So You Want To Make A Sample Library

Sample libraries. We all rely on them for sweeping strings, funky basses, and punchy drums. And every week, someone somewhere thinks, “My [insert unique or vintage instrument here] is so unique and musical, I bet that 1,000 people will each pay $100 for a library of it. How hard could it be?”
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Sample libraries.We all rely on them for sweeping strings, funky basses, and punchy drums. And every week, someone somewhere thinks, “My [insert unique or vintage instrument here] is so unique and musical, I bet that 1,000 people will each pay $100 for a library of it. How hard could it be?”

0.0Harpordian4

In a nutshell, incredibly freaking hard — but not impossible. We’ve asked sample library guru Dan Dean (dandeanpro.com) and L.A. composer Jimmy Hammer, who recently created his first library (harpordian.com), to share their wisdom, then distilled it into a top ten — make that top 11 — list, to help save your time, your money, and your marriage.

1. Buy, rent, beg, borrow, or steal the best mics and preamps you can.Look for mics with a low noise floor, and keep in mind that different mics work best on different instruments. You may need a ribbon for some sounds, a large diaphragm condenser for others, even a good dynamic mic for that vintage bass amp.

2. Get the best musicians available to play the sampling sessions. Mediocre performance equals mediocre sample. Dan routinely books players who command at least $100 an hour. Jimmy did a great job playing all 1,000 bass harmonica samples for Harpordian — while engineering! — but this brings us to . . .

3. Record somewhere soundproofed, or soundproof where you record.Sounds you never hear in the course of everyday events (Did you know there was a fan in your Tivo box?) are even more ruinous to sampling than to recording bands. If you’re not working in a commercial studio, separate yourself from your computer. And your children. And the world.

4. Research copy protection.Dan’s stuff is popular in India and China, but he’s never actually sold a disc in either country. You don’t want to invest time and money so some kid can buy your library for ten euros. Jimmy Hammer paid $15 per disc to bundle Harpordian with Native Instruments Kontakt Player — which provided a turnkey solution, as all NI instruments handle authorization via the NI Service Center app.

5. Become obsessive-compulsive.In advance, create a consistent file naming system to handle your thousands of samples. Names should capture all the important attributes to ease OS-level searching for samples, but err on the side of simplicity: A name like “Zfff41lp119d67Y” is useless when you’re exhausted and overwhelmed. Better something like “Loud.C2.Take3.May12.” Write down everything.

6. Make sure your computer can handle enormous files.Your library will be many times larger than any song you’ve ever recorded. You don’t want to spend ten minutes opening your session and 30 seconds every time you save, so make sure you have the horsepower to handle giant projects: a separate audio drive from a reliable maker such as Glyph, for starters. Also, break the project down into manageable sections.

7. Defeat ear fatigue.Otherwise, it will defeat you. Whether recording or editing, when everything begins to sound the same, knock off for a while. Shake out your wrists a lot, too, because repetitive motion injuries are real.

8. Vividly imagine your final product.How will you handle articulations: Key switches? Mod wheel? Velocity? Study existing sample libraries so you can record yours in a way that’ll make it easy to learn and play.

9. Don’t “fix it in the mix.”If you know a performance is a little long or short or pitchy and you want to handle it later with editing and EQ — don’t. Hit Record and get it right.

10. Back up like crazy.Jimmy saved to external and internal hard drives every day. Towards completion of the project, he made DVDs every week. Dan used an Exabyte 8mm tape drive and multiple hard drives in a WeibeTech enclosure

11. Do market research before you record one note.People buy the fantasy of the library, so make sure your project is desirable. Mock up a cover, an ad, and a press release. Then, read them, have others read them, and solicit brutal honesty about whether the concept is compelling.

Perhaps that last tip should have been first, but I didn’t want to rain on your parade. Besides, someday I might be calling you for tech support.