Hands Off My Groove: A Little Explanation of Sampling

Many people think of sampling as a simple ripoff of precorded material. At best, a work uninspired and derivative and at worst, plagiaristic. This attitude is perpetuated by the idea that sampling is a straight rip from someone else’s work. As if, with technology nowadays, one can simply push a button that loops some audio and say, “There. It’s a song.” That is the bad side of sampling, a dark, delinquent cousin that most try not to speak of. Sampling, though, encompasses many different techniques, and what people don’t see is the time stretching, tempo changing, equalizing, mixing and composing that goes into making a sample work for a song. Samples are not bound to the original work that they’re taken from any more than the piano at my parents’ house is bound to Chopin.

I could show you multiple examples of songs that utilize samples in interesting ways, some of which are mind-bendingly technical and difficult to even recognize where the sample is from, or how the artist managed to transform it. That, however, might be difficult to fully understand what goes into it. I thought it would be easiest if I created some very simple, barebones loops, treated in different ways, all utilizing the same cut from a song. The song I’ve chosen is Bobby Darin’s Dream Lover. Why did I choose this song? Well, first, I kinda like it (surprisingly fun to sing along to while driving with the windows down), and secondly, it’s an old-fashioned ditty that makes it ripe for making explicit the effects of sampling and digital manipulation. We’ll be using the first two bars of the song, involving some piano, drums, and male and female vocals. Fun stuff. Please note that these tracks are intentionally simplistic for the purpose of this explanation. These are by no means representative of my music talent or expertise. In fact, they’re kinda dumb.

And yeah, that’s me with a Hello Kitty statue. Soundcloud just decided to use my Google+ profile picture when I uploaded those. So enjoy that weirdness.

This first example is a pretty straight loop of the opening two bars of the song. I basically cut the sample, looped it, stretched it to a tempo that I felt good with working with, and I added a really goofy beat. Very simple, very basic sampling. This is an example of borderline ripoff.

I don’t know what you would do with that one. Maybe do a really stupid imitation of Panda Bear. But at any rate, it showcases the simplest form of sampling.

This next example transforms the sample a bit more. I isolated the left signal from the stereo track, which had the piano and drums a bit more isolated from the vocals. There was a little bit of bleed through of the vocals, so, considering the recording techniques of the time, and the fact that this is probably a remaster, I suspect that this track was recorded in the same room as the vocals with a compressor microphone, which captures a lot of room sound. The vocals would have been done with separate mics. So, I separated that to get a heavier emphasis on the drums and piano, EQ’d it to emphasize those elements a bit more, slowed it down a little, and drowned it in reverb. A little more technical, a little further from the original. I then added a cut of Darin singing the words “dream lover,” which occurs later in the song to add another layer to the loop. I then added a very simple beat to make it some sort of wobbly little jam, then also drowned that in reverb. Why? Because reverb is the panacea for anything aural. Does your band suck? Drown everything in reverb. There’s a niche for that. Here’s the track:

This next one takes things a little further. For this one, I used a special time stretching algorithm (Paul Stretch) to slow the loop down by eight times. I then isolated a few harmonic elements in the signal to make some pretty chords, and then layered the whole thing with its second octave, to make it sound very full, almost like some ghostly orchestra. And I added a wobbly organ, just for fun.

My last example further modifies the last one. I distorted the signal to make it sound really crazy and almost out of control, and then layered it with a wobbly synth (you can never have too many wobbly synths) and some spooky sounding drums.

And there you have it, the beginnings of some kind of experimental noise thing, a la Wolf Eyes or Prurient or something. Kinda early 2000s, but I think people still listen to that stuff. At any rate, this is quite far removed from wholesome Bobby D’s song, which is the point I was trying to make.

I hope through these strange examples I’ve shown you some of the possibilities for how to treat samples and given some insight into the technical work that goes into incorporating them into music. The possibilities for treating any one sample are endless. With digital technology, samples can become a source for sound, but could be transformed in any way imaginable, from the straight loop that harkens the original, to the strange and distorted that is completely unrecognizable. In this age, with the sophistication of technology and technique, everything becomes an instrument for the artist to use.

If you’re interested in checking out some songs that aren’t my stupid little examples that I made with little time and that actually do a good job of utilizing these and other techniques, here are some links for you:

  • Cut Copy – “A Dream.” The part where the female voice comes in and sings “I don’t wanna hear a love song.” Sampled from Emmylou Harris’s “Boulder to Birmingham.” The time stretching and EQ’ing involved in this one is deceptively complex. I tried to recreate it once, and I could not for the life of me figure out how they wrangled that one in.
  • Burial – “Archangel”. Extreme vocal manipulation, involving a heck of a lot of time stretching and pitch shifting on top of a bed of reverb-laden strings and chorus vocals. Beautiful and haunting. Like a nightmare that you kind of think is somehow wonderful.
  • J Dilla – “Donuts”The man himself, J Dilla. The absolute master of hip-hop sampling. This is a mix of some of his best tracks off of his beat collection/album Donuts, which utilizes samples heavily. Time stretching, key changes, grooves, riffs, jazz, soul, chopping, screwing…J Dilla does it all, and he does it the best, in my opinion. Only annoying thing is the silly “Donuts” thing that the person who made the video inserted between each track.
  • The Avalanches – “Since I Left You” A personal favorite. Beautiful layers of expertly mixed samples that creates a seamless pastiche, and an interesting and oddly beautiful video to boot.
  • Girl Talk – “Bounce That” More than a remixer or DJ, Greg Gillis, aka Girl Talk, is a master at creating an instant dance party out of basically anything. The combinations of disparate songs is goofy, fun, and just plain awesome. BONUS: Greg Gillis giving a little demo of how he does his thang.
  • DJ Shadow – “Midnight in a Perfect World” A cut from the album Endtroducing…., credited as the first album to be composed entirely from samples.
  • Panda Bear – “Good Girl / Carrots” I don’t know how he does it, but Noah Lennox aka Panda Bear has a real knack for taking diverse samples and treating them in a way that fits in with his unique vision of beachy, summery, soulful music that is equal parts psychedelic and pure vocal pop joy.