The Orchestra of All Things: Sampling Your Environment
Nowadays it’s only mildly surprising to learn that the beat you love was made with a cardboard box and a field recording of a frog. But up until the late 80s, recording household trash with microphones seemed like the business of experimental composers, and field recording was something people with gumboots and research grants did. Club music, hip hop, and cutting-edge pop was made with drum machines or (if you really had your finger on the pulse) breakbeats from classic records.
Since then, sampling has changed everything. Once samplers became cheap enough for bedroom music makers to buy, it was theoretically possible for an amateur producer to make a beat out of a recording of anything at all. Laptops made this more accessible still, and with the advent of the smartphone, all bets were off. Anyone with a phone could make a field recording (a recording made outside of a studio), and anything recorded in the field could be sampled. From this point on, cutting-edge music was as likely to come from a recording of the automatic door out front of your local music retailer as any state-of-the-art gadget you might find inside.
But this change didn’t just alter the future of music production, it also reshaped its past. In the wake of home sampling, all those musique concrète composers and field recordists of the mid-twentieth century seemed to be gathered into the pre-history of sampling. Their efforts to capture and orchestrate the noise of the world seemed, with hindsight, like early expressions of a wish that the sampler would later grant. They started to look, in other words, like pioneers of genres they could scarcely have imagined.
Now, it’s possible for us to scan this shared history of field recording and sampling, and see what we can learn from it as a whole. We can consider the reasons why artists – musique concrète pioneers, rave legends, weird pop icons and bedroom beatmakers alike – have chosen to sample their environment, and find out for ourselves how sampling the sounds around us can add texture, narrative depth, and a personal touch to the music we create. In what follows, you’ll find examples of music makers exploring the sampling/field recording continuum through history, along with some recipes for replicating these artists’ workflows in Ableton’s iOS app, Note.
Make it personal
In the music of Jamaican group Equiknoxx, rhythms are made from tiny slices of life. “Little sounds”, as Gavin ‘Gavsborg’ Blair explained, “you hear a sound and you wonder if that’s somebody putting down a cup or a spliff, or if that was a door closing”. We can hear what he means on ‘Enter a Raffle… Win a Falafel’ from the group’s 2017 release, Colon Man. The track starts with clicking and shuffling noises – small hinges and latches making a beat. After a few bars, a second line starts up, made of what sound like close-mic’d recordings of a laser printer at work, followed by clanking pipes and crying birds. To get these effects, Gav spent a lot of time up ladders recording birds or burrowing into the plumbing in his kitchen with a recorder. He risked the occasional bump on the head in doing so – but these real-world samples were worth chasing because they offered one thing no sample pack or drum machine could offer – a sound of his own. “I didn’t want to use a sample pack that said something like ‘Timbaland Drums’ or ‘Neptunes Drums’”, he explained.
When Gavsborg samples the sound of a pipe in his home in Jamaica he’s recording an unrepeatable event from a vantage point that’s all his own. The same is true of any sound you might sample with Note right now, using the built-in mic in your phone. The column of air passing by your ears at this moment, the sound of your shoes on the stairs, the rattling windowpane, the pipes in your house. What is ‘your sound’ if not this unique perspective? Every sound we sample from our environment carries the unique sonic fingerprint of wherever we are. In other words, it makes it personal.
“I like acoustical spaces”, said composer Alvin Lucier in a 1990 interview. “I mean, if you use a band-pass filter, you’ll have to decide where you’re going to set the center frequency and I have no way of making decisions of that kind.” Even if we don’t struggle with decision-making to the degree that Lucier does, we can still relate to his statement on some level. The choice of things we could do with sound treatment is bewildering.
From this point of view, there’s something neat about the ‘given’ nature of an acoustic sound. You don’t have to design it, it’s just there; with all its messy complexity built in. The effects processing was done for you by the architecture, the weather, the movements of people and objects at that particular moment. It’s nice when you don’t have to do everything.
The unexpected and uncontrollable qualities of a field recording can send a track in a fresh direction, or inspire a totally new piece of work. Manchester duo Space Afrika’s haunted cityscapes are often built from fragments of field recordings. ‘bly’ from the album Somewhere Decent to Live opens with a sample of room tone, heavy on the hiss. As this loops, another sample appears, a woman’s voice speaking over what sounds like a train station’s PA system, all mid-frequency blare and big-room delay.
According to the group’s Joshua Inyang, it’s the baked-in qualities of recordings like these that inspire them to get to work in the first place. “A field recording might have an energy or a story to it that we can work with directly, finding points that create a nice atmosphere” says Inyang, “and that might lead the production.”
Many of the samples used by Space Afrika are recordings of what we might think of as ‘silence’ – the sound of empty urban spaces in which nothing much is happening. Try going outside and recording sixty seconds of sound from a quiet place in your own neighborhood. Share your field recording with Note, and import the same recording onto a few pads in a Drum Sampler. Trim the sample in different ways for each pad, zooming in on random fragments of your recording. Now start playing the pads. What harmonies or melodies are suggested by the sounds you’ve recorded? What mood or feel do they evoke?
Telling Stories with Sound
In 1980, producer Richard Burgess was in charge of programming the Fairlight CMI – an early hardware sampler and production tool – for Kate Bush’s self-produced album Never for Ever. The Fairlight came preloaded with a bunch of sounds – but Kate had no use for any of them. They weren’t bad, they just weren’t hers. “She wanted the sound of a rifle being cocked as part of the percussion track for ‘Army Dreamers’, Burgess recalled. “Her older brother John brought in a massive collection of rifles, all of which were sampled and merged together.” In the finished track, the looped rifle-cock does the work of drums, setting up a creepy death-waltz as the other instruments fall in line.
‘Army Dreamers’ marked an advance from earlier uses of field recordings in pop music like the sound of a traffic jam in the Lovin’ Spoonful’s ‘Summer in the City’, where the sample is there to show us something we’ve already been told about, like an illustration in a book. But with Bush’s song, the sample is both the subject of the tune and the material of its composition, halfway between a cue for us to visualize something and a musical instrument in its own right.
The composer / producer duo of Hildur Gudnadottir and Sam Slater have recently taken this approach to extraordinary heights – creating bespoke sound-worlds in which subject and object become one and the same. For the videogame ‘Battlefield 2042’, the duo composed music by sampling materials that appear in the game-world, evoking a planet wrecked by environmental collapse by building custom instruments from samples of glass, wood, sand and steel. “It’s messy, it’s chaotic, it’s falling apart.” Gudnadottir told MusicTech, “You can’t really have something that’s clean and pristine, the music has to live in the same world as the game. So, it needed to be ugly, messy, and really tangible”.
When Gudnadottir and Slater went to work on their game score, or when Kate Bush sat down to write a song about the delusions of militarism, the story they had to tell suggested a sound-world, and gave them an idea of what to sample. You could give yourself a brief like this – or ask a friend to write one for you. If you had to make music about preparing breakfast, what could you sample right now that would tell this story with sound? Record sounds of the fridge humming, cups and glasses clinking, the kettle boiling directly into Note’s melodic sampler, trimming them to taste. Using the pads, play melodies, counter-melodies and basslines with the instruments you’ve created, and start telling your story with sound.
The sound of space
Gudnadottir’s preference for the messy and tangible is one that many samplers share. When hip hop producer Marley Marl described the game-changing effect of first producing with a sampler in the late 80s, he used similar terms. “I could take any drum sound from any old record, put it in here (in the sampler), and get the old drummer sound on some shit,” he explained. “No more of that dull DMX shit.” What does that “old drummer sound” have that the drum machine doesn’t? It’s the sound of air moving around in space. When the drum hits, the room is activated, and the recording puts us in the room, if only for a split-second.
Golden Age hip hop producers preferred breaks from the 70s. But there’s no reason to stick with classic drums – or even with drums at all. If the sound of moving air is what’s required to add interest to a beat, the stuff in your recycling bin or the play equipment in the park down the street could work just as well. (These inanimate objects are also unlikely to get in touch via their lawyers once your jam becomes a hit).
When Australian producer Ninajirachi drops rocks in the river near her house, and then layers microsamples of the recordings onto her beats, the effect is a little like what happens when we add a classic breakbeat to a synthetic rhythm – some of the mess and noise of the real world has been flown into a digital domain. But with a Marley Marl production like ‘Go On Girl’, we ‘read’ the sound of the drums as drums, whereas in Ninajirarchi’s case, the samples are too tiny and taken too far out of context for us to know what they are (unless we’ve seen her One Thing video). We don’t read the sound samples as the objects that produced them anymore, but we’re not meant to. What’s important is the sense of presence and real-world texture that her sampled field recordings provide, what composer Daniel Terruggi calls “the strong spatial fingerprint” of the place it was recorded.
With Note, it’s easy to explore this approach, and to see how far you can push it. Sample some hits, clicks or thumps from objects around your house, build a drum sampler kit from them, and layer them over some of Note’s pre-loaded kicks and snares. Now trim the decay from your samples until they’re no longer recognizable. As the sound turns abstract, the object disappears. Does the spatial fingerprint remain?
Time Out of Joint
As well as capturing space, environmental samples preserve time: the sampled atmosphere in your hit or pad contains traces of the year, day and second it was recorded. For Jordan ‘Time Cow’ Chung of Equiknoxx, this is what’s great about the accessibility of field recording today; he likes the idea that samplers of urban sound are preserving the city’s history. “Future generations [will] have these things for reference,” he explains. “What a particular street in Jamaica sounds like today might sound different in the next ten years.”
But sampling also disrupts the time continuum, mixing up the past and present like it’s no big deal. Pierre Schaeffer described the samples in his early musique concrète compositions as “pieces of time torn from the cosmos”. Mancunian music pioneer A Guy Called Gerald went further. “With a sample” he wrote in his sleevenote manifesto for Black Secret Technology, “you’ve taken time… you feel like you have turned time around.”
A recording of a drummer playing for eight bars or a handful of rocks being dropped into the water preserves a sequence of events in what we think of as linear time. But if you take that sequence and chop it up, linear time goes out the window, as events from the recording’s future appear earlier than the ones from its past. Try this low-budget time travel for yourself, by making a recording of an object being knocked to the floor. Import the recording into two different pads of a Drum Sampler. Trim one to zoom in on the ‘cause’ (the knock), and the other to play the ‘effect’ (the crash as it hits the floor). Make a beat where the crash is the kick and the knock is the snare. “Time” as a doomed Danish prince once put it, “is out of joint.”
This is Not a Pipe
Sean Galloway makes music as Ave Grave. His 2022 release Field Notes is – as the name suggests – an album of manipulated field recordings and spectral melodies produced entirely in Ableton Note. Galloway, by his own admission, did not see this coming. With a background in bands, he’d never thought of field recording as something for him. “It definitely conjured up images of a lone person with an expensive recording setup and one of those big fluffy… what are those? Out recording some very specific nature sound.”
But after getting a smartphone, the barriers to entry – both financial and conceptual – were suddenly gone. Galloway started making recordings as a way of remembering places he’d rather not forget. Later, he began sampling and manipulating his growing archive of sounds – first with tape, then with Note. His approach to using the app was unorthodox but inspired – after recording long clips of his sampled sounds, and processing them with Note’s effects, Galloway ‘played’ his compositions live using Note’s mixer faders and recorded the output directly from his phone.
As Galloway’s time-fragments started to mix and combine in his music, he discovered that their meanings started to float free from their respective sources. In the moment he recorded it, and in the months that followed, he could confidently say that his recording of a Berlin train station represented a Berlin train station. But the more he started to mess with it as a musical element, the less this seemed to be true. “If you take this thing from eight years ago that has nothing to do with this other thing – recorded at a different time in a totally different place in the world and put them together”, he explains, “it is almost impossible to maintain the relationship between the signifier and the signified.”
Galloway’s insight is a crucial one – sampling liberates recorded sounds from linear time, but it also frees them from the objects that produced them. They turn abstract, or start to sound like something else entirely. When we sample, we learn that what gives a sound its meaning is not its source, but its place in the sequence – not content, but context. If you hit a pipe with a stick, and we watch you doing it, we can say that the sound is “a pipe”. If you record the sound with your phone, and play it for us without telling us where it came from, we’re no longer so sure what it is, but we can say for certain that it’s a hit with a ring and some reverberation. If you sample it in Note, trim the decay, and drop it on the second beat after a kick, our mind is made up – it’s a snare. This sound is no longer a pipe – in a sense, it never was.
This, after all, is the reason why we don’t need to record drums to make drums anymore, and why you’re just as likely to find a beatmaker scrunching a piece of paper, dropping rocks off a pier, or recording a pipe, as hitting skins with sticks. Sampling is the magic trick that turns field recordings into beats or drones – or whatever else we want them to be. Anyone with a smartphone, the Note app, and an open mind becomes a composer for what Galloway calls “the orchestra of all things.”
Text by Craig Schuftan