It’s hard to imagine what the music industry would be like today if sampling never took hold. What would hip-hop sound like? Same goes for electronic music.
By now, it’s clear that the practice of recycling other people’s sounds to make something new has both creative merits and lasting influence.
But the golden age of sampling—before anyone bothered to sue for copyright infringement—is over. While audio samples are still commonplace, using them without securing legal consent, especially as a known artist, can land you a court date.
In order to avoid the financial and administrative nightmare that is clearing a sample, producers and bedroom beat makers alike have turned to sample and loop libraries like Splice that provide royalty-free sounds ready for use. The popularity of these services has led to a situation where now thousands of producers around the world are depending on the same samples to make their songs.
So how do you make sure you don’t sound like everyone else? Sure, sometimes all you need are placeholder elements like risers and crashes. But to really make samples and loops stand out, additional editing and sound design is required.
Follow along as I show you four fresh approaches to sampling that produce standout results.
1. Transient shaping
Transients are the short, loud bursts of energy right at the start of a waveform that give a sound its character. All instruments have transients, but they are most noticeable with drums and percussion. Think of a snare—its transient will determine whether it cracks, snaps, or flops.
When browsing through drum loops, I often find myself in the same situation: the drum arrangement and sound selection is great, but there is an unwanted room tone or long reverb tail that just doesn’t suit my musical style. I’d rather create my own space for the drums than settle on whatever the recording has.
Transient Shaper in Neutron 2 gives you full control to shape transient attack and sustain so drum loops (or any loop, for that matter) sound the way you want. In the jazzy drum loop below, for example, the open rides and cymbals blur the high end and make it difficult for the kicks to stand out.
To fix this, I put together three Transient Shaper settings that increase transient attack (for kick drum presence) and decrease transient sustain (eliminating hi-end bleed) to varying degrees. Listen as I move from the original, into a new processed version every two bars.
By increasing attack, the kick drums sound punchier. Decreasing sustain tames the hi-hats, opening up space for additional song elements. For example, a guitar.
The original drums and guitar sound stuffed together—there’s just too much happening at the same time. But with transient sculpting, the drums back down, letting the guitar do its thing. The result is a more balanced mix.
Hot tip: in your DAW, record automation that subtly increases and decreases transient attack and sustain throughout an entire song to mimic the natural changes a drummer has while playing.
2. Look to the past
Most of the content available from online sample libraries has a distinctly modern sound: heavy lows, sculpted mids, and crispy highs. Some genres of music demand this sleek finish, whereas others benefit from a warmer, more subdued sound. If you prefer intimate, retro charm over radio gloss, read on.
Grab a guitar or keyboard sound from your sample folder and drag it into your DAW. Sound selection is important here. Since a lot of low frequency content will be removed, your sample should have rich midrange and presence. Here is the sample I’m using:
In your DAW, bring up an instance of Vinyl and dial back the Year setting—which band-limits the incoming signal and makes it sound like an old radio broadcast—to 1950 or 1960. Increase the pitch bend setting, called Warp, to a maximum of 10%. For shimmer, add a touch of chorus. Then pitch the sample down a few semitones.
The pillowly results just beg for some loose lo-fi drums.
For a more ambient sound, send the keyboard through a round of reverb and delay.
At some point, we’ve all listened to one of our mixes wondering why it doesn’t sound as good as a polished, released record. Somehow, by comparison, our own offering sounds thinner and less exciting. There are a few key technical issues that can be addressed to fix this. But sometimes, the solution to a less-than-perfect mix is a little unique flair.
If my final mix isn’t sounding up to par, I re-sample the underperforming parts and use basic creative tools like transposition and audio slicing to shake them up. Here’s how to do it in Ableton Live.
Create a new audio track, and set the input to re-sampling. Arm the record button on the new track and transport panel, then record the sections you want to edit from the master output onto the new audio track.
Here’s a static section of a drum and bass song I made.
Take a look at my editing process in the image below. I split out small moments from the re-sampled audio, dragged them onto new tracks, then sliced, re-pitched, and filtered them for variation.
By re-sampling to audio, you can easily rearrange a piece of music in practical ways that cannot be done with just individual MIDI notes. It also breaks you out of the mindset of programming from the piano roll and endlessly tweaking VST parameters.
Depending on the music you make, including too many of these rapid-fire edits will sound obnoxious. Within the realm of electronic music, you have more freedom, and I’d suggest adding four or five throughout an entire song. Include them whenever you feel your song has become repetitive and needs an energy boost.
4. Use audio samples in your favorite soft-synth
Certain soft-synths, like iZotope’s own Iris 2, allow you to use samples to create custom patches. The big benefit of sample-based synthesis is the ability to mix and match unlikely, even non-musical sounds together to make something new. Iris 2 has a built-in sample library but you can also drag and drop your own sound bites.
My first sample in the patch is a flute. In my DAW piano roll, I drew out a MIDI sequence the same way I would with an oscillator-based soft synth.
Field recordings of bees, chanting, and rain occupy the remaining three sample slots. The volume levels are high enough for the recordings to be heard, but not overpower the flute. All together, the four samples produce a dreamy, strange synth reminiscent of Boards of Canada.
From here, each sample can be manipulated like a synth oscillator and processed with basic studio effects. I included reverb, distortion, chorus, and some heavy panning.
Sample-based synthesis provides a lot of flexibility when it comes to audio manipulation and I suggest you experiment in your DAW by dropping (then swapping) arbitrary sounds in a soft-synth like Iris 2 to come up with special instruments.
Sampling and beyond
As I mentioned at the top of the article, not all audio samples need to be edited and processed to be useful or unique. But if you are feeling adventurous and want to explore the potential of samples, loops and field recordings, try out one of the four strategies in this article and I can just about guarantee you will stumble onto something new.