Sampled music’s golden age was begun by musicians and ended by lawyers. The producers of the late ’80s and early ’90s plundered their record collections, layering sample after sample to build amazing new tracks. Then, record labels got greedy. Before long, licensing even one sample from another record could cost an artist most of their own income, and woe betide anyone who dared use an unlicensed sample. People still wanted to make sample-based music — but sampling other artists had become a legal minefield. So where could producers find the resources they needed?
To give producers something to sample, companies began to sell recordings that were made specially for the purpose. These innovators included EastWest, who launched the first commercial collection of drum samples in 1989, and Prosonus (not to be mistaken for Presonus, who arrived later), whose pioneering set of orchestral samples were released the same year. Discs of samples were more expensive to buy than ordinary music CDs, but the sounds they contained were ‘royalty free’. Once they’d paid for the CD, producers were free to use contents in their own releases, and they wouldn’t have to share their income with anyone.
Purpose-made sample libraries benefited producers in another way, too. Sampling from records is a lot of work: you need to find suitable fragments of music, trim them, loop them and match them to the key and tempo of a track. With sample libraries, all that work is done for you, so production becomes much easier and quicker.
Royalty-free sample libraries are now big business, but the content, format and business model have moved on since the ’90s. Today’s music production happens in software, and today’s royalty-free production resources are also software-based. This means there’s an astonishingly wide range of material out there, all of it downloadable at the click of a mouse. Before we look at some of the main sources for royalty-free samples, though, here’s a quick guide to the different types of material you’ll find.
A one shot is a simple sound effect, riser, hit, fill, textures and so on, which you might use at a specific moment in a track for effect. Basically a one shot is anything that is not a loop; like a snare hit, drum kick, or quick synth stab.
A sample loop or otherwise known as a loop is a short musical snippets such as drum patterns, bass lines, electric piano grooves, which can be repeated as many times as you like and matched with other loops to create the basis of a track.
Music construction kits are collections of loops that are designed to work together to let you build a track. This is just as it sounds, a guide to help you learn how to create a specific type of song, sound, or style.
An a capella is a solo vocal recordings with no instrumental backing. A capella's can be structured in a manner that includes top line vocals, back up vocals, or any spoken ad-lib. Usually any spoken word that is separated from the instrumental track.
Multi-sampled instruments are lots of stitch together samples of the same source to create a ‘virtual’ instrument such as a drum kit or piano, which you can play from a MIDI keyboard.
Many one-shots, loops and a cappellas are available as standard audio files in WAV format. Once you’ve downloaded these, you can either load them into a sample player plug-in in your music software, or simply drop them onto an audio track. Others are sold as packages that can only be opened using a specific sample player such as Native Instruments’ Kontakt, while deluxe sample libraries and multi-sampled instruments sometimes come with their own dedicated plug-in interface.
When you buy a sample pack or virtual instrument, you enter into a licensing agreement with the makers. This gives you the right to use the material in your tracks without the need to clear it, and no matter how successful your music is, you’ll never be liable to pay any further money over and above the original cost of purchase. You’re also free to process, mangle, chop, distort and otherwise mutilate samples to your heart’s content. However, licensing agreements do impose some restrictions, the main one usually being that you’re not allowed to use the material to create and sell your own sample libraries.
Remember, too, that there are two kinds of copyright in music: mechanical copyright in the recording, and copyright in songs or compositions. Buying royalty-free samples means you don’t have to worry about the former. It doesn’t mean that you can use those samples to record a Beatles song without getting into hot water.
Assuming you use production software like Ableton Live, FL Studio, PreSonus Studio One, Propellerhead Reason or Magix Music Maker, the first thing to do is to check out the content that comes bundled with it. After all, this material is not only royalty-free but actually free — and because it serves as a shop window for the music software, it’s often really good. Music hardware such as audio interfaces and controller keyboards also often comes with royalty-free sample packs and virtual instruments to sweeten the deal, and these can make an excellent basis to your sample collection.
You can make great tracks just using the sounds that are included with Live or Reason, but if you want more high-quality material in the same vein, visit your software manufacturer’s website. Ableton, PreSonus, Magix and the others all offer tons of excellent content specifically tailored to their own software. Some is developed in-house, some by third parties, but a high standard is pretty much guaranteed, as is excellent metadata that makes it easy to find exactly what you’re looking for. Click the Packs link on Ableton’s website, for instance, and you’ll get a choice of nearly two hundred themed sound libraries, most costing a few tens of Euros and all neatly categorized by genre, instrument and so on.
Step outside of your own software’s family house, and there are thousands of developers creating royalty-free content, from giants like EastWest and Spectrasonics and smaller but well-respected creators like Samplified, Samples From Mars and Loopmasters, to hobbyists working out of their sheds. Some have their own online shops, but most of these developers sell through large online portals.
In the days when libraries came on CD, Time + Space were the kings of the UK sampling scene, distributing and reselling nearly all of the major brands. Now that everything happens online, Time + Space have become major global players, and their website at is a one-stop shop where you can audition and download thousands of sample packs, virtual instruments, effects plug-ins and more. The same is true of Best Service, once the major distributor of sample libraries in Germany and now an online powerhouse, Big Fish Audio, who fulfill a similar role in the USA, and Producerloops.com, which claims to be the “world’s largest distributor of sample packs”.
The abovementioned companies are conventional online retailers, meaning that you pay a named price for every sample library you buy, and once you’ve bought it, you’ll have the use of it forever. It’s a business model we all know and understand, but it’s not the only one, and an alternative is provided by subscription-based services like Splice.com, Samplehonics.com and EastWest’s Composer Cloud. The idea here is that you pay a fixed monthly fee that gives you access to that portal’s entire catalogue, but only as long as you keep up your subscription. A particular selling point of Splice.com is its emphasis on sample packs ‘curated’ by well-known artists and producers.
All of these services provide effective ways to audition samples before you buy, but some go even further. For instance, Loopmasters’ huge catalogue is available in old-school fashion at www.loopmasters.com; but they’ve also recently launched Loopcloud, a service which allows you to try and buy samples from within your music software.
The fact that there are lots of nice people in the world means that the Internet is also groaning with royalty-free samples that are also free in the ’not costing any money’ sense. The quality of free samples is inconsistent, but with a bit of patience, you can find amazing material. However, remember that sites which allow anyone to upload material can’t police it thoroughly to guarantee that everything is truly royalty-free. Here’s just a small selection of sites to explore as well as a link to Samplified's free royalty-free sample packs. That's right, they have been leading the way in giving away free sounds for musicians. They currently have four free sample packs with over 300mb+ of sounds, synths, loops, and presets for you to use at no cost.
With all these riches at our fingertips, shouldn’t we be on the threshold of another golden age? We definitely think so, and with that we conclude our piece on how you can get your hands on royalty free sample packs. Don't forget to check out the free sample packs by Samplified by clicking the button below.