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Common Approaches to Flipping Vinyl Samples

The cover artwork for DJ Shadow’s legendary 1996 album, Endtroducing…

Learn the nuances of producing beats, arranging tracks, and creative sampling, drawing on the rich history and influence of hip-hop in Soundfly’s popular mentored online course, The Art of Hip-Hop Production.

Sampling and hip-hop could almost be considered synonymous with one another.

Although the use of audio sampling techniques in recorded and live music predates hip-hop, the genre is responsible for turning audio sampling into a veritable art form. Since its inception, hip-hop’s sonic landscape has been built on the backs of breakbeats from James Brown, disco bass lines from Chic, and whatever interesting passages producers and DJs found to lift from other records.

In the mid 1980s and early ’90s, audio samplers became much more affordable on the consumer market, which allowed aspiring producers to create their own tracks without the use of other musicians, and with a whole lot of creative processing possibilities to boot. With the help of innovative machines like the SP1200, MPC-60, and the E-mu series, producers now had tools to rip audio off their vast vinyl record collections, and create new masterpieces.

By the mid ’90s, sampling had redefined the music industry and started upending its legal foundations — all the while, calling into question hip-hop’s legitimacy as a valid musical art form. As it ascended into the American mainstream, some artists and critics of the genre believed it was unoriginal to create songs based on the literal use of another person’s music. Such criticism would not hinder the widespread use of samples as sonic material though, as the number of high-profile cases around sample clearance skyrocketed, and this put new demands on producers.

Now fearing they wouldn’t get their tracks cleared by big labels, some producers started digging for more obscure records to sample. This led to the art of crate digging, essentially the practice of perusing record store discount crates in search of rare or obscure albums to sample. One important work that well-highlights this new approach to sampling is A Tribe Called Quest’s sophomore 1991 album The Low End Theory.

In the years since, there have come many producers who found divine inspiration in the process of sampling old vinyl records to make new hip-hop beats, for example: Exile, Statik Selecta, Madlib, Kanye West, 9th Wonder, J Dilla, and DJ Shadow, to name a few.

In this piece will dive into how to flip vinyl samples and why it could be an interesting new addition to your production skill set.

How to Sample?

First things first, if you’ve never used audio samples in your production then it’s best to understand how to sample. In the world of digital audio workstations (DAWs) your computer can function as a high-quality recording studio, allowing you to create pro-level productions with minimal equipment. When working in most DAWs you have two types of tracks: Audio and MIDI.

MIDI tracks control all software instruments and VSTs; basically any sound that you play that’s being generated from the DAW, or a digital synth, is coming through a MIDI track. You get audio tracks when you record vocals, instruments, and drums via a microphone, or when you import previously recorded music (like samples). When looking to sample audio from a turntable for example, there are two main ways to approach doing so.

1. Directly to an Audio Sampler

With hardware samplers you can connect your sample source directly into your machine. Some samplers include the Akai MPC, the BOSS  SP-303 and Roland SP-404, and Teenage Engineering’s Op-1. The type of connection depends on both the sampler and audio source but for most machines you should have the option of using a headphone jack, a ¼ inch cable, or RCA inputs, and adapters should be available to convert.

Once the two machines are connected, you can sample records off your turntable pretty easily. Usually your audio will be assigned to one of the pads on the sampler and saved. There are a wide variety of audio sampling machines, each one with its own unique controls and functionality, but there will always be a way to access the samples and trigger them back in order to play them at will.

One of the advantages of using a hardware sampler is that it acts like an instrument, more than a computer, since it’s a tactile, playable object. You can immediately start banging out drum beats and chopped up samples once they are recorded to your pads; so producers often feel free to play around with ideas before even having a concept for a track in mind.

Depending on your workflow, using a hardware sampler instead of a DAW could help you start working faster and creating new sonic possibilities that simply clicking a mouse cannot match.

2. Directly to Your DAW

However, using a DAW does have its advantages. Using almost any DAW and an audio interface you can connect your audio source (turntable, phone, etc.) directly to the computer and record the playback of the recording into an audio track in your DAW. When creating your audio track you have to make sure that the input on your track is set to the same input as your audio source (i.e: if you plug your record player into input 1 on your audio interface then make sure input 1 is set on the audio track in your DAW).

Once the audio is in your DAW, you can decide what parts of the audio you want to sample by manually selecting the parts of the track you want to use and deleting or muting the other parts. You can then isolate those parts and loop them to your heart’s desire. Slicing the audio allows you to rearrange the sample however you want in order to create your beat. If you want to bypass sampling vinyl altogether or just want to work on the basics of sampling audio in your DAW, you can start by dragging any track on your computer directly into an audio track in your DAW.

What to Sample?

When looking for records to sample in a record store, it’s always a good idea to have a general idea of the type of sound you’re looking for; whether that’s a drum sample, a loopable bass line or extended instrumental section, an isolated vocal fragment, etc. Professional crate diggers will often have a set of criteria for what tends to yield interesting results for them, such as: the record’s instrumentation, its session musicians, arrangers, record label, or even simply the cover art.

Producers often start by looking for musical sections they can loop or smaller bits of audio they can chop up and rearrange. Let’s take a look at the advantages of both.

1. Loops

Loops are sections in a song that repeat over and over again. Most hip-hop and electronic tracks these days are based on loops, even though loop-based recording and composing is a relatively new concept. In the early days of sampling, DJs would find the “breakdown” sections of a record (a section with just drums and occasionally a bass line) and loop them so the MCs could rap over it. As sampling and music production technology progressed producers looked for catchy sections of a record that they could loop.

If you’re sampling using a DAW it’s helpful to know the tempo of the original song, but if you don’t know the tempo you can cut the audio until you find a loop and use the loop markers in your DAW to make sure it loops perfectly.

Once you have your loop, you can adjust the tempo so that your looped section fits within an even number of bars in your DAW (most producers look for two- or four-bar loops for this reason), and then you can start building a beat around it. Sometimes after I record a sample into my DAW and figure out the tempo, I look for all the sections I want to use and highlight them. I can start building a basic beat around one sample and then replace the main sample with the other loops to create variations and different sections.

I created this beat using two loops from The Jaggers’ “(That’s Why) Baby I Love You.”

2. Chops

Another technique for sampling is called chopping or slicing. This basically means cutting the audio up into small sections that you can rearrange as if they were chords or drum hits unto themselves. This technique is most common for producers who use audio samplers such as the MPC, Maschine, the SP1200 and SP-303/404.

By recording snippets of audio onto the pads of a sampler you can essentially play your samples like a drum kit. This technique inspired boom bap producers such as DJ Premier, Q-tip, Pete Rock, and J Dilla to create the classic sound of Golden Era hip-hop. One technique that producers such as J Dilla utilized was chopping samples to start on a kick or snare hits. With the right filter and EQ combination many producers would build a library of drum samples from their favorite vinyl records long before companies like Splice existed.

What makes J Dilla and his cohorts unique was that they would sometimes then leave the rest of the musical information after the kick and snare hits, as opposed to trying to isolate the drums or bass line for example. One of the most classic displays of Dilla’s virtuosity in this technique is on the song “Don’t Cry.” Check out how he uses every bit of the music in his sample to get the effect he wants as he moves through the sections of the song.

Dilla chops the The Escorts’ “I Can’t Stand to See You Cry” only on his kick and snare hits, and then rearranges them into a funky beat for swung and double-time pulses. Using techniques like this make sampling enjoyable and performable like playing the drums.

Who to Sample?

While there are literally millions of records out there to pick up and drop the needle on, the truth is that you may not be able to find a golden sample on just any record. Victory usually favors the obsessor in this case, so always keep your eyes and ears open. But here’s a few categories that have worked for hip-hop producers in the past.

1. Blue Note Records

Blue Note Records is one of the most prolific jazz labels of all time. From the sleek design concepts of their album covers to the carousel of influential musicians who released some of their best records with the label, Blue Note defined the sound of jazz from the mid 1950s through the early 1970s.

With hundreds of albums that feature some of the greatest instrumental pieces of all time, it’s easy to find a great sample or two by picking any record with the blue note insignia. Here’s a sample that Madlib flipped off of Gene Harris and the Three Sounds’ “Book of Slim.”

2. James Brown

Known as “The Godfather of Soul” James Brown created the rhythmic archetype for funk music and beyond. One of his main musical philosophies was that every instrument should be considered a drum. This sentiment is now ever-present in the world of modern production in which you can literally play every instrument on some type of drum pad.

Early hip-hop DJs and producers would sample and loop the breaks from James Brown’s records in order to give breakdancers room to display their best moves. One of the most famous samples is from his “Funky Drummer,” which has one of the most definitive and easily recognizable drum breaks in history. Producers have also sampled James Brown’s vocal ad libs from tracks like “The Big Payback.”

3. Any Soul Group with “The” in Their Name

A good soul sample is worth its weight in gold. A good tip for finding good soul records to sample is look for groups that recorded between 1960-1978 whose band names start with “The.” Some examples include: The Chi-Lites, The Moments, The Emotions, The Supremes, The Jackson 5, Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes, etc. Sampling soul became popular in the late ’90s and early ’00s with producers such as Just Blaze and Kanye West. Jay-Z’s “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” features a sample of The Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back.”

4. Obscure Records Found Around the World

A good tip if you’re a world traveler is to visit a record shop in whatever country you go to. You’ll be surprised by what you can find. Hip-hop producers have long been fans of sampling music from Brazil, India, the Middle East, and the Caribbean. You may even make the next Number 1 hit sampling a record from Finland.

5. Old Gospel Records

Hip-hop has long had a love/hate relationship with the sacred and the profane. Rappers may find themselves searching for some type of redemption for their explicit/elicit past. These type of reflective songs always sound great over a chopped up choir or old gospel record of an unknown pastor.

There are a slew of well-known hip-hop songs that use gospel samples such as Kanye West’s “Father Stretch My Hands” and “Jesus Walks,” Jay-Z’s “Family Feud,” Drake’s “Furthest Thing,” and Isiah Rashad’s “Heavenly Father.” Alchemist and Budgie even have a gospel-themed mixtape series called The Good Book. Any gospel records from the 1940s on are always great to sample.

Why Sample from Vinyl in the First Place?

Vinyl records were the first physical medium for making recorded music commercially available. When you make a connection with an old record or even a new one there’s an opportunity for inspiration beyond your imagination, and an opportunity to connect your art with the history of the music industry.

Here are a few more reasons why sampling vinyl can be a rewarding experience.

1. It may Help an Obscure, Forgotten Artist Gain New Attention

Picking the right sample, whether from a popular or obscure artist, has the potential to turn an okay beat into a smash record. When you flip an old vinyl recording, you are allowing new audiences to discover the original artist’s work. If the record does well then you and the original artist both stand to make some money. Recently Beyoncé did a remix/cover of Frankie Beverly’s hit song “Before I Let Go.”

Although Beyoncé’s version isn’t a sample it brought a lot of attention back to the original artist. Digging for samples is a lot like digging for memories. You never know what type of nostalgia your beat could conjure just by picking the right sample.

2. 90% of All Recorded Music is Not on the Internet

Many music producers and audio enthusiasts estimate that only 10% of recorded music is available online at this point in time. That means 90% of recorded music has not yet been transferred to the internet and is only available in physical formats.

You’re probably going to want to spend some time offline and digging through some archives and back closets. If you’re someone who frequently travels, crate digging in other countries is an amazing way to find records you might have never known existed otherwise.

3. Audio Quality Gold

Vinyl records have a distinct warmth that comes from the process of cutting the music to wax and the general mechanics of how a record player works. CDs use lasers and digital audio files are basically just codes that a computer processes but a record is a physical object being manipulated by another physical object (tone arm). If only for the dusty playback of the audio, sampling is more interesting than simply synthesizing sounds in MIDI.

But what if I don’t have a large vinyl collection or record player but still want to sample vinyl?

New producers often bypass sampling vinyl because they either don’t own a record player or they don’t want to invest the time to collect and gather large amounts of records to sort through.

Never fear; Tracklib is here!

Tracklib is a library of pre-cleared records to sample that have been hand-picked by a team of experts. The music is organized into curated playlists, which make it easy to find and identify interesting samples fast. All you need to do is purchase the song for $2 and you’re free to use it however you want. If you plan to release the song, then you’ll have to get a sample license. Tracklib offers sample licenses at three different price points and most of their tracks are available to license for $50.

Interested in learning more about flipping samples and other hip hop production techniques? Sign up for our new course The Art of Hip Hop Production to learn the tools you need to take your beats to the next level.

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Charles Burchell
Charles Burchell

Charles Burchell is a multi-instrumentalist, producer, composer, educator, and diplomat from New Orleans, LA. He has studied at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, the New England Conservatory (B.M. ’12), and most recently completed the Masters of Arts in Education program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (Ed. M ’13). Burchell has recorded and produced albums with Wes “Warmdaddy” Anderson, Delfayo Marsalis, Ran Blake, Ciel Rouge, his band The Love Experiment (featured in Touring on a Shoestring), and has performed and given master classes at various music festivals around the world. Burchell also works as a cultural diplomat with the Next Level Program and is currently a teaching artist for Carnegie Hall’s Digital Music Production Workshop and Musical Connections Program in which he works with court involved youth and students from various boroughs throughout New York City. Burchell continues to perform regularly around the U.S. and internationally as a DJ, drummer, and bandleader.