Royalty-Free Loops and Stock Sounds
A brief examination of stock sounds, presets, and royalty-free samples in TV themes and hit songs.
Mark Snow was a seasoned composer with several impressive credits under his belt when he was asked to score the theme song for The X Files. Having already handled theme scoring duties for T. J. Hooker, Hart to Hart, and The War Widow, Snow had no idea the show would become a cultural phenomenon that drew an average of close to 20 million viewers per episode at its peak.
X Files creator Chris Carter’s marching orders for the theme were rather simple when the two creators started their correspondence—he wanted something creepy, simple, and memorable. "I was looking for something that boy scouts could hum at the campfire, as a scary song," Carter told Tim Greiving in a January 2016 NPR Music interview. "You know, something akin to The Twilight Zone."
Despite the seemingly manageable expectation laid out by Carter, he was rather picky and rejected all of the early demos Snow passed along to him. To help foster the creative process, Carter sent him The Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now” and told him to pay particular attention to the use of guitars for inspiration.
Carter may have sought to inspire the composer’s creative process, but The X Files theme was really born out of an accident. Snow happened to have an echo delay engaged on one of his keyboards while sitting in the studio one day. As he rested his elbow on the machine a sound came out that caught his ear, sparking the creation of an essential entry in the famous TV theme song canon.
Though the echo delay provided the initial spark for The X Files theme, it was a stock sequence titled “Whistl'n Joe” from the E-mu Proteus/2 digital sound module that truly made the song come to life. Snow settled on the electronic whistling sound after trying a variety of different synthesized instruments to no avail.
(You can listen to part of “Whistl'n Joe” at the beginning of the demo video below or play the entire sample by clicking on the hyperlinked song title above.)
When Snow played it for his wife Glynn, she was intrigued by the sample and offered to add her own whistling to further enhance it. As a result, the version of The X Files theme that ended up making the final cut for the show’s premiere in September 1993 and beyond is a mixture of “Whistl'n Joe” and Glynn whistling—similar to the process used in an early Micro-Chop article about Boi-1da combining different windshield wiper sounds.
About a year after Snow put the finishing touches on the now-famous X Files theme, the late Robert Miles was hunkering down for an early AM session in his homemade, soundproofed garage studio after returning from a club gig. Moved by his father’s photographs from the ex-Yugoslavia that captured the toll war had taken on children during his humanitarian work there, Miles started working on melodic track as a way of expressing his sympathy for such young, innocent victims.
The excellent synth resource Synth Mania reported that Miles composed “Children” with a Kurzweil K2000 V3 keyboard, where he was able to achieve the beautiful piano keys from the song’s opening while utilizing the dramatic “PressForThunder!” stock sequence to add some tension to his otherwise soothing instrumental. You can hear the stock sound around the 30 second mark of the music video.
With the track completed in such short order, Miles was extremely nervous about unveiling his atypical dance record as the starting point for his DJ set the next day. After the DJ before him ended their set with a booming, intense piece of music, he was well aware of the risk of opening with his new production. “To break the existing mood with a melodic tune and a long intro could have simply cleared the floor,” he said in his 1996 Salt Records biography.
The crowd showed some hesitation in embracing “Children” during the track’s opening, but they were overcome by emotion by the end. “A girl approached me in tears,” Miles recalled in his Salt Records biography. “‘What music is this?’ she asked me. I don't think I shall ever forget that moment, when I realized that my feelings had been conveyed through my music. My dream turned into reality."
Such a strong reaction was exactly what Miles had hoped to achieve. In addition to being inspired by his father’s humanitarian work, Billboard reported that he also made “Children” to calm ravers down before the end of the night, as he was troubled by the amount of accidental driving deaths of young club-goers.
“Children” soon became an international sensation and went on to sell millions of records in several different markets around the world. A short time after its official release in early 1995, Miles’ composition inspired the “Techno Dream” stock sound for Roland’s JV-2080 64 Voice Synthesizer Module.
The JV-2080 also seemingly played a key role in the making of Drag-On’s 1999 hit “Down Bottom,” which was featured on the Ruff Ryders’ compilation Ryde or Die Vol. 1. In a December 1999 Jeff “Chairman” Mao article for Vibe magazine about DJ Clue’s production setup, the veteran mixtape DJ plays the main horns from the beat while showing Mao his own JV-2080.
Though I couldn’t find the stock sound myself after listening to many on YouTube and Synth Mania last night, “Down Bottom” producer Swizz Beatz later confirmed the beat is made out of stock sounds in an August 2011 Complex interview with Insanul Ahmed. “The sound module comes with sounds programmed in it already,” he said. “So I was just looping the sound modules.”
He goes on to state in the same interview that he was using a Korg Trinity at the time, which brings into question where the stock sound actually came from.
As the 90s gave way to the 2000s and DAWs, equipment, and production techniques continued to evolve, the use of royalty-free stock sounds was alive and well. Just ask Christopher “Tricky” Stewart, the man who co-produced and programmed the drums for Rihanna’s 2007 mega-hit “Umbrella"—a song that won a Grammy, sold millions of copies, and reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100.
The bulk of the song that helped launch Rihanna’s career and make her a household name is simple, royalty-free, “Vintage Funk Kit 03” GarageBand drum loop.
And finally, the Bangladash-produced 2009 track “Break Up” by Mario featuring Gucci Mane and Sean Garrett is also made of yet of another stock sound, this time a melody from FL Studio. I believe this was first spotted by an observant Jansport J, who posted his discovery on Twitter in late 2009.
The examples outlined here only scrape the surface—I’m sure there is a book/s worth of material out there about people in all genres of music using stock sounds, presets, and free loops from a variety of gear and programs.
Though the practice of using a sound that comes with a DAW, sampler, or synth may be frowned upon by some, in each of the stories included above the songs required varying levels of additional work to create the final outcome. Using a royalty-free loop from GarageBand might not have the same creative allure as micro-chopping a sample and re-arranging it, but it also takes a certain skill to find a stock sound and make a popular song out of it.
Whatever your opinion on this topic of sample debate, the tools for making a hit record are readily available—they just need to be combined correctly by someone with a unique vision.
Thanks for reading, see you on Wednesday!