7 Essential Arrangement Tips for Working With Samples

Great musical ideas always work on their own, but effective arrangements turn them into music that communicates on a deeper level.

A strong arrangement is how you give your song the best presentation it can possibly get.

But creating great arrangements when you work with samples isn’t easy.

In this article I’ll go through seven samples tips for better arrangements.

1. Use busy samples for fills and transitions

The most complex and exciting sounds often seem the most interesting when you’re browsing samples out of context.

But once you get them into your sessions they don’t always fit. Overly busy samples can distract from more foundational elements of your arrangement.

Overly busy samples can distract from more foundational elements of your arrangement.

Your kick, snare, bass, vocals and main melodies should never be overshadowed by flashy samples.

Instead, use these more active samples for fills, transitions and other moments where you need to up the drama in your arrangement.

This way you get to save your most attention-grabbing sounds to emphasize key moments in your songs.

2. Use noise samples to fill out sparse moments

Most of the time you want to reduce the effect of excess noise in your recordings.

But sampled vinyl noise, atmospheric noise, or other non-tonal material can be great mix glue in small doses.

Sampled vinyl noise, atmospheric noise, or other non-tonal material can be great mix glue in small doses.

It can even be a main element of the texture when pads, leads or vocals are out.

Good atmospheric noise layered with SFX samples can give your productions a unique character.

And non-tonal elements can help you keep a sparse section from feeling flat or boring.

Once you get used to the quality of noise that can enhance a mix, you’ll have a lot of new ideas.

Once you get used to the quality of noise that can enhance a mix, you’ll have a lot of new ideas.

3. Use modified versions of your main samples to create variation

If you’ve used a distinctive sample for one of the main elements of your track, your listeners will familiarize themselves with it quickly—whether they realize it or not.

That means that they’ll recognize it in lots of different forms, even it it’s been chopped up, reversed, slowed down or rapidly retriggered.

Exploit that familiarity to get creative with your samples. Many sample based arrangements introduce a sample early in the song and mangle it until it’s barely recognizable by the end.

Many sample based arrangements introduce a sample early in the song and mangle it until it’s barely recognizable by the end.

This is an effective technique for creating a sense of linear development over the course of a whole track.

4. Don’t overuse vocal hooks

Finding the best vocal sample ever can feel like you’ve struck gold. But if you want to keep the magic alive, don’t overuse it.

Some incredible tracks rely on a single vocal sample throughout as a kind of mantra, but there’s an extremely fine line between meaningful repetition and bad cliche.

Instead, deploy your vocal hooks with care to give them maximum impact in your arrangement.

Set up big vocal moments with other arrangement elements like builds or drum fills to pack as much drama into them as possible

Vocals are the most human element of your production—don’t waste the chance to make them count.

Vocals are the most human element of your production—don’t waste the chance to make them count.

5. Watch for conflicts between loops and MIDI instruments

Adding drums or bass from a VST plugin to a looped groove that needs a little extra punch is a classic technique for working with samples.

But you have to be careful when adding percussive material or layered sounds with lots of low end.

Large timing differences between a plugin and a drum loop can introduce annoying “flam” effects.

This occurs when the hits are so far out of sync that you perceive the onset of each transient individually.

6. Be aware of the stereo field

Production and arrangement overlap more than many people think they do.

Varying the content of the stereo field is a fantastic arrangement technique that can add extra emphasis to any new section in your song.

Make sure to pay attention to the stereo field if you’re relying on samples to fill out this space.

Make sure to pay attention to the stereo field if you’re relying on samples to fill out this space.

Watch for the width and spread of stereo samples as you audition them, and be sure to vary the panning of your mono samples throughout your track.

Make your panning choices appropriately based on the development of the song.

Opening up the stereo width for a chorus and restricting it again for a build-up are super effective arrangement flourishes.

7. Transpose samples to create harmonic progressions

Sample transpose is a powerful tool.

Repitching a sample can give it a distinct vibe, but it’s also a great way to create harmonic progressions.

Brush up on your ear training skills and start transposing samples with a chord progression in mind.

It might surprise you to learn that many classic tracks are built entirely on parallel chords from transposed samples.

And don’t forget to reference your diatonic chords when it comes to using samples with harmonic content—your samples might work in more places than you think!

Editable arrangements

Arrangement is one of the core disciplines in music composition for a reason.

Great arrangements provide the depth and drama to enhance a song’s emotional impact. The same is true for sample-based music.

Try these tips the next time you’re struggling to create compelling arrangements with samples.

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