Why Samples Ruin DJ Sets (And How To Stop It Happening To You)

Arthol Gibson | Read time: 4 mins
Pro samples Virtual DJ
Last updated 11 April, 2018

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Police light
Do DJs who overuse the ‘siren’ sample make you want to call the sample police? DJ Ampero pleads for a better way of dropping samples into your DJ sets.

I’m sure we’ve all at one time or other inflicted our share of sample overdrive on our audiences, or at least borne witness to the DJ who thought it’d be OK to run the siren, air horn and police siren samples from his DJ software in his set… at the same time.

It’s unfortunately all-too-common to find DJs (pros as well as amateurs) who make their sample and effects banks too prominent a fixture in their shows, sometimes to the extent that such behaviour all but destroys the groove, seriously annoying the crowd in the process.

The Virtual DJ effect
Virtual DJ is partly to blame. Beloved of beginners, the software (whether the trial version or the full monty) has a powerful sample feature where samples can be looped or one-shotted, and beatmatched at a click. Trouble is, it comes with a few starter samples, and on the first bank is almost always that infamous “siren” sample.

I hate this sample and haven’t used it at all for any reason in years. Why? Because a long time ago it became a prop that DJs always seemed to use to either mask shoddy transitions or make a feeble attempt to “spice up” the night. You’d hear (and still do hear) that siren used a lot in venues that catered to club / dance / house crowds. But when it comes to other genres like reggae and hip hop, better brace yourself for everything from wayward lasers to gunfire, police sirens, dog barks and explosions, ad infinitum.

Sadly, an all-out assault of sample boards can easily ruin a night – especially when a really good song is making the runs and there’s an abrupt air horn or cop chase overlaid. I’ve seen people walk out of venues over these seemly innocent additions to DJ sets that, somehow, evolve into overused and underloved DJ gimmicks.

The trouble with samples…

The trouble is, in unskilled and overexcited hands, such non-musical additions can be far too blunt a tool to do anything with other than annoy. Why don’t such DJs realise the toll on the average person’s sanity of hearing the siren sample every 16 beats? It’s nerve-wracking!

Dirty dozen
Dirty dozen: The six samples native to Virtual DJ that cause a lot of the grief on dancefloors the world over…

Worse, since samples tend to be notched a bit louder than the track that they’re being played over, their use can drive systems too far, distorting the sound to the point that clubbers feel tired, ears hurting from the music, and want to take a break – even if they’re really enjoying the tunes being played overall. Subliminally, overuse of samples in this way makes the crowd want to leave.

The right way to use samples

I’m not saying it’s necessarily wrong to drop samples over DJ sets. I’m just saying that they should be used respectfully, to build excitement rather than to cover up for Neanderthal mixing abilities. Samples can come in handy to give your sets a bit of personal flavour and even give you a window if you need to make a drastic tempo change.

I’m actually a fan of crafty and well executed samples: Girl Talk is one of my favourite DJs, and I love to see DJs take samples to a level of personal taste by creating and using their own quips, cuts, sounds and edits. And while taking the time to find, locate and trim your own custom sample bank may seem like a lot of effort, it only takes seeing your 10th DJ this month hitting F3 in Virtual DJ to trigger the infernal “put your hands up in the air, put your hands up – in the air” sample to send you home for a night hunched over the keyboard, cutting up useful stabs and loops for your own sets to show how it should be done properly and make yourself stand out for the right reasons.

Audacity is an excellent cross-platform, open-source audio manipulation program
Audacity is an excellent cross-platform, open-source audio manipulation program.

Software that can help
Audacity is an awesome, free, program for crafting samples, although you’ll need to figure out a way of recording your computer’s output straight into the program internally (the solution differs between PC and Mac and depending on the version of Audacity you have).

There’s also a decent, free-ish web app at MediaConverter.org that let you submit video clips (uploads or YouTube links) and audio for conversion into quite a few formats (MP3 included) – so you can finally use the “Bumblebee Tuna” scene from Ace Ventura to kick off your next mix!

It’s definitely also good idea to cut your sample bank down to size, getting rid of the default files that came packaged with your software as a very minimum. Once you get to know each and every same you create of choose to save, practise the hell out of them at home and figure where they’d all fit in your set; only should you even attempt to use then in your gigs, because only then can you use them effectively.

This isn’t to suggest, by the way, you go all Fatboy Slim and start making production-grade tracks – but then again if that’s where thinking about samples in an original and creative sense takes you then why not run with it? You could just end up with the next “Renegade Master” on your hands…

I think the point is that sample use in sets has to be done to a certain level of originality, and always so the listeners can easily groove to what they came out for in the first place – the music.

• Arthol Gibson (DJ Ampero) is a DJ, remixer and writer from The Bahamas. Check him out on Twitter – and why not Like his Facebook Page too?

Have you been guilty of overusing samples? Do you hear DJs who make this mistake? Have you found a way to be creative with samples and do something different in your DJing? Let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comments.

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