Everything you need to choose the perfect samples and processing techniques to make your hip hop and EDM tracks shine.
MAY 7TH, 2022
The most important place to start is why you’re sampling audio in the first place. If it’s because you just need a few vocal clips here and there but not a full vocal line, you want to add live drum fills in between sections or to fill out your percussion, or you need something to be melodic but don’t care if it’s unique ... your best bet is likely to find what you’re looking for in royalty-free sound packs. It’s purely about the sound you get, so it’s better not to complicate matters by having to pay out royalties for using found snippets or risking copyright infringement.
On the other hand, sometimes you may want to pay homage to an artist you like or pick a sample because it’s recognizable. In this case, spend some time searching for sample(s) that embody a certain emotion or cultural reference due to the context in the original song — your objective here is to create a certain association in the minds of your listeners, so using more obscure samples works against you in this case. Pick something that fits with the statement or vibe you want to create and run with it! Remember though, on the legal side you need to ensure the attribution and royalty sharing are taken care of in order to stay in the clear.
Selecting and shaping vocals
In contemporary hip hop, it’s common to take vocal samples and pitch them up by an octave or more. This radically changes the timbre of the voice, giving it a squeaky, child-like quality that sets it apart from its original context. From here, you can manipulate it however you like — OTT compression, phasers, chorus, and other delay-based effects work well for this purpose (and it usually doesn’t hurt to slap on some saturation too!). If you don’t like the effect this creates for creative or production reasons, you have plenty of other options available to you; just know that this is one of them!
Since you’re sampling rather than recording a full vocal performance, one of your greatest opportunities is the ability to choose only the words and melodic phrases that benefit your song the most. You can repeat and loop sections as desired, allowing you to emphasize specific parts of the vocal line or play with a particular melodic phrase. If you’re feeling creative, you can even use a tuning plugin to change the melody of the vocals and reshape the sample into something new. This may go against the spirit of sampling if you’re pulling from popular material, though if you’re using sample packs you have nothing to fear!
Quick note: the more timing edits you make as you chop up a vocal sample, the more likely it is that you’ll get large jumps in volume or timbre. If you’re mixing regular vocals, you need to be cautious that you don’t add too much compression and suck the life out of the song; with short samples, it’s far better to overcompress things and add heavy effects to add your own spin. Put simply, it’s not natural and shouldn’t sound like it! If you want to quickly rotate through potential effects, one of the fastest ways is to use any of the tools in UJAM’s Finisher line — in no time, you’ll be able to reshape your vocal samples in ways you never imagined!
Editing drum breaks
Depending on your source, the break could be clean or dirty. If it’s dirty, either from age and recording style or from plugins simulating physical degradation, you probably don’t need to do much processing. Simple compression and EQ is often enough depending on what else is going on in the song. This could make your job easier, but it also limits your options; the more work that’s been done on the sample before it comes to you, the less you’re able to directly modify the original source.
If the sample is clean with no heavy processing, you have a bit more work on your hands but you get the benefit of greater control. You can choose the type of distortion you like (or elect to use none at all), add room ambience, use more intense transient control, even gate the drums to separate every single percussive hit (this becomes tougher the more distortion and compression you’re faced with).
One thing you can always do regardless of the source material is cuts and timing edits. Breaks take on a totally different vibe when you double their speed while preserving the pitch, and it’s one of the most common and effective ways to transform source material! You can also try stretching it if you like the mechanical, glitchy sound it creates (slowing audio down with no change in pitch in audible artifacts which are normally desirable ... unless you do it deliberately, of course).
If you’re up for getting your hands dirty, you can also slice the break into individual chunks and rearrange them as you see fit. Try splitting at quarter note divisions to start, then you can always split it into smaller increments as needed. Find chunks you like and repeat them, rearrange them and reverse them as you see fit. Do this before any processing and consider crossfading some of the clip edges if you want the edits to be transparent, since everything you add will color the audio track as a whole. However, if you want the jagged and glitchy quality that hard edits carry, render all your processing to audio first and then make your edits!
When sampling, the selection of the original source is often more important than the processing you add — in the case of vocals, the emotional content of the lyrics also adds an important additional consideration. The quality and existing processing on the source have a massive impact on how far you can reasonably push things, especially if you’re looking for a cleaner final product. The further you stray from the original sound, the more you can make things your own ... but there will be times when you want the source to be easily recognizable, and that will have a massive impact on the creative decisions you make.
Don’t neglect all the editing possibilities you have outside of plugins, too; chopping up the audio in time is one of your greatest creative opportunities when done well! Take the time to place each segment of audio in its ideal location, and you’ll open up entirely new ways to use even the simplest of samples. Be aggressive in your edits, and always allow each sample to become what it wants to be!
About the Author
Harry Lodes is a copywriter, marketing consultant and content writer for audio and ecommerce brands. He lives in the Philadelphia area, releasing Eastern/Western hybrid EDM under the artist name KAIRI hearkening back to his roots in Berklee College of Music.