Mixing sample-based music poses a unique set of challenges for engineers—sources can come from anywhere. A producer might combine EDM drums from Splice with a low-quality soul acapella ripped from YouTube and percussion sounds captured on a smartphone. This requires a considerable amount of care on the part of an engineer to blend them together.
In this article, I’ll discuss the common challenges of mixing samples and provide tips to work around them. Here are seven tips for mixing sample-based music.
1. Understand why the producer chose to use samples
Don’t have a clear idea of what you want to accomplish in a mix at the outset? This is a common beginner mistake made by engineers working within all genres and styles of music. When mixing sample-based music, it's important to consider why the producer included samples in the song before balancing levels, shaping with EQ, and taming dynamics. Is the producer trying to impart a lo-fi flavor? Referencing a bygone era? Augmenting other instruments? If you’re unsure, there’s nothing wrong with asking them directly.
Why is this important? Getting a clear sense of the “why” behind their sample use will help you make faster mix decisions as you go along. If you know the producer wants the samples to blend in seamlessly with the other instruments, it’s an easy decision to remove any signs of editing and artifacts. Other producers are perfectly fine, if not proud, to let the imperfections of the artform show. In this case, your job is to preserve the natural groove of the source material and mix around it.
Which leads to the next point...
2. Sample noise reduction: Clean what needs to be cleaned
RX is an audio repair and noise reduction editor that can remove the most impossible sounds from a recording—crackle, heavy breathing, clicks...the list goes on.
This makes for a helpful tool when dealing with samples from dollar bin vinyl and other noisy sources. While there are hundreds of use cases for RX features, I can give you some advice about noise reduction as it pertains to samples—clean only what needs to be cleaned.
What this means is to assess the role of each track within the arrangement before getting surgical. If the arrangement is sparse, you might want to keep some crackle on the samples to fill up the empty space. Just be sure to tame distracting transients. One the other hand, if you have a busy mix and a handful of samples with different timbres, a tool like Ambient Match or De-Reverb will allow you to more easily massage them together.
3. Don’t lose sight of the bass
The genres of music that use samples most often—hip-hop, electronic, and pop—require a powerful low end, so it is crucial to sculpt enough space in the mix for the bass to be heard and felt. This task can be complicated by the fact that many samples, particularly multi-layer loops, include lots of low frequencies.
This is most obvious when the samples are taken from full songs. It's not uncommon to find rumble and hum creeping in the 20–200 Hz range on hi-hats, snares, vocals, and many other sounds that don’t need to go that low.
High quality sounds downloaded from Splice can play tricks on your ears too. To capture your attention with fullness, many mid and high range samples include significant low-end and will blow out your mix when layered haphazardly. So be sure to determine where the bass is coming from early on and use EQ to prevent unpleasant masking on competing instruments.
4. Whenever possible, split samples into stems
You may find it helpful to split layered samples with multiple instruments into separate tracks where they can be processed individually. If the sample you’re mixing includes a guitar, bassline, and hi-hat pattern, you will find it challenging to pick a single EQ or compression setting that doesn’t prioritize one sound over another.
Some of this splitting can be done with EQ if there is enough separation between the individual sounds in the original recording, but this isn’t always the case. The solution? Once again, RX saves the day.
Split samples into stems with the Music Rebalance module in RX
Using iZotope audio magic, the Music Rebalance module allows you to isolate stems from a multi-track recording, then bring them back into your DAW for re-blending. This way, you can add reverb to the guitar without muddying the bass or even remove the guitar from the mix altogether. This tool offers a degree of control that, up until recently, just wasn’t possible. I highly recommend it for engineers mixing sample-based music. Watch how it all works in the video below:
5. Ensure samples are in tune and on time
In any kind of music that relies on sampling, engineers need to keep their ears peeled to potential tuning and timing clashes between samples and recorded sounds and synths. Let’s look at tuning first.
Some of the nastiest tuning clashes happen in the low end between kick and bass where our hearing is strained. I wouldn’t worry much about short drum samples since they rarely stick around long enough to discern a single pitch. Long, pitched decays from booming 808-style kicks, on the other hand, can overlap with basslines and even leads, and when they do, the drums will struggle to smack.
There are two common ways to tackle this issue. A rough-and-ready approach is to pitch the drums up an octave or two (which will add high frequencies that make it easier to determine the pitch), do the fine-tuning, then transpose them back to their low-end location. Alternatively, you can use a spectrum analyzer, like Insight 2, which will display the fundamental frequency of a sample. Using a chart like this, you can find the corresponding note and match it to the key of the song.
If you’ve sampled a vocal for a tune, you will certainly want to get it in key with the rest of the music, as errors here will be obvious to even casual listeners of music. For this task, a tool like Melodyne (which comes with Nectar 3) will give you granular control over individual notes, and even vibrato.
Adjusting timing is another menial, yet vital task. Before you start mixing, take a moment to tighten up the timing of samples straying off-grid. Loose soul and funk loops can clash with quantized MIDI parts and become distracting. Your DAW’s audio warping tool should help you re-align the mix.
6. Massage and shape those transients
A transient shaping plug-in, like the one offered in Neutron, is a reliable tool for shaping pre-existing recordings. Boiled down, the plug-in gives you basic, but powerful envelope controls over an audio signal. This way, you can shorten and lengthen sample attack and sustain much like a synth.
If you want to dial up the pluckiness on a rhythm guitar sample, for example, increase the attack with Transient Shaper. A small nudge upward will give you more aggressive transients. Another option here is to reduce the sustain, which will remove the room and have the inverse effect of making the attack seem more pronounced.
If you’re mixing an indie dance tune and the sampled kick drum is too punchy or has a click at the start, decrease the attack to tame the transient and take the edge off. You’ll find the mix will sound more balanced afterward.
7. Don’t be afraid to add in your own MIDI
Common sample fodder, like jazz and soul recordings from the 70s, have a narrower frequency range than the music put out today. To help these samples sound full in the context of modern sounds, try doubling them up with a MIDI instrument. This is also helpful when a producer who attempts to isolate an instrument uses too much EQ and thins out the sample.
If they didn’t send over the MIDI, ask the producer for the session files or use pitch detection software (again, Melodyne) to determine the notes in the sample. Just remember, you don’t want to change the direction of the song with the new part. Enhance what is already there to serve the original intention of the song and the producer probably won’t even notice. That being said, it's never a bad idea to double-check with them.
At the end of the day, all mixes require us to blend together a collection of audio in a way that benefits the song, so you will find that many of the techniques listed here are equally useful in a mix with recorded sounds and synths.
Mixing music from different eras, tempos, and genres has its challenges, as does getting a full arrangement to compete with sounds it was never intended to. But, these same challenges also offer great creative possibilities—as the history of hip-hop, drum and bass, and other sample-based genres will tell you.