A well chopped sample is the backbone of many hip hop and dance songs. For most producers the days of recording a few seconds of audio from vinyl to tape are long gone, but the principles behind it remain virtually unchanged. And while digging for source material may have largely shifted from record stores to blogs, the number of quality remixers producing music has never been greater.
There is a range of different tools you can use to create your samples when working with digital audio. Akai’s MPC line has been a staple for hip hop producers for years and Native Instruments’ Maschine has quickly become a new favorite. For the purposes of this article we’re going to focus on using Ableton Live.
Since Live is a DAW you are not confined to any one piece of hardware. You can use any combination of the mouse and MIDI controllers to do all of your chopping and slicing.
Before you start chopping any samples you need to find your source material. The style of this source material will depend largely on the genre of music you’re going to be making. Many classic hip hop songs are based on samples from old funk and soul records (especially James Brown).
Click here for a list of some of the most heavily sampled artists of all time.
Once the song is chosen, you will need to warp it. Warping will lock the song to a beat grid and allow you to play it at any tempo in sync with other clips and songs. Live will often do this automatically for you, but if the automatic warping doesn’t work perfectly, you will need to find the first beat, place a warp marker, command click and set 1.1.1 on that warp marker. Then command click again and warp it using one of the warp commands.
To select your sample, start off by listening to the song and identifying where different parts of the song begin and end. Depending on the genre of the song, you might be able to visually see these parts in the waveform.
The next step will be to create new clips for every song section that you want to isolate. You can do this by selecting the clip and pressing ‘command-D’ to duplicate the clip as many times as you need.
Within each clip you will now want to move the start marker and loop bracket over the section you want to play. You can do this by simply dragging them where you want them, or typing in the location in the sample box. You can then turn on the loop bracket and adjust it to the length of the section. Most dance music will have sections that are 4, 8, 16, or 32 bars in length.
Apart from the different song structures that you will have in each individual clip, you should try to find any parts of the song that have isolated instrument parts. These parts can often be found in intros, outros, and breaks and are very useful as chopped samples. Not every song will have isolated parts, and the type and length of them will vary significantly. Some might only be 2 beats long, but if you can find them and isolate them you can use them in creative ways.
Things to look for are drum breaks (without other instruments), small solo vocal parts, and any instrumental parts that are free from a lot of background music.
When using these types of samples you will need to add more layers to make it sound like a proper remix, so putting these isolated clips in new tracks is definitely a good idea. If they are in their own track, you will be able to play them at the same time as any other clips from the song or other clips that you want to blend in.
You can create a new track by pressing ‘command-T’. You can then copy clips by copying and pasting, or by holding the option key then dragging and dropping the clip in the new track. You can also rename them to make it clear what the clip is. Depending on what type of clip it is, you might want to have the loop turned on or off. For drum loops and any other repeating patterns you will want to keep the loop on. But for vocals and short melodic clips you might want to turn it off so that the clip only plays once when you trigger it.
All of this is a great way to start learning how to chop samples. However, one of the great things about Live is that you don’t necessarily have to go through all of these steps. Live has a built in feature called ‘slice to MIDI’ which will automatically take any chunk of audio and chop it into equal sized samples in it’s own MIDI instrument. You can select the grid that it chops at (i.e. 1/8 note, 1 bar, transients, etc.) as well as a range of built in effects you can process the audio with. A new MIDI track will automatically be created and you can play the samples with any MIDI controller. This way, you can spend more time playing the samples like an instrument rather than scanning full tracks and tweaking start points.
Note: since you are using MIDI, the audio will be chopped into a maximum of 127 samples.
This is one of many ways that you can chop up samples in Ableton Live. The Simpler and Sampler instruments are also great tools for creating your own samples, but they will take more space than this article to explain.
Try using a combination of these two techniques on your next remix and see how they can work together!