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How to Sample Music

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Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

In many popular music genres, music sampling is an integral part of production, allowing artists to add depth, creativity, layers of meaning, and a sense of familiarity to their compositions.

Definition and importance of music sampling

Music sampling is the process of copying a section of a sound or music recording — aka a sample — and placing it into a new original recording or composition. These samples can range from short drum hits and vocal snippets to entire melodies or instrumental sections. By using samples, musicians can tap into the creativity and brilliance of past recordings while infusing their own style into the mix.

Sampling has had a major impact on music, most notably in hip hop, where it has become a defining aspect of the genre. Sampling gives music artists a chance to pay homage to their musical influences, flex musical chops by reimagining prominent riffs and snippets in a new context, and connecting with their listeners by incorporating familiar musical elements — or sometimes introducing their listeners to important or popular music from generations ago.

Sampling provides a powerful means of expression, enabling artists to explore diverse musical territories and bridge the gap between different genres and eras.

Historical context and notable examples

The roots of music sampling go back to the birth of hip hop in the 1970s and 1980s. DJs would loop and manipulate sections of funk, soul, and disco records to create beats that formed the backbone of rap songs. As sampling evolved and became part of the larger creative music production process, it was common to hear samples integrated into rock, pop, and electronic music as well.

Some notable examples of influential sampling in music history include:

  • Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” (1981). This groundbreaking track showcased Grandmaster Flash’s turntable skills, seamlessly blending samples from various songs and creating a collage of rhythms and melodies.
  • De La Soul, 3 Feet High and Rising (1989). De La Soul’s debut album was a milestone in sampling, featuring extensive use of eclectic samples ranging from funk and soul to spoken-word recordings. The album’s innovative approach inspired a generation of producers, though it is also renowned for bringing legal considerations with sampling to the fore.

Before diving in and using sampled music in your recording, you need to understand copyright law and the legal considerations involved with the use of samples.

Unauthorized sampling can lead to copyright infringement, potentially resulting in legal consequences and financial liabilities — not to mention an inability to mass produce your CDs and vinyl LPs. However, there are guidelines and resources available to ensure you sample within legal boundaries.

You should also understand how to copyright a song to ensure your own music and recordings are protected from unauthorized use if someone decides to sample your music without permission.

Overview of copyright laws related to music sampling

Copyright laws protect both the underlying composition and the master recording of a song. To legally sample a sound recording, you must obtain permission from the copyright holders, which typically include the original artist, record label, and/or music publisher. Additionally, you need clearance for the underlying composition, often held by the songwriter or music publisher.

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Fair use guidelines and sampling permissions

Fair use is a legal doctrine that allows limited use of copyrighted material without permission from the copyright holder. However, determining fair use in music sampling can be complex and is often subject to interpretation by the courts. Factors such as the purpose and character of the use, the nature of the copyrighted work, the amount used, and the effect on the market are considered when assessing fair use.

Because fair use can be so subjective, your best bet is to seek legal permission and obtain sample clearances, even if you believe your use qualifies as fair use. For more information about fair use, visit the US Copyright Office’s Fair Use Index.

Resources for obtaining sample clearances

There are several resources that can help you navigate the process of obtaining a sample clearance. Learn more at the Disc Makers website to streamline the clearance process and ensure that you are respecting the rights of the original song artists and copyright holders.

Getting started with music sampling

Let’s delve into the practicalities of getting started with sampling.

Essential equipment and software for sampling

To begin sampling, you’re going to need a computer or laptop equipped with a digital audio workstation (DAW). In addition to a computer and DAW, having a quality audio interface, studio monitors or headphones, and MIDI controllers will streamline your workflow and enhance your production quality.

Setting up a sampling workstation

To create an efficient and inspiring sampling workstation, you will need to optimize your physical and digital setup. Organize your physical space to ensure easy access to your equipment and minimize distractions.

Within your DAW, customize your workspace by arranging music sample libraries, virtual instruments, and effects in a way that promotes efficiency. This setup will allow you to quickly explore and manipulate samples during the production process.

Music sampling techniques

Vinyl Guide bannerOnce you have your setup ready, it’s time to explore various sampling techniques.

  • Chop and rearrange samples. Break down longer samples into smaller segments, or chops, and rearrange them to create unique patterns and sequences.
  • Pitch-shifting and time-stretching. Alter the pitch of a sample to match the key of your composition or experiment with time-stretching to manipulate the sample’s tempo without affecting its pitch.
  • Layer and blend samples. Combine multiple samples to create rich and textured sounds. Layering allows you to blend different elements, such as drums, melodies, and vocals, to craft complex and dynamic sonic landscapes.
  • Apply effects and filters. Experiment with audio effects and filters to shape the characteristics of your samples. Effects like reverb, delay, distortion, and EQ can add depth and color to your sampled sounds.

Finding samples

Nothing beats the feeling of finding an amazing sample that inspires you. Here are some tips for discovering and utilizing samples effectively.

Explore different sources for samples

Samples can be sourced from various places, including vinyl records, online libraries, field recordings, or even a sample pack. Vinyl records offer a treasure trove of sounds and textures, while online platforms like Splice and Loopmasters provide vast digital libraries catering to different genres and styles.

Tips for crate digging and sample selection

While you want to find samples that resonate with you and align with the mood or direction of your project, pay attention to the quality of the recording as well as the instrumentation, groove, and overall vibe to make sure it’s a good fit for your music production.

Sample manipulation and customization

Once you have selected your samples, manipulate them to fit your vision. Apply effects, adjust the envelope, and experiment with different processing techniques to transform the sample into something customized and personal.

  • Experiment with unconventional samples and genres. Don’t limit yourself to traditional sources. Explore unconventional samples from field recordings, obscure records, or everyday sounds. Embrace genres outside of your project to bring fresh perspectives to your music.
  • Incorporate live instruments and recordings. Combine sampled elements with live instruments or recordings to add an organic and human touch to your compositions. Layering live drums, guitars, or vocals can create an interesting blend of sampled and original sounds.

Get licensed and make CDs

When you’re ready to bring your music to your fans on CD and vinyl LPs, remember, if your recording contains any form of sampling, you are required to purchase a master use license. It’s recommended to reach out to the owner if you intend on distributing your music for TV shows, movies, commercials, or videos. Acquire the licensing and pay the fee to minimize potential damage.

In addition, if you have recorded a cover song for your release, you’ll need to get a mechanical license authorizing you to reproduce the composition. To help, Disc Makers partners with Easy Song to help musicians easily pay for mechanical licenses on one portal.

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About Philip Kinsher

Philip Kinsher is a writer, editor, and musician with a predilection for YA Sci-fi Fantasy books and rock and roll. And golf and pickleball.

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