In an age where packaged loops are as easy to find as roadies at the backstage buffet, it takes thought, effort and creativity to stand apart from the crowd. Digging for obscure music to sample gives you a leg up. Once you transfer from vinyl, the world is your oyster, since you can manipulate that clip until it maxes a groove that’s fresh and all yours.
The move from groove to finished track takes some – if you’ll pardon the expression – spin, but that’s where the value is, in creating new source material to build upon. While it may beat 12 years of piano lessons, it’s not without its challenges. Here are some ideas to keep you on the straight and narrow.
Find Your Gold Mines
Called “digging,” locating killer vinyl to sample may be the most fun, if not the most important, part of staying fresh with vinyl beats. Finding quality used vinyl stores is perhaps the key, but don’t ignore flea markets, record trade conventions, garage sales, anywhere that vinyl LPs may turn up.
Once you have a source of vinyl, consider your tastes and what music you get off on. You may find particular artists inspire you or, more often, it’s producers and production teams. Even some record labels may provide you with tasty grooves.
Read your album covers and know the names. These alone will point you in the right direction. The Internet and even your local library also contain tons of information on the people and places behind the beats you love to rip.
Work the Flow
The vinyl sampling process is simple in its early stages. Once you have a digital capture of the section of LP that you want, then the sky is the limit. Getting the music to that stage is the first step and it’s more of a technical process. The creative fun comes later, and the better your raw sample, the greater the potential fun.
A turntable is, of course, essential. Don’t go cheap. The platter should have some weight to it, to ensure stable rotating speeds. If your ‘table doesn’t have a phono preamp built-in, you’ll need an interface that does. More on this in a moment.
An interface connects turntable audio with your computer, if you’ll sample with it. The old-school way uses a standalone sampler, such as the venerable Akai MPC2000XL, a hip-hop staple from the early days. In this case, your turntable may directly connect to your sampler.
Understanding RIAA EQ
Now, about that “phono preamp” business. Putting music down as grooves on vinyl had its technical challenges. Really deep bass means wide grooves and high frequencies need a boost to stay above system noise.
However, you can’t simply boost highs and cut lows and have a great-sounding record. Those technical equalization issues must be reversed for sound to emerge as intended. That’s the job of the phono preamp. When you see the term “RIAA EQ,” that’s what it’s all about – an equalization standard applied to all vinyl albums.
Turntables also produce a very small audio signal. Phono preamps boost this to line level, so the output of the preamp is the same level as most other audio sources. Phono preamps can be built-in to a turntable, standalone or in devices with dedicated phono inputs.
If you visit some ‘audiophile’ sites on the Internet for advice on cleaning vinyl, you may come away frightened to go near a record again. There are some seriously neurotic attitudes to keeping albums clean.
Fortunately, in the digging world, a sample comes from a short section of music, often a hook that’s repeated several times within a song. Only one of these needs to be clean for successful sampling.
Reasonable handling is the best way to take care of vinyl. Never press fingers against grooves. The oils from your skin will remain on the vinyl surface, attracting dirt which will become lodged in the vinyl grooves. Handle LPs by the edges only.
That’s great for new albums, but since the digger often uncovers diamond beats on less-than-perfect used vinyl, you should be ready and knowledgeable about record cleaning.
A soft brush or other product made expressly for cleaning vinyl is a great place to start. On its own, the brush removes loose dust and debris, generally not adding to the static charge a record might hold. For better static removal and light duty cleaning, a 70 percent solution of isopropyl alcohol used to moisten the cleaning brush lightly will act as a solvent against stuck debris.
Over-cleaning can damage vinyl, so the best practice for sampling is to clean a record just before making a sample, then leave it until it is sampled again. That changes if the LP is in your regular listening rotation, of course.
Rates and Restrictions
If you’re new to the world of digital audio sampling rates, there’s a couple things to know. First of all, sample at the highest reasonable quality you can store, even when you expect to use low bit rate effects later. Common rates are 16-bit, 44.1 kHz (also known as CD Quality) and 24-bit, 48 kHz or 96 kHz.
The better your original sample sounds, the easier it will be to use in a production. Sampling at low rates tends to turn up artifacts in unpredictable ways. These “flaws” are part of the fun of low bit rate audio, but it’s more fun when you’re controlling the process. Starting out with low-bit samples takes some of that control out of your hands.
That doesn’t mean low-bit sampling can’t make some accidental magic. Your chances for easy results improve lowering bit rates later.
Back in the Jacket
There you have it. Everything you need to get your own clips and loops for care, feeding and warping in software, bending the groove to your will. Remember the best rule is that all the other rules are game for breaking. Building on your own vinyl finds offers unmatched satisfaction as well as an endless well of inspiration.