Top Tip! Chopping Samples 101

29 Jun

Photo of my Akai MPC2000XL SE 2 (Midi Sequence...

The MPC2000XL SE2 - Possibly the ugliest MPC ever made.

Hi folks,

If you’re hip hop producer then slicing/chopping samples is your bread and butter (unless you produce for L’il Wayne, in which case brutally destroying the soul of any presets on your synthesiser will be the order of the day).  However, it is often an area of production that is overlooked by beginning producers.  Most of us begin our foray into production by finding loops, looping them and then putting drums on top.  To be honest, while the techniques and skills become more refined and complex – making hip hop music

doesn’t really move too far away from this basic premise.  Learning to chop loops effectively is crucial to advancing beyond this basic stage.

The run-through I’m going to give you can apply to any software or hardware tools you use for beat-making but I’ll generally refer to using the MPC2000XL if necessary.

Firstly, we need to grasp a bit of basic music theory.

Modern Western music overwhelmingly adheres to a 4/4 time signature.  If you listen to a piece of modern pop music, for example, you can count along with it to the beat – 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4.  If the beat is a standard four to the floor rock, disco or dance beat this will follow a kick, snare, kick, snare pattern.  Regardless of where the drum hits fall (or even if there are no drums at all) it should be fairly intuitive to count 1, 2, 3, 4 in time with the music.  If it isn’t intuitive then you may well be listening to a song that follows a different time signature (uncommon in pop, hip hop, dance, dnb etc but much more common in jazz, folk and solo instrumental music).

When sampling, you will generally sample from tracks that follow a 4/4 signature.  There are no rules, of course.  You may sample from songs in any time signature but this is something to be avoided UNTIL you have grasped the basics of chopping samples – otherwise you’re probably going to make your life difficult.

Given that most beginning producers start by layering sampled loops (basslines, keys, drums etc) it is good to get in the habit of continuing to grab loops.  When you chop samples, you might only use a small portion of a loop or a number of loops but beginning with a loop will help you maintain the integrity of your rhythm.  As you become more experienced, you will grab small bits and pieces of loops at odd time signatures as you will be more familiar with the rhythmic progressions that you are seeking.

Once you have your loop, you will want to divide it according to the beats.  If you have one bar, you should be able to count 4 beats, 2 bars will have 8 beats, 4 will have 16 beats etc etc.  You can divide these loops into sections of any length you desire, depending on how complex you want to be in constructing a new progression from the slices.  I tend to divide/chop the loop into half-beat/half-count sections.  If you need a longer section in your progression, you can simply line up two or more successive slices.

On the MPC2000XL, the above process is done by slicing the sample into ZONES.  Each sample can be divided into a maximum of 16 ZONES which are then assigned to separate pads on the MPC to be played in any order and at any tempo you so desire.  In Logic, you could slice a loop into 4, 8, 16, 32 equal length regions and physically rearrange them on a track or create a new EXS sampler instrument from them and use your MIDI controller keyboard to replay them.  Every major beat-making approach will allow for some variation of this method.

So what are the benefits?

1. You will no longer be tied to the same unchanging progression of the original loop. 

Assuming that you are using something like the MPC2000xl which has 96 points per quantize (96 discrete points from which a sample may play per beat), then any 4 bars could have (2.09227899 × 1013) x 1536 possible arrangements of those 16 sections.  That’s a big number.

2. You will no longer be tied to the same tempo.

Sure, you always have the option to pitch/time shift your original loop but the outcome of this is usually pretty bad.  With the new slices, you can arrange them then adjust the tempo (faster) and they will overlap but otherwise retain their original playback pitch and quality.  Alternatively, you can pitch down samples and increase their length to create slower tempo arrangements or pitch up and create faster arrangements.

3.  You can introduce organic shuffle/swing rhythms. 

In a 4/4 rhythm the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th count is called the ‘downbeat’.  The point in between each count is called an ‘upbeat‘.  If you were to count out “1 and a 2 and a 3 and a 4 and a” in time to a loop, the ‘and a’ would fall on the ‘upbeat’.  Swing or shuffle (they are the same thing) is created by moving the upbeat forward or backward in time (called ‘pushing or pulling’).  If we were to use the ‘and a’ example again, the ‘an’ would be about 50% swing the ‘d a’ part would be 60% to 70% swing.

When you adjust the tempo of your arranged progression, you will be pushing the upbeat of each slice (it will fall closer to the next downbeat than in the original sample).  This gives you numerous options for adjusting the groove of a song.

4. You can modify the pitch of individual parts of the sample.

This can be supremely useful when you are trying to change the tone or tension and release of a progression.  Minor chords can be shifted to major chords or you could pitch down the underlying movement of the sample a full octave whilst playing the melodic parts over the top at their ordinary pitch.

In short, by learning the basic 16 part chopping approach you open entirely new avenues for production that straight looping could never provide.



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