Sampling 101: Yeah, it’s a good sample, but where have I heard it 200 times already?

[Originally blogged 3/13/08]

For today’s blog I’ve decided to address an area of critical importance for the world of electronic music: Sampling.

While dismissed by some as cliche and others as a hindrance to a song as a whole, I come from the school of thought that sampling is a vital, integral part of the industrial genre. Whether subtle (atmospheric noises) or not-so-subtle (see most of my songs), sampling is as mom and apple pie are to America in industrial music.

But sampling, like alcohol, drugs, or Carlos Mencia fans, can be abused (and in the case of Mencia fans, rightfully should be). Some artists have mined certain genres of film, specifically sci-fi and war films, until there’s little useful audio ore left to be found. And while the incredible samples database is no longer up to be contributed to (it can be found archived online though), it’s hard just to know what has and hasn’t been used to death, unless you just happen to listen to EVERY fucking album, song, single, and new track uploaded to MySpace.

In other words, you don’t know.

But I do. Well, in theory. I know what’s to be avoided, as I’ve been around the industrial block a few zillion times and so here, for your reading pleasure, are some Tips on Sampling, by yours truly. Take it as for serious as you want.

1) Don’t sample certain movies! Yes, I know Full Metal Jacket rules. It’s fucking awesome, especially when Vincent D’Onofrio takes his head off or when Animal Mother goes after his sniped comrades. And yes, holy ball-sacs is The Matrix rad (well, the first one). But do you know what? They’ve been sampled to DEATH. DEATH, I say! I don’t give a shit if you’re a clever German band and sample the GERMAN DUB of The Matrix, or even the one that got a limited release in Swahili. It doesn’t matter. Sampling is not necessarily a cliche, but sampling CERTAIN MOVIES is. Blade Runner is one as well. Falling Down and Event Horizon as well. And although there are certain exceptions to this rule (’Skullfuck’ being an obvious one), it’s best to avoid sampling movies that the only thing that probably HASN’T been sampled is the opening MGM lion’s roar at the beginning.

2) Avoid (and similar online sites)! For those who don’t know, is an audio site with thousands of awesome clips to download and giggle over. It’s also a place that, if you surf it for more than 5 minutes, you’ll go “Oh, THAT’s where that sample is from! Oh, that’s where THAT came from, too!”

In other words, it’s also been mined to death. I grabbed a sample off there years back and used that I know is now in at least THREE other songs! While it’s obviously fair use, there is a degree of “Hey, I used that FIRST!” that happens which, in some ways, makes people feel that if they’ve used that sound then it takes that sample off the table for anyone else to use. Obviously this isn’t breaking a law or anything like that, but why would you want to use the same sample some other artist did, especially in a known song that, when they hear you use it, immediately say “Oh man, that’s the same sample in that GRENDEL used!”

3) Unless done for irony, most sample sources should not be obvious! Okay, I know I’m gonna catch shit for this one probably more than anything, as I’ve sampled Gone With The Wind and many blockbusters, but the fun of samples (for me) is not always knowing where they come from. Part of what’s fun for me has always been FIGURING OUT the sample sources. I’m STILL figuring out samples from Mr Bungle’s first CD, and so there’s almost an extra game to industrial where you go “I know I’ve heard that somewhere before!” Part of this can be done by not using samples with people’s names in them, or really specific information.

Another reason I mention the non-specifity of the samples is because the samples, in theory, shouldn’t be the main focus of the song. They should be an accent, an appropriate touch, and not distract from the whole work. They CAN be a hook (again, see ’Skullfuck’), but you don’t want people to just like the song because you sampled some awesome speech from Kill Bill in it. You want people to like THE MUSIC just as much, and don’t want the samples to overshadow all the creativity and time you’ve put into the track.

4) Sampling weird sources is 1000 times cooler than sampling something easy Much as I love Velvet Acid Christ’s “Calling Ov The Dead” (and I do– it’s my favorite VAC cd), the sampling is pretty heavy-handed. I’d say at least 3/4 of Se7en and 1/3 of 12 Monkeys is sampled, NEARLY IN FULL, on that disc. It’s like sampling The Crow, or (again) Full Metal Jacket or Blade Runner.

Part of what’s been fun for me is to pull quotes out of movies that are either a little more underground, or use stuff from places that are less predictable. Obviously sampling a movie like Stripes isn’t going to work for everyone, but with the wonders of Netflix, Youtube, and the kindness of movie geeks everywhere, you can access almost ANYTHING these days. Dump the Big Guns of movies and try harder to find weird samples that you can manipulate into your sound. Fuck, I sampled MAMA’S FAMILY for a track, and can pretty much guarantee nobody else has yet.

In other words, don’t settle for the obvious. Challenge yourself to seek out obscure stuff from TV, foreign films, and weird archives online. Hell, I saw Shoot ’Em Up a few months back and made a point to NOT sample it, as it’s INFINITELY quotable and could easily fit into a million club songs. Why did I hold back? It’s gonna get sampled to death by lots of other people, and I’d rather try to be an artist who people don’t say “Oh, someone else sampled [INSERT POPULAR MOVIE HERE], *yawn*” when they hear my tracks.

So there ya go. Some basic rules for sampling. Like any rules, these are always meant to be broken, but ya better have a damn good reason to do so. Developing confidence when and when NOT to use samples in tracks is important. I still struggle with it, as I sometimes get sample slaphappy and enjoy the art of using them (and I do think there’s an actual aesthetic to it, much like making a collage of found pictures…just noisier) but at the same time you have to ask yourself “is this actually contributing to the track or taking from it?” That takes thought sometimes, but have fun with it and never set limits on what should and shouldn’t be sampled. It’s all in intent, so make sure you have some, but mostly make sure the music just kicks total ass so people don’t call your favorite, bestest work “That song that samples ’The Care Bears Movie’”.

Okay, that COULD be cool.  Fuck, now I gotta Netflix that movie before someone else gets it…;)


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