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Sampled Delights

Nicholas Rowland checks out some amazing sound sources for your sampler

Nicholas Rowland has a look at some groovy sounds you can load into your sampler using some surprising sources

Where would popular music be without sampling technology? No N-N-Nineteen style vocal effects: none of those massive Frankie Goes to Hollywood orchestra stabs: no house, no hip-hop. The sheer convenience of sampling has made it an essential part of everyday musical life - from replacing a single snare hit with a punchier sounding beat, to recording the best bits of several takes and turning them into one coherent recording.

But as sampling has become more accessible, it seems that the experimental side has been somewhat overlooked with many musicians never seeming to get past the stage of just bunging in the factory disks. OK, so it's pretty amazing to be able to imitate the Berlin Philharmonic without ever leaving the squalor of your own bedroom, but why limit yourself to imitating sounds which already exist when the technology offers you the chance of creating much weirder and more wonderful noises?

All that's needed is a little lateral thinking. The same thinking which inspired Cameo to turn the sound of a squash ball smashed against the wall into that famous (and much sampled) snare drum on Word Up! or for Big Audio Dynamite to squeeze the sound of a dozen crashing buffalo into one of their tracks (don't ask me which one).

For those of you with sample memory to fill, below are a few ideas as to how to produce some interesting noises without going much beyond your front door. In fact, there's no better place to start looking for inspiration than in the sound of your own voice especially as it happens to be not only one of the most versatile musical instruments on Earth in its own right (well... that's the theory anyway), but one which is also capable of mimicking the sound of just about anything else you care to mention. So even if you can't sing a scale to save your life, you've still got the potential to create a whole range of weird and wonderful noises.

But, of course, if you do happen to possess a fine singing voice, you can use sampling technology to 'sing' notes outside your normal range.

The grunters amongst us might prefer to start off by imitating drum and percussion sounds. It's quite easy to create an entire customised drum kit this way, especially if you use the editing facilities to give the sounds sharp attacks and smooth, fast decays. Vocal samples always appear much more percussive if the first few fractions of a second, when the voice is still revving up, are chopped off.

Mixing in vocalised drum sounds with samples of the real thing or the voices from a drum machine can also give you some interesting sounds. Another approach to the vocal drum kit is to replace different drums with recognisable words spoken in a percussive way. For example, try saying the words "Dum" and "Da" with real venom and you'll find yourself with rough approximations for bass and snare. (This technique is used to great effect on Cabaret Voltaire's last album, Code).

The gratuitous N-N-Nineteen effect is pretty overdone these days, but if used as an integral part of the rhythm can still give some intriguing results. Another approach is to sample phrases with strong rhythmic emphasis and then continuously loop them.

If you're stuck for inspiration yourself, try raiding the Spoken Word section in any record library where you'll find all manner of worthy poets, usually with deep sonorous voices, on which you can experiment. Here also you'll find phrases much more incongruous and atmospheric than the usual B-movie American Sci-fi stuff which seems de rigeur if you're recording a House track.

Recordings of Shakespeare are quite useful both as a source for rhythmic phrases and of single syllables which when chopped about make interesting percussion sounds. A phrase like "Macbeth shall sleep no more" renders that highly useful word 'sleepno'. Answers on a postcard please as to the best way of integrating this into a Stock Aitkin and Waterman hit. In fact, rhythm tracks be spiced up by sampling virtually any silly noise of your own devising - whoops, coughs, whistles and ruder if you like. Somehow even bog standard rhythms are completely revitalised, though your granny might be offended.

Whatever vocal tricks you get up to, it helps to have a decent mike. One of the all time rock vocalist's favourites is the Shure SM-58, but if you want something cheap and cheerful and which is good for recording just about anything else, try the Tandy PZMs. Mike positioning is absolutely crucial particularly if the clarity of sound is important. With most mikes, the closer you get, the richer and bassier it sounds. Record at a distance and it will sound weedier, but you'll pick up more of the ambience of the room (but more background noise as well). Go into the bathroom if you want natural reverberation, or into the garden if you want a totally flat sound. But that's no reason to cut out all the pops, sibilants and other breathy noises since they can end up giving the sound much more character.

Whether you're singing or screeching, you can also have fun distorting your voice in other ways. Like speaking or singing down cardboard tubes, out of cardboard megaphones, into cups, buckets, flower pots, down the telephone, and so on.

In general you'll find it much easier to record onto tape rather than directly into the sampler since this gives you chance to 'audition' the sounds later on to decide which have the most potential for further manipulation. Not all of them do. Unless the work is critical (in which case you'd be better off in a studio environment anyway) you don't necessarily have to worry about the quality of the tape machine. One of those hand held dictation jobs with an omni directional mic is often perfectly okay. And while you might find they do pick up a fair bit of background noise - certainly more than a uni-directional mic held very close to the sound source - this can often add much to its character.

Indeed, some of the most interesting sounds occur when several quite separate things are going on at once. Record fifteen minutes of general human activity in a bus or train station and I'll guarantee that you'll pick up something which when taken out of context sounds incongruous and bizarre. Parties are another rich source of potential samples and has the added bonus of enabling you to blackmail your friends afterwards. Look especially for combinations of high and low pitched sounds together as when these are looped at a lower pitch they can form some deeply mysterious rhythmic patterns. It's hard to explain without playing you some examples, but you soon find that with practice you can develop an ear for potentially weird noises. Be warned though, it can give you bad dreams.

Meanwhile, lying around the house are all manner of everyday objects which can be struck, scraped or, when patience runs short, smashed, all in the cause of the sampling art. The kitchen is one of the best places to start since it appears that virtually everything you touch has a secondary use as a percussion instrument. Aspiring, but broke, drummers will already know how to assemble a complete drum kit from Tupperware, biscuit tins, pots and pans and containers covered with clingfilm. But with a sampler, you also have the added advantage of being able to experiment with different pitches, reverse sounds and change the rates of attack and decay to customise your drums even further.

For example, you can produce a convincing 'heavy metal' shaker sound by jangling the entire contents of the cutlery drawer up and down in a tea-towel while a cheese grater rubbed with a wooden spoon handle is miraculously transformed into a scraper. Spoons rattled together in time-honoured cheery Cockney manner sound like... well, spoons rattled together, though if you raise the pitch slightly you can just about pass them off as castanets. Old-fashioned hand egg whisks can be used to make rhythmic whirrings which sound quite eerie when replayed at lower pitches. Oh, and don't forget, Blue Peter viewers, that packets or jars of dried food can also be pressed into service as shakers too.

Washing machines also yield up some interesting graunchy noises at slow speeds as do other mechanical devices like liquidisers and even fan assisted ovens. Old fashioned toasters make some wonderful squeaking sounds as they pop up, further enhanced by vibrating elements which create a sort of reverberated effect. Turn up the volume and it sounds like the door of a medieval torture chamber clanking shut (useful for a Hammer Horror soundtrack effect).

For those in search of more melodic sounds, my advice is to reach for the drinks cabinet (Here Here - Ed). In the process of steadily emptying the bottles of their contents, you can have great fun blowing across the tops to produce everything from deep sonorous fog horns to sharp peeps, according to size and the amount of liquid left. Perrier bottles are particularly good and what's more you're in a fit state to carry on after you've finished.

Fine tuning can, depending on your sampler, be achieved at a later stage, but otherwise there's the old trick of filling bottles with different amounts of water to get different pitches. Note that the more liquid you put in the higher the note. Of course, bottles can also be struck, ideally with wooden xylophone mallets, though spoons come in just as handy here as well.

Your stock of party tricks can be usefully employed on the glasses too, like wetting the tip of your finger and rubbing the rim to produce sustained notes. Again by filling the glasses with different amounts of water you can get different pitches, but you'll also find that experimenting with different types of glass will also give you subtle variations in the character of the tones. Try also swirling the water around as well, for a kind of tremolo effect.

With care, the resulting sound can be edited and looped to give you long slow decaying notes which are particularly effective when mixed with string sounds. Glasses can also be plucked with a guitar plectrum, chinked with metal objects and smashed with a whole variety of blunt instruments.

Children's toys and games are also a great source of amusement as are cheap musical instruments such as recorders, whistles, mouth organs, kazoos and dinner gongs, of the sort found in Blackpool boarding houses. Remember, with sampling it's the sound that counts, not whether the instrument looks good.

We've already touched on nicking ideas from records, but here are some more ideas, sound effects records: obscure ethnic recordings: Gregorian chant: Opera. Again, listen out for those incongruous sounds which are just crying out to be taken out of context. Epic film soundtracks are particularly interesting because they often mix dialogue and music which if broken up into short sections can sound pretty spooky.

Ethnic records should provide you with straightforward samples of unusual instruments or vocal sounds as well as the opportunity to create rhythmic loops of drumming or chanting. Remember that if you go up or down an octave then the speed of the sample correspondingly doubles or halves, so when you've created your rhythm loop (an if, of course, you have a multi-timbral sampler) you can create interesting massed drumming effects. However, be prepared to wade through a lot of dull stuff to find those magic moments. If you've ever listened to three hours of Chinese percussion or a whole LP of Eskimo nose music, then you'll realise that considerable ear ache can be involved.

Naturally, records are not the only source of recorded sounds. TV, and radio should all be explored. Short wave radio gives you some particularly interesting beeps and bursts of static and white noise all of which can be used to good effect in the percussion department.

These then are just a few ideas which arise from thinking a bit more creatively about music. If you have any ideas of your own please send them in so that we can all have a go. To be honest, this is the sort of stuff that people were doing with tape recorders long before samplers came along. But since sampling makes it all so much easier and gives you a greater degree of control over the manipulation of sounds, why not give it a w-w-w-hirl.

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Rhythm Section

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Advanced Recording Concepts

Micro Music - Copyright: Argus Specialist Publications


Micro Music - Oct/Nov 1989

Scanned by: Mike Gorman



Feature by Nicholas Rowland

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