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Finding and Using Music Samples

Today’s question:

How do I take a sound I like and turn it into an instrument to use in one of those programs from the first tutorial you did? Do programs map these sound samples to different notes, or do I have to personally modify them and, if so, how?

On the totally opposite side of the samples topic, where do you recommend going to get samples other people made? Are there any file type considerations to keep in mind?

I’ll assume from the phrasing of your question that you are interested in sampling instruments and not the practice of remixing and resampling existing music, the fascinating culture and legal complications of which I am probably too white to explain on this blog. Pragmatically speaking, if you don’t plan on making publishing your own virtual instruments for fun or profit, most sampling you will do in computer music will either be for drums or to replicate niche instruments that can’t be easily found online, like a train whistle or the sound of your kitchen cabinet.

As you correctly guessed, samplers usually map sound files to keyboard notes. The number of samples and editing required for this process depends on the instrument, as I will explain later. First you’ll need a plug-in or standalone software to play and map samples.

Where to Find Free Sample Players

For drum sampling I would recommend Grooove BPB Edition, a feature-limited version of the commercial drum player by brunsandspork which comes with some pre-designed kits. I use the Computer Music Magazine version of Grooove and can speak from experience that using samples to create a drum kit with it is super easy and intuitive.

For instruments that require more sampling than a simple drum kit, there are countless sample players and workstations you can use.

You may already have a sample player at your disposal: for example the full retail version of Kontakt is capable of making complex virtual instruments out of samples. Your DAW may also have been packaged with one or more sample players — I know Mixcraft 7 comes with two very simple ones and FL Studio includes DirectWave. Additionally some synths, like the commercial IL-Harmor, allow for the use of samples for playback and synth design.

If all else fails, most free soundfont players also have the ability to load and map samples. Here are some example freeware plug-ins with extended sample functionality:

If you’re looking to create virtual instrument patches to export and share with others, the full version of Kontakt, as the industry-leading commercial sampler, is probably your best choice. If your music budget is limited, but you still feel that making sample-based instruments is your destiny, you can try Kontakt Player and a lot of patience creating your own .sf2 soundfonts with the standalone freeware Polyphone, among other solutions. The details of designing your own instruments in these programs are beyond my knowledge the scope of this humble blog post, but I will explain the kind of samples you should be gathering for this task, and where to find them.

How to Use Music Samples

Drum kits and unpitched percussion instruments are already pretty sample-like by nature, so gathering the required samples for drum or sound-effects based patches should be self-explanatory.

For pitched instruments you will need to find or record separate samples for different pitches (rather than taking one audio file and changing the pitch to simulate the other notes). The amount of pitches you record depends on the level of detail and realism you want in your instrument, the nature of the instrument you are sampling, and the resources you have available. High-end Kontakt and other proprietary player libraries might feature thousands of samples to cover the wide variation in sounds an instrument can produce. Some variables to consider include:

  • Pitches and round-robins
  • Dynamics, crescendos and decrescendos
  • Articulations
  • Legato transitions between notes
  • Portamento for a variety of intervals
  • Vibrato styles
  • Hammer-on/hammer-off
  • Types of bowing
  • Sustain and soft pedals
  • Mic location and distance
  • Tempo (for tempo-synced articulations or loop-based libraries)
  • Phrases or special FX

Because of the amount of work required to simulate these sounds in a virtual environment, a virtual violin will likely always cost more than, say, a virtual kalimba of the same quality. By viewing the tech specs of commercial libraries, you can get an idea of the level of thoroughness (to say nothing of man-hours) required to simulate a real instrument. Take a look at Spitfire’s Felt Piano or 8Dio’s Adagio Violins, for example — the latter uses over 33,000 sound files! (Don’t be discouraged; you only need like 5 for a drum set.)

More likely you don’t have the studio equipment and professional players at your disposal to really bother sampling on this scale. For DIY sampling, your instrument likely does not need to be a Swiss army knife — it’s wise to limit the number of musical parameters. For example, a free violin soundfont will likely have only one articulation at a single dynamic level, and lack the variety of a commercial violin library designed to much more closely resemble the real thing. When creating hobbyist virtual instruments, it’s also common to use neighbor-borrowing round robin (if any at all) and to sample minor thirds rather than every pitch.

Finding Music Samples

Unless your instrument is supposed to sound lo-fi, it’s always advisable to use samples that are in a lossless audio format, .wav being the most common.

Back in the day, you could find samples on CDs and vinyl, but since we live in the age of the internet I have no idea what I just typed. If you don’t have the hardware to record your own samples, check out some of the following online resources:

  • Bedroom Producer’s Blog is the mecca of free music software and soundware. In addition to their blog, which reports on free and promotional releases, they also have various yearly round-ups as well as a growing free samples reference page.
  • Bigcat Instruments periodically releases Kontakt instruments and soundfonts based on public domain and Creative Commons-licensed sample libraries, which are usually linked in the corresponding blog post.
  • Converse (yeah, like the shoes) continues to maintain their free Converse Rubber Tracks Sample library for reasons I don’t understand.
  • Forums for soundware enthusiasts and musicians are a great place to find samples people have recorded at home and want to share with the community. Try Scoring Central, VI Control, Image-Line Forums, and KVR Audio Forum to start. These are also good resources to learn more about sampling and scripting techniques.
  • Freesound.org users sometimes upload collections of samples which can be filtered by license. You might also be able to get some mileage out of creatively sampling the variety of sound effects the site also offers (doesn’t this flamingo recording sound like it should be used as part of a jungle dnb kit? No? Just me?)
  • Since they changed gears to focus on Noizz, Samplephonics hasn’t been offering as many new libraries and promotions, but many of their loop/one-shot libraries, which cover a wide variety of experimental genres, have a free version.
  • SampleRadar is a collection of loop/one-shot packs for a variety of genres and themes.
  • SampleSwap has an eclectic collection of loops, recordings and vocal acapellas, but just be wary users can upload just about whatever, and the site does not guarantee all the files are definitely in the public domain.

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