What is a sample flip?
A sample flip is a production technique beatmakers use to create an instrumental or a backing track for a vocalist. Whether you’re working on a hip-hop, house, techno or RnB track, there are various approaches to flipping a sample. Some of them are universal, and some of them are genre-specific. We are going to focus on a traditional hip-hop sample flipping technique, which you can apply to any composition style you want.
This technique is sample chopping, or ‘chop the sample’. First, we have to find a sample. For this example, we are going to use one sample source, a stereo audio file. The sample we have chosen is from ‘Reflections’ by Albert Jones. We used Tracklib to source the sample: an online record store where anyone can clear samples affordably and fast. Released in 1973, ‘Reflections’ is a soul/RnB track. It has big drum fills, gritty organ, amazing backing vocals and some beautiful melodic information that I want to showcase in the beat.
There are many ways you can chop or cut a sample. You can chop random events from the song, cut bigger chunks like a 2 bar loop, or layer events from other parts of the song over the 2 bar loop. The limit here is your imagination. We are going to chop the sample by even 1/4 notes. To find the 1/4 notes, count along to the song, the 1/4 notes are the 1,2,3,4 count of each bar. The snare drum lands on the 2nd and 4th beat of each bar.
Bigger chops, like a 2 bar loop, keep the feel of the song intact in the sample. When you chop the sample shorter, 1/8th or 1/16th notes, the feel becomes more muted. However, you can use those shorter chops to push and pull against the rhythm of the sampled song, and create your own feel.
Begin by giving the song you’re sampling from a close listen. Keeping your eyes closed may be helpful, as you’re trying to get as deep inside the track as possible to find out which parts stand out. Look for a section that speaks to you, and reminds you of the goosebumps feeling that always draws you back to music.
During the early years of hip-hop, DJs focused on playing breakbeats from records for the dancefloor. The breakbeats in songs were what excited the crowd and made them get down to the music. Correctly looping and chopping beats is the foundation of sample chopping. It is your duty as a beatmaker to convey the excitement, emotion and feeling you hear to the listener. Sometimes the goosebump moment comes from something unexpected in the music. It could be a crack in an emotional vocal, an out of tune bass note, atmospheric reverb, an overly keen saxophone phrase, or a breath.
The first thing which stands out as chop-worthy on ‘Reflections’ is it’s very emotive intro-section. A quick online search reveals that the sample has already been used by Mary J. Blige (through Tracklib). However, you can quickly turn the disappointment of a previously used sample into a competitive drive. The challenge becomes flipping the sample in a new direction. Let’s take the intro and chop it into 1/4 notes.
I’ve used Ableton Live’s sampler instrument to chop the sample manually, in real-time. That way, as I play the pads sequentially on my computer, every hit of a pad will create a new slice. As I am chopping, I am also listening out of any pads that grab my attention. In Live, if you hear something you are vibing, you can start looping it in then and there.
Now it’s time to look beyond the intro.
The first verse has some great vocal moments. The bass is hot and a little bit out of tune, the guitar is similar but sonically perfect (gritty, dry, beautiful mid-range), and the drums have great mid-range in the kick, a nice dry snare, and 16th note hi-hats. All of these elements will work in the beat, so let’s chop the first verse into 1/4 notes.
The first note of the chorus is magical. Something is calling out in it. Is it the bass performance, the background vocals, or the air in the beat? Perhaps it’s the vibraphone reminding me of a Dilla beat? It’s still a mystery as to whether we’ll use it in the final beat, but let’s try to remember that feeling when we make decisions about what to chop. We’ll cut the chorus into 1/4 notes.
Once you’ve chopped your sample, it pays to zoom in on each chop. You do this to make sure they’re cut as close to 1/4 notes as they can be. If you want, you can leave the chops loose with time before or after the cut, but the tighter you chop to the original 1/4 note tempo, the more control you’ll have when you play them back. You can adjust the start and endpoints of the chops by your ears or eye. Trimming by ear is closer to the experience you’d have using classic machines such as the SP1200, ASR 10 or MPC3000 sampler, as none of them had a waveform display. When you trim by ear, there is more chance of a happy accident, and the chop might “feel” nicer in the beat. Trimming by eye will give you a tighter, more quantized chop.
Laying the groundwork, introducing the beat.
On our 8×8 Push controller, we now have 64 chops to use for our beat. A simple approach would be to play back a row of pads, 4 or 8 pads sequentially. The intro to the original song is perfect for this. This progression is a |I / / / |ii / / / |iii / / / |ii / / / | progression, a fairly common progression in soul/R’n’B. The ii and the iii chords are minor chords, so they build tension and suspense really well. Let’s loop up one bar, the iii chord. This is going to be our intro.
This loop feels so good it could be our main loop for the song. Still, we want to go deeper, not just do the obvious, and showcase some chopping skills. This section is our intro setup, where we play the loop out so the listener can catch the vibe of the original song. The chop here 1/4 notes makes for this sequence | hit | hi-hat | piano | hi-hat |. Chopping the iii chord section is good because the vocal sounds like it is circling back on itself, which creates the illusion of an infinite loop. Speeding up the chop also makes the flow/rhythm of the sample change subtly, adding a nice swing.
Rearranging the puzzle pieces, finding the main loop.
If you play across all the pads, you’ll be surprised by what jumps out as potentially usable for the main loop. Start by playing the pads as ¼ notes, and letting the sample play out between hits. After that, try different combos of pads.
When a beat is chopped up evenly, you can find some really cool patterns. Try 4 pads sequentially [1,2,3,4], 4 pads reversed [4,3,2,1], 4 pads flipped [1,4,3,2], and 4 pads diagonally [A1,B2,C3,D4]. Then, try 8th notes. In this instance, this doesn’t work so well with 1/4 note chops, but it works really well with the intro chops.
This part of the process can feel like musical Tetris. A random order of pads leads me to this pattern.
The minor chords create suspense, and the chops of the vocals and organ generate tension. I took notes on where the drum fills were on the pads, so I am going to use them to expand the loop from 1 bar to 2 or 4 bars with fills. As luck would have it, we already have some good drum fills within our existing chops.
Bring in the drums
Now we have our main loop ready; we can dig for some one-shot drum samples to overlay on top of it. I selected my drum samples from STLNDRMS – All Of The Drums. The kick I’ve chosen has a good mid-range punch and a sub-note on it. The snare is crunchy, with aggressive mid-range distortion, and the hi-hats are very clean. I also selected a handclap to layer on the snare for extra snap.
I want my drums to have a little swing/rub. To give them this, I push and pull on every second hi-hat. It’s subtle, but it creates a cool feeling.
Bring In The Bass
I have chosen an 808 drum machine kick for my bass and mapped across the Push in the standard chromatic layout. I added saturation to it to bring out the upper harmonics in the sample. This helps us hear the pitch of the note. It also makes it audible on smaller speakers. The bassline outlines the harmonic chord progression and works alongside the kick drum pattern.
Bring in the piano
I wanted to add one more live element to the beat, so I decided on piano. This gives the sample a strong chordal structure, and it’s good to have one consistent chordal instrument happening in the song that will mesh all the sample chops together. The chord is a Dmin7 then up a tone to Emin7. I used the Arturia Piano V and went for a dry, studio sounding piano. I tracked the left and right-hand parts separately as I can’t fit a 3-octave range on the Push at the same time.
As I track the intro, verse buildup and verse, I have to automate the tempo so that the slower intro samples fit nicely. The increase in tempo gives the beat some organic movement, which an instrumental locked to one speed wouldn’t achieve. I also filtered the sample in the verses to give the drums and bass some breathing space, just in case this beat ends up being sent to a vocalist.
Create A Live Performance Layout
To create a live performance layout, I have bounced out the original sample layered with the bass and the piano. It was going to be physically impossible to play all the parts simultaneously. This lets me play the sample chops with my left hand and the drums with my right hand. After workshopping different options and layouts, I have come up with a strong layout, and colour coded it so I can remember where the sections and samples are.
I have kept the sample chops to the same length as in my original beat because I like the way it feels when I manually play them. It also means I can get a bit of that rub feel happening, by stretching the time between the samples and the drums.
I bounced all the samples out of my original session and re-organised them in a new drum rack. Bouncing them out of the original session with all the track EQ and master buss plugins on them means that my live performance layout will sound mixed and consistent over any PA speakers.
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