intro from pATCHES: in his seminal everything is a remix, Kirby Ferguson posits "creation requires influence. everything we make is a remix of existing creations, our lives, & the lives of others." the point of the video series is just that - music, films, ideas, even biological evolution are the result of a process of borrowing & synthesis. somehow, we collectively agreed to hush this under the rug like it's a secret. as Ferguson goes on to explain, "the interdependence of our creativity has been obscured by powerful cultural ideas, but technology is now exposing this connectedness. we're struggling legally, ethically, & artistically to deal with these implications". Nowhere is this more true than in the act of sampling other people's music to create new music. I am very glad to share Ethan Hein's thoughts on this matter: it's an important subject he's talked about extensively as both a professor & musician. I hope you find his writing as insightful & inspiring as I have.
The Morality of Sampling
Ableton Live is the best tool that has ever existed for remixing recordings. It does other things well too, soft synths and MIDI editing and so on. But Live is really special for its awesome powers of audio manipulation. So what audio should we be manipulating with this splendid piece of software? You could record your own sounds, or use sample libraries. But let's be real: you want to sample and remix real music. Meaningful music. Copyrighted music!
This post is not about the legality of using copyrighted music without permission. (For legal resources, click here: [http://mcir.usc.edu/]). Instead, I'm going to write about the morality of unlicensed sampling. When I ask students in my classes about sampling, the majority have a kneejerk reaction: it's always wrong to use samples without permission. However, when they reflect a little, most of these same students say they love hip-hop and dance music, and they understand that these genres would not exist without unauthorized samples. If you're reading this, you probably think that sampling is basically a good and necessary thing. But there's no question that musical ownership is fraught, and advances in technology keep making the situation more complicated.
In a world saturated with recordings, creating more music from nothing is not the valuable service to humanity that it once was. I make sample-based music because I feel like it’s more worthwhile to identify existing sounds that have been overlooked, to bring them to fresh ears, and to give them fresh meaning in new contexts.
I find it hard to say anything true and meaningful in music without sampling my music collection. I'm sympathetic to musicians who want to keep control over the uses of their work. It's natural to feel protective of your ideas, especially when your livelihood is at stake. But it's equally natural to look at the ocean of recorded music that exists in the world and want to engage with it creatively.
“They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)” by Pete Rock and CL Smooth is a perfect example of why sampling is so valuable. The center of this iconic track is a sample of saxophonist Tom Scott improvising over "Today" by Jefferson Airplane. Could Pete Rock have created the track without sampling? Could he have painstakingly recreated the instrumentation and ambiance from Scott’s original recording, and hired Scott himself to come in and recreate his solo? In theory, maybe, but the result wouldn't have had the effortless, spontaneous feel of the sample. Playing a riff from a chart sounds very different from discovering it in the heat of the moment. Pete Rock’s looping transformed unprominent pieces of Tom Scott’s shaggy improvisation into laser-beam-focused funk. Joseph Schloss argues that Pete Rock *created* the Tom Scott sax break by sampling it:
"On a conceptual level, this means that the break in the original jazz record was brought into existence retroactively by Pete Rock’s use of it. In other words, for the twenty-four years between its release and the day Pete Rock sampled it, the original song contained no break. From that day on, it contained the break from “They Reminisce Over You.” Producers deal with this apparent breaching of the time-space continuum with typically philosophical detachment. Conventionally, they take the position that the break had always been there, it just took a great producer to hear and exploit it. Record collecting is approached as if potential breaks have been unlooped and hidden randomly throughout the world’s music. It is the producer’s job to find them."
Why does sampling need so much defending, when everyone long ago made peace with collage in other media? Some of that is due to our sense that recorded music is property. But that's a weak sense. We have no problem downloading music illegally, and it's a short hop from there to sampling it. Maybe sampling makes people uneasy because it amplifies the unreal qualities that all recorded music shares. Simon Reynolds observes:
"Recording is pretty freaky, then, if you think about it. But sampling doubles its inherent supernaturalism. Woven out of looped moments that are like portals to far-flung times and places, the sample collage creates a musical event that never happened; a mixture of time-travel and séance."
"[Y]ou’ve created this little band and you’re trying to get them to talk to each other and have fun playing together. And once they’re all happy, that’s when you know that the track’s working... it’s getting all these different musicians who’ve never met each other to talk to each other and have a good time, probably without anyone ever realising it."
Timothy Warner says that the sampling composer “need not be a physical virtuoso, only a virtuoso of the imagination with an expertise in the manipulation and organization of sound."
The Usefulness of Sampling
Once you make enough computer music, you start to realize that the genre of music hardly matters, you can use the same workflow on all of it. You start with a bunch of recordings, and you edit and process them until they sound good. Those recordings might have just been recorded in the same studio where you’re sitting, and maybe you hardly edit them at all; nevertheless, you’re manipulating digital samples, same as any dance music or hip-hop producer. Any computer with a DAW installed is a giant sampler. The only difference between “sampling composers” and everyone else is the sample sources and the editing style.
Hearing a familiar sound in an unfamiliar context is a uniquely exciting experience. I was indifferent to Jay-Z until I heard his music combined with Beatles songs that I knew and loved intimately. The Grey Album acted as a cultural ambassador, opening me up not only to Jay-Z but to many other hip-hop artists as well. Jay-Z is well aware of this effect, and releases his albums in remix-friendly acapella versions with the outspoken hope that people will do exactly what Danger Mouse did.
The real pleasure of music is participation, and historically, recorded music hasn’t been participation-friendly. It's empowering to discover that you can use Ableton Live and tools like it to treat your record collection as raw material for creativity. Sampling has some of the same satisfaction of learning how to sing songs you like, or how to play them on the guitar. As with learning songs the old-fashioned way, sampling lets us remake recordings to our own tastes. I’ve learned through extensive experimentation that what I really like is to hear the song’s major hooks repeated in groups of eight at a medium slow tempo over an 808 drum machine playing a hip-hop beat. Sampling helped me discover that, and it’s transformed my approach to my own "original" compositions too.
I know a lot of drummers. Some of them are world-class musicians. But they aren’t usually available to me. If I just want to try out ideas over a certain beat, the logistics are a big problem. I don’t have a drum kit in my apartment, and if I did, it would drive my neighbors crazy. Even if that weren’t a problem, I don’t have the right mics or acoustic environment to do a decent recording of live drums. Meanwhile, I have a hard drive full of the best drummers in recorded history in every conceivable style, with an essentially limitless selection of others a few mouse clicks away on the internet. How could I possibly pass up the opportunity to practice and write along with Clyde Stubblefield or Questlove or Max Roach?
It isn’t just beats that can inspire new tracks or compositions. A short instrumental passage, a vocal phrase, a fragment of speech, a sound effect or atmospheric sound — any of those things can inspire new work. The effortlessness and immediacy of sampling creates such a wealth of possibility that the challenge becomes choosing from among all the new ideas. This is a much nicer problem than sitting there thinking, “I wonder what Duke Ellington’s brass section would sound like over this part? I guess I’ll never know.”
It isn’t just the musical content of the sample that creates its personality. It’s the recording itself, the particular interaction of the microphone and preamp and mixing desk and tape or digital medium. The magic of the Funky Drummer loop isn’t just in its beat — it’s the tape hiss, the equalization, the compression and reverb. A drummer might be able to recreate the musical performance, but not the exact sound.
I do try to get permission for my samples when it’s reasonably possible. Many of my musician friends have volunteered the use of samples of themselves with the understanding that if I ever make money from something, they get a cut. Meanwhile, if it’s just for experimentation or teaching, I’m free to use the samples as I wish. In a perfect world, this is the relationship I’d have with every recording artist.
Individual ownership of music is a recent historical phenomenon, preceded by uncountable centuries of oral tradition in the public domain. Other world cultures don’t necessarily share our preoccupation with ownership. Even in capitalist America, we default to a traditional gift economy in our personal lives, especially with music. We have an intuition that you’re supposed to share music you like with people you like. It’s one of the basic ways we establish social bonds with each other. This custom isn’t going anywhere, no matter what copyright law might say. Sampling lets you share recordings you love, placed into new contexts, making new statements, while still connecting back to the past.
It’s been pointed out to me that if anybody can remix anything, it’ll result in a flood of crappy remixes. This is true. It’s also good and necessary. Amateur participation is about process, not product. The singing in most church choirs is pretty bad. Most amateur bands are pretty lame. It’s still fun and healthy to participate in church choirs and amateur bands. It’s good for you to play basketball whether you play like Michael Jordan or like me (badly.) It’s good to cook your own meals, even if you’re no Julia Child. And it’s good to make your own music.
We still need the masters to light the way, to discover best practices and teach them to the rest of us. But leaving the whole process to the masters cheats us all out of an essential social and emotional vitamin. If sampling is what’s giving the most joy out of the tools we have at our disposal, then people are going to keep doing it. I hope we can all work out a better deal with each other over the permissions and attributions.
So I don't just think you have a right to sample without permission; I think you have a positive obligation to. It's a form of peaceful civil disobedience, which hopefully will result in a change of the law. Sampling has made any attentive listener into a potential composer. Now it’s up to us to use our ears.
About Ethan Hein
Ethan Hein is an adjunct professor of music technology at NYU & Montclair State University & a founding member of the NYU Music Experience Design Lab. Its project The Groove Pizza allows users to visualize & create rhythms using shapes & math & is based on Ethan's ideas.
You can read more of Ethan's writings at his website, http://www.ethanhein.com, where he has discussed everything from trap beats to the Beatles. Be sure also to follow him on his Twitter & on Soundcloud.