5 Sampling Tips To Add Personality To Your Loops.

Akai MPC200The great loop. Whether it’s Hip-Hop or House, it is more often than not the foundation of a track. In fact, it’s become so much a part of modern music that we now have access to literally millions of pre-produced loops with the click of a mouse.

But, with all of this pre-made content perfectly looped and waiting for us to drop into our own productions, how do we really make our music our own?

One great way to achieve this is to alter your mindset. Start to think about the loops you purchase not as completed building blocks, simply to be put together in various combinations. When you instead start to think of them as great source material for your sampler, you’re moving in the right direction!

Let’s quickly look at 5 sampling tips to take loops from sample packs and make them your own.

Forget about the time!

These days, most any DAW or sampler will automatically stretch a loop to the tempo of your track. While this can be very useful, it’s not something you should just assume is always the best option. Why?

Turning off time-stretching forces you to take a snippet of audio that isn’t perfectly in time with your music and make it work. You won’t be able to just trigger the sample once and have it stay perfectly in time, so you’ll be forced to re-trigger the sample in a pattern that works with your tempo. In other words, you will be forced to add your own personality to the loop.

To do this, you will need to rely on features common in any sampler. Typically, this might include adjusting the sample start and end point, setting up new loop points, and adjusting the attack, decay, sustain and release of the sample.

Finally, it’s common that you’ll find that triggering the sample completely on the quantized grid doesn’t work. You’ll be forced to listen to your track and play it in a way that fits. The result will be a natural swing that makes your tracks feel less “cut and paste”.

Chop it up!

An extension of the first tip relates to the duration of the loop. While a great one bar loop can be just the right thing, having a bunch of them together can lead to a sense of rigidly structured repetition that becomes a bit stagnant. We’ve all been stuck in that one bar loop mode.

To add some spice, consider chopping some of your loops into shorter segments. A commonly used approach is to create a cool half bar loop as a foundation for things. Of course, you can then double this up to create a 1-bar loop, but if you use some of the techniques outlined in tip one (especially with regards to turning off automatic time stretching), you’ll have a 1 bar loop with some natural swing that can bring some much-needed life to your track.

*A shout-out to Erik Svahn who runs the amazing RawCutz Hip-Hop sample label for an inspiring conversation on this technique. Check out one of his nice Deep House tracks that uses this technique here and enjoy.

Stack ’em up!

One really fun way to take a sample pack loop and make it your own is to stack it with another sample. Again, we’re not just talking about taking a full loop and putting it with another full loop from a sample pack. There’s no doubt that this can yield cool results, but how much of your own creativity really went into that?

Finding another sample that you think goes well with it, and stacking the two (or more) before applying our first two techniques will yield some truly unique results. Setting up times where you are doing things like this, without actually planning on making a track, can also help break things up when you hit a creative wall. It takes you in the direction of sound design and forces you to start thinking of your sampler as the incredible tool that it is. If you haven’t yet played around with stacking samples, here’s a video I’ve done demonstrating how simple and effective it can be with a pad and bass sound.

Sometimes odd is good!

Purchased loops are almost always delivered in an even number of bars (1, 2, 4 etc.) The idea here is that they loop around in a way that is consistent with the most common (4/4) structure we’re likely to be writing our music in. In most cases, this makes sense and this consistency is something that we’ve grown to love and expect when listening to House, Hip-Hop etc.

But, there are times when taking a loop and shortening it so that it loops off the even bar grid is a really useful tool. A perfect example is live percussion loops. Having them loop in a different way from the majority of your track creates a constantly evolving variation in the way the percussion interacts with the rest of your elements, adding a much more human feel. It’s a great way to quickly get a few great variations of a percussive loop. Here’s a quick example of how to achieve this.

Not JUST a bit!

These days commercially sold samples are usually delivered at 24bit, minimum 16bit. From a sampling standpoint, the higher the bit rate, the more accurately the sampler is able to “describe” the sound sampled. It’s more accurate. Cleaner & more defined.

But, is this always the best thing? Not in my view. If you read my post on old school sampling techniques or the D16 Decimort review you’ll know that I’m a big fan of the character that older samplers with their lower bit rates imparted to sounds. In fact, the reason why some samplers are legendary has a lot to do with the way they colored sounds. What you put in isn’t what came out.

Think about this with your own music. Is having everything at 24bit always the best thing for your style? If you’re going for classic 90’s House vibes or Boom Bap Hip Hop, the answer is probably not.

My analogy is that bit depth can be a lot like colors. Would you paint a picture using only red? Not most of the time.

Like with colors in a painting, you will find that mixing bit rates creates levels of depth in your mix and the contrast you need to create your mood. Some sounds will be cleaner and more “present” and others grittier and more colored.

Try reducing the bit depth of your sample pack sounds and resampling them and you’ll soon see what I mean. Most any DAW will have some sort of bit reducer and most hardware or software samplers these days include some kind of way to emulate the older, more vintage feel of samplers that sampled with lower bit depth.

In the end…

In the end, the theme here is that samples are simply food for your sampler. Don’t think of them as the end-product, but rather a means to an end. Learn to explore your sampler and you’ll soon realize the possibilities are limitless. The sampler is truly one of the most powerful tools in your arsenal.

Using Sample & Hold

“Sample & Hold” is a really useful feature that is sometimes overlooked. It can quickly turn the shortest of sounds into a never-ending sonic landscape.

Here’s a quick video I’ve done, demonstrating it with the use of a great free reverb plugin, called Ambience. You can download Ambience and hundreds of other curated free plugins once you register at Plugin Boutique.

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Old-school sampling techniques

Akai MPC - sampling legend.

Sampling continues to play a big part in all current forms of club and classic Hip-Hop production, and with the resurgence of hardware/software based counterparts of the classic sampling kit of vintage samplers (notably Maschine and the MPC Rennaissance), a whole new generation of sampling is on its way.

As a part of this re-kindled interest in sampling, many younger producers are also looking for sampling techniques to emulate the sound of early classics and get the sound of the “golden era” of Dance and Hip-Hop.

While many new samplers come with the option to switch to a “vintage” mode, simply doing this is only a step in the direction of achieving this sound. One of the main reasons for this is down to modern gear itself and how it affects the whole production process. We work with very little limitation from our gear these days, and while that seems great, it’s actually the limitation early producers faced that contributed to the sound we associate with early classic Hip Hop and House. Let’s go a little deeper.

Sampling Time

These days it’s likely you don’t even think of sampling time – there’s no reason why most of you couldn’t sample a whole track without any issues. Cheap memory and powerful computers/drives make it a non-issue. It wasn’t always so. In the early days of sampling, this was a huge issue. I am going to date myself here and say that my first sampler – an Ensoniq ASR-10 which I still lovingly own – shipped with 2MiB of internal memory. This was expandable to 16MiB. This translated into a default sampling max time of about 20 seconds, with the upgrade pushing you to the nose-bleed heights of about 2 minutes. This limited sampling time resulted in a creative workaround that many of us wouldn’t even consider today – and this contributed to the “classic” sound.

Speeding Up The Sample

With the limited sampling time, time literally was of the essence – so any way to shorten sampling time was good. One creative technique early vinyl samplers used was to sample the record at a pitched up speed – often sampling a 33rpm record at 45rpm – so that the sampling time was shortened. Once inside the sampler, the sample could then be pitched back down to its original speed. This imparted some subtle artefacts in the sample, giving it a less clean more “sampled” feel. Subtle, but there.

Mono Sampling

Another restriction of early sampling gear was that it could only sample in Mono. The MPC 3000, which came out in ’93, is the first of the well-known samplers to sample in stereo and it’s doubtful that many tracks were made on the 3K until 94 or 95, and obviously none before 93! So, once again, a limitation of early sampling gear contributed to the way that samples sounded.

Even with the ability to sample in stereo, many early producers would still opt to sample in mono because of the way samples could be edited. While today’s producers are used to being able to quickly and easily visually hone in on the desired start and end-points of a sample (or even have the software do it automatically with very little error), early editing of start and end-points to create a seamless loop was a science in and of itself. If you’ve never tried to get a seamless loop quickly with just your ears and a click-track, give it a try and you’ll soon see how it can be difficult.

So even if you could sample in stereo, the minute you started changing/ editing start and end points on stereo samples, phase problems could appear making the samples flange (interpolation/quantising error). This would mess up Drum Loops/ Instrumental Samples.

Production Techniques

Of course, producers wanted to give their productions a stereo feel, so a raft of techniques developed to accomplish this.

There were all sorts of techniques people dreamed up to overcome the limitations inherent in their setups.

A common technique would be to track out each sample on it’s own in a mixer and process each track to taste. EQ, reverb, compression, limiting etc. would be applied to each. Then the entire instrumental/song was mixed with some tracks panned left or right (slight or hard) and some tracks ducked, others pushed to get an overall conglomerate balance.

End Product

When the mix engineer was finished, the signal from the Main Outs (L/R) of the mixing console was printed.

It should be noted that all of this would be done out of the box – no DAW. Analogue mixers would be used with outboard processing or onboard processing from the sampler, all of which imparts a unique feel depending on the gear configuration. Not to mention a healthy amount of noise.

Finally, the “bounce” would be recorded to most often : (a) a 2 inch (reel) mastering tape; (b) a 1 inch (reel) mastering tape; (c) a DAT tape; or even (d) a cassette tape.

Conclusion

This hopefully gives you an insight into some of the early sampling techniques and most importantly gives you an understanding of a simple concept that today is often overlooked – limitation in the studio is often one of the best creative forces.

Try some of these techniques out yourself, making use of your own sample library – make them mono, pitch them up and sample them and then pitch them down again, add some dirt and noise to your sounds to emulate the dirt that outboard gear imparts, and so on.

Have fun getting your own sound.

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