by Anders Johanson March 22, 2020 7 min read
A sample in music is a recording of sound that has been reused into another sound recording. A sample can be of any type of sound, whether it’s a drum solo, a guitar chord, a vocal riff, or a foley sample like the sound of scissors snapping. Additionally, a sample has no set length to be determined a sample. For many producers, the use of one-shot samples is popular for building drum beats. In this scenario, a variety of single drum hits like kick drums and snare drums and hi-hats are recorded or repurposed, and put into a sample pack. From there, a producer can pick and choose their own drum rack and make a beat with said drums.
On the other hand, samples in popular music often come in the form of a new artist sampling an older artist’s music in their song. For example, take a look at Drake’shit song, "Nice For What," and notice the vocal sample being repeated throughout the track. It is from Lauryn Hill's "Ex Factor." They pitched up the vocal sample several notes, chopped it up to a new pattern and rhythm, and sampled it throughout the track. Another popular example is Kanye West’s infamous hit, “Gold Digger,” where he takes the hook from Ray Charles’ “I Got A Woman.” He samples it clearly with little-to-no manipulation.
There are varying scales of samples, and the process is different for each artist, whether it’s a sample of glass shattering being used in a drum beat or taking the whole hook of a popular song and reusing it in a new piece of music. As a producer, the art of sampling is integral in creating unique and exciting music in the modern production landscape. But it’s important to remember that not all samples are created equally. Downloading dozens of free sample packs haphazardly on the web won’t guarantee you solid beats or production. In fact, a large portion of samples offer very little for the modern producer. When searching for samples, it’s best to look for mix-ready samples that are professional quality and stylistically in your wheelhouse. So, where do you find quality samples? Let’s get into that next.
In essence, anywhere you can find sound, you can find a sample. Whether that’s your iTunes library or the show you’re watching on Netflix or a website dedicated to making high-quality, professional samples. The question is whether you can legally use said sample, which we will get into more later. For the sake of legality, starting with royalty-free samples is the best course of action. Not only will it save you time and money, but it will give you a better understanding of how the sample industry is becoming more and more accessible for producers around the world. Just a few decades ago, producers had to either hire and record session musicians to sample, or they had to license or buy samples from recordings of other artists. In 2020, there are countless royalty-free samples specifically created for the DIY producer. As we mentioned, though, they are not all created equal, so where should you begin?
For producers on a budget, the first thing you might do is google “free sample packs.” That’s obviously not a bad place to start, but expect the results to vary. Instead, we recommend looking for reliable, tried-and-true sample packs from established creators. Samplified has been making professional quality royalty-free sounds, sample packs, and loops for years, and the packs come mix-ready, meaning you don’t have to lift a finger, twist a knob, or load a plug-in to get them sounding good. Samplified has a variety of sounds from unique foley samples to classic hip-hop drums. Whether you produce trap, lo-fi, dance, or pop, the Samplified sample packs will give you everything you need to create.
But Samplified isn’t the only place you can find high-quality samples, of course. Splice is a great resource for producers who are not just looking for packs, but access to individual sounds if you’re not looking to download a giant folder. For example, say you’re working on a track and you really want a sample of chimes. It might not make sense to download an entire sample pack just to find that one sample. Splice is great for such occasions because you can simply search for “chimes,” and download the individual sound that you like best. As we’ve mentioned again and again, all packs are not created equal, and it can be frustrating to download a whole pack and only end up using 5% of the samples, while the rest just take up space on your hard drive. Splice not only has an excellent variety of samples, but they make shopping for the right sound very seamless.
Another great way to find samples is to simply look to see if your favorite producers have made their own sample packs. In today’s climate, many producers make a chunk of their living by selling their samples. Samplified has collaborated with dozens of artists, as well as Splice, to make their samples for sale. But artists will also sell their packs on their own. We can’t guarantee your favorite producer has a pack out there, but it’s worth googling to see.
And of course, there are programs like Audio Hijack that allow you to record any audio on your computer. So, if you find something you want to sample in a Netflix show or on YouTube or anywhere at all, you can record the audio and sample it. However, you must make sure you have legal permission to use any samples that are not royalty-free, which we will get into next.
If you are using royalty-free samples, it is 100% legal. This is why we recommend primarily searching for royalty-free sounds, because it will save you time, money, and potential rejection down the road when looking for samples to write your music. On the other hand, taking a sample of a recording that you do not own without permission is illegal and can result in your music being taken down, as well as legal repercussions. Just as it is illegal to walk into a Best Buy and steal a TV, it is illegal to sample a sound you do not own, even if you are releasing your music for free. That is because of music copyright law. It’s true that there may be more lenience if you do not plan on profiting off of a sample, because for the most part, legality in sampling has to do with profit. However, without clearance, you can still be flagged even if your music is free.
Let’s say you want to sample a vocal from a popular song. In order to do so, you have to reach out to the artist and their publishing company for legal permission. You can either purchase the sample outright, agree to give them a percentage, or a combination of both. But you must absolutely have legal permission to use the sample. Producers may try to severely wrap a popular sample in order to make it unrecognizable from the original and get away with not having to clear it, but this can backfire as there are many ways labels and publishing companies can find out who used what. And if you are suspected of illegally sampling, you can be subpoenaed to turn over your DAW files, where the original sample can be uncovered. In other words, always clear a sample before using, even if you’re releasing your music for free. It will save you a world of time (and money) down the road.
Popular artists are sued regularly for not properly clearing samples. Jay Z and Timbaland were sued for “Big Pimpin” because Timbaland didn’t credit Egyptian composer Baligh Hamdi. If you're an aspiring producer without a large following, the chances of getting sued may be less than if you are Jay Z and making millions off of your records, but the same legal rules apply. There is sampling and then there is stealing. If you sample without legal permission, you are stealing, plain and simple, and legal action can be brought against you, as it has for artists like Kendrick Lamar, Nicki Minaj, 50 Cent, Mac Miller, and several others.
A popular thing you’ll hear when listening to any Lo-Fi YouTube channel is the use of dialogue, typically taken from movies or TV shows. Movie dialogue can be a powerful tool in enhancing the impact of a piece of music. For example, on Burial’s “In McDonalds,” he samples a quote fromBullet Boy, where one of the main actors says, “You look different.” It’s an emotionally poignant moment in the song, and the quote adds power to the song. However, a movie sample is still a sample, and the same rules of legality apply. Without proper clearance, you are violating copyright laws, and run the risk of being sued or flagged. If you’re just planning on putting out a beat on SoundCloud or YouTube with no intention of making money off the music and you want to include a movie sample, you can go for it, but don’t be surprised when it’s flagged. And if it becomes very popular, legal action may be taken.
There are two types of remixes: authorized and unauthorized. Many beat makers gain popularity by flipping popular songs and uploading their remixes on SoundCloud or YouTube. It’s a quick way in for new listeners who are fans of the original song. And in many cases, the original artists are okay with it and just happy to see people re-imagining their work. But without proper authorization, it can technically violate copyright law just as uncleared samples. A remix is essentially built off of samples of another piece of music, so there is no difference in terms of legality. If you plan on remixing a track and profiting off of it, you will want permission from the original artist. They may give it to you with no strings attached, but chances are they will want a share of the profit or credit.
Writer and musician based in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he lives with his wife, Hannah. Extensive career as both a writer and a musician previously working with brands such as Fox Sports, Yahoo Sports, and Sports Illustrated. As a musician, Anders has played in several bands throughout the last decade, and has experience in touring, booking, band management, engineering, producing, mixing, and composing. Anders has recently composed music for short films and media presentations in universities, and has launched a podcast focusing on giving musicians and artists a place to talk about their work and the process behind their creation.