10 old-school sampling tricks that still sound great today
Although sampling technology has moved on massively over the past three decades, and today's software can do a whole lot more than the hardware that it replaced, it would be a mistake to assume that the techniques used by those old-school pioneers are redundant, too.
In fact, it was often the limitations of their gear that forced these producers to be creative with their sampling, and they came up with some wild and wonderful sounds as a result.
So, let's consider how these early sampling hounds pulled off their most famous tricks, and then explain how you can recreate them in a software setup.
1. Time to pitch
Although basic timestretching was a feature on early samplers, it didn't always give the desired results. To fit a sample's timing to a track, producers would simply play it at a lower or higher note, to speed it up or slow it down.
Of course, this would affect the pitch of the sample, too - hence all the highpitched chipmunk vocals in early hardcore and jungle music. Often, though, it can sound even better and punchier than the best modern warping, particularly on drum loops, as it reserves transients perfectly.
Try getting your drum loops in time by tuning them up or down (using a re-pitch mode) first, then render them at that speed before editing them further.
2. Gated trigger
New genres go hand in hand with new technology, and the early-to-mid-'90s brought us both jungle (the forerunner to DnB) and affordable timestretching. Not only was it suddenly possible to take a vocal and add it to a track at a very different tempo without making it sound like a chipmunk on helium (or the devil talking slowly), but producers also realised that by halving the tempo, then halving it again (and so on!), they could create slowed-down versions of words and phrases.
The process duplicates slices of the sample, creating a gated, stuttering sound - an almost sonic-strobe-like effect - and it still sounds great today!
3. Flip reVerse it
For almost as long as people have been sampling sounds, they've been reversing them. Reserve sounds can be great for edits, and can even form an integral part of your rhythm. Reversed percussion hits like drums and claps can feed into the unreversed hit, or even just sit within the rhythm to give a pump to the groove.
It's generally best to place them so that the end of the reversed sound lines up with a beat, even if there's no other hit falling at the same time. If a reversed sound doesn't end on a beat, try adding another bit of percussion at that point to maintain the groove.
4. SP bass
Vintage samplers were nothing if not quirky, so it's worth reading up on the unique idiosyncrasies of the kit behind your favourite classic tracks. For example, early-'90s New York hip-hop was awash with grimy, low-passed basslines, in part thanks to an oddity of the E-MU SP-1200, as Public Enemy producer Hank Shocklee explained to The Village Voice.
"One day I was playing Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos, and it came out real muffled. I couldn't hear any of the high-end part of it. I found out that if you put the phono or quarter-inch jack halfway in, it filters the high frequency. Now I just got the bass part of the sample. I was like, 'Oh, shit, this is the craziest thing on the planet!'"
To recreate this, simply add a low-pass filter before your bitcrusher!
5. Creative limits
Early digital consumer technologies had memory limitations that we'd consider laughable now. Back then, sampling time came at a premium that we're not used to today, but this led to some pretty inventive behaviour, which in turn resulted in some unique sounds.
Memory could be saved in many places. In order to achieve sustain, for example, it was necessary to use just a short looped section of the sample. When you pressed a key, the attack phase would be played until it reached this looped section, which then continued to play until the key was released, at which point the sample would play from the looped section to the end.
This looping effect was often imperfect and - more importantly - noticeable, and became a key part of the character behind many early sample-based riffs, such as the ubiquitous car horn noise popularised by Todd Terry. This memory limitation, in conjunction with low-resolution editing, meant that the sound of the short loop could be hard to conceal, but one way to deal with this is to throw caution to the wind and use the effect as an overt characteristic that adds to the vibe of the track.
6. Sine of the times
Akai's early S900 and S950 samplers were famously prodigious synth bass monsters. Switching on either machine yielded a default sample of a simple sine wave bass, synonymous with early hip-hop, hardcore, jungle and DnB.
Sine wave bass is notoriously hard to make interesting, but a combination of 12-bit circuitry and less-than-transparent analogue outputs added real oomph. Recreate this by running a sine wave riff through a bitcrusher and some analogue saturation plugins. The difference may seem subtle until you throw it into a track with other elements.
7. Combined methods
Some early sample-based machines - such as Roland's D-50 - combined synthesis and sampling. This was partly for creative reasons, but also partly to overcome the limited sampling time available.
This technique can produce layered sounds such as percussive strikes and attack phases (that need not change pitch when they're played up and down the keyboard) over sustained sounds that can be played musically.
Try your own combinations by mapping two different sounds to the same key-range in your sampler and adjusting their respective envelopes. For example, the attack portion of a piano with the sustain of a trumpet sample. Or a kick sample and an electronic organ, Daniel Bedingfield-style.
8. Cut the chord
A classic sample-riff effect is to sample a chord and play a riff as if using a regular synth patch. Two things happen in this case: the length of the sample changes (higher notes are shorter, while lower notes get longer), which can have a dynamic effect on the groove; and the actual sound can be rather unusual, as real players don't usually play riffs by transposing all the notes of a given chord up and down in identical semitone intervals.
Recreate the effect by recording a chord playing your favourite synth patch, loading that recording into a sampler, and getting busy creating a short riff.
9. Vocal tricks
The mid-'80s saw a new kind of vocal taking the charts by storm: the sampled vocal riff. Whether your first introduction was Whistle's Just Buggin', or Stock Aitken and Waterman's production of Mel & Kim's Respectable, nobody could avoid that distinctive sound.
By the mid-'90s, it was all but dead and buried - a cheesy anachronism born of naïvety and new technology- but then a couple of years ago Major Lazer brought it back, starting with Pon De Floor - subsequently sampled for Beyonce's Run the World (Girls) - and continuing right up to the recent hit collaboration with DJ Snake and MØ, Lean On.
The modern Major's general approach employs heavy pitch modulation, but it's essentially the same simple trick: take a word or syllable from a vocal, map it across the keyboard and play a riff or accompaniment.
10. Slice it and dice it
A defining innovation of early jungle sampling was the slicing and re-ordering of drum loops, achieved by slicing a beat into chunks and triggering each one in succession via MIDI. Tracks like DJ Seduction's Sub Dub created a blueprint for the DnB that was to come by varying the playback pattern in each bar constantly over 8, 16 and even 24 bars.
This was achieved in different ways, the first of which was by carefully chopping a one-, two- or four-bar break into parts with different start points for re-triggering from (choice snares, kicks, 'shuffles', fills, etc).
Alternatively, it can be done by copying the same break to between five and ten adjacent keys, and setting a different sample start point for each key (again, choosing percussive hits like kicks and snares).
Another way to do the same is to simply slice the loop into quantised measures (eighth-notes, quarter-notes, half-notes, whole notes, etc), complete with off-grid glitchy attack phases and some sliced 'air' to open the loop up again.
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