While today's popular digital audio workstations like Ableton, Logic Pro, and Pro Tools come equipped with MIDI instruments galore, most beat producers still prefer to use samples. MIDI instruments have their place, but they can often feel too digital and computerized, whereas samples capture the warmth of high-quality, classic recordings. Collecting and altering samples can be a complex process at first, but once you get the hang of it, it's fun, explorative, and rewarding. Here are a few ways to find and use samples in your music.
Sample packs are like bags of candy for beat-makers. Usually they're filled with single hits of numerous hi-hats, bass drums, snare drums, claps, percussion, etc. You might find noise samples, such as fire crackle, rain, or street ambience. You can also find sample packs with synth notes, strings, piano chords, and more melodic content. Each of these little single-hit samples gives you the creativity to design your own drum kit and melody by pairing unique elements together. In addition, many sample packs feature pre-made drum loops. These give you less room to be creative, but can help when you're starting off. One-instrument loops like a shaker at 120 bpm are helpful for filling up a minimal beat.
There are websites like musicradar.com, bedroomproducersblog.com, and freesound.org with an array of free samples, but keep in mind that you get what you pay for. Websites like hiphopdrumsamples.com offer inexpensive, high-quality sample packs. It may be worth it to pay just a few dollars to enjoy access to pro-quality audio samples. It will make your music sound more professional and much cleaner once it's inevitably compressed into low-quality MP3s.
Vinyl is the classic way of sampling that beat-maker pros have utilized for years. While this process is being outdated by the internet, it's still used by producers around the world. (DJ Shadow has a record collection the size of a library!) This can be incredibly fun and inexpensive. Go into your local record stores, search the dollar-or-less bin for old jazz, house, rock, etc. records, check them out, and buy several. Take the records home, rip them onto your computer, and find the good samples. Cut them up and keep them in an organized file library.
While this classic approach is far more time-consuming than hopping onto the internet and using a free sample pack with pre-cut samples, it's extremely rewarding and exposes you to a plethora of music. There are several record players today that are built so you can rip the audio to your laptop. Using this approach will get you out into your local music community, searching for samples through an array records, and will teach you new ways to listen to music.
Through this route, you can find drum beats, string sections, vocal melodies, and more to sample in your music. Kanye West's "Blood on the Leaves" features samples of Nina Simone's 1965 rendition of "Strange Fruit," and of TNGHT's song "R U Ready." It's completely common for artists to sample distinct passages of existing music while putting their own unique spin on each section. By sifting through records, you can find the right music for your sound.
Searching YouTube for samples can feel a million times more intimidating than searching through a record store. With a seemingly endless number of videos, where do you begin? This is where the search option is incredibly handy. You can search the site for jazz solos, ancient Chinese harps, or movie dialogue. Using any website that transfers YouTube videos to MP3s, you can convert the audio and use it in your music. However, you must be given permission from the owner of the music and video.
[Learn more: How to Legally Sample Music]
Popular London producer Burial used a sample of Beyonce's "Resentment" in his song "Untrue." But instead of using the original sample, he took the audio from an a cappella cover version of the song uploaded by a fan on YouTube. With her permission, he was able to use her rendition, chop it up, and make it his own in his song.
YouTube is a video platform, but it's dominated by music. If you want to find a good sample of a particular ride cymbal, chances are that there is a high-quality video out there of someone demoing the ride cymbal. With their permission to use the audio, you now have several samples of the cymbal, and so forth.
Taking a field recorder and just recording the sounds you find outside is one of the most direct ways of capturing unique sounds for your music. Apogee One is a fantastic, near-pocket-sized audio interface and microphone, which can record into an iPhone. It's a perfect tool to take with you, whether you're in a crowded city like New York or at an empty river stream in the country. Famous Brazilian producer Amon Tobin made his album Foley Room almost entirely out of field recordings.
While field recordings can be used exactly as they are, they can also be manipulated into new, atypical sounds. For example, the sound of a car driving by can be pitched down and effected to have a droning bass sound. The sound of a pine cone falling on the concrete can be effected to sound like a clap. Digital manipulation allows you to turn normal sounds into unique, creative instruments. This way of finding and using samples takes dedication, but like shifting through stacks of records, it's incredibly rewarding and fun!
Sam Friedman is an electronic music producer and singer-songwriter based in Brooklyn, NY. His music blends experimental ambience with indie-driven dance music. In addition to pursuing his own music, he is a New Music Editor for Unrecorded and is passionate about music journalism. Check out his music and follow him on Twitter @nerveleak.