Ethical Sampling

Monday, May 19, 2014 at 2:01 pm

Along with the release of my album Sampled Library, I wanted to write up some thoughts about sampling I’ve had kicking around my head.

The sampler is a relatively recent invention: showed up in the late 60s, affordable by plonkers in the 80s, and gutted by legal nonsense the 90s. In between the last two phases, though, a lot of interesting things went down. Art of Noise is the first thing that falls out of my head. I read Tape Op’s interviewage of Trevor Horn, and there’s this one bit:

“That [label] was ZTT and what became the Art of Noise was born out of us just looning around. We used to say, “Hoist the Jolly Roger! We’re coming aboard!” We would sample bits of tracks and throw stuff together. “Beat Box,” the beginnings of “Moments in Love” and bizarre things like “The Army Now,” were just me screwing around. Paul Morley came up with the name – the Art of Noise – and the name inspired us. He even came up with [song] titles like “Moments in Love;” and we went on to write the song.”

That’s the thing about sampling: Unless you make all the noise going into the sampler yourself, it is stealing, in a sense — even if you pay for it. I think that’s why there’s so much confusion: people have the illusion that if they pay for a loop library, it’s not stealing… but to me, it still is, sort of. The word “stealing” itself is a distraction. The point is this: You’re still using someone else’s bit rather than making it yourself. Taken to a ridiculous extreme, you could even argue that sampling bird songs counts as stealing from nature — or whoever owns the plot of land you recorded it on! So, what to call it? “Borrowing” doesn’t feel right… appropriating? Liberating? Nah… just “sampling,” thanks. It is what it is: an inherently grey area.

Sampling is also the stereotypical double-edged sword of advancing technology, as it augments laziness as much as it does greatness. I can grab a library drum loop and spend ten minutes massaging it into what I want, versus an hour picking out individual samples and programming up a loop… or a day, if I wanted to make my own samples. At that point, I’d sooner use a drum synth  — but that’s synthesis, not sampling! Even there, I didn’t program Sonic Charge microTonic myself.

In terms of getting the best results, it’s always better to make your own stuff. It’s always deeper and more personal. If you feel you can pull it off, you definitely should. However, life demands the occasional compromise, and honestly — it’s not easy to make good, chunky-sounding drum hits from scratch. I think we can all agree that sampling individual drum hits + sequencing them via MIDI is not terribly abusive, as use of the sampler goes.

Sampling outright loops is a lot more of a tossup. Using a stock library break is definitely a lame-o thing to do, but hey — sometimes it fits; why argue? It’s a fine line, though, as building up tracks COMPLETELY out of stock loops is pretty much putting your creativity on autopilot. Contrast this with, say, N.W.A., where loops are pointedly-chosen, to the point of becoming (hilarious) social commentary. Or, Squarepusher using an unedited, unchopped amen break somewhere on his album Hello Everything… In short, it is a damn slippery thing to nail down, where even the lamest things can work in the proper context.

I suppose I feel that sampling is more of a reflexive dialogue between thousands of minds, than it is anything governed by overarching physical laws. Detroit techno gives me a very strong visual of a massive, abstract 3D structure, with swarms of people crawling all over it — welding bits on, cutting tunnels, altering things, rearranging that. Everyone sampled each other to the point where it started to become a strange collective goulash. Community property.

That’s why I think that Trevor Horn quote nails it: They had no delusions about the nature of the sampler, but at the same time, they were just having fun. They were doing it for the joy of doing it. As long as you have that sort of attitude clear in your mind, it’s generally obvious what constitutes ethical sampling… versus lazy sampling.

Categories: philosophy, sampling, soapbox, songwriting, studio, Uncategorized

One Comment on “Ethical Sampling”

  1. Hey, you have great blog here!
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