Image of a digital recording studio
Our introduction to sampling aims to provide an entry point to the world of sampled audio. We'll explain what sampling is, how you do it and where you can begin your own sampling journey.

Slicing and dicing

Chances are that if you’re familiar with popular music then you’ll be familiar with sampling. The process of taking a record, cutting small chunks of it out, and then incorporating it into a new track isn’t new. But it has become a lot more refined over the years.

In this article we’ll aim to demystify some of the elements that make up sampling. Basic stuff like what is it, how is it done, etc. We’ll also show a few examples of sampling as it’s used in music, and then point you in the direction of how you can get stuck in yourself.

The best part is that sampling isn’t hard. Quite the opposite. And no matter what genre you’re in, there will be a way sampling can add some magic to your music.

What is sampling?

Have you ever heard a modern song and thought to yourself “that sounds familiar?” Providing it’s not a direct cover, there’s a strong chance the new song has ‘sampled’ another, usually older one. That is, the producer has recorded a section of the old track and built a new one around it.

Consider, if you will, the Beyonce track ‘Bootylicious’ (see video above). I’m sure you’re familiar with it. Readers with slightly older tastes might however be more familiar with the old Stevie Nicks track “Edge of Seventeen”. There is no coincidence here. The simple palm-muted guitar motif at the start of Stevie Nicks’ track was repurposed as the main hook of Beyonce’s.

This example highlights perfectly how older music provides a goldmine of opportunity for creative producers to find new and exciting ways to tell a story. There’s an entire subculture of sampling dedicated to it; crate digging. This refers to those producers who spend time sifting through piles of old vinyl records to find potential sample material. It is, by all accounts, quite addictive.

You could even, if the bug really gets you, attempt to recreate the magic of one of samplings high priests: DJ Shadow. The American hip hop producer famously recorded his entire ‘Entroducing’ LP using only sampled material. Every single sound on that album came from somewhere else. The magic he displayed was in chopping, warping, effecting and arranging those samples into something unique.

But how? Surely you’re limited by what those sounds…well, sound like? Not true, as we’ll explain…

How do you sample?

At a base level, you need two things to sample. A recording device, and a source. Using a classic method, vinyl is your source (the raw sound) and a device like an Akai MPC is the recording device. The process from here is simple; you find the part you want to sample on the vinyl, record it into the device and voila; you have your sample.

Where things get interesting is when you start to look at your possibilities from this point. You might want the sound to play continuously, in a loop, like the Beyonce example mentioned earlier. This is easy-peasy; find your start and end points in the sample you’ve recorded, and hit play.

Another alternative is to record your sample – longer arrangements work better here – and ‘chop’ the sample up. If you’re using something like an MPC you can then allocate the chopped mini-samples to pads on the device. Then, you can play them as if they’re drums. This works well for drum loops, where you isolate the kick, snare, hats and cymbals, and assign them to individual pads.

A more adventurous alternative would be to start warping, or changing, sounds once you’ve chopped them. Here’s where creativity can go wild. You might, for example, take a vocal part and chop it up word-by-word. You can then add individual effects to each mini-sample, perhaps reverse some of them. Now, where once a vocal sample lay, there might be something more percussive which could be used to form completely different musical parts than those which were intended originally.

NI Maschine Mk3

Where to start?

As a starting point, it’s worth considering a dedicated sampling unit. Native Instruments does a couple of superb products in this field. Their Maschine Mk3 is a high quality sampler, arranger and production unit which runs in conjunction with its accompanying software to provide an intuitive entry point into sampling. There’s even a smaller unit, Maschine Mikro, which has many of the same features but perhaps at a better price point for those just looking to dip their toes in the water.

You could also consider going with the Akai MPC Touch, which draws on Akai’s famous heritage in sampling to offer a unit which is easy to get to grips with, yet has tonnes of pro features like effects and a multi-touch screen.

Or, if it’s just a bit of experimental fun you’re after, take a look at the Teenage Engineering PO35, which allows you to record and manipulate samples in a unit no bigger than those calculators you used to use in high school.