Sampling (music)

In music, sampling is the reuse of a portion (or sample) of a sound recording in another recording. Samples may comprise rhythm, melody, speech, or other sounds. They are usually integrated using hardware (samplers) or software such as digital audio workstations.

A process similar to sampling originated in the 1940s with musique concrète, experimental music created by splicing, manipulating and looping tape. The term sampling was coined in the late 1970s by the creators of the Fairlight CMI, an influential early sampler used in 1980s pop music. The 1988 release of the Akai MPC, an affordable sampler with an intuitive interface, made sampling accessible to a wider audience.

Sampling is a foundation of hip hop music, with producers sampling funk and soul records, particularly drum breaks, which could then be rapped over. Musicians have created albums assembled entirely from samples, such as DJ Shadow's 1996 album Endtroducing. The practice has influenced all genres of music and is particularly important to electronic music, hip hop and pop.

Sampling without permission can infringe copyright. The process of acquiring permission for a sample is known as clearance, a potentially complex and costly process. Landmark legal cases, such as Grand Upright Music, Ltd. v. Warner Bros. Records Inc in 1991, changed how samples are used; as the court ruled that unlicensed sampling constitutes copyright infringement, samples from well known sources are now often prohibitively expensive.


In the 1940s, French composer Pierre Schaeffer developed musique concrète, an experimental form of music created by recording sounds to tape, splicing them, and manipulating them to create sound collages. He used sounds from sources such as the human body, locomotives, and kitchen utensils.[1] The method also involved tape loops, splicing lengths of tape end to end, by which a sound could be played indefinitely.[1] Schaeffer developed a tape recorder, the Phonogene, which played loops at twelve different pitches triggered by a keyboard.[1]

Composers including John Cage, Edgar Varèse, Karheinz Stockhausen and Iannis Xenakis experimented with musique concrète,[1] and Bebe and Louis Barron used it to create the first totally electronic film soundtrack, for the 1956 science fiction film Forbidden Planet. Musique concrète was brought to a mainstream audience by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, which used these early sampling techniques to produce soundtracks for shows including Doctor Who.[1]

In the 1960s, Jamaican dub reggae producers such as King Tubby and Lee "Scratch" Perry began using pre-recorded samples of reggae rhythms to produce riddim tracks, which were then deejayed over.[2][3] Jamaican immigrants introduced dub sampling techniques to American hip hop music in the 1970s.[3] British producer Brian Eno cited German musician Holger Czukay's experiments with Dictaphones and shortwave radios as examples of early sampling.[4]


The term sample was coined by in the late 1970s by Kim Ryrie and Peter Vogel to describe a feature of their Fairlight CMI synthesizer, launched in 1979.[1] While developing the Fairlight, Vogel recorded around a second of a piano piece from a radio broadcast, and discovered that he could imitate a piano by playing the recording back at different pitches. He recalled in 2005:

It sounded remarkably like a piano, a real piano. This had never been done before ... By today's standards it was a pretty awful piano sound, but at the time it was a million times more like a piano than anything any synthesiser had churned out. So I rapidly realised that we didn't have to bother with all the synthesis stuff. Just take the sounds, whack them in the memory and away you go.[5]

The developers used the term sampler to describe the technical process of the instrument, rather than how users would use the feature.[6] Compared to later samplers, the Fairlight offered limited control over samples; it allowed control over pitch and envelope, and could only record a few seconds of sound. However, the sampling function became its most popular feature.[1] Though the concept of reusing recordings in larger recordings was not new, the Fairlight's built-in sequencer and design made the process simple.[1] Early users included Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel, Thomas Dolby, Duran Duran, Herbie Hancock, Todd Rundgren, Icehouse and Ebn Ozn.[7] According to the Guardian, the Fairlight was the "first truly world-changing sampler".[8]

The Fairlight inspired competition, improving sampling technology and driving down prices.[1] Early competitors included the E-mu Emulator[1] and the Akai S950.[7] Drum machines such as the Oberheim DMX and Linn LM-1 began incorporating samples of real drums rather than generating sounds from circuits.[9] Sample length increased in response to demand;[6] with a ten-second sample length and a distinctive "gritty" sound, the E-mu SP-1200, released in 1987, was used extensively by East Coast producers during the golden age of hip hop of the late 1980s and early 90s.[10]

In 1988, Akai released the first MPC sampler,[11] which allowed users to assign samples to separate pads and trigger them independently, similarly to playing a keyboard or drum kit.[12] It had a major influence on the development of electronic and hip hop music,[13][12] allowing artists to create elaborate tracks without other instruments, a studio, or formal music knowledge.[14] Today, most samples are recorded and edited using digital audio workstations such as Pro Tools and Ableton Live.[15][6]


Sampling has influenced all genres of music[8] and is an important part of genres including pop, hip hop, and electronic music.[16] It is a fundamental element of remix culture.[17] Commonly sampled elements include strings, basslines, drum loops, vocal hooks, or entire bars of music, especially from soul records.[18] Samples may be layered,[19] equalized,[19] sped up or slowed down, repitched, looped, or otherwise manipulated.[16] As sampling technology has improved, the possibilities for manipulation have grown.[16]

The designers of early samplers anticipated that users would sample short sounds, such as drum hits or individual notes, to use as building blocks for compositions. However, users began sampling longer passages of music.[6] In the words of Greg Milner, author of Perfecting Sound Forever, "They didn't just want the sound of John Bonham's kick drum, they wanted to loop and repeat the whole of 'When the Levee Breaks'."[6] Roger Linn, designer of the LM-1 and MPC, said: "It was a very pleasant surprise. After sixty years of recording, there are so many prerecorded examples to sample from. Why reinvent the wheel?"[6]

Stevie Wonder's 1979 album Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants may have been the first album to make extensive use of samples.[8] Japanese electronic music band Yellow Magic Orchestra were pioneers in sampling and looping,[20][21][22] constructing music by cutting fragments of sounds and looping them;[22] their album Technodelic (1981) is an early example of an album consisting of mostly samples and loops.[21][23] My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1981) by David Byrne and Brian Eno is an important early work of sampling, incorporating samples of recordings including Arabic singers, radio DJs and an exorcist.[24] Though Eno acknowledged earlier examples of sampling, he felt the album's innovation was to make samples "the lead vocal".[4] Big Audio Dynamite pioneered sampling in rock and pop with their 1985 album This Is Big Audio Dynamite.[25] Guinness World Records cited DJ Shadow's 1996 album Endtroducing as the first created entirely from samples.[26][27]

Hip hop

Sampling is the foundation of hip hop, which emerged in the 1980s.[28] The sampling culture of hip hop has been likened to the origins of blues and rock, which were created by repurposing existing music.[17] Guardian journalist David McNamee wrote that in the 1980s sampling had been a political act: "Two record decks and your dad's old funk collection was once the working-class black answer to punk."[15]

Before the rise of sampling, DJs had used turntables to loop breaks from records, which could then be rapped over.[29] Compilation albums such as Ultimate Breaks and Beats comprised tracks with drum breaks and solos and were aimed at DJs and hip hop producers.[29] In 1986, the tracks "South Bronx", "Erik B is President" and "It's a Demo" sampled the funk and soul tracks of James Brown, particularly a drum break from "Funky Drummer", helping popularize the technique.[16] The advent of affordable samplers such as the Akai MPC (1988) made looping easier.[29]

Common samples

Some samples have become widespread. The orchestra hit originated as a sound on the Fairlight sampled from Stravinsky's 1910 orchestral work Firebird Suite[30] and became a hip hop cliche.[31] According to the BBC, the most sampled track of all time is "Change the Beat" by Fab Five Freddy, which appears on over 1,150 tracks.[32] Another common sample comes from a seven-second drum break in the 1969 track "Amen, Brother", known as the Amen break, which became popular first with American hip hop producers and then British jungle producers in the early 1990s.[29] The sample spans genres, used by rock bands such as Oasis and in television theme tunes such as that of Futurama.[29] According to the Independent, the American diva Loleatta Holloway had "undoubtedly the most sampled female voice in popular music", used in house and dance tracks such as "Ride on Time", the bestselling single of 1989.[33] MusicRadar cited the Zero-G Datafiles sample libraries as a major influence on dance music in the early 90s, becoming the "de facto source of breakbeats, bass and vocal samples".[34]

To legally use a sample, an artist must acquire legal permission from the copyright holder, a process known as clearance; this can be a lengthy and complex process.[18] Sampling without permission breaches the copyright of the original sound recording, of the composition and lyrics, and of the performances, such as a rhythm or guitar riff. The moral rights of the original artist may also be breached if they are not credited or object to the sampling.[18] In some cases, sampling may be protected under American fair use laws.[18]

Richard Lewis Spencer, who owns the copyright for the widely sampled Amen break, has never received royalties for its use and condemned its sampling as plagiarism.[29] Journalist Simon Reynolds likened the situation to "the man who goes to the sperm bank and unknowingly sires hundreds of children".[29] In 1989, the Turtles sued De La Soul for using an uncleared sample on their album 3 Feet High and Rising. Turtles singer Mark Volman told the Los Angeles Times: "Sampling is just a longer term for theft. Anybody who can honesty say sampling is some sort of creativity has never done anything creative."[35] The case was settled out of court and set a legal precedent that had a chilling effect on sampling in hip hop.[35]

In 1991, songwriter Gilbert O'Sullivan sued rapper Biz Markie after he sampled O'Sullivan's "Alone Again (Naturally)" on his album I Need a Haircut. The court ruled that sampling without permission constituted copyright infringement. Instead of asking for royalties, O'Sullivan forced Biz Markie's label Warner Bros to recall the album until the song was removed.[36] Nelson George described it as the "most damaging example of anti-hip hop vindictiveness", which "sent a chill through the industry that is still felt".[36] According to the Washington Post, "no court decision has changed the sound of pop music as much as this, before or since", likening it to banning a musical instrument.[37]

Following the ruling, samples on commercial recordings have typically been taken either from obscure recordings (such as on Endtroducing) or cleared, an often expensive option only available to successful acts.[37] According to the Guardian, "Sampling became risky business and a rich man's game, with record labels regularly checking if their musical property had been tea-leafed."[15] For less successful artists, the legal implications of using samples can create confusion. According to Fact, "For a bedroom producer, clearing a sample can be nearly impossible, both financially and in terms of administration."[16] The 1989 Beastie Boys record Paul's Boutique is composed almost entirely of samples, most of which were cleared "easily and affordably"; the clearance process would be much more expensive today.[38]

The Washington Post described the modern use of well known samples, such as on records by Kanye West, as an act of conspicuous consumption similar to flaunting cars or jewellery.[37] West has been sued several times over his use of samples.[16] Though some have accused the law of restricting creativity, others argue it forces producers to innovate.[37] Sampling can help popularize the sampled work; for example, the Desiigner track "Panda" topped the Billboard Hot 100 after West sampled it on "Father Stretch My Hands, Pt. 2".[16]

According to Fact, early hip hop sampling was governed by "unspoken" rules forbidding the sampling of recent records, reissues, other hip hop records, or from non-vinyl sources, among other restrictions.[28] These rules were relaxed as younger producers took over: "For many producers today it is no longer a case of 'should I sample this?' but of 'can I get away with sampling this?'. Thus the ethics of sampling unravelled as the practice became ever more ubiquitous."[28]

In 2011, the US producer Timbaland won a copyright infringement case after sampling parts of a composition owned by the Finnish record label Kernel Records without permission.[39] Under US copyright law, a work must first be registered with the US copyright office to become the subject of a copyright infringement lawsuit. The court held that by being published online, the composition had been simultaneously published in every country with internet service, including the US. The work, therefore, satisfied the definition of a US work, and as it had not been registered with the US copyright office it could be sampled without permission.[40]

To circumvent legal problems, producers may recreate a recording rather than sample it. This requires only the publisher's permission, and gives the artist more freedom to alter constituent components such as separate guitar and drum tracks.[41]

See also


  1. Howell, Steve (August 2005). "The Lost Art Of Sampling: Part 1". Sound on Sound. Retrieved 12 October 2018.
  2. "Reggae Wisdom: Proverbs in Jamaican Music". Univ. Press of Mississippi via Google Books.
  3. Bryan J. McCann, The Mark of Criminality: Rhetoric, Race, and Gangsta Rap in the War-On-Crime ERA, pages 41-42, University of Alabama Press
  4. Sheppard, David (July 2001). "Cash for Questions". Q.
  5. Hamer, Mick (26 March 2015). "Interview: Electronic maestros". New Scientist. Reed Business Information. Archived from the original on 8 July 2008. Retrieved 4 April 2016.
  6. Milner, Greg (3 November 2011). Perfecting Sound Forever: The Story of Recorded Music. Granta Publications. ISBN 9781847086051.
  7. "A brief history of sampling". MusicRadar. Retrieved 12 October 2018.
  8. McNamee, David (28 September 2009). "Hey, what's that sound: Sampler". the Guardian. Retrieved 12 October 2018.
  9. McNamee, David (22 June 2009). "Hey, what's that sound: Linn LM-1 Drum Computer and the Oberheim DMX". the Guardian. Retrieved 9 February 2018.
  10. "The Dirty Heartbeat of the Golden Age | Village Voice". Retrieved 17 July 2019.
  11. "The 10 most important hardware samplers in history". MusicRadar. Retrieved 13 May 2018.
  12. "Meet the unassuming drum machine that changed music forever". Vox. Retrieved 11 May 2018.
  13. "Hip-hop's most influential sampler gets a 2017 reboot". Engadget. Retrieved 3 April 2018.
  14. "Meet the unassuming drum machine that changed music forever". Vox. Retrieved 11 May 2018.
  15. McNamee, David (16 February 2008). "When did sampling become so non-threatening?". the Guardian. Retrieved 12 October 2018.
  16. "Untangling the knotty world of hip-hop copyright". FACT Magazine: Music News, New Music. 25 June 2016. Retrieved 14 October 2018.
  17. "Remixing Culture And Why The Art Of The Mash-Up Matters". TechCrunch. Retrieved 16 October 2018.
  18. "Sample Clearance". Retrieved 14 October 2018.
  19. "Just a sample". The Economist. Retrieved 14 October 2018.
  20. Mayumi Yoshida Barakan & Judith Connor Greer (1996). Tokyo city guide. Tuttle Publishing. p. 144. ISBN 0-8048-1964-5. Retrieved 6 June 2011.
  21. Carter, Monica (30 June 2011). "It's Easy When You're Big In Japan: Yellow Magic Orchestra at The Hollywood Bowl". The Vinyl District. Retrieved 22 July 2011.
  22. Condry, Ian (2006). Hip-hop Japan: rap and the paths of cultural globalization. Duke University Press. p. 60. ISBN 0-8223-3892-0.
  23. "The Essential... Yellow Magic Orchestra". FACT Magazine. 22 January 2015.
  24. Brian Eno and David Byrne, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts | | Arts
  25. Myers, Ben (20 January 2011). "Big Audio Dynamite: more pioneering than the Clash?". The Guardian. London.
  26. "First album made completely from samples". Guinness World Records. Archived from the original on 24 April 2013. Retrieved 20 March 2013.
  27. Sullivan, James (30 March 2012). "DJ Shadow's influence looms large". The Boston Globe. Archived from the original on 24 April 2013. Retrieved 23 March 2013.
  28. "Don't kick the ethics out of sampling: picking up the bullets from The Weeknd's clash with Portishead - Page 2 of 2 - FACT Magazine: Music News, New Music". FACT Magazine: Music News, New Music. 2 August 2013. Retrieved 12 October 2018.
  29. "Seven seconds of fire". The Economist. Retrieved 14 October 2018.
  30. Fink (2005, p. 1)
  31. Fink (2005, p. 6)
  32. Eveleth, Rose. "The World's Most Sampled Song Is "Change the Beat" by Fab 5 Freddy". Smithsonian. Retrieved 12 October 2018.
  33. "Loleatta Holloway: Much-sampled disco diva who sued Black Box over". The Independent. 25 March 2011. Retrieved 8 August 2019.
  34. Tech, Tim Cant 2017-07-19T08:45:00 199Z. "10 classic sample libraries that changed music". MusicRadar. Retrieved 26 October 2019.
  35. Runtagh, Jordan (8 June 2016). "Songs on Trial: 12 Landmark Music Copyright Cases". Rolling Stone. Retrieved 12 October 2018.
  36. George, Nelson (26 April 2005). Hip Hop America. Penguin. ISBN 9781101007303.
  37. Richards, Chris. "The court case that changed hip-hop — from Public Enemy to Kanye — forever". Washington Post. Retrieved 12 October 2018.
  38. Tingen, Paul (May 2005). "The Dust Brothers: Sampling, Remixing & The Boat Studio". Sound on Sound. Cambridge, UK: SOS Publications Group. ISSN 1473-5326. Retrieved 25 July 2011.
  39. Mosley, Timothy Zachary (2 February 2007). "Interview with Timbaland". Elliot in the Morning (Interview).
  40. "District court holds online publication means publication of a U.S. work | Lexology". Retrieved 8 May 2019.
  41. "Steve Gibson & Dave Walters: Recreating Samples". Retrieved 14 October 2018.

Further reading

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