Beatmaking fundamentals

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.

Sullivan Fellows - beatmaking with FL Studio

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 browser-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.

Sullivan Fellows - beatmaking with iOS GarageBand

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.

Sullivan Fellows - beatmaking with Pro Tools

What sounds do you need?

Drums

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 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-808: A cousin of the 808 that’s 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.

And how do you learn where to place these drum sounds? Try the specials on the Groove Pizza. Here are some additional hip-hop classics to experiment with.

When The Levee Breaks:

Groove Pizza - When The Levee Breaks

It’s A New Day:

Groove Pizza - It's A New Day

The Big Beat:

Groove Pizza - The Big Beat

Amen Break (slightly simplified):

Groove Pizza - simplified Amen Break

Nas Is Like:

Groove Pizza - Nas Is Like

So Fresh, So Clean:

Groove Pizza - So Fresh, So Clean

Bass

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.

Chords

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.

Leads

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.

FX

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.

Milo meets Beethoven

For his birthday, Milo got a book called Welcome to the Symphony by Carolyn Sloan. We finally got around to showing it to him recently, and now he’s totally obsessed.

Welcome To The Symphony by Carolyn Sloan

The book has buttons along the side which you can press to hear little audio samples. They include each orchestra instrument playing a short Beethoven riff. All of the string instruments play the same “bum-bum-bum-BUMMM” so you can compare the sounds easily. All the winds play a different little phrase, and the brass another. The book itself is fine and all, but the thing that really hooked Milo is triggering the riffs one after another, Ableton-style, and singing merrily along.

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Goodbye SoundCloud?

I love SoundCloud. I love it for being an exceptionally easy way to share my music with people all over the world. I love the community aspect, especially the Disquiet Junto. I have all of my students host their portfolios there. But like a lot of the electronic musicians who form the heart of the SoundCloud userbase, I’m running into some problems with copyright.

Recently, I needed to unwind from a stressful morning, so I fired up Ableton, put in some Super Mario Bros mp3s and James Brown breaks, and went to town. I uploaded the results to my SoundCloud page, as usual, but got one of their increasingly frequent copyright notices.

SoundCloud copyright notice

I’ve uploaded a lot of material to SoundCloud that violates copyright law in various ways, and for the most part, no one has made any objection. I’ve occasionally used some long intact samples that triggered takedown notices, but my remixes and mashups are usually transformative enough to slip through the filter. Lately, however, I’m finding that SoundCloud has dramatically stepped up its copyright enforcement. A few months ago, I could have posted my Super Mario Bros/James Brown mashup without any trouble. Not any more.

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Pedagogical remixing with Splice

My newest music student is a gentleman named Rob Precht. As is increasingly the case with people I teach privately, Rob lives many time zones away, and he and I have never met face to face. Instead, we’ve been conducting lessons via a combination of Skype and Splice. It’s the first really practical remote music teaching method I’ve used, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Rob came to me via this very blog. He’s a semi-retired lawyer who took some piano lessons as a kid but doesn’t have much other music training or experience. He approached me because he wanted to compose original music, and he thought (correctly) that computer-based production would be the best way to go about it. He had made a few tracks with GarageBand, but quickly switched over to Ableton Live after hearing me rave about it. We decided that the best approach would be to have him just continue to stumble through making original tracks, and I would help him refine and develop them.

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Hip-hop top 100

I was asked on Quora to give a list of my favorite hip-hop songs, because what better source is there than a forty-year-old white dad? (I am literally a mountain climber who plays the electric guitar.) I did grow up in New York City in the 80s, and I do love the music. But ultimately, I’m a tourist in this culture. For a more definitive survey, ask Questlove or someone. These are just songs that I like.

Run-DMC

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Modern classical techno

One of my Montclair State students recently did a class presentation on Venetian Snares, the stage name of highbrow electronica producer Aaron Funk.

The track uses samples from the first movement of Béla Bartók’s fourth string quartet, accompanied by shuffled slices of the Amen break. It sounds to me like an EDM artist trying to deal with “art” music. Eliot Britton wrote an art-musical scholarly response. Britton makes a good-faith effort to engage the track on its own terms, but he’s writing from within the classical academic tradition. That tradition can be a king-sized drag.

The climb from a popular musical style to acceptance as an elevated form of artistic expression is steep. The struggle to include jazz as legitimate art music took many years and the endeavour continues to this day. However, it is no longer acceptable for educated musicians to dismiss jazz as “dance music” because of its association with the dance hall. To dismiss jazz as an artistic musical form would be a rejection of a major element of North American music history.

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The Blurred Lines lawsuit

Marvin Gaye is one of the great singers and songwriters of all time, with a status deservedly approaching secular sainthood. Robin Thicke is a sleazy dirtbag who made a giant pile of money by knocking off one of Marvin’s songs to produce a rapey earworm,  accompanied by a porn video. Naturally, I side with Team Marvin, and am delighted that Thicke and Pharrell lost the lawsuit.

While my fellow musicians are gleefully crowing, other observers are worried that this case sets a bad precedent. Michaelangelo Matos is among them.

I encourage vocal fans of this verdict to demonstrate their solidarity by deleting and/or destroying every piece of music they own featuring an unlicensed sample or bearing a notable resemblance to an earlier piece of music. But they won’t, and they shouldn’t, because that would entail deleting just about everything. Even if you loathe Thicke, this is no cause for celebration, because the size of the Gaye estate’s bounty is only going to encourage more lawsuits like this one.

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Sampling composers

Morey, J., & McIntyre, P. (2014). The Creative Studio Practice of Contemporary Dance Music Sampling Composers. Dancecult, 6(1), 41–60.

There is so much to love about this paper, starting with the title. You can read it the way it was intended, that dance music producers are composers. Or you can creatively misread it to mean that the dance producers are using samples of other composers. It works equally well either way.

Sampling consists of acts of listening, selecting and editing

In the age of the internet, effectively any sound that has ever been recorded becomes available raw material for new music. The challenge with sampling isn’t so much identifying possible sample sources as it is managing the vast universe of possibilities. The listening and selecting steps in the sampling process are really the hard parts. The editing and looping are comparatively easy.

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