Since its inception, hip-hop has from the past, sampling beats or hooks from old records as inspiration for new pieces. We've all heard the warnings against


Check out this before and after example of a sample interpolation done my producer/engineer Ken Lewis, who's quoted in the article.

This clip is from a copyrighted, previously release work that a hip-hop group working with Lewis wanted to use.

Here is Lewis' interpolation of the original. You can hear how similar it sounds, yet Lewis changed the arrangement enough to differentiate it. The artist eventually decided not to interpolate the original, so this clip was never released comercially.

Since its inception, hip-hop has “borrowed” from the past, sampling beats or hooks from old records as inspiration for new pieces. We've all heard the warnings against incorporating samples into your own work without first getting them cleared by the original rights owners. If the mass appeal of your track hinges around one or more samples, you must clear both mechanical and publishing licenses for each sample and subsequently pay their respective royalties. Unfortunately, the exorbitant costs (often five-digit figures or more) and legal hurdles have meant that independent artists do not clear samples much anymore. Many continue to sample with blinders on, tempting legal fate. The truth is, you're shooting yourself in the foot trying to market a record today containing uncleared samples. There's really no excuse; alternatives do exist.


As one alternative to uncleared sampling, “sample re-creation” (aka sample replay, or “replays”) aims to mimic every instrumental and perhaps vocal elements of a sample, part-for-part, down to the subtlest characteristics and nuances of the original recording. In essence, you create a new version of the classic sample that you can use without fear of infringing upon the copyright in the original recording and without paying clearance fees.

Whether you use a cleared original or a re-created version, you're still on the hook for publishing royalties and have to arrange a suitable deal with the publisher for publishing splits between you and the original writer. Re-creating a sample only circumvents mechanical copyright issues (master use rights), not publishing. So it's crucial to have publishing clearance in place before investing time and money on sample replays. If you want to avoid the costs and delays of obtaining both mechanical and publishing clearance, then your second option is known as “sample interpolation.”

That means using an original composition as the blueprint for a fresh piece of music made from scratch but heavily influenced sonically by the original. The result reminds you of the original but isn't a spot-on replay. Recent car commercials have used knock-offs (interpolations) of U2's “Vertigo” or Coldplay's “Clocks.“

Naturally, because it skirts around melodic infringement, sample interpolation is the chosen process when an artist or label not only has trouble getting the mechanicals licensed from the original master owner but also cannot successfully settle a publishing deal either.

Due to the growing popularity of sample re-creation, an increasing number of commercial sample-replay entities provide the painstaking service that comes with a fairly substantial price tag. Both Ryan West and Ken Lewis, independent producer/engineers in New York City, have made it part of their business to re-create unclearable samples for some of the biggest names in hip-hop. Remix tapped into their domes to get pointers on how, with a bit of determination and commitment, you can hit the Record button on your own replays.


Building a replay from scratch to sound as though it was lifted from a classic track requires lots of advance planning. Replay producers audition samples over and over, listening intently for tones and individual sonic characteristics of all the main and supplemental instruments, their spatial placement, melodies, chord progressions, technical details of the original recording and the overall vibe. They take many notes to literally chart out the plan of attack with an outline of what resources are required.

“There are a lot of factors to consider when starting a replay,” West says. “Most important is breaking down all the elements that went into the sample. You have to decide which element of the original needs to come through in the re-creation and which ones support it.”

In other words, your goal could be a spot-on re-creation or to pull out only specific instrument parts that will add familiarity and incorporate the spirit of the original into your tune. Either way, the musical genre and scope of production on the original will dictate whether you can work entirely in the box using soft synths and samplers, or book some session players.

“If the original is an 8-bar sample with a strong horn section blaring over a rock or soul rhythm section,” West says, “you're going to have to find some great horn players who can cover the part. You can't fake horns.” A sample replay must be done authentically, or it's best not to do at all. “If the track has a big, live drum sound and a lush piano part that anchors the underlying melody,” West continues, “there's no way in hell you're going to get away with using a [Korg] Triton or any other keyboard.”

See the Beat Dissection sidebar for the checklist West uses when analyzing a detailed sample for the first time. While engineering experience helps tremendously to hear the subtle elements that give the track its vibe, West notes that researching and applying a combination of your checklist findings can help get the timbre, energy and sonics of a replay at least closer to the original.

Read more of the Remix article on sample replays and interpolations

West admits that this kind of reverence for detail can be a financial drain, even to a major-label budget, but suggests that calling on favors from bandmates, friends or competent local talent to lay tracks in your home studio is better than hacking together mediocre MIDI parts. The theory goes that if the original sample was played by humans, then you should use live playing as much as possible, filling in the gaps with world-class sampled virtual instruments when necessary.

See the Beat Dissection sidebar for the checklist West uses when analyzing a detailed sample for the first time. While engineering experience helps tremendously to hear the subtle elements that give the track its vibe, West notes that researching and applying a combination of your checklist findings can help get the timbre, energy and sonics of a replay at least closer to the original.

Don't get so caught up in being so faithful to the original that you lose grip of your own artistic vision. On Fabolous' “Return of the Hustle,” the orchestral replay that West, Just Blaze and conductor/arranger Rob Mathes put together was far more complex and nuanced than the sample Blaze had originally referenced. While formulating alternative arrangements and interpolations, they found that the new tracks were developing a similar but more enhanced vibe than the original. Focused on getting the vibe right — yet open to improvements — they ran with it, using the replay as a process to create something bigger and better while referencing the original for similarities they wanted.


Lewis says that re-creating a sample is like peeling back layers of an onion. As your ears lock in to the music, they dig deeper into sonic layers you may not be immediately recognize yet play a part in making up the whole sound. “Many A&R guys tell me, ‘It's just a guitar and a flute that I need you to re-create,''” Lewis says. “Then I listen, and its actually two guitars, flute, Rhodes, bass, tambourine and maybe three other things. The ear initially locks in to the guitar and flute because they are the main elements, but the layers of sound reveal themselves in time.”

Finding the key of the original and using it as a guideline to what notes will fit in your song is particularly important if you're performing a replay. Also, you'll almost always be changing the tempo of the original to match the sampled version you used during songwriting. If you're recording live musicians as part of the re-creation, working with the original sample before it was altered makes the replay easier than trying to replay the pitched-up or sped-up loop; tuning live instruments can be pretty tough if the sample has been pitched. After the replay is done in the original tempo and key, you can match the speed and pitch to your song in software.

“As an effect, I often re-create a sped-up sample at its original tempo and pitch, then speed it up to match the sampled version, which also gives it that ‘stretched'' sound,” Lewis says. “For example, if there's a voice singing a C note in a sample that's been sped up 300 cents, that represents an A note in the original recording. But if I had a vocalist sing a C note in the replay, I couldn't get that sped-up effect. So I build the replay at original speed, have 'em sing an A note and then speed it back up to retain the quality of the original sped-up sample.”

A lot of times sample is not a clean loop but rather a chopped sound that's been cut in the middle of a decay. If you're re-creating that, go back to the original record and listen to the piece just before the sample's starting point. If you cut just after a big snare hit for example, you may have caught the reverb trail of the snare but not the snare itself. You'll have to re-create the piece before the chopped segment as well, making sure you get the decay correct, so when you chop it, the replay's snare reverb trail sounds like that in the sample.

“Whatever you do, don't quantize,” Lewis warns. “If you're re-creating a sample from a record with all live instruments, like an old soul record or an orchestral piece, that drummer might have played to a click track, but he wasn't a machine. Part of the feel of a sample is the push and pull of where the instruments fall. The bass might be slightly ahead of the drums on a couple notes and slightly behind on others. The drummer might hit the snare on beat 4 a hair late, which gives the sample a unique feel. If you quantize the new drums and instruments, you'll ruin the feel of what you're trying to re-create.”

Most of all, have patience. “I have often recut a guitar or bass part three or four times until I got it right, sound- and pitch-wise,” Lewis says. “And that's after spending hours to dial in the sound. Often a sound doesn't stretch the way I think it will, so I have to go back and replay or re-EQ a part based on how it sounds when the whole replay is stretched. It's an educated guessing game sometimes.”


Continue to sculpt the replay by trying different compressors, equalizers and effects on the individual instruments, buses and master fader. With the plug-ins available today, you can closely mimic virtually any console or effect chain by applying West's checklist. If you're working with an American '70s soul sample, try using popular gear from then, such as a Universal Audio LA-2A compressor and Neve 1073 EQ on the bass, or a vintage EMT-140 plate reverb on the vocals.

The esoteric components often make the difference in producing a convincing replay. To put a modern-day instrument into a time machine, DUY DaD Valve emulates the common tube types (triode, tetrode and pentode) with a full range of biasing and operating levels.

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Working primarily in Pro Tools, West says he's constantly challenged to re-create the old-school analog warmth of a tape recording in his replays. His plug-in of choice is Massey TapeHead for its subtle tape saturation algorithm that sounds good on anything, especially drum overhead mic buses and parallel mixing of snare to make the kit sound fuller. “I use it to give me that low-end bump, subtle dullness and coloration that a 2-inch machine might add,” West says. “Leave plenty of headroom when recording; the majority of older recordings have tons of space in them.” He also uses TapeHead as a “gluing agent” across the master bus fader, adding a nice low-end bump to everything for an authentic 24-track tape sound. West also uses Izotope Vinyl (available as a free download from extensively to mimic the frequency responses of several specific eras of recorded music. “If I set it to 1970, it shaves off all the frequencies above and below a certain point because that's what happens when you record to vinyl,” West says. “It introduces some mechanical noise, record wear, dust and scratches, even wow and flutter.”


Before refrying some old beats, consider the legalities: How big can a sample be without needing clearance? What makes a a sample interpolation a “new tune”?

If your programming chops aren't up to creating a highly recognizable synth sound just like to the original, you may want to rip a half second or so of nonmelodic material from the original in an isolated portion, and loop it for a multisample. Copyright law is unforgiving, stating that no portion of the original recording may be sampled without permission. But experts tend to agree that looping a split-second waveform to generate a synth tone is fairly innocuous and safe. The law becomes much vaguer regarding note rearrangement for sample interpolation.

“It may be completely legal to capture two seconds of a specific sound from a record without infringing on the artist,” West says. “But with two notes played in a very specific and distinguishable way, you may be in trouble.”

You want to alter melody lines to the point where they capture the spirit of the original but technically become a new tune. “If you aren't a skilled arranger who can tell the difference, you'll have to hire one,” West says. “Melody and arrangement changes that suit your needs and satisfy the lawyers are tough to navigate. The devil is in the details, and the details are in the subpoena.”

To hear a before and after example of a Ken Lewis replay, go


  1. TracklistWhat are the instruments and how many of each type? For example, 10 horns and 12 string pieces? Two electric guitars, bass and drums? Is there a “hidden” bass part being played high, doubling the lead part, that you're missing in the mix? Checking with player credits in the liner notes can help if you're stumped.
  2. Instrument flavorWhat type of instrument is being used for each part and what is its signal chain? For example, is it a Fender Telecaster guitar through a Fender amp or a Gibson Les Paul through a Marshall amp? Is it an 18- or 22-inch kick drum? Is it a wooden or steel snare? Stereo or mono drums? The combinations can be endless, and that's where experience helps a lot.
  3. Session vintageWhen and where was the sample recorded? Was it a big live room in L.A. or a rinky-dink studio in Detroit with a quaint and cool vibe? Again, liner notes will provide the year and studio in which the tracks were recorded, giving you a better idea of the history behind the sound for getting the tone and ambience right.
  4. Outboard usedWhat effects are used on the sends? What kind of EQ and compressors were used on the inserts? If it was recorded and mixed in New York in 1983, did they use the breathing “New York” drum bus compression technique or a less compressed, drier, direct sound? Was it through a Neve, SSL or perhaps Helios board? This is where you start scoping out what plug-ins to instantiate.
  5. TechnicalitiesWhat kind of mics and preamps might have been used given the era? Was it recorded to tape and then pressed to vinyl, or was it all digital? If it was recorded at Right Track Studios in NYC in 1995, perhaps they used a Sony PCM 3348. Abbey Road in 1968 might be 8-track, 1-inch tape. You'll soon discover if part of the sample's magic lies in the recording medium.