Samples have become so ubiquitous in music production, it’s rare to be mixing a track without at least one sampled element, be it a one-shot, beat, loop or recorded ambience. We go through the essential mix steps.
By Charles Hoffman
Sample packs have made music production available to the masses, and this has propelled the music industry into exponential growth over the past 8+ years. Not everyone has access to a recording studio or high-quality recording equipment, so the ability to access quality samples has resulted in the rise of many artists who were previously lacking the adequate resources required to express their artistic ideas.
Although music production has become exceptionally accessible, the quality of mixes being produced has taken somewhat of a blow. One significant reason for this is that an entire level of the creation process is being spoon-fed to people; the recording process. There are so many issues that can be addressed at a recording level, that require substantially more work to address at a mixing level. The good news is that if you manage to find high-quality samples, a lack of recording capability is compensated for. However, if the sample you’re using hasn't been recorded well, your mixing abilities are put to the test.
Sample selection plays a huge role in the overall quality of your mix. The more time you’ve spent mixing music, the better you’ll be able to predict how different sounds will work together. Through experimentation, you’ll be able to produce a high-quality mix using sample selection alone. Here we’ll provide some tips that will help you to process your samples more effectively. These tips are useful for one-shot samples, loops, sampling records and non-musical samples.
1. One-Shot Samples
While heavy-hitting sample library websites like have become the standard for samples used in both music and film, there are still many budding producers and post-production engineers that aren’t using these samples to their fullest potential. One of the most overlooked aspects of using samples is that many of them are already processed. I often work on mixes for clients who have downloaded samples online and processed them to death. Many producers simply feel like they need to add processing for the sake of it.
There are two paths you can take when browsing for samples. You can either download samples that are heavily pre-processed, and “mix-ready”, or you can download samples that contain minimal or no processing. I generally find that working with dry samples and applying my own processing results in a more cohesive sounding mix.
A sample with a little bit of tasteful compression using something like the SSL G-Channel is fine and usually saves me from having to apply the compression myself. Issues occur when you download samples that are heavily compressed, as it’s challenging to undo this type of processing. If you do encounter samples that are over-compressed, you can reach for either an expander or transient shaper to increase the sample’s dynamic range.
The next two biggest offenders when it comes to processed samples are delay and reverb. In some cases, it’s possible to reduce the delay and reverb effect by using a gate like the C1 Compressor, but it’s difficult to completely remove this type of processing from a sample.
Sometimes, the processing found in a sample is what makes it unique and desirable. Often I’ll make a sample work however I can because it “feels” right. Music is about feeling above all else, and sometimes stripping the additional processing from a sound won’t give you the right feel. Compromising on the technical perfection of a mix is sometimes what makes it unique and memorable; artists like XXXTENTACION are a prime example of this. His music is lo-fi and mixes rough, but the feelings it provokes in a listener are intense.
Be aware of good practices so that you have options to choose from, but if the technical route isn’t available or doesn’t suit the song, feel free to throw it out the window in favor of more creative avenues.
2. Loops, loops, loops
There’s a lot of controversy over the use of loops, and whether or not using them is “cheating.” To provide some context, people working in the industry “professionally” use loops all the time if they complement a song. Once you’re capable of synthesizing whatever sound you can dream up, using loops no longer feels like cheating; it’s just a time saver. The reason why people feel that using loops is cheating is that in many cases, it provides them access to something they couldn’t create on their own. But at a certain point in your progress, you’ll be able to recreate whatever it is that you hear. This completely removes the feeling of cheating, and using loops becomes a time-saving convenience above all else.
In many situations, you’ll want to apply bus processing to loops. If you’re working with a drum break that contains kicks, snares, hi-hats, etc., you should treat the entire loop as a drum bus. Compressors like the SSL G Buss Compressor, or API 2500 would be good processing choices, as would a broad stroke EQ like the RS56 or PuigTecs. If the loop includes various guitars, you should treat it as a guitar bus. How you process a loop is dependent upon the elements that make up the loop, for example, a simple vocal chop loop wouldn’t require buss processing if it’s made up of basic melodic elements.
Swing is something that comes into play when using loops as well, it can make a loop feel rushed or relaxed without changing its tempo. Keep in mind that loops that you download can sometimes come with their own swing that doesn’t match up with the groove of your project. To overcome this, you can use your DAW to quantize the timing of the transients in your loop to the grid of your song. Then, bounce this quantized audio file to a new track, and apply your own swing. Ableton’s groove pool allows you to apply swing to audio loops easily, but this can be done manually by shifting certain transients off beat (forwards or backward) by a 1/16th.
3. Using Sampled Records
Hip hop producers have been sampling vinyl records for years, and sample manipulation has become a defining characteristic of the genre. One thing to consider when sampling records is that they’ve been mastered. In many cases, this means that the sounds you’re using have already been run through a limiter and likely many stages of compression. Therefore, you need to be cautious about over-compressing these samples.
Sampling drum breaks from old records is lots of fun because you can create your own custom drum kits by slicing up the loops you record. Extracting kicks, snares, toms and other percussive instruments allows you to repurpose these old records in new and inventive ways. Something as simple as changing the rhythm of a sliced-up loop can be the difference between a dusty old intro to an 80s rock song, and a pumping, contemporary Drum and Bass beat.
Taking it even further, you can filter, distort and delay the samples you’ve recorded. Treat your samples like the seeds of original-sounds-to-be. Completely mangling samples can be a great option and one that I highly suggest you explore. For example, using an acapella from some random record you picked up at the thrift store down the street as the modulator for a vocoder sounds pretty cool. I once ripped the voice of a storyteller off a bible stories record, pitched it down a few semitones, and used it as the main vocal chop in a track I produced. For quick, inspirational results, try experimenting with the OneKnob plugins on your samples, you may find a distortion or reverb flavor works for the particular song you’re doing.
Sample libraries are great for finding specific sounds, but weird samples recorded from obscure vinyl records can help push you into a creative state. How are you going to fit a record full of prank phone calls into your song? Maybe time stretching the sound of someone laughing will provide you with a sustained note that you can toss into a sampler, and use as a playable pad. Challenging yourself in this way is going to bring out the best in your tracks and allow you to produce truly unique sounds.
4. Non-Musical Samples
Lots of the samples you get your hands on won’t be musical. There are many ways to work these types of samples into your songs, and you can get away with a surprising amount if it’s clear to your listeners that these samples aren’t meant to be in time with your song. For example, it’s not uncommon for artists to sample a clip from a movie, TV show or YouTube video and add it to the intro or interlude of their song. Dr. Dre uses a lot of vocal skits on his album The Chronic, which helps to tell a story. Although they may not necessarily be musical samples, they undoubtedly help to progress the album.
The first option you have with non-musical samples is just to let them play out of key and out of time. If your mixes sound well put together, adding an oddity like a non-musical audio sample can be a refreshing creative choice. I wouldn’t recommend doing this if your mix isn’t in such good shape as it may exacerbate the low-quality mix sound, rather than appear as a creative decision.
The second thing you can do with non-musical samples is to make them musical. This would include adjusting their pitch so that they fall within the key of your song and adjusting their tempo (or in some cases, creating a tempo) to match the tempo of your project. By cutting up longer non-musical samples, you can often create one-shot samples that are immediately usable. The nice thing about one-shot samples is that they don’t usually have a tempo; think of a vocal chant or synth stab.
A slightly more creative way of using non-musical samples is by taking advantage of synthesis. Ableton’s sampler allows you to loop a segment of the audio sample that you load into it. If you set the loop bracket small enough, you can generate a continuous waveform and essentially turn the looped waveform into an oscillator. From there, you’re able to manipulate the amp envelope, pitch envelope and filter of the waveform you’ve generated. I’ve created synth sounds out of everything from race car engines revving to the sound of my dog barking. This is an excellent example of the wavetable synthesis you’ll find in Waves Codex.
Not all the samples you use will come nicely packaged and cleaned up to perfection. Even if you download your samples from a sample library, you may have to do a bit of maintenance work. Mixing is often about overcoming problems, and if you’re selective with the samples you choose, you won’t have very many issues to deal with. Before you apply processing, ask yourself whether or not the processing will fix a problem. Carefully perform an A/B comparison of the sample with and without the processing, use your ears, and make a decision as to whether or not the processing helps or harms the sample. Proper treatment of samples can significantly improve your mixes.
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