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Sampling (music)

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In music, sampling is the reuse of a portion (or sample) of a sound recording in another recording. Samples may comprise elements such as rhythm, melody, speech, sounds or entire bars of music, and may be layered, equalized, sped up or slowed down, repitched, looped, or otherwise manipulated. 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 and looping tape. The mid-20th century saw the introduction of keyboard instruments that played sounds recorded on tape, such as the Mellotron. The term sampling was coined in the late 1970s by the creators of the Fairlight CMI, a synthesizer with the ability to record and play back short sounds. As technology improved, cheaper standalone samplers with more memory emerged, such as the E-mu Emulator, Akai S950 and Akai MPC.

Sampling is a foundation of hip hop music, which emerged with 1980s producers sampling funk and soul records, particularly drum breaks. It has since influenced many genres of music, particularly electronic music and pop. Samples such as the Amen break, the “Funky Drummer” drum break and orchestra hit have been used in thousands of recordings; James Brown, Loleatta Holloway, Fab Five Freddy and Led Zeppelin are among the most sampled artists. The first album created entirely from samples, Endtroducing by DJ Shadow, was released in 1996.

Sampling without permission can infringe copyright or may be fair use. The process of acquiring permission for a sample is known as clearance, and can be complex and costly; samples from well known sources may be prohibitively expensive. Courts have taken different positions on whether sampling without permission is permitted. In Grand Upright Music, Ltd. v. Warner Bros. Records Inc (1991) and Bridgeport Music, Inc. v. Dimension Films (2005), the courts ruled that unlicensed sampling constitutes copyright infringement; however, VMG Salsoul v Ciccone (2016) found that unlicensed samples constituted de minimis copying, and did not infringe copyright.[not verified in body]



The Phonogene, a 1940s instrument which plays back sounds from tape loops

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 so a sound could be played indefinitely.[1] Schaeffer developed the Phonogene, which played loops at 12 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 the 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 recordings of reggae rhythms to produce riddim tracks, which were then deejayed over.[2][3] Jamaican immigrants introduced the 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]


Main article: Sampler (musical instrument)

The Fairlight CMI, a sampler and synthesizer released in 1979. The designers coined the term sampling to describe its features

The Guardian described the Chamberlin as the first sampler, developed by the English engineer Harry Chamberlin in the 1940s. The Chamberlin used a keyboard to trigger a series of tape decks, each containing eight seconds of sound. Similar technology was popularised in the 60s with the Mellotron.[5] In 1969, the English engineer Peter Zinovieff developed the first digital sampler, the EMS Musys.[5]

The term sample was coined 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 performance from a radio broadcast, and discovered that he could imitate a piano by playing the recording back at different pitches. The result better resembled a real piano than sounds generated by synthesizers.[6]

Compared to later samplers, the Fairlight was limited; 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 other recordings was not new, the Fairlight’s design and built-in sequencer simplified the process.[1]

The Akai MPC, an influential sampler produced from 1988

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 incorporated samples of drum kits and percussion rather than generating sounds from circuits.[8] Early samplers could store samples of only a few seconds in length, but this increased with improved memory.[9]

In 1988, Akai released the first MPC sampler,[10] which allowed users to assign samples to pads and trigger them independently, similarly to playing a keyboard or drum kit.[11] It was followed by competing samplers from companies including Korg, Roland and Casio.[12] Today, most samples are recorded and edited using digital audio workstations such as Pro Tools and Ableton Live.[13][9]


Sampling has influenced many genres of music,[5] particularly pop, hip hop and electronic music;[14] Guardian journalist David McNamee likened its importance in these genres to the guitar’s importance in rock.[5] Sampling is a fundamental element of remix culture.[15] Commonly sampled elements include strings, basslines, drum loops, vocal hooks, or entire bars of music, especially from soul records.[16] Samples may be layered,[17] equalized,[17] sped up or slowed down, repitched, looped, or otherwise manipulated.[14] As sampling technology has improved, the possibilities for manipulation have grown.[14]

Early works

Using the Fairlight, the “first truly world-changing sampler”,[5] producer Trevor Horn became the “key architect” in incorporating sampling into pop music in the 1980s.[5] Other users of the Fairlight included Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel, Thomas Dolby, Duran Duran, Herbie Hancock, Todd Rundgren, Icehouse and Ebn Ozn.[7] In the 1980s, samples were incorporated into synthesizers and music workstations, such as the bestselling Korg M1, released in 1988.[12]

The Akai MPC, released in 1988, had a major influence on electronic and hip hop music,[18][11] allowing artists to create elaborate tracks without other instruments, a studio or formal music knowledge.[11] Its designer, Roger Linn, anticipated that users would sample short sounds, such as individual notes or drum hits, to use as building blocks for compositions; however, users sampled longer passages of music.[9] In the words of Greg Milner, author of Perfecting Sound Forever, musicians “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‘.”[9] Linn said: “It was a very pleasant surprise. After 60 years of recording, there are so many prerecorded examples to sample from. Why reinvent the wheel?”[9]

Stevie Wonder’s 1979 album Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants may have been the first album to make extensive use of samples.[5] The Japanese electronic band Yellow Magic Orchestra were pioneers in sampling,[19][20][21] constructing music by cutting fragments of sounds and looping them;[21] their album Technodelic (1981) is an early example of an album consisting mostly of samples.[20][22] My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1981) by David Byrne and Brian Eno is another important early work of sampling, incorporating samples of sources including Arabic singers, radio DJs and an exorcist.[23] Musicians had used similar techniques before, but, according to Guardian writer Dave Simpson, sampling had never before been used “to such cataclysmic effect”.[24] Eno 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]

Hip hop

DJ Shadow‘s 1996 album Endtroducing is cited as the first created entirely from samples.

Sampling is one of the foundations of hip hop, which emerged in the 1980s.[26] Hip hop sampling has been likened to the origins of blues and rock, which were created by repurposing existing music.[15] Guardian journalist David McNamee wrote that, in the 1980s, sampling in hip hop had been a political act, the “working-class black answer to punk“.[13]

Before the rise of sampling, DJs used turntables to loop breaks from records, which MCs would rap over.[27] Compilation albums such as Ultimate Breaks and Beats compiled tracks with drum breaks and solos intended for sampling, and were aimed at DJs and hip hop producers.[27] In 1986, the tracks “South Bronx“, “Eric 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.[14]

The advent of affordable samplers such as the Akai MPC (1988) made looping easier.[27] 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.[28] Guinness World Records cites DJ Shadow‘s acclaimed hip hop album Endtroducing (1996), made almost entirely on an MPC60,[29] as the first album created entirely from samples.[30][31]

Common samples

The Amen break (0:14) Menu0:00 The widely sampled “Amen break” as it originally appeared, on “Amen, Brother” (1969) by the Winstons
Problems playing this file? See media help.
“Straight Outta Compton (song)” (0:30) Menu0:00Straight Outta Compton” (1988) by N.W.A., featuring a manipulated sample of the Amen break
Problems playing this file? See media help.

A seven-second drum break in the 1969 track “Amen, Brother”, known as the Amen break, became popular with American hip hop producers and then British jungle producers in the early 1990s.[27] It has been used in thousands of recordings, including songs by rock bands such as Oasis and in theme tunes for television shows such as Futurama.[27] According to WhoSampled, a user-generated website cataloging samples, “Amen, Brother” is the most sampled track in history, appearing in over 5000 tracks as of 2021.[32]

In 2018, the Smithsonian cited the most sampled track as “Change the Beat” by Fab Five Freddy, which appears in more than 1,150 tracks.[33] WhoSampled cites James Brown as the most sampled artist, appearing in more than 3000 tracks.[34] The Independent named the American singer Loleatta Holloway “the most sampled female voice in popular music”; her vocals were sampled in house and dance tracks such as “Ride on Time” by Black Box, the bestselling single of 1989.[35]

The drum break from the 1970 James Brown song “Funky Drummer” is one of the most influential samples.[36] The 1972 Lyn Collins song “Think (About It)“, written by Brown, includes another widely sampled drum break, featuring the cries “Woo!” “Yeah!” by Brown and Bobby Byrd.[37] The drums in Led Zeppelin‘s recording of “When the Levee Breaks“, played by John Bonham, is another of the most widely sampled drum breaks, used by artists including the Beastie Boys, Dr. Dre, Eminem and Massive Attack.[38]

The orchestra hit originated as a sound on the Fairlight sampled from Stravinsky’s 1910 orchestral work Firebird Suite[39] and became a hip hop cliche.[40] 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”.[41]

To legally use a sample, an artist must acquire legal permission from the copyright holder, a potentially lengthy and complex process known as clearance.[16] Sampling without permission can breach 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.[16] In some cases, sampling is protected under American fair use laws,[16] which grant “limited use of copyrighted material without permission from the rights holder”.[42]

Biz Markie in 2016

Richard Lewis Spencer, who owned the copyright for the widely sampled Amen break, never received royalties for its use; he condemned the sampling as plagiarism,[43] but later said it was flattering.[27] Journalist Simon Reynolds likened the situation to “the man who goes to the sperm bank and unknowingly sires hundreds of children”.[27] 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 honestly say sampling is some sort of creativity has never done anything creative.”[44] The case was settled out of court and set a legal precedent that had a chilling effect on sampling in hip hop.[44]

In 1991, songwriter Gilbert O’Sullivan sued rapper Biz Markie after he sampled O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again (Naturally)” on the album I Need a Haircut. The court ruled that sampling without permission infringed copyright. Instead of asking for royalties, O’Sullivan forced Biz Markie’s label Warner Bros to recall the album until the song was removed.[45] 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”.[45] The Washington Post wrote in 2018 that “no court decision has changed the sound of pop music as much as this”, likening it to banning a musical instrument.[46]

Since the O’Sullivan lawsuit, samples on commercial recordings have typically been taken either from obscure recordings or cleared, an often expensive option only available to successful acts.[46] 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.”[13] For less successful artists, the legal implications of using samples pose obstacles; according to Fact, “For a bedroom producer, clearing a sample can be nearly impossible, both financially and in terms of administration.”[14]

The 1989 Beastie Boys album 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.[47] In 2000, jazz flautist James Newton filed a claim against the Beastie Boys’ 1992 single “Pass the Mic“, which samples his composition “Choir”. The judge found that the sample, comprising six seconds and three notes, was de minimis and did not require clearance. Newton lost appeals in 2003 and 2004.[48]

In 2019, the European Court of Justice ruled that producers Moses Pelham and Martin Haas had illegally sampled a drum sequence from the 1977 Kraftwerk track “Metal on Metal” for the Sabrina Setlur song “Nur Mir”.[49] The court ruled that permission was required for recognizable samples; modified, unrecognizable samples could still be used without authorisation.[49]

Contemporary use

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.[26] 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.”[26]

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 jewelry.[46] West has been sued several times over his use of samples.[14] Some have accused the law of restricting creativity, while others argue it forces producers to innovate.[46] 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“.[14] Some record labels and other music licensing companies have simplified their clearance processes by “pre-clearing” their records.[50] For example, the Los Angeles record label Now-Again Records has cleared songs produced for West and Pusha T in a matter of hours.[51][52]

Recreating samples

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.[53]

Some producers have opted to use stock library music in their productions as samples.[54][55][56] Beginning in the 2000s, some music producers began releasing full compositions with the intention for them to be manipulated by other producers in the tradition of library music.[57][58] Often released in packs, the compositions are used by beatmakers and offer more than a single sound or musical phrase. Producer Frank Dukes and his Kingsway Music Library is often credited in popularizing the craft;[57][59][60] his sample compositions have been used for the likes of Drake‘s “0 to 100 / The Catch Up” and Kanye West‘s “Real Friends“.[61]

See also


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McNamee, David (22 June 2009). “Hey, what’s that sound: Linn LM-1 Drum Computer and the Oberheim DMX”. the Guardian. Archived from the original on 26 October 2018. Retrieved 9 February 2018. Milner, Greg (3 November 2011). Perfecting Sound Forever: The Story of Recorded Music. Granta Publications. ISBN9781847086051. Archived from the original on 9 December 2018. Retrieved 7 December 2018. “The 10 most important hardware samplers in history”. MusicRadar. Archived from the original on 2 July 2018. Retrieved 13 May 2018. “Meet the unassuming drum machine that changed music forever”. Vox. Archived from the original on 21 December 2018. Retrieved 11 May 2018. Vail, Mark (February 2002). “Korg M1 (Retrozone)”. Sound on Sound. Archived from the original on 2 November 2019. Retrieved 6 November 2019. McNamee, David (16 February 2008). “When did sampling become so non-threatening?”. the Guardian. Archived from the original on 31 March 2019. Retrieved 12 October 2018. “Untangling the knotty world of hip-hop copyright”. FACT Magazine: Music News, New Music. 25 June 2016. Archived from the original on 14 October 2018. Retrieved 14 October 2018. “Remixing Culture And Why The Art Of The Mash-Up Matters”. TechCrunch. Archived from the original on 12 February 2020. Retrieved 16 October 2018. “Sample Clearance |”. Archived from the original on 14 October 2018. Retrieved 14 October 2018. “Just a sample”. The Economist. Archived from the original on 14 October 2018. Retrieved 14 October 2018. “Hip-hop’s most influential sampler gets a 2017 reboot”. Engadget. Archived from the original on 31 March 2019. Retrieved 3 April 2018. Mayumi Yoshida Barakan & Judith Connor Greer (1996). Tokyo city guide. Tuttle Publishing. p. 144. ISBN0-8048-1964-5. Archived from the original on 23 March 2017. Retrieved 6 June 2011. Carter, Monica (30 June 2011). “It’s Easy When You’re Big In Japan: Yellow Magic Orchestra at The Hollywood Bowl”. The Vinyl District. Archived from the original on 21 March 2012. Retrieved 22 July 2011. Condry, Ian (2006). Hip-hop Japan: rap and the paths of cultural globalization. Duke University Press. p. 60. ISBN0-8223-3892-0. Archived from the original on 20 April 2019. Retrieved 11 June 2019. “The Essential… Yellow Magic Orchestra”. FACT Magazine. 22 January 2015. Archived from the original on 17 April 2019. Retrieved 11 June 2019. “Brian Eno and David Byrne, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts | | Arts”. 24 March 2006. Archived from the original on 20 August 2007. Retrieved 14 October 2018. Simpson, Dave (24 March 2006). “Brian Eno and David Byrne, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts”. The Guardian. London. Retrieved 25 March 2012. Myers, Ben (20 January 2011). “Big Audio Dynamite: more pioneering than the Clash?”. The Guardian. London. Archived from the original on 14 February 2017. Retrieved 16 December 2016. “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. Archived from the original on 12 October 2018. Retrieved 12 October 2018. “Seven seconds of fire”. The Economist. Archived from the original on 14 October 2018. Retrieved 14 October 2018. “The Dirty Heartbeat of the Golden Age | Village Voice”. 6 November 2007. Archived from the original on 1 May 2019. Retrieved 17 July 2019. Taylor, Ken (14 August 2012). “The exclusive interview; ‘I feel like I’ve done a lot for the MPC'”. Beatport. Archived from the original on 24 April 2013. Retrieved 16 March 2013. “First album made completely from samples”. Guinness World Records. Archived from the original on 24 April 2013. Retrieved 20 March 2013. 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. Holbrook, Emma (5 May 2021). “The Greatest Samples in Music”. TheFortyFive. Retrieved 8 August 2021. Eveleth, Rose. “The world’s most sampled song is “Change the Beat” by Fab 5 Freddy”. Smithsonian. Archived from the original on 12 October 2018. Retrieved 12 October 2018. X, Dharmic (20 February 2014). “James Brown is apparently the most sampled artist of all time”. Complex. Retrieved 1 August 2020. “Loleatta Holloway: Much-sampled disco diva who sued Black Box over”. The Independent. 25 March 2011. Archived from the original on 8 July 2019. Retrieved 8 August 2019. Gordon, Jason (26 December 2006). “James Brown: Most Sampled Man in the Biz”. Rolling Stone. Archived from the original on 5 February 2020. Retrieved 5 February 2020. “Spotify playlist: 50 tracks that sample the ‘Think’ break”. Mixmag. Retrieved 30 January 2021. Cheal, David (21 February 2015). “The Life of a Song: ‘When the Levee Breaks'”. Financial Times. Archived from the original on 29 November 2018. Retrieved 29 November 2018. Fink (2005, p. 1) Fink (2005, p. 6) Tech, Tim Cant 2017-07-19T08:45:00 199Z. “10 classic sample libraries that changed music”. MusicRadar. Archived from the original on 26 October 2019. Retrieved 26 October 2019. Siedel, George (2016). The Three Pillar Model For Business Decisions: Strategy, Law, Ethics. Michigan: Van Rye Publishing. p. 135. ISBN978-0-9970566-1-7. “Seven seconds of fire”. The Economist. 17 December 2011. ISSN0013-0613. Retrieved 20 March 2019. Runtagh, Jordan (8 June 2016). “Songs on Trial: 12 Landmark Music Copyright Cases”. Rolling Stone. Archived from the original on 14 October 2018. Retrieved 12 October 2018. George, Nelson (26 April 2005). Hip Hop America. Penguin. ISBN9781101007303. Archived from the original on 23 March 2017. Retrieved 11 December 2016. Richards, Chris. “The court case that changed hip-hop — from Public Enemy to Kanye — forever”. Washington Post. Archived from the original on 12 October 2018. Retrieved 12 October 2018. Tingen, Paul (May 2005). “The Dust Brothers: Sampling, Remixing & The Boat Studio”. Sound on Sound. Cambridge, UK: SOS Publications Group. ISSN1473-5326. Archived from the original on 29 May 2016. Retrieved 25 July 2011. “Beastie Boys Emerge Victorious In Sampling Suit”. Billboard. 9 November 2004. Archived from the original on 19 November 2017. Retrieved 24 May 2020. “Kraftwerk win 20-year sampling copyright case”. BBC News. 30 July 2019. Archived from the original on 5 March 2020. Retrieved 1 February 2020. “Future of sample clearance: As easy as tagging friends on Facebook?”. MusicTech. 13 September 2019. Retrieved 4 June 2021. Weingarten, Christopher R. (28 June 2018). “Inside the Labels Where Kanye West Finds Many of His Best Samples”. Rolling Stone. Retrieved 4 June 2021. Needham, Jack (29 November 2019). “How to sample without getting sued”. Red Bull. Retrieved 4 June 2021. Inglis, Sam (September 2003). “Steve Gibson & Dave Walters: Recreating Samples |”. Sound on Sound. Archived from the original on 14 October 2018. Retrieved 14 October 2018. Sommer, Tia (16 April 2019). “Hip-Hop Artists Use Stock Library Music? (Yes – and You Should Too!)”. Copyright Clearance Center. Retrieved 4 June 2021. Hann, Michael (21 September 2018). “Subscribe to read | Financial Times”. Financial Times. Retrieved 4 June 2021. {{cite news}}: Cite uses generic title (help) Lefrak, Mikaela (24 April 2020). “The Library Of Congress Wants DJs (And You) To Make Beats Using Its Audio Collections”. WAMU. Retrieved 4 June 2021. Herbert, Conor (21 October 2019). “Library Music Is Changing the Sampling Game In Hip-Hop”. DJBooth. Retrieved 4 June 2021. Dandridge-Lemco, Ben (8 May 2020). “Get to Know the Loopmakers Behind Rap’s Biggest Songs”. Pitchfork. Retrieved 4 June 2021. Adams, Kelsey (27 August 2020). “Frank Dukes’ Kingsway Music Library Could Change Sampling Forever”. Complex. Retrieved 4 June 2021. Feeney, Nolan (2019). “How Pop Hitmaker Frank Dukes Is Rewriting the Rules of Collaboration”. Billboard. Retrieved 4 June 2021.

  1. “About The Kingsway Music Library”. Kingsway Music Library by Frank Dukes – Original Samples & Music. Retrieved 4 June 2021.

Further reading

Wikimedia Commons has media related to Sampling (music).
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