The Beat Mercenary
*** ill o.g. ***
Making beats has evolved over the years from being a simple drum loop with the occasional sound added in, to full-on music productions that could rival any genre. I have often been asked the most basic questions from people that are new to beatmaking, as well as seasoned veterans. Because of this, it got me thinking and now I have decided to write this guide that will hopefully help everyone for years to come.
Do you want to learn how to make beats? Then let's get started.
This guide is broken down into three main sections: Beat Making Equipment, How To Make Beats, and Beat Making Tips. You can scroll down to whichever section you'd like, but I suggest that you read it from beginning to end to get the best overview about making beats.
BEAT MAKING EQUIPMENT
Since everything is recorded on computers now, it makes sense for you to get one. You could use a laptop or a desktop, it really doesn't matter. It could be a Mac or PC, as that too is a matter of preference. Whereas big recording studios would record solely on hardware, they too now run everything through a computer. These are some of the most important pieces of equipment that you need to consider for music production.
What you need to consider first is how fast the CPU (central processing unit) is, and also how much RAM (random access memory) is in there too. If your computer is pretty new then you shouldn't have to worry about these things, but you might still want to add more RAM. It's not always necessary but since computer programs take up a lot of resources, the extra RAM will really come in handy.
As for the CPU, everything should be fine as long as you're not running something really old or cheap like an Intel Celeron chip. Stick with something that is more recent. For that, just consult a website such as NewEgg and see what some of the latest CPU chips are.
Once you are set up with a computer that is powerful enough, the next thing you will want to focus on is your sound card. Besides the CPU and RAM, the sound card is extremely important, otherwise you won't be able to hear anything! If you have a laptop, then it comes with a small input and output jack on the side, and if you have a desktop then it might not have any sound at all since not all motherboards have sound built-in.
So what do you do? Buy an audio interface.
If you have a desktop computer then you can definitely get a top-notch sound card and put that in there, but for the past few years the best option is simply to have an audio interface because it's so much easier since it's just a small box that connects to your computer via a USB cable. This means it can be used whether you have a laptop or desktop, plus it comes with inputs and outputs that you would never get with just a regular sound card.
There are many audio interfaces out there, and mostly it comes down to your budget. You don't need tons of inputs, rather you want something that is really good, so make sure you read the reviews from other people that have bought it.
With a powerful computer and a solid audio interface connected, how do you record anything? With a DAW (digital audio workstation), of course.
There are many DAWs out there, so it comes down to personal preference and budget. But what is a DAW? Simply, it's like a multi-track mixer and recorder together, but as software. You can record, edit, mix, and everything in between. Instead of having a ton of recording equipment, you can do everything inside of a DAW instead.
These are some of the most popular DAWs:
- Pro Tools
- Propellerhead Reason
- FL Studio
- Cakewalk Sonar
- Ableton Live
- Bitwig Studio
- Logic Pro
- Presonus Studio One
- and many more
So which one should you choose?
My advice would be to try FL Studio first because of its layout and simplicity. Don't get me wrong - FL Studio has plenty of advanced features, but when I first used it when it was called Fruity Loops, I loved it because of the step sequencer. It allowed me to just click on certain steps to place my sounds and made it very easy to make a beat.
If you try FL Studio and for some reason don't like it, then that's fine too. All of the DAWs I listed have demo versions that you can try for free. What most of those demos do is just prevent you from saving your project. Other than that, you pretty much can use it like you would with the full version. So if you're not sure, just go to each of those websites and download the free demos and try them out.
One of the best pieces of hardware that you can get for your setup is a controller. There are many to choose from but here are some of the best:
For example, if you have an old keyboard, the kind with sounds in it and speakers built in, you can use that as a controller, as long as it has a USB or MIDI output in the back. I always prefer USB since it's much simpler to set up.
When you connect a controller to your computer with a USB cable, your DAW should recognize it right away. If for some reason it doesn't, then consult your DAW's manual as it will most likely tell you. Once it's connected then you can start using it to play sounds, but what sounds? Where are the sounds?
Well most DAWs will come with either sounds built-in or plug-ins that you can open inside of your DAW.
Just like controllers, there are different types of plug-ins. Some are effects plug-ins, and others contain sounds that you can trigger with your controller.
In Propellerhead Reason, it includes many virtual instruments that you can insert into your rack. Sonar also comes with instruments like Rapture Pro. Once you load up any of these instruments, you can immediately start triggering sounds with your controller.
Effects plug-ins are pretty much the same thing except they are effects and not instruments. This means that you can't play anything, so you simply add effects to your instruments either as you're recording them or after, like during the mixing process.
There are too many plug-ins to name, but trust me - you will always find one that you can use. They're great!
For beatmaking purposes, having monitor speakers is not REALLY necessary as you can simply use a good pair of headphones, but it does make a world of difference whether you have small computer speakers or studio monitors.
When I first started making beats, all I could afford were the speakers that came with my computer, so I ended up just using my headphones all the time. Even though they sounded great, when I would end up listening to my beats on a pair of speakers, my beat sounded totally different. There was a lot of bass and certain sounds were very quiet.
Now I have a pair of studio monitors and trust me when I say that it makes all the difference. When I mix, my beats sound great on all devices, whether it's monitors, laptop speakers, or headphones.
These are some of the most popular monitor speakers:
HOW TO MAKE BEATS
In this final section, I will explain to you how I make beats. You don't have to follow my way, but you can definitely get a good idea on how you can incorporate it into your own workflow.
For years I always started with my drums first. As I mentioned earlier, this allowed me to get into the right mindset and "vibe", plus it also acted as a guide as I added other instruments while the drum track was looping. It's a great way to start your beat, but it's not the only way.
This may seem a bit more advanced for those that are not used to it, but you can also do your drums last. I know it sounds weird to some, but it all depends on what you want to do with your beat.
Let's say you have a sample that you want to chop up into four parts (1 part for each bar) and have it as a 4-bar loop. This can be accomplished easily since it matches up at the start of each bar. The same can be done if you're using virtual instruments, as long as you're putting the sounds at the beginning of each bar. As you keep adding parts like this, then you'll eventually have a few tracks of instruments that sound pretty much complete and all you have to do now is add in the drums.
One trick that you can also do is use the metronome as your guide instead of the drums. All DAWs have a metronome count-in that can also be played as you are recording, which of course will help you stay on tempo.
The Drum Track
What you must remember is that the drums are the backbone of your beat. Without drums, your beat wouldn't actually be a beat, rather it would be instruments just blended together. How you do those drums are very important, so make sure your drum track always sounds dope.
I like to keep my drums simple with a kick, snare, and hat. You can add in toms and cymbals later on, but the "meat" of it are just those three drum sounds.
As for the pattern, it all depends on the type of beat you're trying to make. If it's a laid-back beat then of course you won't want to have your drum track be a crazy pattern, so it's best to keep it simple. Even for faster tempo beats, you don't need a busy pattern because remember - this is Hip Hop. You're not making an EDM-style beat!
Your best bet is to always do kick-snare, kick-snare, and the hat all the way through. That's a typical drum beat with a 4/4 time signature, which is pretty much the default for most beats. You could definitely leave your drum pattern like that, but you can also just add in an extra kick here and there, as well as the snare. What's great about drums is that you can do little tricks to give it a bit more flavor.
Instead of just having a kick and snare, you can also add a pre-kick or pre-snare, which is the same sound but at a lower volume, and it can be thrown into your pattern wherever you feel it sounds good. Most likely they will sound great if you place them just before the main kick or snare, but it's just a matter of preference. Normally I leave my hats as a standard pattern, but they can be changed up as well with just slight variations.
Blending Samples Together
A lot of the most famous Hip Hop beats of all time were put together by sampling entire loops, rather than chopping them up into individual sounds. I didn't know this when I first became a fan of Rap music but when I learned how those beats were done, it was both inspired and uninspired. I thought it was great that those producers were able to find a really good sample and use it as a full beat, but it also seemed too easy. Either way, the beats sounded great and that's why they were so popular, and really that's all that matters.
But a lot of beats are done with the use of one main sample, meaning that it's a sample from one source. Beatmakers will sample a certain song, chop it up and make a beat from it, but not many will take it a step further and add samples from other songs, even from other artists.
This is why I'm a big fan of the Bomb Squad. If you don't know who they are, you should read up on them, as they were the producers of Public Enemy back in the day, with their militant, hard-hitting beats. But it's how they pieced those beats together that really got my attention: instead of just using one or two samples, they would use dozens - just for one beat! They would take tiny pieces from different sources and make them work together.
I try to do the same thing when I'm making a beat. I may not sample from dozens of songs, but many times I will use one main sample and then add in smaller samples from other sources, and it makes a huge difference. By doing it like this, it really changes the way the beat sounds because it's not just one sample that's being flipped, and it gives the beat a different sound altogether.
The same technique can be used when using virtual instruments. There are many times when I will use a synth from a Cakewalk VST plug-in such as a Rhodes piano, and then I will also use a synth from Native Instruments, like strings or a pad lead.
Synths and Samples As One
Layering various sound sources together is a great technique, but what about samples and synths together? It works, and it's a really good way to get a unique sound.
One trick I like to do is I have a sample as my main lead track. I can leave it like that, or I can also add a virtual instrument to compliment my lead. So what I usually do is I will load up something like piano, strings, or a pad, and just keep playing certain notes until it matches the same key as my lead sample. Once I know the proper key then all I have to do is get creative and play out a pattern.
The benefit of adding a synth to my sample is that it changes the way everything sounds, but it also gives me the option of dropping out the sample at certain spots and have just the synth playing, just to change it up. The main thing you must remember is that the synth must be in the right key, otherwise you will have a hard time getting it to sound right.
Finishing It Off With The Bassline
Just as with the drums, sometimes I will start my bassline first, but many times I add it last. Basslines are tricky and many beatmakers don't like doing them for obvious reasons, but I always find the best thing to do, just as with the synth I mentioned previously, is to get it in the right key.
The thing with basslines is that most of the time you can cheat, meaning that you don't need a fancy pattern, but just something that will fill in that low-end. You could have a bass hit at the beginning of each bar and build from there, or you can play a pattern, most likely something that follows the lead instrument.
Let's say you have a lead instrument that has a certain pattern. All you have to do is make a bassline that follows that same pattern, but the tricky part is to get the bass to sound in tune with the lead. Once you get that right bass note, then you're good to go. You can keep the pattern the same or just alter it a bit, but the main thing is the key - it's very important.
BEAT MAKING TIPS
Be a Student of Music
If you ever listened to a DJ doing incredible mixes between two songs, it's because they just know the song. They know where all the parts of the song are such as the verse, chorus, intro, and outro. Because of this, they know when it's the right time to start mixing in the next song and how to make the mix sound great. It's almost as if the DJ was part of the team when that song was produced.
The reason why a DJ knows certain songs so well is because they study music. Not in the sense that they went to college to learn music, but rather they pick apart songs when they listen to them, so in a way they are essentially a student of music.
As a beatmaker, it's very important that you do the same thing. You should know some of the classic Hip Hop tracks all the way back to the early 1980s, as well as most of the songs that were sampled over the years, like Impeach the President and Funky Drummer. Some may argue that you don't need to know all of that history, but I think you do. If you were to listen to old school Rap music and study how the producers, rappers, and deejays back then did what they did, it will open up a whole new world to you.
If you were to look back at the 1990s of Hip Hop, you can tell that the producers at the time had a heavy influence from songs in the 1980s. The drums were hard and a lot of breakbeats were used, which is what transitioned to the 1990s style of music.
With Hip Hop beats, most of the time you will hear 4-bar loops. Whichever beat making program you use, just take a look and you will see a numbered grid that shows you what bar you're on. Counting a bar is like this: 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4. That's 4 bars. As you can see, there are 4 parts to each bar. It's pretty standard, but you can also extend your loop to 8, or 16, or whatever else you want. If you're still not sure about how bars work in the program you're using, then check out the manual of the program, as it will most likely explain it.
Making a Loop
As a beginner, you will always want to start your project first with a drum loop. The reason for this is because it allows you to get used to timing and tempo. It may seem simple to some, but there are people that have trouble staying on beat when they want to play certain instruments, such as the piano. By having a drum loop set up first, then all you have to do is follow the loop and stay on beat.
If you take a look at some old school drum machines, they all had a feature called Step Sequencer. It's a feature that makes it dead simple to create a loop, especially for drums. This is one of the main reasons earlier that I recommended you use FL Studio as your first DAW. By using a step sequencer, all you have to do is click on where you want your drums to be on the sequencer line.
This is how it works:
As you can see, it's very simple. In this example there are 16 steps and 4 instruments: kick, clap, hat, and snare. So all you have to do is decide where you want those four instruments to be. You just have to set your tempo and then as the software loops over and over, you can place the hits wherever you wish.
The great thing about doing it this way is that it's so easy to edit your loop, like if you want to move the position of where the instruments are.
Don't Worry About Creating a Full Song
A common problem with someone that is new to beatmaking is that they get frustrated when their beat sounds nothing like that of a popular song they know well. It could be for various reasons, but most likely one of those reasons is because they are focusing on making a full song rather than just a loop.
When you listen to some of your favorite Hip Hop tracks, you must pick it apart and try to hear each loop that makes up the full song. Making a beat is done in stages, so that is why working on a simple loop is absolutely necessary first. Even if it's just a drum loop, at least you have a foundation for a full song or full instrumental.
So when you first start, just create a drum loop and make it sound as good as possible. Once you do that, then you can slowly add in other instruments as you progress to a complete beat.
Making The Beat
When creating your beat, you must first decide what you want the final product to be. Is it going to be a beat that you sell to a rapper? Is it going to be a beat that you put together with other beats as an instrumental album?
One of the most common mistakes I hear all the time with beatmakers is that they make beats without thinking further ahead. I'm guilty of this too, but it's only natural since making beats is all about being creative and making it sound great. Beatmakers aren't necessarily producers, so the beat is always the first thought, whereas a producer is always worried about the overall product.
If you want to make a beat just as an instrumental, then the sky's the limit. You can add scratching, vocal snippets, and whatever else you can think of. On the other hand, if you wish to make a beat for a rapper to record their vocals over, then you have to step back and think about how you want to approach it.
The first thing you should do is think about open space. One of the best techniques I've ever heard was from the 1990s when beats would have a hook and then when the verse part came in, the hook part was still there, but it was filtered out. It was a common technique, one which I still use to this day. Another technique is to simply remove certain instruments from the beat when it's time for the vocals.
It's true that there are plenty of Hip Hop beats that had all sorts of sounds and instruments playing throughout the beat, even with the vocals on top (think Ol' Dirty Bastard's "Return to the 36 Chambers"), but it doesn't always work.
Basslines Are Important, But Not Always
A very annoying step in the beatmaking process is that of the bassline. Let's face it - bass is not glamorous. It just sits there and thickens the beat, but if you really listen to it, it's very important. If you were to listen to some of your favorite songs but with the basslines removed, they would sound completely different.
I always recommend that basslines be added to a beat, but there are times when it's just not needed, or very little. You could add an 808 kick drum to your beat, and have that play on the first kick of the first bar, and that alone would be enough.
If you do add a bassline then the simplest way is to follow the kick, and maybe even have a higher note on the 4th bar:
All you have to do is get the bass note to be at the same key as the lead instrument (and make sure they sound great together), then just follow the first kick of each bar. Once you do that then play around with other bass notes and see what fits and what doesn't. Be creative!
Samples or Synths?
This is the ultimate question when dealing with Hip Hop production. For years sampling was the way that beats were made, from the beginning all the way through the 1990s when Hip Hop was at its creative peak. Then synthesizers came into the picture and now we're at the point where Trap beats are the most popular style.
Synthesizers have been around long before Hip Hop's popularity, but it wasn't until the late 1990s that they were incorporated into mainstream beats.
Both samples and synths have their advantages and disadvantages, so let's take a look:
Hip Hop first started out with deejays using the breaks in popular (and some obscure) songs, which is a form of sampling. As Rap music grew, it was the producers that took center stage by incorporating many breakbeats into their beats, often making the breaks be the backbone of the beat.
There is a whole legal side to sampling, but I won't get into that aspect. What I will say is that sampling, if done right, can make your beat sound amazing. There are times when I'm trying to play a piano melody with a VST plug-in but I just can't get it to sound good, so I'll sample piano instead. What a difference!
The advantages of sampling is that you can sample anything. Of course, some samples are better than others, but if you know how to chop, truncate, and filter a sample, the possibilities seem endless.
The disadvantage of sampling is mainly the legal side of it. If you want to sell your beats or if you're making a beat for an artist and you have samples in your beat, then legally you must get permission (clearance) to use that sample. This means you must pay to use that sample.
If you don't want to sample and would rather use synth sounds, then you have an open canvas. No matter what virtual instrument you use, there's no need to have anything cleared, so legal issues are non-existent.
The advantage of synths is that you have hundreds or even thousands of sounds at your disposal and you can just create whatever you want.
The disadvantages is that even though synths sound great, they often don't capture that true Hip Hop sound. For some, this doesn't matter, as they just prefer to use synths, but no matter how many synths you use, your beat will never sound the same as a sample-based beat. A lot of it is due to the fact that synth sounds are "clean" as opposed to samples that have a "dirty" sound to them.
Mixing Is Very Important
The mixing process is a very important one, but that is beyond the scope of this guide, which is focused on beatmaking. I will, however, point you in the right direction.
I wrote this article about mixing, which explains the best way to get a great mix. It still requires a lot of practice, but with the equipment (like what I have mentioned above) and enough patience, your mixes will sound great.
When in Doubt, Use a Breakbeat
I have been providing beat reviews for a few years now with my Attack of the Beats! radio show, and often times I come across beats that sound really good but are missing something. It's usually missing that "shine" to make the beat really stand out.
Breakbeats are your friends.
What is a breakbeat? It's essentially a drum loop, sometimes with other instruments, that you can loop. Most of the time breaks are taken as samples from various songs, like if a Rock band had a drum solo. A drum solo can be used as is, or just a small portion of it can have a really great pattern that would sound dope on a Hip Hop track.
Some examples of famous breakbeats are:
James Brown - "Funky Drummer"
Billy Squier - "The Big Beat"
Incredible Bongo Band - "Apache"
Skull Snaps - "It's A New Day"
Honey Drippers - "Impeach The President"
There are many more, of course, but if you were to take any one of those breaks and replace your drum loop with them, your beat would immediately sound a hundred times better, guaranteed.
So when I'm giving feedback on someone's beat, many times I will recommend they use a breakbeat instead of their own drum track, as it will make the beat sound better, but it will also motivate them to make something better.
However, you can also use breakbeats as a guide as well.
Now let's say that you absolutely want to do your own drum pattern. That's great, but what if you just can't come up with something good? Then you can just use a breakbeat to guide you.
In your DAW, you would have your own drum pattern loaded up, then you load up the breakbeat on another track. Now when you go to record your pattern, do so while listening to the breakbeat, and follow it. It won't sound exactly the same, but at least your pattern will sound similar, and the actual drum sounds will be the only thing that's different. This is a great way to learn how to do patterns.
What I just described is what's called a "reference track". It's a track that you use as a reference, or a guide. It could be a breakbeat, or a full song. It's a technique that can really help you build up your beat until it is complete.
A common technique that I used all the time is filtering. It can be used whether you are using samples or synths, and it will give you great results.
What is filtering? Filtering is when you alter a sound's EQ (equalizer) to fit better in your mix. You can filter at the mixing stage, or as you are creating a beat.
Now let's say you have a sample and want to use it in your beat. You can use it as is, but since it's a sample, it will be loud and possibly noisy, which will clash with your other tracks. So in this case what you would do is filter it, most likely with a High Pass filter. The most common filters are High Pass and Low Pass. All you have to remember is High Pass gives you more "highs" and Low Pass gives you more "lows".
Many times this is what I will do:
- I will copy the sample so I have two of the same.
- I will apply a high pass to one of them, and low pass to the other.
- The high pass filtered sample will be my main track, and the low pass filtered sample will be my low-end (bassline).
So think about that - you just created a beat where you can easily have a chorus and verse. The chorus will contain both versions of the sample, and the verse has just the low pass sample, so it's the bassline but you still hear a bit of the sample's tune.
Effects Plug-Ins Are Great, But Use Them Sparingly
Everyone seems to love three effects the most: reverb, delay, and compression. They're all great but they must be used as needed, and not all the time.
Reverb is great for certain instruments, and especially vocals. I often use a bit of reverb on my drum snare because it gives it some space and makes it sound "roomy". Delay is also great on samples that are too short and need to fill out some space. And compression is very good but is most likely needed in your mix, rather than in your beatmaking process. It can make certain instruments sound much better, but is often overused.
Always remember to try and get the best sound you can from your beat, without using effects. Once you have a beat that sounds great without effects, then you can add some here and there as needed (but you probably won't want to use much anyway since the beat sounds great already, right?).
Keep It Simple
The one thing that I always try to stress to anyone making beats is to keep it simple. This also includes the terms "less is more" because it can make or break your beat.
Whenever you are making a beat, you will want to build it up until it sounds like it's complete, but sometimes things can get out of hand. You may have too many instruments, so you have a couple of options:
- Remove certain instruments.
- Mix the beat.
One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was "always take away, never add". As long as you keep it simple, you won't have any problems with your beat at the mixing stage.
My Finals Tips For You
No matter if it's hardware or software, always read the manual because it contains all the information you need to get started. Too many times I see people posting on websites asking how to do this or how to do that, when all they need to do is read the manual.
Granted, sometimes the manual does not cover every little trick and feature, but for the basics, you should be covered.
Last but not least, do what comes naturally. I wrote an article about leading the way and not following the rest and I think if all beatmakers and producers were to follow my advice, we could seriously change the sound of Hip Hop as we know it. Stop following and start leading!
There are many more topics about beatmaking, but the ones I have explained in this guide will surely get you started on making beats or inspired you to make changes to your current workflow.
If you have any questions, feel free to reply below.