How to Flip Samples
Discover a repeatable process for taking any sample and unleashing your creativity to transform it into something entirely new.
APRIL 25TH, 2021
Flipping samples is a staple of hip hop music, but it’s worked its way into tons of other genres — in this article we’ll explore how you can create something new out of any audio and in any genre. Our focus is going to be on extremely actionable methods, which vary a bit based on genre.
Lofi hip hop almost exclusively uses the original sample with some analog filtering and saturation plus a kick and snare. If you’re going full avant garde, you might only use the original sample and derive your percussion directly from the source material. For dubstep, on the other hand, the sample might only appear in the build and drop. As long as the listener recognizes it as a flip, don’t worry about appearing ‘lazy’ — let your creativity be the guide, and don’t feel pressured to completely re-envision it if you like sticking closer to the original.
Typically, there are 2 types of samples you’ll come across.
The 2 types of samples
They are: song clips (by far the most common type) and one shots (a single, non-musical, typically short sound recorded “in the field”). Both are incredibly fun, but flipping a one shot sample requires an uncommon level of grit and patience since you have zero guidelines as to what to do with it!
YouTuber Andrew Huang hosts flipping challenges with other producers using both types of samples; here’s a great video of 4 producers flipping the same clip:
And another in which all they were given was a squeaky door sample and had to create an entire song strictly through intense processing:
While the starting point is clearly different, the steps are similar for both — and it starts small with some basic editing.
Cut up and rearrange the original sample
Your first task when flipping a sample is hunting for gold: specific moments that have significantly more musical or sound design potential than the rest. This is mostly up to personal taste, so pay attention to your own reactions as you listen through. When you perk up, mark that point in the sample and make notes if they help you. Chop the region you like so you have your start and end points; once you do this to the entire track, delete everything you don’t use to avoid cluttering your DAW session.
Find the clip that best exemplifies the sample as a whole and make that the “hook.” This could be a chord change, short riff, a door slamming, anything — this is the foundation from which you build out the flip. Take the remaining samples and line them up wherever they fit and start outlining the flip (you’ll probably end up using all the clips multiple times). Don’t worry if you don’t use everything, because as you fill in the gaps you’ll likely find extra places for those clips to go.
If you’re flipping a song, cut up the main chord progression however you like and start to construct a new backing track — ideally, something you can continually repeat while without it getting boring (bonus points if you significantly change the order and structure of the original chord progression). Almost as if by magic, a beat should begin suggesting itself to you; you might suddenly realize exactly what sort of kick and snare you need along with what rhythm to use. Go ahead and drop in the beat, because that will help you build out the rest of the flip much faster.
You can even drop it into a sampler and cut it up further from there; if you want to dive deeper into samplers, here’s an excellent article that walks through it step by step (note: it specifically focuses on Ableton’s Simpler plugin, but the principles apply to many other digital samplers).
Once you have all the clips in place, things are still going to feel a little bland. Time to get creative, because your job is to create something new! Enter your three best friends: time stretching, pitch shifting and reversing.
You can get incredible material from time stretching audio, especially if you want to go heavy on sound design. As you stretch an audio clip to be longer and longer, soon you’ll start hearing ‘artifacts,’ manifesting as mechanical and robotic additions to the original audio. This is because time stretching is a form of granular synthesis: tiny pieces of the audio clip are copied and inserted next to each other, essentially padding the audio so it can fill up more time.
The longer you stretch it, the more copies need to be added, making the audio sound unnatural. This can be an ugly sound, but if you stretch it to an extreme (like 4 times the original length), you can cut out a clip and turn it into a bass, add reverb and filtering to transform it into an ambient pad, or even distort it and add OTT compression to make a dubstep growl!
Next, we have pitch shifting. Pitching a sample down an octave creates a darker tone and is a great jumping off point for a lofi hip hop beat. This typically only works when you want to dial back the intensity of the original sample, because you lose a lot of energy in the high frequency range. Nonetheless, it’s a great tool to keep in your arsenal!
Reversing audio gets very trippy, so don’t count on using it to drive your entire flip — in fact, it’s typically best used infrequently, sometimes only for a single beat at a time. You lose any sense of rhythm, the lyrics sound alien, and the listener feels like they’re walking back in time. Used sparingly, it’s incredibly powerful, so save it for just the right moment!
Now it’s time to get detailed and creative — by the time you’re done with a flip, you may have effect chains as long as 15 plugins in some cases. This is normal, even something to strive for! Many of the greatest producers build lengthy effect chains in pursuit of a particular sound. The key is to have a sound in mind which you want to create, and then continue making new tweaks and modifications until you reach it. Without a goal in mind, you’re apt to create a mess — but if you know what you want to create and have a rough idea how to get there, you’re off to the races.
Granular synthesis is a trusty ally to have for flipping; possibly no other effect can radically transform a sound so quickly, and it’s especially powerful if you want to turn a bland audio clip into an atmospheric dreamscape. Finisher NEO’s preset Angels In The Sky With Diapers is a perfect example of this in action: you can run any audio through it, even a drum groove, and turn it into a cloud-like texture that completely transforms the original sample. This gives you much more flexibility when flipping a sample, and even opens the door to making the original sample unrecognizable — if you’re going for avant garde, this is perfectly fine!
If you’re creating something on the heavier side, go to town with distortion. Play with different types, and choose the one that gives you the grittiest, grainiest sound you could ask for and adjust to taste. For lofi and other vintage-y genres, try out Finisher RETRO and use some gentle saturation to send your flip back a few decades. Certain types of distortion like bit reduction can even create a mechanical, industrial effect that completely transforms the genre instantly (perfect for flipping samples!).
There are, of course, the standard effects such as delay, flanging, phasing, reverb, etc. — we go into these in far more detail in our article The Ultimate Guide to Audio Effects if you want a lot more detail on these. This is only scratching the surface as entirely new plugins are being released constantly, but the same principles apply: take the original, push it as far as you want, and create your own take on it. Audio effects are simply a means to get there!
The process of re-envisioning a sample can be daunting — if it’s a song clip, you want to honor the original while not taking any shortcuts and creating something unique. Let your own style and tastes guide you, and at first you don’t need to worry about sticking to close to or straying too far from the original. This balance will become much easier with time.
Find the best parts of the original sample and use them to create something different, and add on to your flip until you have a completed track you’re happy with. Focus on getting 95% of the way there; if you seek perfection, you’ll spend way too much time on it that could go to finishing other songs, earning you more experience!
If you make a habit of flipping songs — which you absolutely should if you enjoy it — try flipping a non-musical sample every now and then, like the squeaking door in the video example above. This forces you outside your comfort zone, and you’ll become a better producer after even one time doing this as it forces you to learn music production on a much deeper level. Above all, have fun and let your instincts guide you!
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