Turn unused track ideas into inspiring new instruments

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In this Weekend Workshop, we’ll demonstrate a handy and surprisingly fun technique in which we load entire tracks into a sampler and turn them into wild, almost random ‘instruments’ which we can then play and program to create new track ideas.

The great thing about this process is that it requires very little thought. It’s really more about chucking in some source material, hitting the keys almost at random (although hopefully with a tiny bit of thought), then seeing whether the results spark a new creative idea.

For a chance to win an Audio-Technica AT2035-Studio bundle (worth £269) share your creations in the MusicTech Creator Community Facebook Group. Find all the instructions here.

What you’ll need:

  • A DAW with a built-in sampler capable of slicing audio (pretty much every DAW has this feature, so if you’re not sure how to do this, check the manual for info on slicing by transient or creating sampler instruments from audio clips).
  • Source material in the form of complete tracks, either your own creations or commercial releases (we’ll discuss the legal side of using commercial releases below).
  • A MIDI keyboard or pad controller is useful, but isn’t essential (we’ve used Logic’s Keyboard Typing option to bash in all our patterns on a laptop keyboard).

1. Find a suitable track

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To get started, we need to pick a track and load it into the sampler in our DAW. Genre and style don’t matter so much as the textures and timbres of instruments, drums and voices in the track. We’ve gone for an old demo which was an attempt to create a slightly moody 80s-style R&B but got abandoned because it didn’t really go anywhere. It’s unmixed, incomplete and frankly a bit ropy, but it’s got some interesting sounds that might work well.

Weekend Workshop 15 May Step 1

We start by dropping it into an audio track in Logic. Note that we’ve already loaded the template that we created from our previous Weekend Workshop, so we’ve got some basic mix bus processing in place.

Weekend Workshop 15 May Step 2

2. Slice it up

The next step is to slice our file up so we can turn it into a sampler instrument. In Logic, as shown here, we Ctrl-click the region and choose Convert to New Sampler Track, then select Create Zones from Transient Markers and set the Trigger Note Range to the maximum (which just gives us as many slices as possible).

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Weekend Workshop 15 May Step 3

Most DAWs will do a good enough job automatically analysing transients to slice the audio, but you can usually adjust them manually if necessary. Give the automatic mode a try first and see if it’s good enough.

Weekend Workshop 15 May Step 4

In the brand new Logic Pro 10.5 update, you can alternatively use the Quick Sampler instrument. Drag and drop the source audio file into the sampler and slice by transient for playback on a MIDI keyboard.

Weekend Workshop 15 May Step 5
Logic 10.5’s brand new Quick Sampler instrument makes this process a breeze

The result? Hundreds of random little snippets of sound, sliced perfectly and loaded into a new sampler instrument, ready to play. Each slice is assigned to a separate MIDI note, meaning you should automatically be able to play the slices using a keyboard, pad controller or your DAW’s keyboard typing function. A proper MIDI controller gives you a bit more control seeing as the sampler instrument will usually respond automatically to velocity information, but it’s not strictly essential.

Weekend Workshop 15 May Step 6
Most DAWs have a similar process that splits up an audio file across the keyboard

The nice thing about this process is that you never really quite know how the sampler is going to slice your track and what you’re going to get out. It’s a bit like feeding your source material into a big mad machine that chews it all up and spits out inspiration.

Sometimes you’ll end up with tiny snippets of sound that encourage you to go down a techy, glitchy route. Other times you’ll get big slices of pads and chords that encourage a completely different sound. The results can be reinterpreted in any style you like (although hip-hop, house and D’n’B are obvious sample-based routes to go down).

As a side note, if you’ve just updated to Logic 10.5, you can quickly change the number of slices in your audio. Drag a sample into Quick Sampler and select Slice from the top left corner. Then, set the mode to Transient and adjust the sensitivity. Voila! Lower values equal fewer, longer audio slices.

Weekend Workshop 15 May Step 7

3. Find the drums

Drums are often a good starting point. If you’ve got an open drum break in your source track, somewhere on your keyboard you should now be able to find neatly sliced one-shot drum samples to play with. However, what’s more common is that you’ll have drum hits that also contain other instruments. In most cases that would be a bad thing, but here we’re dealing with sounds that should already work harmoniously together. If you find yourself with, say, a kick drum that has a shaker over the top and a bit of the decay tail of a bass guitar, treat that as one sound. It’s effectively a layered kick with character from the shaker and harmonic body from the bass.

In our case, there weren’t many individual drum hits to speak of, but we have some interesting percussive sounds with a fair bit of melodic content layered on top:

Putting a few together, it’s probably a bit too busy:

But by dialling back the decay setting in the sampler and adding a bit of reverb and compression we can create something interesting:

4. Look for melodic moments

The drums might not be the best starting point in this case, so let’s have a play with some of the melodic sounds from the vocal synth sound in the original track. These have potential as a melody:

Which works quite nicely with a quick delay:

Because your original track was (hopefully) all in the same key and all the instruments were in tune with each other, you’ll find that lots of different slices will naturally fit together without any thought. It turns out to be really easy to play notes from the same scale, without having to worry about any harmonic clashes. In our case, just mashing the keyboard gives us some interesting combinations of melodic sounds:

And some good percussive hits:

5. Don’t get lost in processing… yet

We’re deliberately going rough and ready here, and we won’t even bother processing that part at all. Yes, you can come back and EQ things, compress them nicely or trim samples to perfection later, but let’s not worry about that at this point. The beauty of this process is that it’s a quick way to hash out demos of new ideas, almost on autopilot. Worrying about the details interrupts that flow state. Besides which, your source material is probably already mixed to some extent (even more so if you used a fully mastered commercial release), so you might be surprised how easily things gel with a few level adjustments.

Weekend Workshop 15 May Step 8

6. Add more tracks

Not all tracks will produce usable results for every part of your new idea. It’s an interesting challenge to create something without any new sounds whatsoever, but you don’t have to make life hard for yourself. In our case, a synth bass and a few extra drum sounds help tame things a little bit, rounding out the sonic palette. Put it all together, and we get the basis of a quick and dirty demo:

7. Try again

In around half an hour from start to finish, we’ve thrashed out a rough idea based on our original abandoned demo. This isn’t by any means a finished track, but it gives us a new demo that we can refine further. If nothing emerges from the process, you can try again with different source material. The results can vary massively depending on what you feed into your sampler, so don’t be disheartened if you don’t strike gold on the first attempt.
The beauty of this approach is that you have a choice of options now.

Do you want to continue refining the demo project that you’ve created or use it as an old-school demo version, which you’ll now recreate using better quality sounds and with a bit more attention paid to mixing and polishing? Maybe one of the melodies you’ve created would work well as the basis for a new song based on completely different sounds? Perhaps you now feel that you’re inspired to do a more traditional remix of the original track?

8. Using commercial tracks

If you’ve used a commercial track as the basis for your project, be aware that it’s perfectly legal to use samples for your own creative work, but you may need to be a bit more careful if you want to share what you make. The usual copyright laws apply here. A benefit of this approach is that you can often get away with building a track around your commercial samples and then removing them while keeping most of the vibe intact.

If you don’t want to remix your own tracks but also want to avoid copyright infringement, you could try using the excellent Library of Congress Citizen DJ remixing tool.

Perhaps above all else, the best thing about this simple but effective technique is that it can be used in so many different ways, whether breaking through a creative block, recycling old abandoned ideas, beginning work on a remix or just a good old-fashioned weekend project.

Share your results in the new MusicTech Creator Community Facebook Group for a chance to win an Audio-Technica studio bundle. We’d love to hear what you come up with.

Don’t forget to check out our past Weekend Workshops as well, and look out for more in the coming weeks.

If you’re looking for more inspiration, you can find more MusicTech tutorials here.

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