Sampling Confidential - CD Heaven (Part 4)
Dom Foulsham continues his series with a guide to the ever-expanding world of sample CDs: what to look for, how to find it, and how to get the best out of the off-the-shelf loop. I know we said the series was concluding last month, but we were wrong, OK? Think of it as a bonus.
In the last of his rough guides to sampling, our resident bit-pusher Dom Foulsham discovers why sampling has suddenly become an altogether rather CD business...
Litigation, heavy fines, record confiscations and bimbos trying to mime to sampled stutters from obscure Italian house records... all problems which, with a handful of decent sample CDs, may be safely consigned to the past. Well, perhaps not completely. But there can be no denying that with the advent of CD sample libraries the sting has be taken out of a lot of that (often illegal) soul searching.
Now, whether you're after a string quartet, an African thumb piano, an Egyptian vocal hook or a simply great conga riff for that cracking 13bpm house thumper you're working on - the sample CD companies almost certainly have a solution to your problem.
Of course, there was a time when the only place to find a decent drum hit or neat fill, was amongst your Uncle Clyde's collection of assorted (and often obscure) Jazz-legends-live-at-the-somewhere-or-other albums and hope that nobody would notice. However, with the explosion in demand for sampled drum and vocal snippets in the '80s (together with an equally huge increase in the workload of music lawyers) the time was ripe for someone to come up with a more practical and less costly alternative.
The first dedicated sample libraries (if these early collections of specialist recorded tracks can be referred to as 'libraries') arrived via the DJ mixing and scratching culture of the mid-'8s. Around this time, an advertising executive by the name of Steve Stein - aka 'Steinski' - produced a series of three records called Steinski's Lessons One Two & Three. This collection of noises, scratches and snippets (many from '60s American TV commercials) became one of the hottest, most collectable pieces of vinyl around - along with a small but increasing number of (equally illegal), rough 'n' ready vinyl collections of noises and grooves stolen "by the people, for the people" - as Stein puts it.
Super Disco Breaks, Breaks 'n' Beats Unlimited and many others were compiled from the collections of the top DJs, and featured some of their most valued tracks. Records like 'Apache', The Magic Disco Machine's 'Scratchin'' Perez Prado's 'Mambo Number 5', Kraftwerk's 'Trans Europe Xpress' - the list is long. It was only when acts like Italian piano-house merchants Black Box sampled vocal stabs from records such as the highly illegal Acapella For DJs - a bootleg collection featuring the famous Loleatta Holloway vocal line "It's just a love sensation" - that the music lawyers decided to move in. "Ride on time!"
In 1987, Simon Harris noticed that "apart from a few badly compiled vinyl records, nobody seemed to be making these groove collections. That's how I began, with a 4-track and a collection of records!" Thus, Music Of Life's classic Breaks, Beats & Scratches was born.
Now, some six years later, it seems everybody's doing it: Advanced Media Group's Producer Series; Time + Space's Zero-G series (and their licensed East West and Best Service collections); Coldcut's Jazzbreaks series; the aforementioned Music Of Life Breaks, Beats 'n' Scratches series; The Natural Sound Sampler series offered by Germany's Tacet; and individual releases from companies such as Metra Sound, Dangerous, The Music Suite etc. etc. You could say you are spoilt for choice.
So how, exactly, do you go about choosing from amongst the many titles currently available? With some selling for as much as £50 a throw, where exactly should you throw your money? The first thing to consider is what sort of use the disc will be put to: this, of course, depends on the way in which you use samples and the type of music you're working on. For example, having been originally produced for DJs, the Breaks, Beats and Scratches series offers much longer grooves (typically lasting several minutes).
The trade-off is that there are much fewer loops offered on these collections - usually only about 16 - although they are priced at less than a quarter of many other CD collections. The grooves themselves can be particularly effective in styles such as hip hop, where repeated drum loops are used but which 'develop' over a period of time.
The number of single sounds or sound effects is also lower in these collections - typically around 3 to 5 - but again, this has to be measured against cost. You can buy several Music Of Life CDs for the price of a single collection from one of the larger companies. This doesn't necessarily add up to better value for money (further payments have to be made if your record is made commercially available) but it does mean you can spread the cost over a period of time.
Clearly, you need to listen before you buy. But that can pose a problem... "In practice", says Ed Stratton of Time + Space, "there are difficulties when operating on a mainly mail order basis. We always try to get the customer to visit the auditioning suite at our offices."
Stratton admits that this is a problem for any Northern and Scottish sample junkies, but reveals that plans are afoot for offices north of the border and that the company is looking into the possibility of setting up 'auditioning phone lines' to go some way to alleviating the problem. It's also why they and other companies now produce 'sampler' sample collections. Such preview CDs as What's Next and Now That's What I Call Sampling! offer a whirlwind tour of the type of material featured on the discs each company offers. As such, they can only provide a taste of the far wider range of material that's available, but nevertheless serve as excellent entry-level 'catch-all' collections for those dipping a toe into the water.
Other titles, too, though often leaning towards one specific area of the market, are nevertheless sufficiently broad-based to be of interest to a wide range of users. One of AMG's best-selling sampling titles, for example, is their new Megabass Remix! CD. Although designed specifically for the dance market with a wide range of up-to-the-minute loops, stabs and drum riffs, it's sufficiently broad in scope (house, swing-beat, rap, techno etc.) to serve as a good general-purpose sampling disc.
By contrast, there has also been a recent proliferation of much more specialist material suited to musicians and producers looking for CDs for specific purposes. Experimentalists in house, for example, may well be attracted to CDs like AMG's Rhythm Of Life collection - a veritable feast of percussive loops and instruments. Brilliantly played (by Danny Cummings and Miles Bould) and superbly recorded, it includes virtually every instrument the percussionist (or percussion programmer) could want, including a variety of ethnic instruments such as talking drums, berimbaus - and even rainmakers!
Complementary to this collection would be something like Time + Space's Zero-G Masterclass Ethnic CD. A recent addition to their library, Ethnic offers a similarly high quality collection of loops and single-shots from an even broader selection of esoteric instruments. There are both pitched and non-pitched percussive sounds - including such delights as African violins, log drums and djembes - together with an impressive collection of tribal chants and Oriental vocal samples. Everything, in fact, for the budding Peter Gabriel...
For many people, the use of samples is simply a convenient way of increasing their sonic potential, and a means of assimilating grooves with a particular rhythmic feel into their music (in preference to playing or programming them themselves). For others, however, sampling is seen as a means of filling a gap in their instrumentation (or - dare I say it - as a way of covering any deficiency in their musical ability). A lot of MIDI studio activists, for example, are keyboard players unable to get a coherent chord out of a guitar. Enter the Zero-G Funk Guitar CD - a definitive and (almost too) exhaustive collection of guitar riffs, runs, strums, slides and funky plucks in all the important chordal groups and keys.
Similarly, in response to the difficulty most people have in getting hold of orchestral sounds (let alone the musicians to produce them) Tacet have released a series of String Orchestral CDs - perfect for those who despair at getting an authentic string sound from their latest GM module or for whom hiring even a modest string quartet would break the 'session budget'.
Though by no means capable of reproducing the full expressive or dynamic range of an orchestral musician, the collections include a comprehensive range of strokes including legato forte (bold strokes), con sordino (muted tonal strokes), pizzicato (plucked), spiccato (a jumping bowed sound), tremolo (rapid back and forth bowing) and so on.
Which brings us to a more offbeat use for sampling CDs - self teaching. Whatever the instrument on disc, the ability to separate a riff - to hear a guitar lick or tambourine pattern clearly and distinctly, away from the usual accompaniment - can help the programmer achieve much more authentic results. More than that, it can help make clear just what is or isn't possible for a particular instrument (and how fascinating the results can be when you move into the realms of the impossible!).
All well and good, but having chosen the discs, are you free to use the samples when and where you want - without clearance needing to be sought and without further payment being necessary?
The answer from the manufacturers seems to be "almost always". Ed Stratton again: "Generally speaking you don't need any copyright clearance whatsoever. This is a matter of great confusion to potential customers, which we put down to the amount of adverse publicity that sampling has received in general. A certain stigma seems to have become attached to sample CDs - which is ridiculous.
"Virtually all the products we sell are 100% copyright cleared, since all the samples on those CDs were created especially for that purpose. By buying the CDs, the purchaser is actually buying the right of 'free use' of the sounds in his own productions without the need for payment of mechanical or publishing royalties.
"The only cases worthy of closer consideration are the Zero-G Datafile and X-Static Goldmine collections. As far as we are aware the sounds contained on the Zero-G series will not cause copyright problems and are intended for use in a musical context - in the writing and production of records, etc. However, whilst most of the sounds were either created by us or came from recordings to which Time + Space own the rights, there remains a small minority whose origin is unknown to us. These came from such places as other small commercially available collections of sounds on floppy disk, which did not credit their sources.
"These sounds have been included because they are very short and non-melodic; they contain no sequences of notes and no sequences of chords. In fact, they can only accurately be described as sound effects.
"At the end of the day, if users are worried about using sounds from the Zero-G Datafile collection, we can only advise them to contact us before using any sample on a commercial project, to ensure no copyrights have been reported on those particular samples. To date, no such copyright claims have been reported. Indeed thousands of Zero-G Datafile CDs have been used worldwide with no copyright problems of any description."
At AMG, Mathew Wilkinson echoes this stance. "I'm afraid I'm not prepared to say everything's A-OK on something like the Coldcut Kleptomania CD because it's impossible to trace all your sources. It's a big world out there - things are changing all the time. But we always try to feature only samples that are 'safe' to use in your music. And the vast majority of our CDs are 100% safe because they are specifically recorded, created or performed by the artists concerned."
Like Stratton, Wilkinson suggests that "if in doubt, the musician should treat them in the appropriate manner - given the prevailing practices, the law, and the use you intend putting the samples to. Usually, who you are and what you're going to use the samples for is more important than the samples themselves!"
With the Music Of Life series, any samples that you want to use from the CDs have to be cleared with the label first (through a one-off payment or an agreed percentage). "A fax request will get a faxed answer on costs of buy-out or percentages required", says Managing Director Chris France.
So there you have it - straight from the horse's mouth, so to speak. Of all the manufacturers producing 'sample-cleared' CD libraries, none we spoke to have ever received a single complaint from a customer who was being chased for royalties by a record company. But that doesn't mean it won't ever happen. And if it does it will be interesting to see who the litigation will be directed at: the sample user; the sample supplier; or both.
For the most part, however, using sampling CDs is by far the easiest and safest method of collecting new sounds. Though it wouldn't pay to become complacent (for reasons made clear in the first article in this series), you can take advantage of this rich and growing source of sampled material safe in the knowledge that legal problems are unlikely to be lurking round the corner.
What's even more attractive is the fact that you can do it for comparatively little outlay. With many hundreds of sounds and loops often on a single CD, these collections represent excellent value for money - and indeed, make it much more tempting for would-be punters to give it a go. So what are you waiting for?
Feature by Dom Foulsham
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