27 posts categorized "Recording Hip Hop, Mixing Hip Hop, Mastering Hip Hop"

October 21, 2013

Use Compression as a Friend, Not a Foe

Understanding How to Effectively Use Compression

By CUS and AMIR SAID (SA'ID)

Mixing hip hop/rap music offers its own set of challenges. From rupturing kick drums to rumbling bass lines, hip hop/rap music doesn't always fit neatly into traditional approaches to mixing. Sure, the same sonic tools/effects are in play when mixing hip hop/rap music, just like any other music form. But how these sonic tools are applied and used in hip hop/rap music (or any other music form) can mean the difference between something sounding pleasing to the ear or something outright crummy. And there is no other effect that can make or break this difference than compression.

In hip hop/rap music, where the dynamic range is often a blend of sampled sounds, compression is the most commonly misused sonic tool. So to truly understand how and when to use compression more effectively—that is, not abuse and misuse it—, it is important to first get a working knowledge of what compression actually is and does. Fundamentally, compression is about controlling the dynamic range of an individual track or song in a way that keeps everything contained in the same zone, so to speak. Indeed, a good way to look at compression is to view it as a process of effective containment. What compression does, in a basic control approach, is it pretty much takes any sound and contains it from spilling out of a desired range of sound and color. In this way, compression keeps the most common hip hop/rap music production sounds—high velocity kicks, snares, bass lines, samples—from varying too wide in range; it makes everything stick together like glue.

Further, one of the most basic ideas of compression is to boost up the quieter dynamics in a mix and to simultaneously “squash” (reduce/neutralize) the peaks. The aim of this is to be able to turn up the overall track volume, getting the much sought after bang and punch. For instance, effective compression can increase the presence of a thin bass line, making it sound fat and warm. But the misuse of compression can make that very same bass line sound distorted and out of place—unstuck.

Having understood what compression is it’s good to break down how it works. A typical compressor (hardware or software) has basic parameters through which compression is applied to a sound (signal); they are: Threshold, Input, Ratio, Attack, Release, Input, and Output. Threshold sets the level at which a compressor goes into action; it’s the point at which the compressor starts to work. Think of it as a virtual line of decibels (dB), that once crossed, the compressor goes to work. Likewise, whenever a signal falls below the set threshold, compression stops. Because threshold works in tandem with a compressor's input level, which controls the strength of a signal coming into the compressor, the stronger the signal, the sooner the threshold level is reached.

Ratio represents the level (amount) of compression that will be applied to any signal that exceeds the threshold setting. Any sound signal coming in above the set threshold will be affected in accordance to the ratio setting.

Attack, measured in milliseconds (ms), represents the time that it takes before the compression actually happens, once a sound signal reaches the threshold. The shorter the time, or rather the faster the attack, the quicker and/or more harsh the compression. A quick attack is useful in neutralizing kick peaks, which in turn allows the overall level to be raised. Generally speaking, you want compression to happen as soon as possible. But remember, there are no hard rules on this; the sound and vibe of a track that you’re going for will dictate how you adjust compression settings.

Release, measured in ms, determines how long it takes for a compressor to let go of a signal, once it has dropped below the set threshold. With a longer release time, the compression holds on longer to the signal that it’s applied to. A long release time is especially useful for adding sustain and extended nuance to a signal. A too fast release setting can result in “pumping” (where the compression can be heard). Here, it’s also worth noting that’s it’s a good idea to always have the compressor’s meter set to “GR” (Gain Reduction). This way you’re seeing exactly how much the sound being compressed is cutting back. It is also a good view of how fast/slow the compressor is attacking and/or releasing.

Output represents the overall output level of an applied effect.

Through the brief breakdown of the basic parameters of a typical compressor, it’s easy to see the upside of compression. But there can also be a downside to compression. One common mistake is having the threshold a little bit too harsh and pushing towards the negatives too much, resulting in a sound that is smothered or struggling to get light. Perhaps the best way to tell if something has been compressed too much is by checking the velocity of the sound. That is, if the sound is coming off dull or it’s noticeably losing significant volume, then it has been compressed too much. Though volume does increase some during compression, it should not be the source for controlling volume.

Bottom line:

Because of the unique sonic nature of hip hop/rap music, there are really no magic compression settings for any one sound or group of sounds. Moreover, compression can be used in different ways; you’re only limited by your imagination. Therefore, like many processes of beatmaking and recording/mixing, experimentation and trial and error is a must. In order to find compression settings that work well with your taste and style of production/mixing, you have to try compressing different sounds with different settings, being mindful to avoid those things that flatten and dull your overall sound. And with a good grasp of what compression is and how it works, you’re well on your way to finding your own unique default settings. In the end, that's really the best way to make compression your friend and not your foe.

Some useful compression guidelines:

Begin with short attack and release times, then adjust as needed.

Begin with a 4:1 ratio, then adjust as needed.

Because bass, especially in hip hop/rap music begs to be consistent, think heavier compression on bass sounds.

Compression isn’t just a tool for controlling sound; it can be used to add color as well.

As with any sonic tool, use compression in the ways that help you get that sound and feel that you want.

Avoid using compression simply as a tool to make sounds louder.

*Feel free to leave comments and add your own compression guidelines.

---
The BeatTips Manual by Sa'id.
"The most trusted name in beatmaking and hip hop/rap music education."

February 19, 2013

Use Compression as a Friend, Not a Foe

Understanding How to Effectively Use Compression

By CUS and AMIR SAID (SA'ID)

Mixing hip hop/rap music offers its own set of challenges. From rupturing kick drums to rumbling bass lines, hip hop/rap music doesn't always fit neatly into traditional approaches to mixing. Sure, the same sonic tools/effects are in play when mixing hip hop/rap music, just like any other music form. But how these sonic tools are applied and used in hip hop/rap music (or any other music form) can mean the difference between something sounding pleasing to the ear or something outright crummy. And there is no other effect that can make or break this difference than compression.

In hip hop/rap music, where the dynamic range is often a blend of sampled sounds, compression is the most commonly misused sonic tool. So to truly understand how and when to use compression more effectively—that is, not abuse and misuse it—, it is important to first get a working knowledge of what compression actually is and does. Fundamentally, compression is about controlling the dynamic range of an individual track or song in a way that keeps everything contained in the same zone, so to speak. Indeed, a good way to look at compression is to view it as a process of effective containment. What compression does, in a basic control approach, is it pretty much takes any sound and contains it from spilling out of a desired range of sound and color. In this way, compression keeps the most common hip hop/rap music production sounds—high velocity kicks, snares, bass lines, samples—from varying too wide in range; it makes everything stick together like glue.

Further, one of the most basic ideas of compression is to boost up the quieter dynamics in a mix and to simultaneously “squash” (reduce/neutralize) the peaks. The aim of this is to be able to turn up the overall track volume, getting the much sought after bang and punch. For instance, effective compression can increase the presence of a thin bass line, making it sound fat and warm. But the misuse of compression can make that very same bass line sound distorted and out of place—unstuck.

Having understood what compression is it’s good to break down how it works. A typical compressor (hardware or software) has basic parameters through which compression is applied to a sound (signal); they are: Threshold, Input, Ratio, Attack, Release, Input, and Output. Threshold sets the level at which a compressor goes into action; it’s the point at which the compressor starts to work. Think of it as a virtual line of decibels (dB), that once crossed, the compressor goes to work. Likewise, whenever a signal falls below the set threshold, compression stops. Because threshold works in tandem with a compressor's input level, which controls the strength of a signal coming into the compressor, the stronger the signal, the sooner the threshold level is reached.

Ratio represents the level (amount) of compression that will be applied to any signal that exceeds the threshold setting. Any sound signal coming in above the set threshold will be affected in accordance to the ratio setting.

Attack, measured in milliseconds (ms), represents the time that it takes before the compression actually happens, once a sound signal reaches the threshold. The shorter the time, or rather the faster the attack, the quicker and/or more harsh the compression. A quick attack is useful in neutralizing kick peaks, which in turn allows the overall level to be raised. Generally speaking, you want compression to happen as soon as possible. But remember, there are no hard rules on this; the sound and vibe of a track that you’re going for will dictate how you adjust compression settings.

Release, measured in ms, determines how long it takes for a compressor to let go of a signal, once it has dropped below the set threshold. With a longer release time, the compression holds on longer to the signal that it’s applied to. A long release time is especially useful for adding sustain and extended nuance to a signal. A too fast release setting can result in “pumping” (where the compression can be heard). Here, it’s also worth noting that’s it’s a good idea to always have the compressor’s meter set to “GR” (Gain Reduction). This way you’re seeing exactly how much the sound being compressed is cutting back. It is also a good view of how fast/slow the compressor is attacking and/or releasing.

Output represents the overall output level of an applied effect.

Through the brief breakdown of the basic parameters of a typical compressor, it’s easy to see the upside of compression. But there can also be a downside to compression. One common mistake is having the threshold a little bit too harsh and pushing towards the negatives too much, resulting in a sound that is smothered or struggling to get light. Perhaps the best way to tell if something has been compressed too much is by checking the velocity of the sound. That is, if the sound is coming off dull or it’s noticeably losing significant volume, then it has been compressed too much. Though volume does increase some during compression, it should not be the source for controlling volume.

Bottom line:

Because of the unique sonic nature of hip hop/rap music, there are really no magic compression settings for any one sound or group of sounds. Moreover, compression can be used in different ways; you’re only limited by your imagination. Therefore, like many processes of beatmaking and recording/mixing, experimentation and trial and error is a must. In order to find compression settings that work well with your taste and style of production/mixing, you have to try compressing different sounds with different settings, being mindful to avoid those things that flatten and dull your overall sound. And with a good grasp of what compression is and how it works, you’re well on your way to finding your own unique default settings. In the end, that's really the best way to make compression your friend and not your foe.

Some useful compression guidelines:

Begin with short attack and release times, then adjust as needed.

Begin with a 4:1 ratio, then adjust as needed.

Because bass, especially in hip hop/rap music begs to be consistent, think heavier compression on bass sounds.

Compression isn’t just a tool for controlling sound; it can be used to add color as well.

As with any sonic tool, use compression in the ways that help you get that sound and feel that you want.

Avoid using compression simply as a tool to make sounds louder.

*Feel free to leave comments and add your own compression guidelines.

---
The BeatTips Manual by Sa'id.
"The most trusted name in beatmaking and hip hop/rap music education."

November 19, 2012

Two Mixing Techniques to Help You with Your Overall Drum Sound

Using Side-Chain Compression and Parallel Processing to Get the Drums in Your Beats Just Right

By DAVE WALKER (IMPERIAL)

Drum production in hip hop is about more than selecting the right sounds and putting them in the right places. Having a wide range of mixing techniques at your disposal goes a long way in helping you get that overall drum sound that you’re after.

This article explores two mixing techniques that I often use along with my drum production techniques. These techniques will help give your drums clarity and punch. For example, I used these techniques on my remix of “Tower of Cards” by Mr J Medeiros, which I include below, along with accompanying audio and images to help you understand the processes involved. The images are taken from Logic Pro but the principles apply to any DAW.

Side-Chain Compression

Compression is one of the most commonly used processors, yet it is commonly misused. (You can make or break a track with compression!) Essentially, compression reduces the dynamic range of a signal, making the louder things quieter and the quieter things louder. For further reading on compression and parameters go here: http://www.beattips.com/beattips/recording-mixing-and-mastering/

A compressor begins reducing the volume of a signal when the input source goes above the threshold. The input source is typically the signal you want to compress. However, most compressors have side-chain (sometimes called ‘key’) inputs. A side-chain input allows you to use another channel to control the compressor, as opposed to the channel the compressor is inserted on. Side-chain compression is heard on the vast majority of dance records with a compressor acting on the whole mix, and being controlled by a side-chained kick drum. This ducks (reduces the volume of) the signal of the entire mix when the kick drum plays. To hear this in fully effect listen to Daft Punk’s ‘One More Time’

Low frequency muddiness is always an issue in hip hop. You want to get the most out of your kick drum and bass, without them having to compete against each other for space in the mix. Side-chain compression can be really helpful in cleaning up the low end of your mix and providing that space. A common application is to use a compressor with a side-chain input from your kick drum to duck the bass. This enables the kick to poke through the mix and not be masked by the bass.

First off, add a compressor to your bass channel and select the side-chain input from your kick channel. In Logic the side-chain input is selected in the top right corner of the compressor. To ensure the compressor reduces the signal of the bass quickly, use a fast attack (under 10ms) and set the response to peak level not RMS (average level). The release time is important in deciding how quickly you want the bass to return to its original volume after the kick drum has stopped playing. I have used a quick release time of 9.5ms. By juggling the threshold and ratio the bass signal is reduced by 5dB when the kick plays. This is a subtle amount of gain reduction, but enough to ensure the kick is not masked by the bass. Listen to the examples below to hear the drum and bass mix with and without side-chain compression. Notice how the kick pokes through the mix when side-chain compression is used.

Bass without Side-chain compression: BASS_S-C_CompressionOFF.mp3

Bass with Side-chain compression: BASS_S-C_CompressionON.mp3

Parallel processing

Parallel processing is another technique used to creatively add punch to your drums. It allows you to have a dry (unaffected) signal and a wet (affected) signal playing at the same time. In hip hop, it’s common to utilize parallel compression (also known as NY Compression) on the drum stem (sub group), or even entire mix during the mastering stage. If applied to the drum stem the result is extra power and RMS level without losing the dynamic variation and transient attack of the drum hits. Some producers will also add shelving EQ in conjunction with compression to bring out the low and high frequency content.

Parallel processing isn’t limited to compression. You can use all sorts of processors and effects creatively to blend in with your unprocessed signal. In this remix I have used parallel processing on the drum stem, to compress, distort and EQ the signal. To set this up in Logic Pro, I sent my individual drum channels to a stereo aux channel (labeled ‘Dry Drums’) to create the drum stem. Via a bus send, I have routed the drum stem to another stereo aux channel (labeled ‘Para Drums’) ready for parallel processing (see image above/below/left/right).

The compressor on the parallel processed channel is reducing the dynamic range of the drums by 15dB. This is heavy compression and is used to increase the average level of the drum track. Distortion is then added through Logic’s inbuilt guitar amp simulator ‘Amp Designer’. This is giving the drums the crunchy character needed for the track. Using EQ, I have scooped out 12dB centered around 1.5kHz as the Amp Designer is adding unwanted resonances in the mid-range. The volume fader of the parallel channel is lowered; it isn’t intended to dominate the drum mix, rather add depth, character and reinforce the unprocessed drum stem.

Listen to the examples below to hear the drum stem with and without parallel processing. Notice how the average level is louder and the distortion adds texture, depth and crunch to the drums. This is all achieved without losing the dynamic range and transient attack of the drum hits.

Unprocessed Drums: DRUMS_Parallel_ProcessingOFF.mp3

Parallel Processed Drums: DRUMS_Parallel_ProcessingON.mp3

Like many production techniques, make sure that you understand what you are doing and why you are doing it before you begin, as this will help you achieve better results.

You can listen to the full track in the player below.

Dave Walker (Imperial)
imperialbeats.co.uk

---
The BeatTips Manual by Sa'id.
"The most trusted name in beatmaking and hip hop/rap music education."

April 25, 2012

Are You Using Compression as a Friend or a Foe?

Understanding How to Effectively Use Compression

By CUS and AMIR SAID (SA'ID)

Mixing hip hop/rap music offers its own set of challenges. From rupturing kick drums to rumbling bass lines, hip hop/rap music doesn't always fit neatly into traditional approaches to mixing. Sure, the same sonic tools/effects are in play when mixing hip hop/rap music, just like any other music form. But how these sonic tools are applied and used in hip hop/rap music (or any other music form) can mean the difference between something sounding pleasing to the ear or something outright crummy. And there is no other effect that can make or break this difference than compression.

In hip hop/rap music, where the dynamic range is often a blend of sampled sounds, compression is the most commonly misused sonic tool. So to truly understand how and when to use compression more effectively—that is, not abuse and misuse it—, it is important to first get a working knowledge of what compression actually is and does. Fundamentally, compression is about controlling the dynamic range of an individual track or song in a way that keeps everything contained in the same zone, so to speak. Indeed, a good way to look at compression is to view it as a process of effective containment. What compression does, in a basic control approach, is it pretty much takes any sound and contains it from spilling out of a desired range of sound and color. In this way, compression keeps the most common hip hop/rap music production sounds—high velocity kicks, snares, bass lines, samples—from varying too wide in range; it makes everything stick together like glue.

Further, one of the most basic ideas of compression is to boost up the quieter dynamics in a mix and to simultaneously “squash” (reduce/neutralize) the peaks. The aim of this is to be able to turn up the overall track volume, getting the much sought after bang and punch. For instance, effective compression can increase the presence of a thin bass line, making it sound fat and warm. But the misuse of compression can make that very same bass line sound distorted and out of place—unstuck.

Having understood what compression is it’s good to break down how it works. A typical compressor (hardware or software) has basic parameters through which compression is applied to a sound (signal); they are: Threshold, Input, Ratio, Attack, Release, Input, and Output. Threshold sets the level at which a compressor goes into action; it’s the point at which the compressor starts to work. Think of it as a virtual line of decibels (dB), that once crossed, the compressor goes to work. Likewise, whenever a signal falls below the set threshold, compression stops. Because threshold works in tandem with a compressor's input level, which controls the strength of a signal coming into the compressor, the stronger the signal, the sooner the threshold level is reached.

Ratio represents the level (amount) of compression that will be applied to any signal that exceeds the threshold setting. Any sound signal coming in above the set threshold will be affected in accordance to the ratio setting.

Attack, measured in milliseconds (ms), represents the time that it takes before the compression actually happens, once a sound signal reaches the threshold. The shorter the time, or rather the faster the attack, the quicker and/or more harsh the compression. A quick attack is useful in neutralizing kick peaks, which in turn allows the overall level to be raised. Generally speaking, you want compression to happen as soon as possible. But remember, there are no hard rules on this; the sound and vibe of a track that you’re going for will dictate how you adjust compression settings.

Release, measured in ms, determines how long it takes for a compressor to let go of a signal, once it has dropped below the set threshold. With a longer release time, the compression holds on longer to the signal that it’s applied to. A long release time is especially useful for adding sustain and extended nuance to a signal. A too fast release setting can result in “pumping” (where the compression can be heard). Here, it’s also worth noting that’s it’s a good idea to always have the compressor’s meter set to “GR” (Gain Reduction). This way you’re seeing exactly how much the sound being compressed is cutting back. It is also a good view of how fast/slow the compressor is attacking and/or releasing.

Output represents the overall output level of an applied effect.

Through the brief breakdown of the basic parameters of a typical compressor, it’s easy to see the upside of compression. But there can also be a downside to compression. One common mistake is having the threshold a little bit too harsh and pushing towards the negatives too much, resulting in a sound that is smothered or struggling to get light. Perhaps the best way to tell if something has been compressed too much is by checking the velocity of the sound. That is, if the sound is coming off dull or it’s noticeably losing significant volume, then it has been compressed too much. Though volume does increase some during compression, it should not be the source for controlling volume.

Bottom line:

Because of the unique sonic nature of hip hop/rap music, there are really no magic compression settings for any one sound or group of sounds. Moreover, compression can be used in different ways; you’re only limited by your imagination. Therefore, like many processes of beatmaking and recording/mixing, experimentation and trial and error is a must. In order to find compression settings that work well with your taste and style of production/mixing, you have to try compressing different sounds with different settings, being mindful to avoid those things that flatten and dull your overall sound. And with a good grasp of what compression is and how it works, you’re well on your way to finding your own unique default settings. In the end, that's really the best way to make compression your friend and not your foe.

Some useful compression guidelines:

Begin with short attack and release times, then adjust as needed.

Begin with a 4:1 ratio, then adjust as needed.

Because bass, especially in hip hop/rap music begs to be consistent, think heavier compression on bass sounds.

Compression isn’t just a tool for controlling sound; it can be used to add color as well.

As with any sonic tool, use compression in the ways that help you get that sound and feel that you want.

Avoid using compression simply as a tool to make sounds louder.

*Feel free to leave comments and add your own compression guidelines.

---
The BeatTips Manual by Sa'id.
"The most trusted name in beatmaking and hip hop/rap music education."

January 31, 2012

When You Mix with Headphones, the Key is Translation

Why Mixing with Headphones Sounds Different, and How You Can Still Get a Good Mix Using Them

By ADOAN001, CASTRO BEATS, BRANDONF42088, and AMIR SAID (SA'ID)

Recently, a member of The BeatTips Community (TBC) posted this question:

So when i'm workin on a beat i'm wearing the beats by dre studio headphones, but when i take em off and listen to the beat once it's done it sounds completely different i just realized with this beat i just finished. what could cause that?

Below is the thread exchange, which includes replies from TBC moderators Castro Beats and BrandonF42088 and myself.

Castro Beats:
You're going to have to explain a little more. Do you mean the beat sounds different in another pair of headphones compared to the Beats by Dre headphones or you're listening to it on speakers/monitors in comparison to the Beats by Dre headphones?

And then, what sounds different about it from one to the other, bass response, treble etc

For starters most headphones don't have a flat response, and also make sure you have no odd EQ settings on whatever it is you're playing your music back with.

adoan001:
I make the beats in reason on my iMac with the dre headphones on. I did the mixing with the headphones on and it sounded how i wanted it to. But when i listen 2 it just playin off of my computer the beat sounds nothing like what i was hearing before. I can barely hear the bass, the drums sound weaker, and the whole thing sounds so thin. The problem i'm having i guess is if i'm guna b playin it for people n want em 2 hear it the same way as when i had my headphones on since the sound quality is obv alot higher then the built-in mac speakers, should i just not use the headphone when
doin it.

Castro Beats
There is a philosophy that if you can get a mix to sound good on a bad pair of speakers (NS10) then it will sound good anywhere else.

If there are moves you made in your mix inside Reason that are not translating to what your bouncing it could be because a bypass switch is on, signals have not been properly routed or really a vast amount of other issues. Also make sure that your playback device (windows media player, winamp) isn't using an EQ setting other than flat response, no reverb or other fx that might alter your newly exported mix.

If you're simply saying that the iMac PC speaker doesn't sound as good as dedicated headphones then, albeit an opinion oriented statement, yes most people would agree. To my knowledge the built-in iMac speaker doesn't have the same diameter of the Beats by Dre headphones meaning it cannot match the bass response, not to mention the proximity to your ear is a factor as well. All things being equal, the engineers at Apple design computers, not speakers. If you have actual stand alone PC speakers then that's a different issue. A mix should sound the same everywhere you take it, but I will say that trying to mix/hear bass on built-in computer, and some stand-alone computer speakers, is truly an exercise in futility. Mixing in headphones is considered an art in some circles, so no reason to not mix with them. However, the car seems to be a generally agreed on venue to get an accurate mix as well as comparison to professionally mixed material.

Scram Jones told me to play a Dre record on my speakers/setup, then play my mix/beats. Get a feel for how Dre's mix is and how yours is. When your mix starts to sound like Dre mix, your onto something.

BrandonF42088
The Beats by Dre Studio headphones IMO are high end consumer headphones not really meant for monitoring. The Beats by Dre make music sound really good because of boosted low end for bass and a boosted high end.

The difference between these headphones and say the Sony MDR-7506 for example is the fact that the Sony have a more flat frequency response meaning they are made for an accurate reproduction of the frequency spectrum. This is what you want when you are mixing so you can spot problems in your mix.

I have had this same problem when I was using consumer headphones. I would take off the headphones and listen to my beat somewhere else and it would sound nothing like it did on the headphones. For example: the bass would be lacking and my samples would be sounding very thin and other elements would be obviously too loud etc.

If you are going to be using headphones for your mixes I would recommend something with a very flat frequency response. The Sony MDR-7506 are a standard and they are only 100$ and you will notice a major difference with how your mixes start to translate.
There are plenty of other options out there as well but I would say in the 100$ price range its hard to beat the Sony's.


Here's my reply:
adoan001,

I think this is a simple translation issue. Castro gave a great response, but it might have been a bit overwhelming at first. There's a lot to unpack in it, so be sure to return to it; he drops a lot of jewels in his response....

Like Brandon, yourself, and probably countless others, I've run into this problem before. And, typically, it's simply a "translation" issue. I use a pair of Sony MDR-7506 headphones, so I can attest to their quality and response. However, that being said, even using Beats By Dre headphones, you can train your ear to account for the missing bass.

For example, I once used consumer grade stereo speakers as my monitors. They produced a LOT of low end and very bright highs. So I trained my ear to mix for what wasn't "really" there. It took a lot of A/B mixing and listening across several playback systems, but I was able to figure out how those speakers translated. So regardless of what headphones that you use, always be mindful of how they translate. Listen to a commercial CD that you know in your Beats headphone and on your computer and on any other playback system that you have access to. Take notes on how it resonates, then you'll have a better idea of what to do when mixing your music with headphones and/or monitors.

—Sa'id

---
The BeatTips Manual by Sa'id.
"The most trusted source for information on beatmaking and hip hop/rap music education."

December 15, 2011

Analog Sensibilities, Digital Realities: What Can the Right Signal Flow Do for Your Sound?

The Advantages of Hybrid Tracking and Mixing

By PETE MARRIOTT, BRANDONF42088, and AMIR SAID (SA'ID)

Signal flow is an important part of beatmaking. Yet not all beatmakers invest much thought into the signal chains that they use. Below is a discussion between two BeatTips Community (TBC) members and myself about this particular analog sensibility/digital reality issue.

Pete Marriott

I'm not sure hybrid is the right term but hell I'm using it anyway to describe my practice of using analog gear like my Tascam M-2600 MKII console to track and mix my sounds to and from the computer. I know my mixing desk is not a Neve, API, Harrison, MCI or SSL but I love the sound I get from it because I know how to make it work for me.

I went back to my analog roots because I needed to return to the kind of workflow that makes sense to me. I didn't grow up behind a DAW system, it was something that I progressed to from my early days of cutting tape on a block with a razor blade to do my edits. It was hands on and much easier on my eyes because they weren't glued to a computer screen all day long. I needed to twist knobs and slide faders and push mute and solo buttons and insert patch cables again because clicking the mouse became mundane and it gave me a case of carpel tunnel.

But this not a "I hate digital" post because that is not true at all. I love the power of what I can do in a DAW. I just needed to have a strong sense of what I grew up on and the current technology so I came up with what I call the Hybrid solution to my problem. I don't know if I'm alone in taking this route but it would surely be nice to know if I'm in good company.

BrandonF42088

My signal flow for making beats:

Technics 1200--->Vestax PMC 07--->SoundCraft Folio Rac Pac mixer--->MPC 2000xl/S900/EPS-16--->SoundCraft Folio Rac Pac (post fader direct outputs)--->Digi 003R--->Pro Tools---> From here depending on the track I will bounce out a internal layback and sample rate convert.

Then open it in a new session 44.1K 24bit atempt to master the track add dither and bounce out a 44.1K 16bit PCM file.

I sometimes go out of the digi 003 into a cassette tape recorder and record to a cassette then fromt he tape recorder go back into my mixer then to a stereo track in pro tools and bounce out from there.

I eventually want to get a pro 2 or 4 track reel to reel tape machine and a pro cd burner (these are high on my music production grocery list.)


Sa'id

Pete, Brandon,

You are certainly not alone. Many beatmakers (and other music-makers) use a signal flow similar to the one you describe here. Like the both of you, I certainly appreciate the power and flexibility that a DAW offers. I use Pro Tools, and I can not stress how much it has helped to streamline my recording process, not to mention the fact that it makes it possible for me to record everything from my home studio.

Before I began using Pro Tools, I was locked into a time consuming and rather expansive studio routine. In order to get my beats/songs on to "tape" or to even secure a better quality CD mix, I would have to book studio time, then lug my gear in. In some cases, I was able to rent my setup, which at the time was an Akai MPC 60 II and an Akai S950. But more often than not, I simply brought my MPC and S950 in with me. And while bringing my gear in was one problem, having a reference mix for the engineer was yet another.

In order to get a reference mix in my home studio, I'd have to record my beats straight to CD (and before that to *cassette*). But after DAWs like Pro Tools became more accessible—and more affordable—, I cautiously invested, and soon embraced them as a viable alternative to my old "studio routine." (I suspect in this regard, I'm certainly not alone.)

Today I can't imagine trying to do what I do without Pro Tools, or a comparable DAW. If not for the sheer savings in both time and cost, I've embraced DAWs because of the level of control it grants me over my recording process. And while you might *lose* some of the sonic essence (not noticeable to the average listener) when recording into a computer as opposed to let's say analog tape, I have found—just as you have, and others like DJ Toomp—that I can maintain and simulate that sonic quality (specifically the "umph" and warmth) by tracking through my analog Mackie 32/8 mixing console.

I route all of my gear (external samplers, keyboard, DJ mixer—which absorbs my turntable, CD player, and cassette deck) into my Mackie console. From my Mackie console, I track directly into my Digidesign Digi 002 rackmount interface, which of course, then goes into my computer (Mac G5).

This hybrid approach (I too refer to it that way) allows me to combine and utilize techniques from both the analog and digital realms. In particular, this approach gives me the added advantage of being able to instantly reference the sound that initially comes through my console with the new reality of how Pro Tools "captures" it. In this way, I'm able to mix "in the box" (inside of Pro Tools), in a way that matches—as close as possible—the sonic essence that I'm able to produce through my analog console.

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The BeatTips Manual by Sa'id.
"The most trusted source for information on beatmaking and hip hop/rap music education."

November 22, 2011

Are You Using Compression as a Friend or a Foe?

Understanding How to Effectively Use Compression

By CUS and AMIR SAID (SA'ID)

Mixing hip hop/rap music offers its own set of challenges. From rupturing kick drums to rumbling bass lines, hip hop/rap music doesn't always fit neatly into traditional approaches to mixing. Sure, the same sonic tools/effects are in play when mixing hip hop/rap music, just like any other music form. But how these sonic tools are applied and used in hip hop/rap music (or any other music form) can mean the difference between something sounding pleasing to the ear or something outright crummy. And there is no other effect that can make or break this difference than compression.

In hip hop/rap music, where the dynamic range is often a blend of sampled sounds, compression is the most commonly misused sonic tool. So to truly understand how and when to use compression more effectively—that is, not abuse and misuse it—, it is important to first get a working knowledge of what compression actually is and does. Fundamentally, compression is about controlling the dynamic range of an individual track or song in a way that keeps everything contained in the same zone, so to speak. Indeed, a good way to look at compression is to view it as a process of effective containment. What compression does, in a basic control approach, is it pretty much takes any sound and contains it from spilling out of a desired range of sound and color. In this way, compression keeps the most common hip hop/rap music production sounds—high velocity kicks, snares, bass lines, samples—from varying too wide in range; it makes everything stick together like glue.

Further, one of the most basic ideas of compression is to boost up the quieter dynamics in a mix and to simultaneously “squash” (reduce/neutralize) the peaks. The aim of this is to be able to turn up the overall track volume, getting the much sought after bang and punch. For instance, effective compression can increase the presence of a thin bass line, making it sound fat and warm. But the misuse of compression can make that very same bass line sound distorted and out of place—unstuck.

Having understood what compression is it’s good to break down how it works. A typical compressor (hardware or software) has basic parameters through which compression is applied to a sound (signal); they are: Threshold, Input, Ratio, Attack, Release, Input, and Output. Threshold sets the level at which a compressor goes into action; it’s the point at which the compressor starts to work. Think of it as a virtual line of decibels (dB), that once crossed, the compressor goes to work. Likewise, whenever a signal falls below the set threshold, compression stops. Because threshold works in tandem with a compressor's input level, which controls the strength of a signal coming into the compressor, the stronger the signal, the sooner the threshold level is reached.

Ratio represents the level (amount) of compression that will be applied to any signal that exceeds the threshold setting. Any sound signal coming in above the set threshold will be affected in accordance to the ratio setting.

Attack, measured in milliseconds (ms), represents the time that it takes before the compression actually happens, once a sound signal reaches the threshold. The shorter the time, or rather the faster the attack, the quicker and/or more harsh the compression. A quick attack is useful in neutralizing kick peaks, which in turn allows the overall level to be raised. Generally speaking, you want compression to happen as soon as possible. But remember, there are no hard rules on this; the sound and vibe of a track that you’re going for will dictate how you adjust compression settings.

Release, measured in ms, determines how long it takes for a compressor to let go of a signal, once it has dropped below the set threshold. With a longer release time, the compression holds on longer to the signal that it’s applied to. A long release time is especially useful for adding sustain and extended nuance to a signal. A too fast release setting can result in “pumping” (where the compression can be heard). Here, it’s also worth noting that’s it’s a good idea to always have the compressor’s meter set to “GR” (Gain Reduction). This way you’re seeing exactly how much the sound being compressed is cutting back. It is also a good view of how fast/slow the compressor is attacking and/or releasing.

Output represents the overall output level of an applied effect.

Through the brief breakdown of the basic parameters of a typical compressor, it’s easy to see the upside of compression. But there can also be a downside to compression. One common mistake is having the threshold a little bit too harsh and pushing towards the negatives too much, resulting in a sound that is smothered or struggling to get light. Perhaps the best way to tell if something has been compressed too much is by checking the velocity of the sound. That is, if the sound is coming off dull or it’s noticeably losing significant volume, then it has been compressed too much. Though volume does increase some during compression, it should not be the source for controlling volume.

Bottom line:

Because of the unique sonic nature of hip hop/rap music, there are really no magic compression settings for any one sound or group of sounds. Moreover, compression can be used in different ways; you’re only limited by your imagination. Therefore, like many processes of beatmaking and recording/mixing, experimentation and trial and error is a must. In order to find compression settings that work well with your taste and style of production/mixing, you have to try compressing different sounds with different settings, being mindful to avoid those things that flatten and dull your overall sound. And with a good grasp of what compression is and how it works, you’re well on your way to finding your own unique default settings. In the end, that's really the best way to make compression your friend and not your foe.

Some useful compression guidelines:

Begin with short attack and release times, then adjust as needed.

Begin with a 4:1 ratio, then adjust as needed.

Because bass, especially in hip hop/rap music begs to be consistent, think heavier compression on bass sounds.

Compression isn’t just a tool for controlling sound; it can be used to add color as well.

As with any sonic tool, use compression in the ways that help you get that sound and feel that you want.

Avoid using compression simply as a tool to make sounds louder.

*Feel free to leave comments and add your own compression guidelines.

August 15, 2011

BeatTips Shop Talk: !llmind and the Evolution of His Production Setup

From Time-Consuming Workflow to a Faster Means of Making Beats, for !llmind, the Sensibility Has Always Remained the Same

By !LLMIND, as told to AMIR SAID (SA'ID)

Every week or so, I get together with !llmind, acclaimed beatmaker/producer and BeatTips.com Senior Contributor, for our regular “check-in” discussions. We talk about a lot of things, but of course, the conversations invariably shift to beatmaking. From the nuts and bolts of the craft; to theoretical concepts; to gear and equipment; to the business of beatmaking; to the beatmaking tradition's history, we talk shop about it all.

For this BeatTips Shop Talk, I thought it would be a good idea for !llmind to give a detailed account of the evolution of his production setup. For one thing, there's been some misinformation (and much speculation) about what !llmind actually uses and has used. Also, I believe other beatmakers/producers can always learn from the gear paths and choices of fellow beatmakers/producers. Therefore, what follows is a meticulous portrait of the setup changes !llmind has made throughout the last decade or so. Keep in mind, every piece of gear and software program and subsequent change helped !llmind cultivate his beatmaking skills and his overall style and sound. Finally, although this BeatTips Shop Talk is, on the surface, about !llmind's production setup evolution, it also reveals a lot about his process and willingness to always conduct research (as well as his consistent focus on extending his learning).

BeatTips: List all of the gear and equipment currently in your production studio, along with its significance, and why you have it, and how you use it.
!llmind: OK…So my main piece, I pretty much incorporate everyday when I’m in the studio…well, first the brain of the entire setup is a MacBook Pro, which I carry around with me wherever I go. And basically, I have a MacBook Pro with Pro Tools 8, which I use to sequence, sample, chop, edit; everything is in Pro Tools. All of my sounds are from VSTs and RTAS plug-ins, a lot of that stuff is from Native Instruments-based; you know, Komplete 7, Kontakt 4. Then I have XLN Audio’s Addictive Drums and a basic Oxygen 49 MIDI keyboard (semi-weighted) that I use. A pair of Sure SRH940 monitor headphones that I use a lot, especially when I’m on the road. And my home monitors are KRK Rokit 5’s, and I have a JBL sub-bass, 12” sub-bass. These are the tools that I use everyday. All of my sounds are literally on a hard drive. So I have just hundreds of gigabytes of sound files and patches and instruments. But then I also play a little bit of guitar and bass. Also, I have an Ensoniq ASR-10, which has been my main piece for the past, I’d say, 12 years now.

The ASR-10 is kind of where it all started. It was there in the beginning when I first kind of started to make beats. I learned a lot from using it. And it’s just one of those things, you know, that I just thought about a few times…I thought about possibly selling it, you know, or putting it into storage. But it just has this nostalgia to it. I have this J-Dilla sticker on my ASR-10. It’s been there for a while. It’s just one of things that I don’t want to get rid of, ever. So it’s sitting there [in plain site, actually a level below the Oxygen, easily accessible] collecting dust. But at the same time, it’s there. Just looking at it pushes me forward.

BeatTips: So what was your very first production setup?
!llmind: That’s funny. My first, first production setup, if you go back to when I was 13, the first keyboard that I actually learned how to make beats on was a Roland KR4500. Now, this is a keyboard, if you go to Google and look it up, it’s one of those “home”, MIDI electronic keyboards. And back then, I remember my pops said he bought for like $7,000.00, something crazy. And it’s just this big thing, it’s really heavy. And that’s how much those keyboards used to cost back then. So that was the first piece that I used where I actually learned how to use MIDI. And I didn’t know that I was doing it. You know, it was just kind of this keyboard that had a sequencer and a bunch of sounds; and I remember I just used to program beats for fun. I was 13. So I was playing video games and making beats. That’s what I did with my free time.

BeatTips: So at 13, you were already into hip hop?
!llmind: I was already into it; well, I was into music. I wouldn’t necessarily say hip hop. I was just into music, you know. My father was a musician, so he introduced me to music when I was real young. He played guitar, he had keyboards and drums and stuff. That particular keyboard was one of the instruments that I started on. So fast forward to around high school, freshman/sophomore in high school, that’s when I really, really, really started getting into hip hop. I remember early days, I was into…that’s when Tribe Called Quest was out. That was early Roots. Rakim. Pete Rock and CL Smooth. Black Sheep. Arrested Development. Those was my golden years. So getting into hip hop in that way, the first piece of equipment that I actually bought with my own money was a sampler by Akai, an Akai S20, which I still have. The Akai S20 is kind of like a toned-down MPC. It came out before the MP; it’s got 12 pads on it, real dingy plastic pads. But the sampling on it was really great, ‘cuz back then I was into sampling with lower bit rates and things like that. I started to do my research on what Pete Rock and DJ Premier were using and things like that, and back then I couldn’t afford an MPC. So I got an Akai S20…I got it on eBay for like $200. So I got the S20, and I had a PC at that time, and I downloaded Cubase.

So my first official setup was Cubase, on a PC, MIDI output triggering the S20. And I figured it all out myself. I was like, ‘How can I trigger this stuff?’ So I went online and I did a little bit of research on how to trigger this thing and how MIDI worked. So I was doing research on different software music programs out there. Back then it was Cakewalk, Cubase, infant stages. So I found out about Cubase, got my hands on it, downloaded it, installed it, and somehow I figured out how to trigger this S20 with Cubase. That was actually like my first real setup. And then from there, I got a Korg Triton.

BeatTips: What made you switch?
!llmind: Um, I think I just wanted more sounds. Back then I was really into the J-Dilla/Pete Rock sound. Like those guys were the ones who really inspired me, they still inspire me. I wanted to expand my setup. Like I always knew, ‘Oh, I need sounds.’ I used to go diggin’ all the time, and I would sample drums and chop drums, and that was one big, huge part of my beatmaking. And I was just always fascinated with sounds, too, like, ‘I want sounds; I want keyboard sounds.’ So I went out and got a Triton.

BeatTips: Do you look at the Triton as a setup switch or as an add-on?
!llmind: Um…I kind of actually looked at it as an upgrade, because on the Triton you can sample and you have sounds, and it’s all in one keyboard. It’s got the floppy disk drive. So it was an upgrade for me.

BeatTips: So was it a long time before you completely stopped using the S20, or did you use it for a while together?
!llmind: I used it for a while. I kept the S20 because I loved the way the drums sound on it. So I would always run my drums into the S20 first, and then run them into the Triton.

BeatTips: When you ran them into the Triton, you sampled them in?
!llmind: I sampled them in. I would have my turntable output routed into my S20 first. And then I would sample a bunch of drums. And then I would bit crunch in the S20; I think it was like 16bit crunched down to like 12bit. And then from there, I would take those drums and sample them into the Triton. Because in the Triton, supposedly that Triton had a digital sampler, so it would pretty much just duplicate the sound, but I still wanted that grit, so I would run everything, especially my drums, through the S20 first.

BeatTips: Then how did you get it into the Triton exactly? Would you just press playback on the S20?
!llmind: Yes, press playback, then sample it into the Triton. So I used the Triton for a while, then in 2001 (I believe, maybe 2000) I copped the ASR-10.

BeatTips: And what lead you to that [the ASR-10]
!llmind: I went to Guitar Center to buy a Motif Rack, which I bought that day, and I was messing around, I was looking in the keyboard section and I saw an ASR-10 there for $500. So I scrounded up my last dollars, whatever dollars I had, to buy it. And I bought it, because I had just heard so many storeis about the ASR-10. A few of these others producers that I knew told me how great it was. Then I found out that the RZA used it, so I was really interested in it. So I looked at it like an advanced S20. Like this is a sampler that samples at a lower bit rate, which I liked. It had a really analog, warm sound to it. And it was a keyboard. AND you could sample a lot longer than the S20.

BeatTips: So what sort of effect did it the ASR-10 have on you?
!llmind: I think the ASR-10 brought me back to the gritty approach of making tracks. When I had the Triton, it was a lot of keyboard stuff. Not as much sampling, more keyboard. But the few years that I used the Triton really taught me how to…it kind of polished me a little bit more, as far as making beats from scratch. So I got the ASR-10; the Triton got dusty—eventually I got rid of it. So now I got this ASR-10 and I’m back to doing the sampling, sample chopping, sampling piano sounds into it and playing them out on the ASR-10.

BeatTips: Because the ASR-10 has no sounds in it. A lot of people didn’t realize that it didn’t come with sounds, and they got a rude awakening when they got it.
!llmind: No, it didn’t. To me it was the best of both worlds, because I could sample my own sounds and then play them out on the keyboard, which I wasn’t able to do on the S20. So I was on the ASR-10 for a while. Eventually, I upgraded to a Mac; it was like a G4. And I think around ’03 was when I got Pro Tools. And I started to learn how to use Pro Tools. So the ASR-10 and Pro Tools was like my setup. So I would I sample and create beats on the ASR-10, then I would dump [track/record] them in Pro Tools. So I’ve been sequencing and arranging and dumping my beats into Pro Tools since around ’03. So late last year I decided that I needed to upgrade again. And it wasn’t one of those things where like, ‘Aw, man, I feel like I have to.’ It sort of kind of happen. I got a G5 last year, and I was using Reason and Pro Tools, and still the ASR-10.

BeatTips: What were you using Reason for?
!llmind: Sounds! What I would do is play stuff out on a MIDI keyboard, on Reason, but then audio out from the computer into the ASR-10. So I would still sample into the ASR-10, but the sounds were coming from Reason. So that was like kind of…my setup was pretty much hardware and software together.

BeatTips: Right, the hybrid.
!llmind: Yes. I was sequencing in hardware but my sounds were in software, which is kind of a weird setup, but that was my setup for a long time. So then kind of keeping up with technology, I just decided to go and look for more sounds and see what else is out there. So I knew that I needed to get a better computer. I knew that I needed to try and figure out a way to be more…I wanted my setup to be more effective, as far as cutting time to what I’m doing, you know. When you work with the ASR-10, you have to create the beat on it, and then you have to dump each track one by one and mix. I wanted to cut my time.

BeatTips: Stay right there for a moment. Contrast the workflow of the ASR-10 to the Triton to where you are now.
!llmind: OK. With the ASR-10/Pro Tools setup, everything was done on the ASR-10. I would start with sampling drums, you know, from a record or a CD; I had CDs where I compiled a lot of drums. So I would make the beat in the ASR-10—sample, chop, do the normal stuff. If I needed keys, I would load up Reason on Pro Tools and I would play certain riffs and then sample those riffs into the ASR-10 and treat those like samples. So in a way, I was playing keyboards, you know, keyboard sounds and things, but I would treat them like samples still. Let’s say I had a piano riff of like 2 bars. I would play it and then I’d sample it into a single key.

BeatTips: And what were you using to play Reason?
!llmind: A basic MIDI keyboard. So I would sample my own playing into the ASR-10. After the beat would be done—meanwhile, I’m doing all of this in mono, everything was in mono because it doubled my sample time in the ASR-10. So after the beat’s completely done, I would track each instrument, individually, in 8 bars, into Pro Tools. So that alone took me an additional half hour. If I had 18 different instruments, I would have to record each instrument, one by one, into Pro Tools. Then after all the tracks are in Pro Tools, I’d have to go into Pro Tools and line it all up. So I would line them all up into the grid. Then another kicker is, a lot of people don’t know that the ASR-10 grid is slightly different than the Pro Tools grid. So if my BPM on the ASR-10 is set for 90, and then I set Pro Tools for 90, they won’t match. It’s slightly off. So I couldn’t work in the grid in Pro Tools. Which is a huge inconvenience. So I what I would do is record a click track into Pro Tools for, let’s say, 8 bars. And then I would use the clicks as my visual points to where I would have to line everything up. So it’s kind of like I make the beat, then I deconstruct it, and then put it back together again. And that took me an extra 30 to 45 minutes.

And I’ve always been one of those producers where I always love to mix my tracks, too. Some producers 2-track and call it a day. But I think mixing is another art form. Mixing is a part of the creative process. So I would spend even more time, after dumping into Pro Tools, I would spend even more time mixing the beat. And after it was all said and done, it was [just] one beat made. And I remember I used to just keep banging them out all day, early morning to late night. So that was my workflow. It sounds…when you think about it, it sounds like it’s so much, but I’ve been doing it that way for so long, and I’ve been so comfortable doing it that way. That was my workflow. And so with just that, and then also the fact that I wanted to kind of just broaden my sound and explore. I wanted to continue my full heights of expression. I knew that were some limitations having that kind of setup. So working with certain artists, that really kind of opened my mind. Working with artists like Jared Evan—Jared Evan is an artists signed to Interscope, who’s a rapper, a singer, a producer, and a musician. Approaching things as a true musician really led me to want to expand my setup, get a more effective setup. And also my band, Smokey Robotic, meeting those guys really opened up my mind, too.

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The BeatTips Manual by Sa'id.
"The most trusted source for information on beatmaking and hip hop/rap music education."

July 06, 2011

BeatTips MusicStudy: Traffic's "Glad" Taught Me How To Shuffle

Lessons From One Of Progressive Rock's Most Engaging Bands

By AMIR SAID (SA'ID)

Beatmaking, the chief compositional method of hip hop/rap music, allows for one to pull from a wide variety of musical forms (and sources) for instruction. For instance, progressive rock has always been a mainstay influence in my style and approach. And no other progressive rock band—other than Led Zeppelin of course—has had a direct hand in how I construct drum frameworks, and subsequently, my sense of time, more than the group Traffic.

Here, in their song "Glad," listen to the percussion hats that strike with suspenseful urgency on the quarter notes. And see if you can make out where the kick "hits" on the up-tempo sections of the overall arrangement. Then around the 5:00 mark, the arrangement dives into a slow, milky smooth bluesy-funk jam session that drummer Jim Capaldie laces delicately, with the sense and craftsmanship of a cat burglar. Indeed, there have been few songs that have shown me how to incorporate—and more importantly, account for—the "shuffle" element in music, while at the same time helped me improve my sense of timing.

The music and video below is presented here for the purpose of scholarship.

Traffic - "Glad" (from the John Barleycorn Must Die album)

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The BeatTips Manual by Sa'id.
"The most trusted source for information on beatmaking and hip hop/rap music education."

June 28, 2011

5th Seal Vlog #7

Brooklyn Beatsmith 5th Seal Drops His Latest Beat Vlog

For vlog #7, 5th Seal raids the infamous (and well-tread) dig spot A-1 Records in New York City (and runs into one of the greatest ever on the beats). As per his other installments, he offers a glimpse of the making of one of his beat gems. 5th Seal is a friend, so I'm happy that he's gaining a new level recognition.

The video below is presented here for the purpose of scholarship

5th Seal Vlog #7

5th Seal Vlog #7 from 5th Seal on Vimeo.

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The BeatTips Manual by Sa'id.
"The most trusted source for information on beatmaking and hip hop/rap music education."

Dedicated to exploring the art of beatmaking in all of its glory.

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    "Sampling is piracy."
    WRONG! Piracy describes the wholesale, verbatim copying and distribution of copyrighted works. That is not sampling; that's something entirely different.
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    WRONG! Under existing copyright law, there is no clear, predetermined length (amount in seconds) that is “legally” permissible to sample.
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