On a quiet street in Pasadena, California, is a house where one of the world’s most famous pop songs was made. It’s owned by Andrés Torres and Mauricio Rengifo, the duo behind “Despacito.” I’m sitting in their home studio to talk to them about one of the key techniques they use to make many of their hits: sampling.
Sampling started as a way to cut up an existing recording to use bits of that audio in a new way. It’s helped spawn entire genres of music and has been used to make hit records for decades. The catchy melody in Drake’s “Hotline Bling”? That’s a Timmy Thomas sample from 1972. Those horns from Beyoncé’s “Crazy In Love”? That’s a Chi-Lites sample, also from the ‘70s. Everyone from The Beastie Boys to Stevie Wonder to Oasis has used samples in their songs, and it’s still a common practice today.
Andrés and Mauricio hail from Colombia, and they’ve been making Latin-infused pop hits as a pair since 2015. “We’ve been obsessed with samples for a long time,” Mauricio tells me as he opens up the Ableton file for “Despacito” and points out all of the samples that go into a single song. Some samples are sounds they’ve purchased online, while others, like the metallic brush of a güira, are ones they’ve made themselves. “A lot of percussion that we have used [is from] real people that we recorded,” says Andrés.
A sample can be anything from a melody to a snippet of a drum beat, and as professionally recorded sounds become easier to access and software becomes cheaper, they’re increasingly routine as a part of the song-making process for bedroom and Top 40 producers alike. “I can hear something I love in a piece of media, and I can co-opt it and insert myself in that narrative or alter it even,” said musician Mark Ronson in his 2014 TED Talk on sampling. “In music, we take something that we love and we build on it.”
Sometimes, you can clearly hear a sampled work in a new song, but other times, artists chop up samples, process them, or add so many effects that the origin can be unrecognizable. The classic drum break in Lyn Collins’ 1972 single “Think About It” has been sampled in over 2,000 songs. It can be heard in an obvious way in Rob Base & DJ E-Z Rock “It Takes Two,” but it’s also hidden in Jaime XX’s “Gosh,” and many wouldn’t know it because of how the sounds have been warped.
There are a million reasons why someone might use samples in a track. Sometimes it helps hook people in if they hear something recognizable, like how Katy Perry’s “Swish Swish” begins with a classic Fat Boy Slim vocal. Or someone might not have access to an instrument they want to use in a track. Or a producer might simply get captivated by a sound and want to use it as a point of inspiration. Whatever the case, because of the burgeoning sample marketplace industry, musicians can now find almost any sound they need in a matter of seconds.
“You can come in and just browse what’s new, see what’s hot in the charts, or do an exact search for, ‘I need a flute in the key of B right now,’” says Steve Martocci, CEO of sample marketplace and music collaboration platform Splice. “What we watched was it just really evolved the way people think about creation and songwriting.” These marketplaces are becoming so popular, Martocci tells me, that on Splice alone, people listen to over 60 million samples each week.
The way people have grabbed samples has changed over time. Historically, a sample is audio taken from an existing recording, and the way that is done has evolved with tech. In the ‘40s, musique concrète artists modified and spliced recordings of natural sounds to create musical collages. In the ‘60s, Jamaican producers like King Tubby used mixing board techniques — like feedback loops and flanges — to remix reggae songs, creating a genre called dub. In the ‘70s, the first commercially available samplers popped up, including the Fairlight CMI (Computer Musical Instrument), which let you edit sampled waveforms with a built-in light pen. Since then, samples have been lifted from vinyl, CDs, YouTube rips, and anywhere else sounds exist.
But sampling this way poses risk because, like most things in life, if you take something without permission, you can get in trouble. And that applies to music, too. While sampling was new and exciting for many years, the pressures to deal with copyright infringement started to appear by the early ‘90s. The line for what is considered stealing in music has never been clear-cut, and it continues to be a hotly debated topic both in and out of court. One of the most famous copyright infringement cases involves Vanilla Ice, who eventually settled for lifting the bass line in Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure” to use in “Ice Ice Baby.”
“Back then, if you really wanted to clear something when you pulled it from a track, it could never get done,” Martocci says. “The normal process is people would try to extract it from the sound where they heard it and hope no one notices and release their track. And if they’re successful, get sued.”
Now, the term “sample” can also mean a new sound created specifically to be a sample. In recent years, there’s been a boom in online sample marketplaces like Splice and Sounds.com — places where producers can buy and sell recorded sounds that can be legally used in works, royalty-free. These sites court producers to create packs for their sites, like Diplo, WondaGurl, and Andrés and Mauricio. Then, users pay a subscription fee (average of $10 a month or less) to get credits that can be exchanged for samples.
Andrés and Mauricio have their own sample pack on Splice, with hundreds of sounds including reggaeton drum loops, salsa-inspired horns, and tropical pop-inspired synth plucks. I ask Andrés and Mauricio if any sounds from “Despacito” are in their Splice sample pack. There are, along with other sounds they’ve made and used in “Runaway,” their latest hit with Sebastián Yatra, Daddy Yankee, Natti Natasha, and the Jonas Brothers.
It’s pretty amazing that anyone can now legally buy some of the exact sounds used in Top 40 songs like “Despacito,” and for cheap. “That’s so fair,” says Andrés, “because when we were starting, a big producer that had a lot of success will always sound better than a small producer because they had money to buy all these expensive things. Now it’s fair. It’s just creativity. Who is the most creative person that can make the most interesting song? Because everybody can sound good.”
The pair has already heard some of their samples used by big acts. Billboard-charting boy band Why Don’t We used one of their guitar loops in recently released “Come To Brazil,” which has already racked up millions of streams across various platforms. “We’re so proud,” says Andrés. Mauricio grins and nods in agreement. “We feel super cool about it.”
Sample marketplaces are beneficial for musicians on both ends. They provide instant and legal access to millions of sounds, and they have also become a way for more established artists to make money. Producers like Andrés and Mauricio get paid an advance to make a sample pack for Splice, and they are paid again when someone downloads one of their sounds.
“We’re at this era where software is the primary instrument,” Martocci tells me. “You don’t need a huge record deal to break or get enough money to go into a studio.”
“They have access to the same things that we have, and everybody can do the same quality of music,” Andrés says. “And that, for me, is the world evolving and being a better place for art.”
Make sure to check out other episodes of The Future of Music here.