Some of the greatest sample-based production has featured clear and upfront use of other samples. On the other hand, turning a sample into your own unique piece of music is a creative way to put your personal touch on a piece of sample-based production.
If you’re having trouble using samples because you don’t want the original song to be so present, we’ve outlined seven ways to make a sample completely your own.
But before you master the art of sampling, know that even if the sample you use is unrecognizable from the original sample, you should always ensure you have all appropriate licenses and clearances from the original creator, even if you give your music out for free.
1. Effects, effects, and effects
First and foremost, the use of audio effects is essential for turning a sample into your own unique creation. With reverb alone, you can take a metal track from Metallica and turn into a Brian Eno ambient soundscape. By using an array of effects — from delay to distortion to chorus to flanger to EQ — you can truly give new meaning to any sample. For example, try taking a clip of one of your favorite songs. Put on a tape delay, wide room reverb, and a highpass filter. It’s going to be the same song, sure, but it’s going to sound very very different. This is a good place to start with effecting samples to become your own.
2. Reverse the original sample
This is a surefire way to turn your sample into something new. While reversing a sample makes it more difficult to line up rhythms and melodies, it does allow you to reimagine the sample. An easy place to start is with piano chords. Find a set of chords in isolation, reverse them, and you have a new chord progression with a more ambient sound.
3. Time stretch your samples
This is another popular production trick. You can slow down or speed up a sample to any tempo or length of your choosing with warping features in your DAW of choice. By slowing down or speeding up a sample, you challenge the way the listener originally heard the sample, giving you leeway to introduce the sound in a new way. Imagine Adele’s “Hello” slowed down to halftime — it’s going to hit you completely differently. The same could be said for double-timing it.
4. Chop up the sample
While many artists will use significant portions of a song to sample, there’s no rule for how much of a song you should use. Producers will often sample vocals and chop them into pieces. London producer Burial will actually take an artist’s song and chop up the words to write his own lyrics. Other producers like Jamie xx will chop a vocal sample and loop it over and over. By picking and choosing which parts of a sample to use — no matter how short — you give yourself freedom to decide what it will communicate. Will it be fast? Will it be spaced out? Will it be busy? It’s up to you.
5. Play with pitch shifting
It’s become incredibly common for producers to pitch warp samples in modern music, whether it’s Kanye West, Drake, or Rihanna. A foolproof way to make a sample your own is to pitch it down or up an octave. The original melody will still be there, but the tonal difference will be extraordinary. You may be familiar with the term “chipmunk” when referring to vocals who pitch up vocals. While the sound isn’t for everyone, it’s a technique artists use to re-imagine an original sample and give it new life and character. The same can be done by pitching down — whether it’s vocals, drums, brass, or strings.
6. Use layering to create new harmonies and rhythms
If you’re sampling a single violin melody, try doubling that melody and pitching the other one down a fifth. Then duplicate it again an octave down. Keep going with this and make your own chord progression. By creating multiple layers of a sample, you can assign different pitches, tempos, etc. to create a bed of unique sound. The original melody might still be intact, but the overall sound will be completely new.
7. Mix and match methods
While each of the above methods are helpful in allowing you to uniquely sample the music you love, combing each method will really help you make something one you could make. What if you reversed a sample, pitched it down an octave, speed it up 30 BPM, duplicated it, and coated it with a chorus effect? Well, it might get a bit messy, but if you mix smart, it will be something totally new. Experiment. Have fun. And most importantly, be unique.
Sam Friedman is an electronic producer and singer-songwriter based in Brooklyn, creating music as Nerve Leak. Praised by major publications, his unique blend of experimental and pop music has earned him hundreds of thousands of streams across the web.