the desired speed and make sure the needle is properly placed on the record. Be sure to check the needle for debris and never touch the needle directly with your fingers.

If using digital music, load the song you will be using, then open the audio recording software and start recording. Play the song and adjust the volume as necessary. Once you have recorded the basis for your sample, save the audio file on your audio recording service and you’re done!

Types of recording samples

Drumloop software for sampling music

Recording samples vary depending on the type of recording and the intended use. A sample can feature dialogue, sound effects or music, which are recorded onto an audio recording device. However, the type of audio recording used can have a significant effect on the sample’s final sound.

There are several different types of audio recordings available.

Mono recordings

Mono recordings are basic single-channel recordings. This means that all of the audio is recorded in one channel and will sound the same in the left and right sound input. Mono recordings are typically used for spoken word or dialogue, as they provide a direct, focused sound. They are also the most common, generally used when only one microphone is available.

Stereo recordings

In contrast to mono, stereo recordings are two-channel, meaning that the audio is recorded in two channels, typically left and right. Stereo recordings are primarily used for music as they provide a wider, three-dimensional soundstage and a more immersive listening experience.

Multitrack recordings

Multitracks are multiple-channel recordings where separate audio sources are recorded in multiple channels. Multitrack recordings are mainly used for music production as they can allow for all instruments to be layered on top of each other, which can provide more control over the sound.

Ambisonic recordings 

These are three-dimensional recordings, meaning that the audio is recorded in at least four channels in order to create a completely 360-degree surround sound. Ambisonic recordings provide the most realistic and engaging audio experience. As such, they are typically used for virtual reality (VR) applications.

How are recording samples used in music?

Recording samples are incredibly versatile and can be used in a variety of ways in music production. The samples can be used to create new sounds, add layers to existing sounds or simply add a unique element to a song. With the latter, this is typically a catchy beat that can serve as the song’s ‘hook’.

The way in which an existing sample can create a new sound is by manipulating existing sounds. For example, a drum or vocal sample can be manipulated by changing the tempo, chopping and rearranging the sound or by adding effects such as reverb or delay. This ‘new’ sound can then add a layer to a song or provide a completely different sound. 

They can also be combined for an enhanced effect. For instance, a drum sample can be combined with a bass sample to create a more effective sound.

A recording sample can also be used to create custom sound effects. This is used to dramatic effect in N-Trance’s 1994 rave classic ‘Set U Free’, where a thunderstorm can be heard towards the end of the song. 

Risks of sampling

Naturally, recording a piece of sound recording and applying it to a new piece of music does carry the potential for legal risk. However, this process can be carried out legally by obtaining the necessary licenses and permissions. Proceeding to use them without attaining permission can cause significant consequences.

The rules around copyrights and infringements for sampling can sometimes be tricky. If a sample is taken from a sound recording that is protected by copyright, the use of that sample without relevant permission is an infringement of the copyright owner’s rights. Depending on the jurisdiction, this could lead to a lawsuit and significant fines or damages.

It is important to ensure that any samples used are cleared for use before use in a new recording. Anybody wishing to do so may obtain or request a license from the copyright holder. Some copyright holders allow the use of samples providing they are only used for personal reasons, not commercial use. Therefore, it is important to thoroughly consider the conditions of usage. 

If copyright rules are unclear, you may request legal use of a sample or by utilising a sample clearance service. If it is not cleared for use, it is best to not use it to avoid the risk of damages.

How To Sample Music

Sometimes it is not always clear whether a sample will be cleared for use. Often, it can depend on whether a sample of music is used as a sound effect or musical element for another song. 

We can use the examples here of a snare sample or looped disco beat. A one-hit snare sample is a single sound effect used to create a drum beat. It is usually a short, sharp sound that is used to punctuate a rhythm. A vocal or looped disco beat is a longer, more melodic piece of music that is often used as a backing track or as the main beat of a song, looped repeatedly.

The difference between a one-hit snare sample and a looped disco beat is that the former is generally used as a sound effect, whereas the latter is considered a musical element. A one-hit snare sample is typically used in a single instance, whereas a vocal or looped disco piece of music is often repeated throughout the song.

When it comes to copyright issues, one-hit snare samples are usually not subject to copyright laws, as they are generally considered to be short sound effects. They do not significantly enhance a song, therefore a copyright holder may be less concerned.

However, a looped disco beat would be subject to copyright laws as this would be considered to be a substantial musical element of another song. A sampler may have taken a recognisable element of the sampled song and used it to great effect in a new track. 

The difference between the two may not be so obvious to a sampler. It is therefore incredibly important to obtain the appropriate permissions and licenses when using samples or at least to carry out the appropriate checks.

What are the benefits of using samples?

Using recording samples has a huge number of benefits. Firstly, it allows producers and musicians to create unique sounds that would otherwise be impossible to capture in a traditional recording setting. Samples can also be used to create unique and interesting sounds that would otherwise be difficult or impossible to create with traditional instruments. This is useful in the modern age of electronic music.

Did you know the most sampled beat of all time is the drum beat from the 1960s song ‘Amen, Brother’ by The Winstons? 

Famously, this was used in the title track from N.W.A’s platinum award-winning album Straight Outta Compton, which itself uses six samples. One song from the album uses a total of twelve samples. 

The Amen break, as it is now known, is the four-bar loop sampled from the track and is credited with laying the groundwork for D&B, hip-hop, jungle and other genres. It has been the subject of much discussion due to the sale of a wooden carving of its sine wave and a GoFundMe project to finally start compensating The Winstons for their influential contribution to music.

Despite its widespread use, Richard L. Spencer and Gregory Coleman’s sample has remained relatively unknown in popular culture and they have never received any royalties for its widespread use. You can contribute to the Winston brother’s fund here.

In essence, recording samples allows for a much greater degree of flexibility and creativity for producers when creating music. This may be particularly crucial for a solo musician who does not have a backing band or who is unable to play any musical instruments. 

Samples have been a crucial element in hip-hop songs over the years, with drum samples a particular favourite.

How do you create a recording sample?

Creating a recording sample can be a relatively simple process. However, there are a few important steps to consider.

Firstly, it is important to choose a recording device. Typically, this is a microphone, computer or portable recorder. Then prime the device correctly, making sure the settings are correct and the device is in the right position to pick up the sound.

Choosing the right environment is crucial; a quiet space with minimal background noise is optimal. The sample can then be recorded. Once the recording has finished, listen to it and adjust the volume or other settings as required.

Finally, don’t forget to save your work! This must be saved in a compatible format that can also be shared or easily opened for further editing.

Closing Thoughts

In conclusion, sampling music can be a great way to add something new and unique to your own creations. With the right tools and techniques, you can create something special and truly your own. So why not give it a try?


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