I’m currently working with the Ed Sullivan Fellows program, an initiative of the NYU MusEDLab where we mentor up and coming rappers and producers. Many of them are working with beats they got from YouTube or SoundCloud. That’s fine for working out ideas, but to get to the next level, the Fellows need to be making their own beats. Partially this is for intellectual property reasons, and partially it’s because the quality of mp3s you get from YouTube is not so good. Here’s a collection of resources and ideas I collected for them, and that you might find useful too.
What should you use?
There are a lot of digital audio workstations (DAWs) out there. All of them have the same basic set of functions: a way to record and edit audio, a MIDI sequencer, and a set of samples and software instruments. My DAW of choice is Ableton Live. Most of the Sullivan Fellows favor FL Studio. Mac users naturally lean toward GarageBand and Logic. Other common tools for hip-hop producers include Reason, Pro Tools, Maschine, and in Europe, Cubase.
Traditional DAWs are not the only option. Soundtrap is a web-based DAW that’s similar to GarageBand, but with the enormous advantage that it runs entirely in the web browser. It also offers some nifty features like built-in Auto-Tune at a fraction of the usual price. The MusEDLab’s own Groove Pizza is an accessible browser-based drum sequencer. Looplabs is another intriguing browser tool.
Mobile apps are not as robust or full-featured as desktop DAWs yet, but some of them are getting there. The iOS version of GarageBand is especially tasty. Figure makes great techno loops, though you’ll need to assemble them into songs using another tool. The Launchpad app is a remarkably easy and intuitive one. See my full list of recommendations.
Where do you get sounds?
DAW factory sounds
Every DAW comes with a sample library and a set of software instruments. Pros: They’re royalty-free. Cons: They tend to be generic-sounding and overused. Be sure to tweak the presets.
Sample libraries and instrument packs
The internet is full of third-party sound libraries. They range widely in price and quality. Pros: Like DAW factory sounds, library sounds are also royalty-free, with greatly wider variety available. Cons: the best libraries are expensive.
Humans playing instruments
You could record music the way it was played from the Stone Age through about 1980. Pros: You get human feel, creativity, improvisation, and distinctive instrumental timbres and techniques. Cons: Humans are expensive and impractical to record well.
Your record collection
Using more DJ-oriented tools like Ableton, it’s perfectly effortless to pull sounds out of any existing recording. Pros: Bottomless inspiration, and the ability to connect emotionally to your listener through sounds that are familiar and meaningful to them. Cons: If you want to charge money, you will probably need permission from the copyright holders, and that can be difficult and expensive. Even giving tracks away on the internet can be problematic. I’ve been using unauthorized samples for years and have never been in any trouble, but I’ve had a few SoundCloud takedowns.
What sounds do you need?
Most hip-hop beats revolve around the components of the standard drum kit: kicks, snares, hi-hats (open and closed), crash cymbals, ride cymbals, and toms. Handclaps and finger snaps have become part of the standard hip-hop drum palette as well.
There are two kinds of drum sounds, synthetic (“fake”) and acoustic (“real”). Synthetic drums are the heart and soul of hip-hop (and most other pop and dance music at this point.) There are tons of software and hardware drum machines out there, but there are three in particular you should be aware of.
- Roland TR-808: If you could only have one drum machine for hip-hop creation, this would be the one. Every DAW contains sampled or simulated 808 sounds, sometimes labeled “old-skool” or something similar. It’s an iconic sound for good reason.
- Roland TR-909: A cousin of the 808, traditionally used more for techno. Still, you can get great hip-hop sounds out of it too. Your DAW is certain to contain some 909 sounds, often labeled with some kind of dance music terminology.
- LinnDrum: The sound of the 80s. Think Prince, or Hall And Oates. Not as ubiquitous in DAWs as the 808 and 909, but pretty common.
Acoustic drums are less common in hip-hop, though not unheard of; just ask Questlove.
Some hip-hop producers use live drummers, but it’s much easier to use sampled acoustic drums. Samples are also a good source of Afro-Cuban percussion sounds like bongos, congas, timbales, cowbells, and so on. Also consider using “non-musical” percussion sounds: trash can lids, pots and pans, basketballs bouncing, stomping on the floor, and so on.
Hip-hop uses synth bass the vast majority of the time. Your DAW comes with a variety of synth bass sounds, including the simple sine wave sub, the P-Funk Moog bass, dubstep wobbles, and many others. For more unusual bass sounds, try very low-pitched piano or organ. Bass guitar isn’t extremely common in current hip-hop, but it’s worth a try. If you want a 90s Tribe Called Quest vibe, try upright bass.
In the past decade, some hip-hop producers have followed Kanye West’s example and used tuned 808 kick drums to play their basslines. Kanye has used it on all of his albums since 808s and Heartbreak. It’s an amazing solution; those 808 kicks are huge, and if they’re carrying the bassline too, then your low end can be nice and open. Another interesting alternative is to have no bassline at all. It worked for Prince!
And what notes should your bass be playing? If you have chords, the obvious thing is to have the bass playing the roots. You can also have the bass play complicated countermelodies. We made a free online course called Theory for Producers to help you figure these things out.
Usually your chords are played on some combination of piano, electric piano, organ, synth, strings, guitar, or horns. Vocal choirs are nice too. Once again, consult Theory for Producers for inspiration. Be sure to try out chords with the aQWERTYon, which was specifically designed for this very purpose.
The same instruments that you use for chords also work fine for melodies. In fact, you can think of melodies as chords stretched out horizontally, and conversely, you can think of chords as melodies stacked up vertically.
For atmosphere in your track, ambient synth pads are always effective. Also try non-musical sounds like speech, police sirens, cash registers, gun shots, birds chirping, movie dialog, or whatever else your imagination can conjure. Make sure to visit Freesound.org – you have to sign up, but it’s worth it. Above all, listen to other people’s tracks, experiment, and trust your ears.