Be the Sampler

July 25, 2012


SAMPLING BITS FROM OTHER TRACKS IS A GREAT WAY TO GENERATE INSPIRATION. It’s also a way to set yourself up for licensing hassles and at worst, a legal nightmare that could seriously slow down your career. However, as hip-hop artists have discovered, there’s a secret that can spare you these headaches and charge up your creative batteries: Figure out how the original artist did it, then play or reconstruct it yourself— with enough changes to avoid copyright woes.

Recently, I found myself wanting to sample the amazing choirs from New Order’s “Blue Monday.” Obviously, I couldn’t afford to go the licensing route—and the sample in question was a single D minor chord, an entity that can’t be copyrighted in and of itself. (Nor can the sound of an instrument— can you imagine guitarists struggling over playing an E chord on a Les Paul through a Fender Twin with all the knobs set just so?) So the challenge was to recreate that vintage sound myself. Time to start Googling!

Step 1: Research the Tune
First off , a little research about “Blue Monday” showed that New Order actually sampled the D minor chord—and sound—from a track on Kraftwerk’s Radio-Activity album called “Uranium,” released in 1975. Whether they licensed it themselves was immaterial. I intended to play it very safe here.

Step 2: Research the Sound
I then researched the making of Radio- Activity. After bouncing through a few links, I discovered that the choir I wanted was created on a Vako Orchestron: an astonishing instrument that used spinning disks and light (not lasers, but simple flashlight bulbs!) to play back recorded audio. Since there are only 100 or so of these rare creatures on the planet, I then had to figure out if any company had created a sample library of Orchestron sounds.

Step 3: Find the Right Plug-in
A bit more research and voilà, IK Multimedia SampleTron fit the bill. With vintage samplebased instruments like the Mellotron, Chamberlin, and Orchestron represented, SampleTron was an ideal addition to my largely vintage studio— and the price is a very reasonable $229 (or less) for a massive virtual collection of ultra-rare gear.

Step 4: Match the Sounds, Play the Notes
From there, I temporarily added the “Blue Monday” choir to my DAW (solely for reference), then inserted an instance of SampleTron. Then I found an almost identical sounding Orchestron choir and figured out the voicing of the chord. Since Sample- Tron clearly contains a different recording of the Orchestron than the original sample, there are very subtle sonic differences that ensure no one can say I just sampled Kraftwerk or New Order. Here's an A-B audio example of the original riff (first) and my reconstructed one (second).

So next time you want to sample a classic riff , take some time to figure out how it was done, change enough notes to keep your butt out of court, and recreate the original. Even if you make music mainly with a mouse, the ability to be the sampler and thus avoid licensing issues makes a strong case for developing some basic keyboard chops.

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