Old school sampling techniques…

I originally wrote this post for the Loopmasters blog, basically because of a few questions I’d seen from some of our customers who were interested in getting that “old feel”. Hopefully some of you find it interesting…

Sampling continues to play a big part in all current forms of club and classic Hip-Hop production, and with the resurgence of hardware/software based counterparts of the classic sampling kit of vintage samplers (notably Maschine and the MPC Rennaissance), a whole new generation of sampling is on its way.

As a part of this re-kindled interest in sampling, many younger producers are also looking for sampling techniques to emulate the sound of early classics and get the sound of the “golden era” of Dance and Hip-Hop.

While many new samplers come with the option to switch to a “vintage” mode, simply doing this is only a step in the direction of achieving this sound. One of the main reasons for this is down to modern gear itself and how it effects the whole production process. We work with very little limitation from our gear these days, and while that seems great, it’s actually the limitation early producers faced that contributed to the sound we associate with early classic Hip Hop and House. Let’s go a little deeper.

Sampling Time

These days it’s likely you don’t even think of sampling time – there’s no reason why most of you couldn’t sample a whole track without any issues. Cheap memory and powerful computers/drives make it a non-issue. It wasn’t always so. In the early days of sampling this was a huge issue. I am going to date myself here and say that my first sampler – an Ensoniq ASR-10 which I still lovingly own – shipped with 2MiB of internal memory. This was expandable to 16MiB. This translated into a default sampling max time of about 20 seconds, with the upgrade pushing you to the nose-bleed heights of about 2 minutes. This limited sampling time resulted in a creative workaround that many of us wouldn’t even consider today – and this contributed to the “classic” sound.

Speeding Up The Sample

With the limited sampling time, time literally was of the essence – so any way to shorten sampling time was good. One creative technique early vinyl samplers used was to sample the record at a pitched up speed – often sampling a 33rpm record at 45rpm – so that the sampling time was shortened. Once inside the sampler, the sample could then be pitched back down to its original speed. This imparted some subtle artifacts in the sample, giving it a less clean more “sampled” feel. Subtle, but there.

Mono Sampling

Another restriction of early sampling gear was that it could only sample in Mono. The MPC 3000, which came out in ’93, is the first of the well-known samplers to sample in stereo and it’s doubtful that many tracks were made on the 3K until 94 or 95, and obviously none before 93! So, once again, a limitation of early sampling gear contributed to the way that samples sounded.

Even with the ability to sample in stereo, many early producers would still opt to sample in mono because of the way samples could be edited. While today’s producers are used to being able to quickly and easily visually hone in on the desired start and end-points of a sample (or even have the software do it automatically with very little error), early editing of start and end-points to create a seamless loop was a science in and of itself. If you’ve never tried to get a seamless loop quickly with just your ears and a click-track, give it a try and you’ll soon see how it can be difficult.

So even if you could sample in stereo, the minute you started changing/ editing start and end points on stereo samples, phase problems could appear making the samples flange (interpolation/quantising error). This would mess up Drum Loops/ Instrumental Samples.

Production Techniques

Of course, producers wanted to give their productions a stereo feel, so a raft of techniques developed to accomplish this.

There were all sorts of techniques people dreamed up to overcome the limitations inherent in their setups.

A common technique would be to track out each sample on it’s own in a mixer and process each track to taste. EQ, reverb, compression, limiting etc. would be applied to each. Then the entire instrumental/song was mixed with some tracks panned left or right (slight or hard) and some tracks ducked, others pushed to get an overall conglomerate balance.

End Product

When the mix engineer was finished, the signal from the Main Outs (L/R) of the mixing console were printed.

It should be noted that all of this would be done out of the box – no DAW. Analogue mixers would be used with outboard processing or on-board processing from the sampler, all of which imparts a unique feel depending on the gear configuration. Not to mention a healthy amount of noise.

Finally, the “bounce” would be recorded to most often : (a) a 2 inch (reel) mastering tape; (b) a 1 inch (reel) mastering tape; (c) a DAT tape; or even (d) a cassette tape.

Conclusion

This hopefully gives you an insight into some of the early sampling techniques and most importantly gives you an understanding of a simple concept that today is often overlooked – limitation in the studio is often one of the best creative forces.

Try some of these techniques out yourself, making use of your own sample library – make them mono, pitch them up and sample them and then pitch them down again, add some dirt and noise to your sounds to emulate the dirt that outboard gear imparts, and so on.

Have fun getting your own sound.

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