by Anders Johanson January 16, 2021 8 min read
A sample in music is a snippet of a sound recording. You can create samples by cutting out short pieces of audio from songs, movies, TV commercials, videos, speeches, and more. Music samples don't have to be musical if you intend to use them in your tracks. Although sampling melodies is a common practice, you could also sample drum breaks, movie quotes, and even miscellaneous sounds from your environment like a squeaky door or a car chime. For example, XXXTENTACION sampled the seatbelt chime from his BMW i8 for his hit song "SAD!" which is currently close to one billion views on YouTube. In a nutshell, as long as something can be recorded or exists as an audio file, it can be sampled.
The use of samples is widespread in today's musical landscape, but some genres are particularly notorious for it. Rap music comes instantly to mind because so many hip-hop producers rely on samples for their beats. This tradition goes way back to when DJs isolated drum breaks from other songs and looped them for the MCs to rap over. To the uninitiated, the whole process of sampling might seem like the artists are taking a creative short cut. It's undoubtedly harder to come up with an original melody than to sample it from a record, but that doesn't mean that the producers aren't adding any value. Finding the right blend of melodic and percussive elements and stitching multiple samples together to create something fresh is a whole new challenge on its own.
At the same time, it's not a surprise that sampling is flourishing. It's relatively easy to get into because you don't need to be skilled at playing any instruments or know music theory. As long as you have a DAW and a good ear for sounds, you can use samples to make music and still produce something unique. On top of that, even superstar artists who have unlimited access to talented bands and composers continue to use samples in their songs, thus legitimizing the whole process. It's fair to say that sampling is a big part of our culture and a widely accepted production technique to get the creative juices flowing.
Modern DAWs like FL Studio and Ableton Live make it easy to edit audio, and websites like YouTube are full of songs seemingly waiting to be sampled. Furthermore, getting your tracks on Spotify or Apple Music became pretty straightforward thanks to the different distributors offering their services. These developments have led to a massive increase in songs that include uncleared samples upon their release. The number of these songs added to streaming platforms daily is so large that record labels and publishers can't check them all for copyright infringement.
Seeing how popular sampling is and how the legal side of it is brushed over, it's easy to start thinking that sampling music without permission will have no consequences. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Sampling music without prior clearance isn't legal and can have severe ramifications.
As an artist or producer, you want your music to be heard by other people. Otherwise, you wouldn't bother releasing it. So let's assume that one of your released songs containing uncleared samples blows up and gets all the attention it deserves. At best, you'll get a slap on the wrist, and the song will be deleted from all the platforms it was available on. More often than not, however, you'll also have to pay a fine, which can be as high as six figures.
There is a legal way to sample music, but it involves a bit of work. If you want to stay on the right side of the copyright law and never worry about fines or your music being deleted, you must clear your samples. To do that, you'll usually have to obtain permission from two parties. Your first point of contact will be the record label that owns the master recording copyrights. In addition, you'll also have to get in touch with the music publisher who administers the copyright of the actual song. The sample will count as cleared only if you get the green light to use both the master recording and the musical composition.
You can get sued for sampling, and it's happening all the time. One of the first and most prominent lawsuits related to sampling without permission involved the singer-songwriter Gilbert O'Sullivan and the rapper Biz Markie in the early 90s. The latter sampled the piano chords from O'Sullivan's song "Alone Again (Naturally)." Although the chord progression itself wasn't particularly original, it was reason enough for the judge to rule in favor of O'Sullivan. Biz Markie did what was standard practice among rappers at that time and cut out a sample from the song without asking for permission. The judge didn't care for the culture of sampling in Hip-Hop and said that this way of reusing other people's songs is akin to stealing. The ruling made many artists aware that they need to be mindful of the sound recording and composition copyrights.
Nevertheless, sampling without permission is still widespread even among the biggest names in the music industry. The rap genre in particular seems to be a hotbed for copyright infringement, and lawsuits against rappers and affiliated labels are filed every year. Most recently, Lil Nas X and Sony Music were hit with a 25 million dollar lawsuit because the artist sampled Bobby Caldwell's song "Carry On" without asking the copyright holders for approval.
Lil Nas X's version had the same title, and prominently featured the pitched-up chorus of the original "Carry On." Although reuploads of the song can be found all over the internet, Lil Nas X's official release has long been removed from YouTube, Soundcloud and Spotify. The puzzling part about the whole situation is that Lil Nas X released his track before signing with Sony Music. One would think that a renowned record label would always check an artist's discography for any copyright issues before acquiring the rights to it, but somehow it didn't happen in this instance.
The most important thing about samples is the quality. If you ever wondered why your tracks don't sound as good as those of professional producers, then the sample quality could be one of the reasons. There's a limit to what you can do in terms of audio processing if the underlying sound recording is poor. There are some genres like LoFi Hip-Hop that intentionally go for the low-quality audio aesthetic, but more often than not, you'll be better off using the best sounding samples you can find.
Nowadays, there are plenty of companies that focus on providing music producers with high-quality royalty-free samples. One of the most recommended resources is Splice. It's a website that initially catered to the EDM community, but over time it became a leading sample pack platform for nearly every popular genre. To get access to Splice's gigantic sample library, you'll need to pay a monthly subscription fee that ranges from $8 to $30. The more expensive the monthly plan, the more credits you'll get to spend on downloading the samples you like. The great thing about Splice is that you can handpick which samples to download and build your own custom sample collection. We all know how it feels to buy a sample pack and only use 20 percent of the sounds because you don't like the rest. You won't have that problem by subscribing to Splice.
Although Splice is a great resource, not everyone wants to be tied down to a monthly subscription. It's addicting to collect samples, but there's a limit to how many you can use in one song. Besides, after a while, most producers tend to use the same dozen or so sounds because auditioning hundreds of samples every time you start a new project is time-consuming and tiring. Therefore it might be better to use smaller sample packs from a provider that you like. At Samplified, we offer carefully selected genre-specific sample packs and bundles for as low as two bucks. In our kits, you'll find anything from one-shot samples to melody loops and stems. We can proudly say that we produce some of the best sample packs on the market, which is confirmed by our evergrowing following on Soundcloud. In case you're hearing about us for the first time and want to check out the quality of our samples without spending a dime, make sure to take advantage of our free sample pack offers.
Here's a quick disclaimer before we start talking about free music samples sources. Samples that you'll find online for free will almost always have one of the following issues:
Your best bet to find legal free music samples is to take advantage of the promotional offers from known sample providers. For example, we're currently giving away a Bedroom Producer Starter Pack; an Electronic Sounds Pack, Free Drum Loops, and two tutorial packs, including stems and Ableton project files.
If you don't intend to release your music commercially and are merely looking for new ways to find samples for private use, here's a list of websites that can help:
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