The Art of Sampling In Music

Sampling has been one of the most influential and inspiring tools in modern music. It all started when sections of recorded sound were repurposed and used for different music recordings. As technology progressed this experimentation became easier and more affordable. Nowadays with almost limitless computer memory, modern software and an infinite list of online samples, anyone can benefit from this technique. But, how did it all start and how can sampling benefit your productions? In this article, we will revisit its origins and give you some inspiration to use sampling in your creative process.

Sampling Throughout History

Probably one of the first forms of sampling was the experimental music called, musique concrète, developed by French composer Pierre Schaeffer in the early 1940s. This technique consisted of splicing and looping pieces of tape to create new compositions. Delia Derbyshire of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop realised the score written by composer Ron Grainer using this technique and created the theme of the original Doctor Who series.

The 1960s brought what we could call the first sample-based instrument: the Mellotron. This keyboard was developed in Birmingham in 1963 and has been used by artists like The Beatles, David Bowie, Genesis, King Crimson and Oasis to name a few. The Mellotron played different portions of magnetic tape as the keys were pressed, reproducing pre-recorded sounds that varied from strings, woodwinds, brass or even a choir.

Mellotron in Abbey Road Studios

A Mellotron purchased by Abbey Road in 1967

But it wasn’t until the 1970s, with the creation of synthesisers like the Synclavier or Fairlight CMI, when the term ‘sampling’ was coined. In the computer world sampling is the process of transforming an audio source into a digital file. That is precisely what these synthesisers were able to do, although with a very limited memory compared to modern computers and at a very high price tag. When sampling technology became available and more affordable it had a big impact on music, especially in genres like Hip-Hop. In an earlier article, senior lecturer Jason O’Bryan, walked us through the history of sampling, its influence on Hip-Hop and its relevance and legacy within the music industry today.

Sampling. Better Than The Real Thing?

Sampling also opened the door to artists looking for realistic recreations of instruments and having them available for their compositions without the requirement for recording studio time. The development of virtual instruments (or sampled instruments) by companies like Native Instruments, Spitfire Audio or Orchestral Tools, democratised the ability to compose with any instrument imaginable right on your computer. 

Whether it is to write something from scratch or elevate a production, using sampled instruments is a widely used technique in the music industry. From full-size orchestras to hybrid soundscapes, combining synths and organic sounds. Everything you might need to score or write music with versatility and ease. You don’t even need a MIDI keyboard anymore. Just a computer, a DAW and a pair of headphones. 

And that’s not all. Many engineers like Chris Lord Alge use sampled drums in their mixes to enhance the recording and make them more punchy and aggressive. It’s all about layering sounds to densify the mix and make it more exciting. 

How to use sampling in music Yourself

But why settle for using commercial sampled instruments? Modern samplers and DAWs provide all the tools needed to create high-quality and precise samples of our own instruments and use them in our productions wherever we go. 

While there are plenty of paid and free software emulations available, none of them might sound as good to your ear as the real thing. It might be a great-sounding patch from a synthesiser you have borrowed, the snare of the last band you recorded or a toy piano with its own vibe that inspires you to play every time you hear it. Wouldn’t you want to have them available at all times on your laptop? Just sample them! 

Hans Zimmer uses this technique all the time for his compositions. In his Masterclass, he explains how every time he gets inspired by a specific sound he and his team samples it and creates a virtual instrument out of it. That is part of the uniqueness of his work and what can make your own compositions jump out from the rest.

Software like Kontakt, Sforzando or Logic Pro allows you to create your own virtual instruments. But don’t only think about musical instruments. That’s the magic of sampling. You can turn something like a bowl, a car engine or slamming doors into creative instruments. This elevates your productions and creates textures. You can even sample other software or inspiring channel strips that are very CPU intensive and turn them into your own sampled instrument to save computer resources. The possibilities are endless.

Our Advanced Diploma in Music Production and Sound Engineering covers everything you need to know to make your own samples and use them in your productions. From arranging them in your DAW to creating your own sampled instruments and the legal aspects of sampling. If you want to know more, head to our course page and contact us for more information.