Zoë Blade's notebook

Personal sample library

A personal sample library is a sample library that you create yourself, to use just for your own music, rather than as something to sell in its own right. Contrast with a commercial sample library.

If you want your music to stand out from the crowd, the most useful sample libraries are those you make yourself, that specifically wouldn't be useful for other people. They can sound a little rough around the edges, but much more interesting.

Making a personal sample library first, then making music with it second, is a type of workflow. Specifically, it's a sample-first workflow, in which you make some sample fodder, then slice it up, whittle it down, and sample it into your sampler's library, then make music with it.

It's a slow process, but it's undertaken in separate, more easily manageable chunks of work, on different days. It's also often tedious, but that tedium's moved to specific days spent organising samples, rather than suddenly frustrating you in the middle of trying to write a track. The sounds themselves can inspire you to make wonderfully idiosyncratic music.


I just love working with sound, shaping it and making sounds that are very personal. That, to me, is a lot of the excitement of being a synthesist. That's also why I work primarily in the analogue realm at this point. Of course, the Emax is a digital sampler, but it has a lot of analogue approaches. It's also very quick and I can react to it spontaneously.

The first thing I did with it was sample sounds I had created on the Xpander. I've been wanting to do that for a long time now. I've created a lot of monophonic sounds using all six voices stacked up that are tuned to these "out there" intervals, but I haven't been able to use them polyphonically. Now I sample them into the Emax and I've got up to eight-note polyphony of a six-note chord, so I've got chords upon chords.

That's one approach that's very exciting to me: taking analogue sounds from the 2600 and all these other instruments and working them up like a paint palette. Then I capture them with the Emax and take them even further. But I'm also very interested in sampling acoustic instruments and then combining these two types of sounds to see how that works.

— Steve Roach, 1987[1]

I've recently started to ask myself how many samples you actually need. Certainly, of loops there is no end, but how many kick drums do you need? A drummer doesn't change his kit every time he plays a different song. You can say this is a different song, I'm going to use different drum sounds, but do you want to say that?

I don't think there's any value in having more sounds than you can get your head around. KRS-One said that for the Criminal Minded samples he went through loads of old funk records and stuff and derived a kit and used that for his whole LP, and a lot of other productions. It's like a drummer having a basic kit — if you've got your basic kit, you can then say "I'm going to put an electro clap on the snare and change the feel of it."

— Matt Black, Coldcut, 1990[2]

One danger of having a full studio in your house is: What do you focus on? I could spend, and have spent, a month just sampling things. So now, when it comes time to pull up a drum bank, it's all cool sounds that I've created, rather than leftovers from things I've used before. We spent a lot of time sampling and processing the sounds through different things. That way, when the actual writing and arranging moment came... when you went to reach for that bank of sounds, they were inspiring, instead of, "Fuck, I'm in the middle of writing a song, but I really should spend a couple of days getting all new Oberheim sounds."

— Trent Reznor, Nine Inch Nails, 1994[3]

We ended up taking a drum kit into about twenty-five different rooms — from sneaking into live rooms at A&M Studios, to bathrooms to living rooms to a garage, to outdoors. We didn't close-mike anything, just put mikes in the same position about the same distance away from the drums, then hit each drum at several velocities and recorded them on a DAT machine. Then we sampled them all in stereo with velocity splitting on the Akai S1100s. I noticed that when you sat down and played those on a keyboard, they sounded exactly the way they sounded in the room: shitty, ringy, you know. When I programmed them, and even when they were perfectly quantised, they didn't sound like a drum machine.

— Trent Reznor, Nine Inch Nails, 1994[3]

We've got a pretty weird collection of instruments at our studio — quite a few cheap guitars and a lot of flutes, percussion, and old foreign instruments. We don't have that much money, so we just pick things up in second-hand shops for pennies. Mike recently picked up an Aeolian harp for £30 that plays itself in the wind. Our studio looks like a junk shop. A lot of the time, we play things quickly on a "real" instrument, get it into the sampler, and then we just destroy the sound. There are a lot of tunes on our records where you think you're listening to a synthetic sound when it's actually an acoustic guitar or voice that we twisted into something unrecognisable. It's a nice idea taking slack organic sounds and regimenting them in an unnatural way with a sampler and a sequencer.

— Marcus Eoin, Boards of Canada, 2002[4]

We made a lot of our percussion sounds by just wandering about with a portable DAT [recorder], denting things with drumsticks. On some tracks, we get people we know to record their voices making weird phonetic sounds. We chop it all up and use the plosive and fricative sounds for percussion and so on. All of the percussion on "An Eagle in Your Mind" was done with my girlfriend's voice.

— Michael Sandison, Boards of Canada, 2002[4]

As I started getting DJ gigs abroad, I was scouring through shops around the world looking for samples and things to use. I was buying up tons of really cheap, crap, sort of car boot sale records and just taking one little drum loop or one little snatch of vocal or one snare drum off them and amassing a huge library of floppy disks, all catalogued into breakbeats at certain speeds, or handclaps, or snares. And realising that I could make tunes completely out of samples, like a collage. On most of the tunes, the 303 and the bassline were the only things that were actually played in a traditional way. The rest of it was gross manipulation of samples.

Fatboy Slim, 2017[5]


  1. "The Sound Art Of Programming" Bob O'Donnell, Music Technology, Sep 1987, pp. 70—72
  2. "What's That Noise?" Tim Goodyer, Music Technology, Aug 1990, pp. 30—34
  3. "Trent Reznor" Greg Rule, Keyboard, Mar 1994
  4. "Northern Exposure" Ken Micallef, Remix, Jul 2002
  5. "Classic Tracks: Fatboy Slim 'Praise You'" Tom Doyle, Sound On Sound, Jan 2017

Sampling: A cappella | Breakbeat | DJ battle tool | Personal sample library | Pingpong loop | Sample CD