Get Uncommonly Creative & Tap into the Public Domain!

No, not the 90s rave producers, the rich and vibrant worlds of freely usable and copyright free audio!

Did you know that in many countries, works of intellectual property are automatically copyrighted at the point of inception? Plenty of music producers have fallen foul of this little tit bit, and after millions of dollars, pounds, and various other currencies have changed hands over the years in law suits and settlements, there’s a lot less barefaced sampling going on in the commercial music industry. Is it immoral to sample something just because it’s illegal? And exactly what is it about recorded audio that someone owns, anyway? That’s a discussion for another time; the good news is that it’s entirely possible to sample to your heart’s content without breaking a single law, and contribute to a rich culture of sharing in the process! Let’s take a look at how…

Sampling Public Domain

In many respects, copyright implies ownership – or at least jurisdiction – over a piece of work. But what about music and video that’s nobody’s property? That’s the stuff of the Public Domain. There’s a huge library of music, film, and all sorts of other creative media in the public domain, either through having its copyright expire after a certain period of time, the ‘owner’ ceasing to exist if it was attributed to an organisation that went bust, or it being proven (usually in court) that the original rights holder doesn’t care enough about protecting their work for them to be able to retain ownership of it. There are other ways, but these tend to be the main ones.

If something’s in the public domain, you can do anything you like with it. If you really want to, you can sell it on completely unchanged – and if you were to change one tiny part of it you could copyright it yourself! This means that sampling public domain music or film is completely safe; you don’t have to tell anyone you’ve done it, you don’t have to pay anyone, and you can include it in something you sell without breaking a single law.

Of course, now we need to know how to find out whether something’s in the public domain! It’s best to assume that most things aren’t, and even if someone says they are it’ll still be your responsibility to confirm it, but there are places set up for sharing public domain works. Our favourite is The Internet Archive, a huge project that, funnily enough, aims to be a complete archive of pretty much everything that it legally can.

Sampling Creative Commons

What if the rights holder of a piece of creative work wants their work to become part of a big cultural soup? That’s a job for Creative Commons licencing, a way of formally relinquishing certain rights to a piece of work providing the right conditions are met. There are plenty of forms of creative commons licencing, but the most popular seems to be ‘non commercial, share alike, with attribution’. This means that you are free to do what you like with a piece of work as long as you don’t try and sell it and your finished product is licenced under the same terms.

It all sounds very fair and there’s a nice warm fuzzy feeling that surrounds an entire movement of people who are focused simply on creating and allowing their creations to inspire others, but if you don’t want to get involved to that level there are also gradations of creative commons all the way down to essentially public domain levels of requirements – do what you like, sell it… but understandably that’s a less common occurrence, and attribution is always required with creative commons.

Finding creative commons material is simple: just search the creative commons database. That’s not the only way, and there’s material all over the world that’s creative commons without being submitted to the database, but it’s a good start. If you want a more ‘web 2.0′ kind of experience, there are all sorts of sites put together that provide advanced, media rich databases to explore. We like Free Music Archive, as it’s good looking, easy to navigate, and has a huge database…

How to Sample Your System

Being able to download files makes things easy, but for things that are streaming, say for instance films you can’t find for download (or just don’t want to download the whole thing for the sake of 5 seconds of audio) sampling directly what you hear coming out of your computer’s speakers can be a bit more tricky than you might think. Here are our pointers for ways to go about it.

Audio Cable

The most basic way to do this is by simply plugging a cable from your computer’s output back into its, or another’s, input. If you’ve not got any other way to do it then this should work fine, but be careful that you don’t end up with a feedback loop (make sure that you are NOT monitoring your recording, or what you are recording will be audible and recorded, which will be recorded, which will be recorded, etc, in an infinite loop) – in worst case scenarios you could damage your computer.

Mac – Soundflower

Soundflower is a free and simple way to pass audio between apps on the Mac. Once you’ve installed it, all you need to do is set your input and output to Soundflower in System Preferences (and if you want to hear what’s going on, use the Soundflower Bed app to route audio back out to your speakers again) and you’ll be able to record whatever your system’s doing just as you’d sample anything else in your audio editor or DAW. One mild word of warning, though: occasionally we’ve found Soundflower to hang and require a restart to stop it making nasty jarring noises. It probably won’t blow up your computer, but I just thought it best to warn you.

Mac – Audio Hijack Pro

Audio Hijack Pro is an excellent piece of software from Rogue Amoeba, and it allows you to select exactly what app you want to record sound from (no worrying about recording the you’ve got mail sound in with your film sample, for instance) and save to a file ready for editing. Audio Hijack Pro isn’t free, but you can use it for up to ten minutes each time you open it which should be plenty for a little sampling.

Windows – ‘What U Hear’/Stereo Mix

Depending on your Windows version, you may be able to select your system audio’s stereo mix (sometimes called ‘what u hear’ on Creative soundcards and derivatives) from your recording input selector. Voila! If you’re on Windows 7 then you may need to enable this option, as by default it might be disabled. To do this, right click on the little speaker in the system tray by the clock and go to Recording Devices. If stereo mix isn’t there, right click on the window and click Show Disabled Devices – hopefully Stereo Mix will show up there, and all you need to do then is right click and Enable it. We found a nice guide here on how to do it all step by step, along with potential pitfalls, and once it’s done you’ll be able to record into your audio editor or DAW as normal!

Windows – Total Recorder

There seem to be a lot of freeware options for Windows users that purport to allow system audio recording but have the nasty side effect of installing sneaky stuff underneath the software. Because we don’t boot Windows often here at OD and haven’t extensively tested any free options other than the one above, we’re loathe to recommend a freeware option in case it instigates World War 3 on your computer. One that appears to be absolutely fine is Total Recorder, which records audio to a file ready for you to import into your DAW or sampler, costs just $18, and has a trial that inserts noise every 60 seconds – which might not be such an issue for you in any case…


Give us an Example!

Well, okay, seeing as you asked so nicely. Here’s the nucleus of a track that contains samples from The Man Who Cheated Himself, a noir from 1950…

 In the spirit of goodwill, this audio sample is provided under creative commons licencing too, technically the CC-BY-SA 3.0 licence. Read about it here!

I’ve showed you mine, you show me yours – that’s the deal, right? Post up your comments and tracks below!

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