Music sampling is reusing a part of a song (taking a literal “sample”; a snippet) and using it in a new song. The art of sampling can take many forms. In this guide, we specifically focus on sampling as part of the beatmaking process: reusing portion(s) of an existing song(s) in a new production.
There is a wide variety of ways to do this. Methods and techniques include looping, chopping, layering, and reversing, among others. These are all ways to manipulate and recontextualize the existing sound(s). This can be done with hardware (digital samplers like the Akai MPC or Native Instruments’ Maschine MK3) as well as software (a digital audio workstation, or d in short) such as Ableton Live. But more on that later.
A sample is the use of a portion of an existing song, recontextualized for a substantially new recording such as a hip-hop beat. The point is to make a new original track using a sample from a previous song.
A remix is a reworking of a previous song to make a new version of that by adding, removing, and/or changing parts of the song.
In reality, we consider that sampling utilizes more originality as that means making a completely new song, whereas a remix uses more of the previous song to create a new version instead of a new song.
A cover is an identical (or near identical) reproduction of a previous song where the basic song is not changed.
An interpolation is a replay or recreation of a part of a previous song—note for note—and the inclusion of that replayed or recreated part into a new song.
Bear in mind that a sample, a remix, and an interpolation all have to be licensed and cleared to avoid copyright infringement. Later in this guide, we’ll explain the difference between getting permission for samples and interpolations.
The origins of repurposing existing recordings date as far back as the late 1940s, when French composers like Pierre Schaeffer started experimenting with splicing and looping tapes of recorded material to create new compositions. That technique would become known as musique concrète. Other early pioneers include German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen and French-American composer Edgard Varèse.
However, 1963 would mark the true inception of sampled sound with the release of the groundbreaking Mellotron: a keyboard that used analog tape (usually with seven-second recordings of orchestral instruments) to 'sample' sounds for a new recording. That all happened way before hip-hop DJs and producers would start their own revolution through turntablism and music sampling. One beat at a time.
In the early 1970s—before the genre and culture of “hip-hop” even had a name—DJs like Kool Herc started to extend drum beats from funk and soul records to let the crowd dance longer. Kool Herc’s so-called Merry-Go-Round with two of the same records mixed to prolong the drum breaks played an integral part in the birth of hip-hop. A ‘Master of Ceremony’ (an ‘MC’ or ‘emcee’) would introduce the DJ and hype up the crowd during the parties; an early version of rapping as we know it since.
To bring the newborn sound of block parties to actual recordings released on vinyl, producers would sample breakbeats—and other elements—such as The Incredible Bongo Band’s “Apache” and The Winston Brothers’ “Amen, Brother,” made famous at block parties by DJs like Grand Wizzard Theodore, Grandmaster Flash, Jazzy Jay, and Grandmaster Caz.
With digital samplers, people could create music straight from their homes without the need for theoretical music education, paying for studio time, playing traditional instruments, or hiring musicians.
As with many innovations, hip-hop sampling was born from limitations. The limitations of those early samplers and drum machines (such as a short sample time), forced creativity and ingenuity. Such as producer Marley Marl, who reinvented the use of drum breaks and started chopping them to create new drum patterns by sample usage.
Sampling music can be done in many different ways. Looping and Chopping are the most commonly used techniques and terms, also related to the origins of sampling as explained on top of this guide. Here’s an overview of more go-to techniques and methods for producers:
Combining multiple samples (either the same sample or different ones) in “layers,” played simultaneously. This technique is commonly used to achieve rich, complex, or harmonious results that can’t be realized with a single sample.
Speeding up or slowing down the tempo of a sample. Doing so also affects the pitch of a sample. That brings us to another technique: time stretching.
This is the process of changing the tempo of a sample while maintaining its pitch.
Similarly, pitch shifting means adjusting the pitch of a sample while maintaining its tempo. This relates to the common practice of pitching, which allows producers to change the pitch—and thus, the key—of a sample to their needs.
Equalization (EQ in short) is the process of tweaking the levels of frequencies to achieve a clear, balanced mix. In other words: to make all audio that’s part of your production work together. From high-pass and low-pass filters to masking to EQ plugins—equalization is a huge topic by itself. With that said, EQ’ing is a fundamental part of the production process to avoid a “muddy” sound.
As the term implies, this technique reverses the audio of a sample. Such as masterfully done by DJ Dahi on Kendrick Lamar’s “Father Time,” using a Tracklib sample.
Essentially, there are two definitions of resampling:
- Bouncing MIDI or audio tracks to a new audio track. This can be done with or without effects and EQ, and by combining different audio tracks, to generate a new track—a new sample, if you will.
- Recalculating samples at a different sample rate (reduced or increased) than the original sound file, which affects the frequency range and sound of a sample.
A one-shot is a single hit of a sound. That can be anything: from drums (a kick, snare, or hi-hat, for example) to the hit of a piano key to bass shots—or any other chord, note, or sound effect. As opposed to continuous, seamless loops, one-shots are single strikes of audio.
This digital day and age opens possibilities that weren’t available back in the day. Such as stem splitting: an (AI/software-powered) way to “split” a song into separate audio files—such as drums and vocals. These days, there’s a wide array of stem splitters available for this.
These are some of last year’s biggest samples in popular music, visualizing different sampling techniques:
The most important ground rule: you cannot sample music without permission. So always make sure to clear the samples you use. In short, that means when you create a new track, you need to send it to the original rightsholders (both of the original sound recording and the original composition) for approval. On a creative level, there are certain “rules” and common practices ingrained in each genre. But generally speaking: music sampling means full creativity. It goes without saying that here at Tracklib, we absolutely love the art of sampling.
First, you have to get familiar with a digital audio workstation (DAW) of choice. Software like Ableton Live, Logic Pro X, or FL Studio is among the options of good places to start. All three even offer free trials to start with music production and sampling.
Sampling an existing song is one thing, but doing it properly and well is another. Make sure that samples are used and processed in the right way with numerous techniques, effects, plug-ins, and equalization. More on all of that can be found in our educational content on the Tracklib blog. Or join the Tracklib Community on Discord to exchange ideas, feedback, and tips to hone your production skills.
We don’t mean this as a shameless plug, but it’s simply what it is: Tracklib is the world’s first and only online service where you can find and clear real, original music to sample. Music that you can affordably clear within minutes based on pre-defined rates and license categories. That way, you don’t have to worry about using a sample you might not be able to clear.
MusicTech explained that process in a 2021 feature on Tracklib: “Even if a producer is successful in the process of starting the negotiation – which can take months and involve lawyers and clearance agents – they may well find that the sample they’re looking to use is prohibitively expensive, if the rightsholder is even willing to license it at all.” That’s where Tracklib comes in, to take away that tedious process.
Which digital audio workstation (DAW) is best for you, depends on the type of producer you are, your desired workflow, and optionally the hardware you use. Some of our recommended options are Ableton Live, FL Studio, Logic Pro, Serato Sample, and Propellerhead’s Reason.
In theory, you can find samples anywhere. Back in the day, sampling was all about crate-digging for vinyl records: dropping the needle to find an isolated piece of music or a perfect loop. Ever since, numerous producers have shown that anything goes: from sampling straight from TV such as The 45 King for the beat of Eminem’s “Stan,” to sampling off YouTube such as MF DOOM and Madlib have done in the past. Hell, you can then even sample album covers for your own cover art, as long as you have the right copyright permissions.
Other sources include free sample packs, sample libraries, royalty-free sounds, and platforms that offer one-shots or audio loops. But nothing beats original music; here at Tracklib, we believe that original music creators should always get ongoing royalties on the master side and a share of the new composition, so they can earn for the duration of the new song’s life.
Keep in mind that sampling isn’t legal without clearance and a license! You can use Tracklib to find original songs to sample. You can narrow down the catalog by features such as genre, region, year(s), key, multitracks, license category, and BPM. Tracklib’s Loop Player and Beat Player even allow you to try out loops, drum patterns, and production styles, even before you download the track or load it into your DAW.
As music sampling traditions have shown us, producers can use any source to find samples. In this day and age, the internet, of course, offers countless options to find music to sample. Examples of popular samples include “Amen Brother” by The Winston Brothers, James Brown’s “Funky Drummer,” Fab Five Freddy’s “Change The Beat,” Melvin Bliss' “Synthetic Substitution,” and “Nautilus” by Bob James.
Sampling original music brings a sound and spirit to your music that can’t be recreated. From the sound of analog studio gear to the chemistry between musicians; those magical moments are only captured in real music. Next to that, sampling original songs let you build off true skills by artists who have mastered their craft for decades.
Above all, sampling and paying fees and royalties for original music gives artists a future income stream—we can imagine you want that as an artist as well.
Let’s take a look at some of the often misunderstood legal and ethical issues around sampling.
A common myth is that a sample is legal without permission as long as it’s shorter than six seconds. That is simply not the case.
Sampling music is legal, as long as you get permission for the sample usage from the original artists, writers, and copyright owners. Music is protected by copyright law, so reusing any portion of music—no matter how short or long—needs to be cleared and licensed. Copyright law is very complex and differs in regions around the world, so what goes for one country might not be the case in another country.
In this guide, we simplify the theory around music sampling for the sake of your understanding. We can only encourage you to dig in far deeper to fully explore the subtleties and complexities of sample clearances and licensing.
Here at Tracklib, you find 80K original songs available for all-legal, pre-cleared sampling. Use Tracklib as a go-to spot for digging so you don’t have to be distracted by clearance issues or copyright infringement. Instead, from the comfort of your own studio, you know straight away that music is available to sample!
Sampling is an artistic expression; a way to give music new life. It’s not stealing, as long as you treat sampling in a fair way. Carefully clear and license music to respect another musician’s hard work and rights.
No! Why would sampling be “cheating” as opposed to playing an instrument? Sampling can be as original, intricate, and distinctive as you want it to be. Why would sampling otherwise have changed the face of music as we know it today?
If you didn’t clear a sample, interpolation, or remix: yes, you can get sued. Short of that, original rightsholders might decide to take the digital versions down and remove the physical releases from sales. A rightsholder may decide to negotiate a clearance agreement—but all these potential outcomes of not clearing a sample are up to the original rightsholders.
However, with Tracklib, you’re able to easily and affordably license all of the songs on Tracklib. That makes you 100% covered. Licensing via Tracklib also covers the use of interpolations.
Welcome to the maze called clearing samples. Choose your route:
You need to have two types of licenses for a sample: for the use of the master sound recording and the performance (usually via a record label), and a license for the actual composition (controlled by a publisher and/or directly by the songwriter). Both need to be tracked down—with the risk of not being able to get in touch, or them denying the inquiry. After all, the choice is completely up to them. For interpolations, usually, only a license from the owner(s) of the composition is needed.
Got in touch? Good. Then the negotiation starts, usually based on the sample usage in your new recording. So in most traditional forms of licensing you have to create at least a demo first. Then wait and see whether the rightsholders are prepared to clear it and, if so, on what commercial terms.
The deal for master use usually includes an upfront fee which can go up to thousands of dollars—PLUS a percentage of your revenue. The deal for composition use can also include a fee PLUS a percentage of the copyright in the new composition.
All songs on Tracklib are pre-cleared. All you need is a subscription and a standard sample license (the upfront license fee for most of the songs on our site is $50). The royalties and share of the composition are according to our rate card which you can see on our site. That way, you know what the deal will be even before you download the audio. No need to chase down or negotiate with any rightsholders. It’s as simple as that.
The answer is plain and simple: yes. Even if you make a release available for free, you still need to clear samples. You can do that manually by tracing down the original rightsholders, negotiating from there, and trying your luck, patience, and persistence. Or you can clear music through Tracklib within minutes, so you can instantly release your music.
Even if you manage to track them down and get in touch: the original creator(s) and/or rightsholder(s) are still in the position to say no. Whether or not to accept an inquiry, is fully up to them.
However, by using Tracklib you don’t have to worry about steep fees, permissions, or the fine print of clearance contracts… The pre-cleared samples are guaranteed good to go—without hidden fees!
That’s it for Tracklib’s beginner’s guide to music sampling. We hope that you’re now on the right track to start making sample-based music. Now we’d like to hear your thoughts: what are your do’s and don’ts and best practices for music sampling?
You can also join the Tracklib Community on Discord if you want to be part of the conversation with fellow producers. Help each other out with tips, advice, and first-hand experiences.
Do you have any questions about something we missed in this guide? Let us know below. We read every comment.
Please note carefully that this guide is not and is not intended to be legal advice. If you need advice on any aspect of sampling, contracts, licenses, et cetera—please consult a licensed attorney.
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