Sample Packing as Social Practice

Written by Max Alper
Original version published to La Meme Young Patreon, 2022
Sample pack available in The Zone.

Audio transcriptions available wherever you get your podcasts.

Have you ever walked down a staircase and felt your hand vibrate the banister as you make your descent? The whole pole vibrates with every tap your palm makes. What if you had a field recorder in hand, could you approach the pole as a musical surface? Would you slap the shit out of it? What’s the difference in sound based on which part of your hand you use to resonate the pole? What if you used a stick, or a rock? Wouldn’t that change everything? What if you just approached every object you come across with this same sonic potential? Your phone is a fantastic field recorder whether you realize it or not.

422 individual samples of me hitting things in my backyard with sticks and whatever else I could get my hands on one sweaty afternoon in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico. That’s what I made for the internet in late September 2021. Why the fuck would I want to spend an entire week chopping, mixing, and bouncing over 400 sounds? That’s the funny thing, I had no real goals for using them in my work, especially at the moment of recording. The only thing running through my head throughout this sample packing process was “what could someone else do with this?”. I work for you, the internet, full-time now, after all.

As a teacher writing out lesson plans, podcasts, and essays such as this, obviously I have to think about how to make a particular music topic accessible on a pedagogical level. And I mean literally accessible, as in “how do I give access to these ideas to as many people as possible?” There’s a reason why I am selling all 400+ sounds for a single dollar or more. I would rather not make a profit for these sounds than for you to not make something amazing with them.

Access is about democratization and keeping the gate open. But, when I’m out field recording, improvising in the studio, or deep in the DAW mixing mode, I rarely think about anyone other than myself. In that moment, I am here only for my ears. It’s just me and my bouncing monkey brain of sonic gestures, chilling. And that’s cool, I’ve come to terms with much of my hermit habits as a sonic practitioner.

For me, making sonic art is a meditative and healing process that’s necessary for me to often undertake, alone and in solitude, as just another part of my day. Oftentimes music making is just the same as exercising, I gotta get my miles jogged every other day and it’s best done alone ‘cuz things might get sweaty. Some artists don’t like to show how the sausage is made, we can talk after I get back from the factory.

Personally, I really couldn’t give a fuck what style or aesthetic I’m working with on any given day in my solitary practice. I treat my harsh found sounds and electroacoustic timbres the same way I treat my piano and vocal chops. Meaning, I take it all pretty damn seriously and by the book, but my own book, mind you. And the only reason I’m telling you any of this is because none of this usually lonely, meditative thought process was remotely on my radar when I started producing this sample pack out back. Throw the goddamn book out the window because we’re gonna follow our uninhibited gut. We’re gonna make something for others to enjoy.

Every hit I tracked of one stick colliding with another, my hand slapping a banister to achieve some sustained metallic resonance, the crunching of dead leaves under my sandals; these were made with some imaginary sampling musician in mind, someone who is not me. “Damn that could be a cool drum, someone should do something with this.”

What I’m touching upon is commonly referred to under its umbrella term: social practice.

A great text for teachers and students alike on this topic is called Education for Socially Engaged Art: A Materials and Techniques Handbook, written by Pablo Helguera.

He writes:

"The term “social practice” obscures the discipline from which socially engaged art has emerged (i.e., art). In this way, it denotes the critical detachment from other forms of art-making (primarily centered and built on the personality of the artist) that is inherent to socially engaged art, which, almost by definition, is dependent on the involvement of others besides the instigator of the artwork. It also thus raises the question of whether such activity belongs to the field of art at all.”

To create a collection of sounds without the primary intention of using them in your own work, but rather to share them as building blocks for others to use at little to no cost is as much a social practice as it is a personal creative one. Yes, to some extent my sonic aesthetic has informed the sound pack. But what I seek to record is yours to bend and twist and cut to your heart’s content. The process becomes quite utilitarian: I see an object, I observe its sound (all sounds have the merit of course), and I document the sound in hopes someone will not only hear the merit but find immediate inspiration in it. While I can overthink it now while coming up with ways of describing the thought process for you, in all honesty, the first and foremost thought in my head while making these recordings is “haha that sounds sick dude, someone will turn this into a snare.”

Out of the field and into the studio, I spent tenfold more time editing and mixing the recordings than I did making the recordings themselves. The field recording and sample hunting process to me is to follow my ear’s inner child, as in to trust that gut instinct of sound quality and to capture it without giving it much thought other than just goofing around. The editing process was quite the opposite.

Knowing fully well I want to get these into the ears and DAWs of other artists, it was crucial for me to present these sounds in as streamlined and accessible a manner as possible. That means lots of attention to mixing and editing and mastering. Kill the background ambient noise with an attenuated gate. Cut the lows. Chop that bad boy up. We want these smacks and claps as isolated as possible. Everything needs to pop.

My biggest pet peeve is to see sample packs include silence at the beginning of each clip. That just means more work for the artist, every sound would need to be trimmed to the right moment of impact. I had this pet peeve at the forefront of my thought process while editing. It meant zooming in on each waveform to the maximal degree and to cut the clip riiiiiiiiight as the waveform emerges from neutrality. It was a major pain in the ass, but the result is worth it, I hope. Appreciate me and validate me please! I want people to make their own sounds using these tools as efficiently as possible, and for people to make sound happen as quickly as possible. The less work the musician needs to do editing and whittling these WAV files down on their end, the better.

I chose to record these sounds at home, in the backyard on a sunny day in suburban Metro Puerto Rico. It wasn’t so much a challenge to find the sounds that appealed to me on an instinctual level. If it wasn’t so damn hot that day I would’ve found twice as many sounds in my yard alone. I can just zone out and find a drum anywhere, add a field recorder to the mix and we can be here a while. But while these sounds serve a bit of homely nostalgia for me every time I hear them now, my process wasn’t special as far as making sounds happen in a confined space, I want that to be clear. I am not special. Anyone can do this. These “impact” sounds surround us in most contexts, whether private or public spaces. Percussive assaults can take place anywhere, the world is your drum.

My recordings ain’t perfect here either, there’s plenty of noise outside that even a nice field recorder is gonna pick up. What we have here is me playing the role of the childlike documentarian, walking around slapping concrete and tapping shutters with sticks like a dumbass. I’m sure it warms the hearts of my parents hearing that, as well as it being equally concerning. But it doesn't matter if you’re ages 5, 30, or 60, we all know how to use a smartphone now. Nothing is stopping us from taking on this playful sound-hunter role in our daily lives. No real intentions are necessary beyond simply keeping an ear out and having 30 seconds to play around with a found sound in front of your phone before you go on your way.

“So what should I do with this massive sound library?”

After all, I couldn’t give a shit what music or sonic art I was gonna craft with these impacts during production. A playful documentarian such as myself is only here to capture the moment and mess around. But I gotta do something right? After 5 days of brutal mixing and editing, all 422 of these sounds are my babies now. How could I choose amongst them to make something of my own alongside its intended community aka literally anyone else? So I said fuck it, send it on through some randomized sequencers.

There is no downbeat to the music I make with this pack. How could there be a consistent meter when every pulse of the clock generates a newly randomized phrase under my executive control? A meter beyond 1, the now, requires some degree of pattern making beyond the 1. What else can we do when nothing is repeating itself beyond the singular pulse? We no longer hear in groupings, bars, or measures, but are forced to focus on the now. My students can recall I refer to this style of generative electronic rhythmic music as the “meter of nowness”, which we will get into in more detail later on in the book.

Every pulse is a measure in itself, a universe. And it’s all done in the patch, once I finish tweaking it together I don’t have to do much other than press record and watch the levels. When I don’t have to worry about which sounds are gonna be heard, because eventually every sound in this massive folder gets its shot, I can just sit back and let my algorithms groove for me, occasionally doing some live changes and dubbing. It’s quite liberating not to have to “perform” or “choose” anything other than the speed of tempo and rate of randomization. Talk about chance music! I wish I could install this patch in a museum for 24 straight hours and never hear the same thing twice. I extend my offer to any major museum curator, my starting rate is one hundred thousand dollars.

My goal here with all 422 sounds is that one will always find a need for some strange percussive elements and textures in their sonic art. I hope I hear these klangs and pops and bangs and plonks and boings in as many hip hop and techno tracks as I do harsh noise and musique concréte tracks. What the hell is genre anyway, especially if we’re all using the same technological vocabulary? We’re all sampling musicians out here, chopping and screwing whatever comes along regardless of original fidelity. We can make it work, the studio makes it so. Pierre Schaefer and Pierre Henry knew this just as much as Dilla and Doom. Literally anything and everything can be turned into an instrument with the right technique behind it. Even my dumbass banging sticks together with my dog.