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Sampling clichés and how to avoid them.

The whole concept of sampling is peculiar. It is quite possible to spend considerable sums of money buying a sampler and then never use the sampling part of it because it is always used for playback of sounds from a sample library. And perhaps we ought to speak of 'replayers' instead of the rather awkward-sounding 'replay-only samplers'. Many of the standard sampler sounds are exactly that — standard, and therefore familiar, safe and unadventurous. From an instrument that offers almost unlimited possibilities for exploring sound, this is an unforgivable waste of resources. But how do you go about exploiting a sampler in a creative way?

One way to avoid a cliché is by considering the obvious and never straying too close to it. There are so many well-worn paths in the sample jungle that finding and then hacking your way through virgin greenery is not easy, but let's try and list a few of the more blatant sample cliches.

The Dog Bark. Used in several TV advertising campaigns. Unfortunately many members of the public actually believe that you can get dogs to bark in tune... "I saw it on TV!"

'Nuh-nuh-nuh-nineteen'. Only really usable once, and Paul Hardcastle beat the rest of us to it, lots and lots of times.

The Orchestral Stab. Well over-used in all contexts, even to the extent of some drum machines providing it in their ROM samples. Perhaps still useful buried in a mix to emphasise an attack on other instruments.

"Oooooh! Ahhh! Yessss!" Female (or male) gasps of pleasure have all sorts of associated imagery, as does flatulence, but is this the domain of synthesis?

Orchestral Sounds. Contrary to most people's expectations, recording your own violin, cello, harp, brass etc., is phenomenally difficult and potentially expensive to get right. Getting multi-samples that have good transitions is even harder.

Piano. Must be one of the easiest ways to use up lots of memory, requiring loads of multi-samples and velocity cross-fades, and then people ruin it by applying chorus.

Broken Glass. Dropping milk bottles in dustbins not only prevents them being recycled, but it also produces lots of razor sharp fragments — and anyway, how many times can you use it?

Kitchen Utensils. Bashing pyrex and pans is great for adverts for gas, but what else?

Whips. Quite a challenge to record, and their use is probably limited to soundtracks for Westerns.

Nicking intros from CDs or TV: a breach of copyright, and not overly imaginative.

So what can you do with a sampler? First off, resurrect that old analogue monosynth lying under a pile of dust in one corner — it could be one of your greatest allies. A little judicious multi-tracking and you can have some monster 'analogue' sounds, but watch the multisampling — filter sweeps sound silly when heavily munchkinised. Coaxing out some more unusual sounds is often achieved by applying some more modulation to the sound. You can perform a kind of FM on some analogue machines, but in practice tuning drift prevents the technique being very usable; with a sampler, however, you only need one good take.

Secondly, buy a DAT player and a decent microphone and wander around recording your environment. For example, my oven door makes a superb 'unsynthesizeable' sound as you open it, something like the Klingon phaser blasts in the original Star Trek. Ropes beating against flagpoles can sound wonderful. Tapping metal lamp-posts may get you some funny looks, but it will also get you another neat sound. Microphones (in plastic bags) dropped into swimming pools are good for Bleep & Booster sounds. Video recorders loading a cassette can sound nicely robotic. Vacuum cleaners and hand mixers are excellent for Thunderbirds-style jet engine noise. Any piece of equipment with a switch can be percussive. Use your imagination.

The third step is to get a decent sample editor. For the ST, I was very impressed with Steinberg's Avalon, whilst Digidesign's Sound Designer is almost a de facto standard on the Mac, due to the popularity of Sound Tools. An editor will let you convert the percussive and special effects sounds collected earlier into attacks and looped timbres — and almost anything goes. Don't use just the real attacks of sounds — add you own envelope. Reverse the sound, forwards and backwards (a-b-a) loop the attack, etc... Hint: some editors also come with sophisticated synthesis tools.

The fourth stage involves taking these sounds and from them piecing together a new one. All the tricks of the analogue synth and more are open to you: layering, cross-fading, enveloping filtering, reversing, pitch-shifting (especially when taken to extremes and re-sampled) and the many forms of modulation. Borrowing an Emu Proteus and figuring out how some of the preset sounds are made from the basic samples can be quite an education in the creative use of synthesis technique. Tidying up the resulting sounds by truncating and filtering can be easier if the editor has frequency domain editing, rather than just time domain.

Armed with your new set of samples, you can then begin to use them for real. But don't forget that the time and effort invested in producing them may be recoverable by selling them to other people. One off 'vanity' CDs are probably too expensive, but for the price of a decent sampler or synthesizer you could get a thousand CDs pressed at a realistic rate. Make sure that you have your master carefully prepared: gaps of silence, alignment tones at the start, consistent levels across all the sounds etc. Also make sure that you can actually sell your CDs: would one of the established specialist retailers be interested? Perhaps the sampler sound programmer's demo tape of the future will be a DAT with example sounds on it? Rather than buying other people's sounds all the time, why not turn the tables and make some money by creating your own samples?

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Sound On Sound - Copyright: SOS Publications Ltd.
The contents of this magazine are re-published here with the kind permission of SOS Publications Ltd.


Sound On Sound - Mar 1992



Opinion by Martin Russ

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