Erik Svahn has been making and releasing sample packs for nearly 30 years. A veteran of the sample scene, he takes a unique approach to making samples, prioritising creativity and song suitability.
He’s just released Kore, a massive new house and techno pack with over 2.7GB of sounds, the latest in a long line of sample collections in his illustrious sound design career.
Originally a jazz, funk and soul guitarist, he picked up a synth whilst in high school, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Why did you decide to pick up that first synth?
It was totally random actually. I was in this band and one of the members was buying a Fender Rhodes. She asked me to drive her to the guy who was selling it, and when we got there the guy asked if I wanted to buy this synthesizer. Being a guitarist I'd never played a synthesizer.
He’d actually taken apart a Minimoog and built this synthesizer on his own. That guy was actually the guy that started Nord – this was the first synthesizer he'd ever made. I spoke to a friend and we bought it together as I didn't have that much money. It turned out to be my start in music technology.
How did that lead on to making sample packs?
Well, I started basically building libraries as soon as I got the really early Akai samplers and even before that I had the Ensoniq samplers. I even had a sampler that a friend of mine built from a digital delay. We put that through a sequencer so you could do very rudimentary sampling.
I realized quite early on when we bought the sampler that you start to think you don’t need any other gear, so you start getting rid of it all because you can sample everything. So even before I started this career, I was building my own libraries. In the early days of sampling and sampling gear, it was all about recreating real instruments. But quite early on when I ended up in London with its rave culture, I started realizing people were just sampling anything. They had the same attitude as the hip hop guys. Pretty soon I start realizing, oh, this is cool, this is a new way of using this technology.
I never really made samples in the way other people do it … I actually do it in a musical context
I was approached by a friend of mine who heard that I left my job, he asked do you want to make sample packs and I thought, well, I can do this for a couple of months and then I’ll go back to doing music. I didn't actually get back to doing music until four or five years later.
I've been collecting sounds and building sounds for all these years so I have a huge amount of recordings and things that I've just split up, collected and chopped up into pieces. I think the reality for me is, it's all about connecting these little dots, these random pieces of sounds, into something that makes you go “wow, this is music”. I never really made samples in the way other people do it, where they do kick drums, and then they do snare drums. I actually do it in a musical context because I think that's where they should be.
So it's less one-shot stuff and more developed ideas?
Exactly. I started working in a music store in the 80s. People would say, "There's a new synthesizer coming in from Roland or from Yamaha, and it has these amazing sounds, it sounds fantastic." But you soon realize those sounds are basically impossible to use within your music. You need the kinds of sounds that actually work.
With drums, if every drum had frequencies in the region where the kick drum is, there wouldn't be room for the kick drum. Right?
When you make your packs do you decide what the theme will be first… or do you just keep making samples and then collect them together?
No, I make music. I think I made my first few in the early 90s, trying to build sounds. I sat down with all these old drum machines and recorded them, but it's just good building blocks.
I always compare it to Lego, you see a model Star Wars spaceship, and that's what you want to build. But actually, when you build that, you have all these pieces and you can build anything. So I make music and then I separate all the music into bits and pieces, and that's the only way I can actually know that all the sounds have been tested in a musical context.
So you make the tracks first and then work backwards?
I've been doing this for so many years, if I wasn't connected with the music then I would have probably left it a couple of decades ago. But it's quite rewarding to make music, it's an emotional experience.
Also, I use a technique which is probably really really weird for people. I have a library of about 20,000 sounds. All these libraries are tuned to relating keys and what I do is I listen to the music and just press “random”. Sounds come up and I listen to that sound in context with the music, I get some drums and some bass and I fly that into Maschine, then I execute and fiddle with it, then I press random again and something bounces in and it's “Wow, this is cool”. Sometimes, when you press random it sounds shit, but you just press random again.
When you’re in a band, you hear something somebody is doing and you interact with that … That's how you make yourself enthusiastic about what you're doing.
Through that process, you have a constant partner in music. Through the years of working with people, I realized you interact. When you’re in a band, you hear something somebody is doing and you interact with that, through that it becomes this very energetic thing. That's how you make yourself enthusiastic about what you're doing.
How do you stay creative and productive?
About 10 years ago, I decided that I wanted to be mobile so I could work anywhere. I was working in a regular studio with all my gear and stuff but I bought a laptop so all I needed was my headphones. I can sit in Yosemite and make beats, it doesn't really matter where I am. I can make beats in Barcelona, that's fine.
Changing fuels your creativity. I moved to England last year, I moved to Brighton, and it's really been good for me. It just boosted my creativity.
That's interesting to hear about the importance of keeping the creative process fresh…
Yeah, I think a lot of people assume that making sample packs is about technology, but I think my favourite sample packs are where there's a bunch of musicians playing together. It usually comes up in jazz packs. If there is actually somebody making an effort to play with somebody, that's much more interesting to me than just making sounds for the sounds. I'm not saying that it's not something that I respect, but it's not really for me.
You actually don't need much musical theory, they have great ears and an understanding of music from an emotional perspective – that’s way more important.
I work with people, a lot of times people who are not musicians. They might come from a DJ background or something. When you ask them to play an F or something, they say “What’s that?”, so I started realizing you actually don't need much musical theory, they have great ears and an understanding of music from an emotional perspective – that’s way more important.
When you work with people who come from a different background, it influences and changes your way of thinking, or maybe they can understand something I can't understand.
How did you go about running Rawcutz, Niche Audio and now Kore?
So, I started working with Rawcutz, and in tandem with that, I also had a lot of communication with Niche Audio. Eventually, some of the people that work there left, and a couple of years ago, we decided to acquire it as an entity of Raw Cutz. Niche is now fully run by me, and we’ve just launched Kore.
Check out the pack on Loopmasters
What’s the story behind Kore?
A lot of people think that I'm a hip hop producer, but I’ve actually done way more house music and tech-house over the years.
I got in contact with that music before I even knew what it was. House and techno are so prominent, it's almost a musical culture now.
I got in contact with that music before I even knew what it was. House and techno are so prominent, it's almost a musical culture now. So this Kore project is just complete, massive overkill in that region – 200 kits, 5000 loops.
I think it's important sometimes that somebody just puts the foot down and says, "Buy this and you have a good start to make things." That was my plan when I started this.
Do you think people should use samples designed for one specific genre in other genres?
Yeah, I see that all the time. I was watching a YouTube clip with these drum and bass producers, and they were using Rawcutz packs which are all hip hop samples. In reality, all these styles, they all take from each other. It's the same kind of influence, you're always looking for something that maybe is different or doesn't exist in your style.
My knowledge of culture helps me a lot also. Because I was actually in the clubs before they had defined it as drum and bass – they called it jungle. Of course, if you're sitting in London and you're growing up with hip hop, where are you going to get your drums from? From the same kind of sources to hip hop guys. It's that idea that you speed up old-school funk breaks and you're part of this musical phenomenon.
I think technology has been very, very influential in how music has developed. Nowadays we have all these tools suddenly available. We have time-stretch, we have everything, but in those days that didn't exist, if you wanted something to run faster, you just had to pitch it up. There was no other way to do it.
I think those kinds of technology advances that we have now are why some people start being creative, that's why I'm kind of keen on building these kits for Maschine. We work with Akai, we work with Native Instruments, but the reality is with a small sample, you have much more flexibility.
What kind of techniques are you using for creating new samples?
I mainly construct samples with the idea that they should sound a bit old school, so they have some kind of flavour. I'm a big fan of lots of music that reflects certain eras, stuff like jazz, funk and soul - I'm always much more influenced by less current stuff. When I'm trying to make something and put it into the context of now, I'd rather go back to that era and listen to what they were doing. I play most of the instruments myself, I play guitar, bass, I have a Rhodes, pianos, synthesizers, all that stuff.
It's really really hard for me to connect with multisamples. I now sit with my guitar and I'm re-tuning my guitar to a completely different tuning, which makes me realise I can't play this guitar anymore. But really you can, just have to listen more to where your fingers go. My ears are probably more connected to my heart and my emotion than technology. I actually believe what exists now, technology-wise, 24 bit 96 kiloHertz, whatever it is, it's so amazing technically, not even our ears can hear that.
I even stopped using proper loudspeakers. I'm using very small speakers now, because I think most of what we hear – except for sub-bass – is in the midrange. Where we talk, where the guitar sounds are, where the trumpets are, where the singers are, where the snare drum is.
A lot of music that we hear now is through our phones, it's almost gone back to that 60s when most of the music came through small transistor radios. I refuse a lot of times to bring out stuff that might be the trend now, even though it might be commercially viable. I think an understanding of sounds from an emotional perspective is where I'm a little bit different from other sample producers.