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May 22, 2019 by DJ Pangburn

Sampling Your Samples: Why You Should Try It

For your next song, try sampling your samples. Strange and wonderful things will happen, I guarantee it.

Sampling, by its very nature, is an experimental process. One finds a sound, records, and manipulates it for the desired effect. Some samples are simple, like the pitched vocals heard on Kanye West’s mid-00s productions. Others are a bit more complex, such as the ornate and entirely singular sound collages that dominate hip hop producer J Dilla’s Donuts album. But the sampling process can be taken much further. By sampling samples, a musician or producer can introduce more complex electronic textures and beats to a track.

Most modern hardware and software samplers allow users to sample their samples, taking them far beyond their original sound source and into more experimental realms. On some pieces of gear, like the Roland SP-404 and Elektron Digitakt, as well as on Ableton Live, this process is known as resampling. But to avoid any confusion with the audio term “resampling,” which indicates a change in sampling rate, we won’t be using the term here.

On the Elektron Digitakt, a user can get pretty aggressive with creative sampling of samples. A user can output an 8-track, 64-step project and then resample it to wreak further sonic havoc upon it. Below are a few ideas for how to creatively approach the process of sampling your samples. Think of it as a starter kit for using this process as both a compositional and sound design tool.

Stack different synth sounds

One of the most immediately fruitful uses for sampling of samples is to bypass a hardware sequencer’s limitations. Many hardware samplers have track limitations, so resampling one’s samples allows the user to effectively create more tracks. True, this isn’t a concern for musicians who prefer creating dozens and dozens of tracks full of samples in their favorite DAW; but not every musician or producer wants to indulge in such a process. That said, some DAW-based musicians might want to sample their samples onto one track, but more on that below.

Suppose a musician wants to create a sampled synth track with multiple sounds in it. They could sample onto one track and tweak it, and then add other tweaked samples. This is somewhat like the type of multi-track ping-ponging that was common on reel-to-reel and cassette deck recording. More specifically, individual samples of a triangle wave, a square wave, an FM synth note, a strange wavetable, and various other synth sounds could be condensed into a single track, creating strange results in the process.

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In a DAW, the same principles apply. For instance, if an ambient song features six different synthesizer tracks at various points during its run time, these sounds can be sampled into one dedicated track and processed with different effects. This type of strategy might work well for the end of the song, giving the ambient tune the sense that its waveforms are melting into each other or tearing apart at the seams.

Go beyond a sampler’s sequence length limits

Most hardware samplers, like the Digitakt or Pioneer Toraiz SP-16, are limited to something like 64 steps (per track, per pattern). While this limitation can often be circumvented by pattern chaining, some musicians or producers might want to dedicate one hardware pad or button to function as a container of sorts for multiple percussion elements, like kick, snare, hi-hats, random percussive samples, and so on.

Let’s say one wanted to create a complex, frenetic drum sequence in one portion of a song. Maybe it’s a transition section or even a long percussion passage. One could resample all percussive elements into one dedicated track and then apply new effects to this track. The root sounds would be the same, but the results would be much different.

When sampling samples on a piece of hardware or inside a DAW, individual tracks can be muted and unmuted during the recording process, giving the new conglomerate sample a live vibe. Indeed, whether in a live or studio setting, this would allow the musician to break out of a song’s sequenced beat loops in a very creative way.

Give sounds an experimental, granular vibe

Granular synthesis is the technique of breaking sounds down into tiny grains or granules and reorganizing or shuffling them to create new sounds. When grains are recombined, evolving soundscapes emerge. Granular synthesizers can be found in software but also hardware like Eurorack modules. However, it’s also possible to use a hardware or software sampler to create granular sounds.

One method of turning samples into granular sounds is by loading individual samples onto dedicated tracks, then sequencing them to the desired length. From there, the sequenced samples can be played and the results recorded. This first part of the process, of course, mirrors the techniques we laid out above for stacking synthesizers or sampling multiple drum samples onto a single track. But that’s where the similarities end. Getting to the granular stage, at least with this technique, involves some real-time manipulation.

First, the new multi-track sample must be edited into a tiny loop (also called a grain). After creating the grain, one can move the sample’s start point to any moment on the sample file, and trigger the notes by either playing them chromatically or by sequencing them. Add more complexity to the mix by loading the sample onto other tracks, sequencing them all, and moving amongst the tracks to adjust the sample start point for unique granular results.

Create a multi-track loop on just one track

Above, we talked about sampling multiple sample tracks onto one single track to effectively stack synths, but we also explained how to use this process for creating complex drum transitions or longer passages. By sampling multiple sample loops, however, an entire song can be dedicated to one track.

Now, why would one want to do this? One clear advantage of a hardware sampler is that it frees up more tracks for different instruments and samples. And on a DAW, creating a single sample audio file frees up some processing power, but it also declutters the DAW’s project view. These are fairly simple house cleaning strategies, but important to consider.

Bouncing multiple tracks featuring sounds like drum beats, bass, synths, or even guitar, allows the musician or producer to easily stretch the new sample, reverse, pitch it down or up.

In a DAW, one could easily chop up this audio sample into a myriad of slices, then recombine them in experimental ways. On a hardware sampler like the Digitakt or Toraiz, on the other hand, one could assign various parts of this uber sample across a pattern’s eight tracks, and sequence them; or even repeat this across eight different patterns to create really strange variations.

Like the other approaches discussed above, think of this as just another way of composing. It won’t be for everyone. But for the curious, regardless of the sampler being used, it could introduce an alternative compositional tool to break one out of writer’s block, or simply just come at a track from a different perspective.