Vocal samples aren’t just for electronic music; early techniques can even be traced back to the Beatles! Learn how to use some straightforward techniques to “splice & dice” and make your samples more exciting.
By DJ Pangburn
The vocal sample has a long history in virtually all genres of music. What started with experiments like the swirling voices of Pierre Schaeffer’s “Voix intérieures (Echo d’Orphée)”, has found its way into everything from the experimental pop of The Beatles (“Revolution No. 9”) to hip hop, techno, house music and beyond. And, of course, adding effects to vocal samples has been around nearly as long, whether by tape manipulation as Schaeffer and The Beatles did, or with the power of hardware or software effects.
Listen to any dug reggae, hip hop, house, or techno record with vocal samples, and you will most likely hear some sort of effect on the vocals. In classic dub reggae, it will most assuredly be a spring reverb, though that can be emulated with software now. In techno, vocal sample effects might be more lush or modulated, almost to the point of obliteration.
When it comes to adding effects to vocal samples, there are a number of approaches you can take. It all comes down to how the musician/producer wants to affect the sample. Below, we get into 3 techniques for adding effects to vocal samples and making them more dynamic.
1. Ambience and Texture
Kanye West is well-known for pitching up his vocal samples, as is the London-based electronic artist Burial. (Mount Kimbie and Jamie xx are also known to use vocal samples in this way.) But whereas Yeezus, particularly early in his production and solo career, used pitched vocal samples as substitutes of sorts for chorus breaks between rapping, Burial uses pitched vocals for ambience and texture.
Beyond pitching the vocals up or down, Burial coats them in layers of reverb and modulation. This is a technique that is familiar to any Boards of Canada fan, or indeed listeners of the ambient techno of the early-to-mid 1990s. Check out, Autechre’s complete rework of indie band St. Etienne’s song “Like a Motorway.” The duo sampled a single word from the song, “skin,” and used it as both an ambient and percussive element. The result is completely hypnotic.
For our vocal sample, we were inspired by “12 18”, the final track on Global Communication’s ambient techno masterpiece, 76:14. The track makes the vocal samples the featured sound but turns them into purely melodic instruments. Like in “12 18,” we used an “ahhh” vocal—in this case, a female singing. Our experiment will demonstrate how to get this sort of ambient and textural vocal effect.
First, we duplicated the vocal twice on the timeline in order to lay the groundwork for something like a three-chord progression. Next, we detuned each of the three samples: the first to -7 semitones; the second to -3 semitones; and the last to -5 semitones. Then we got to work on effects.
Starting with MetaFilter, we filtered out some of the vocal sample’s higher frequencies, and had the LFO slowly modulate the sound. After adding some compression to the vocal using Ableton’s Mix Gel, we added some slow phase to the vocal. We then turned our attention to reverb, using both the Abbey Road Chambers set to Chamber 2 and Ableton’s Bright Long Verb with a long decay. We rounded the sound out with Ableton’s Ample Space Delay.
As he can be heard, this layering of an LFO, phaser, reverbs and delay gives our vocal sample chord progression something approaching Global Communication’s work on “12 18.” Compared to our original vocal sample, the change is dramatic.
- Ahhh – Ambient – Dry
- Ahhh – Ambient – Wet
2. Chop ‘Em Up
One of the great tried-and-true methods of vocal sampling is to chop them up and rearrange the pieces. In a previous post we did something similar with a sampled guitar, where we sliced and diced a single chord and then moved the pieces around like we were solving an abstract puzzle. With the guitar, we were a bit haphazard in our approach. For our vocal sample we’re going to be a bit more intentional, making sure the shuffled pieces have a more cohesive glitchy aesthetic.
For the clip below, we stuck with the female vocalist singing “ahhh”. We then chopped it up into a couple dozen parts and, using Ableton’s basic sampler function (accessible by clicking on the recording), pitch-shifted most slices down several semitones, with a few up. You can achieve this in any native sampler. Before adding effects, we shuffled the slices around, giving the vocals a robotized sound.
Experimental electronic artist Holly Herndon notably approaches vocals in such ways. Listen to the track “Interference,” (embedded above) and you will hear a broad tapestry of glitchy vocals. By comparison our vocal is a one-shot, so it’s far less complex, but certainly in a similar sonic realm. The glitchy repackaging of the sliced vocal sample does a lot of the work for us, so we kept the effects chain to a minimum.
First, we used the Abbey Road Chambers reverb set to Chamber 2 with a touch of Drive. The reverb is set to 100, while the Wet signal is at 100%. This combination, when applied to the artifacts of the sample chopping, dulls the cuts, but also creates a percussive quality to them—a sound that, rather unexpectedly, could serve as the foundation upon which a beat could be built.
After fine-tuning the reverb, we used two instances of MondoMod. The first for some wow and the second for some flutter. This gives the vocal sample a very subtle amount of pitch variation. Again, this isn’t on the level of Holly Herndon glitch. But it is one way of messing with a vocal sample by chopping it up into slices, pitch-shifting them and adding other effects.
- Ahhh – Chopped – Dry
- Ahhh – Chopped – Wet
3. Sculpt a Vocal Choir
Suppose you want to use a vocal choir sample in your song. You like the notes, but the sample’s timbre and other sonic characteristics aren’t quite where they need to be. This is where adding effects and warping the sample can really prove useful.
Flying Lotus, for example, often deploys choral samples in his music, or vocal samples edited to sound like choirs (listen to “Massage Situation” below). Using his vocal sampling tendencies as inspiration, we found a bluesy choir sample and got to work effecting it.
The first thing we did is to reverse the sample. This gives it a slightly off-kilter quality, although it’s still easily identifiable as a blues choir sample. Next, we pitched the sample down one semitone to give it a deeper and slightly creepier quality, and added some saturation to liven it up a bit.
We then used MetaFilter to cut out some of the higher frequencies and give it something like the muffled quality FlyLo gives his music. To do this, we set the Filter Cutoff to just a bit past the middle, then added some resonance before adding some delay (set to Analog) for a bit of ambience. We followed this up with a slow phaser effect to give the choral sample a slightly synthetic vibe.
Chop that sample up a bit, add some collaged sound and glitchy editing, and you will fairly quickly approach the sound of Flying Lotus and his idol, J Dilla.
Want more vocal FX tips? Get presets on using OVox to produce a funky R&B track here.
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