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February 07, 2011

Escaping The Tempo Trap

Exploring Different Tempo Ranges, And How To Avoid Getting Stuck With The Same BPM For All Of Your Beats

By AMIR SAID (SA'ID)

When it comes to making beats, setting the right tempo (BPM) isn't as easy as it might seem. Some beatmakers prefer to "tap out" the tempo of a beat in real time, while others opt to go for pre-set tempos. Both scenarios are fine, but one problem that tends to plague many beatmakers is the inability to expand the tempo range of their beats. I like to refer to this issue as the "tempo trap."

For most of us, the beats that we make fall within the same general range. And this fact is guided by the style of beats that we like as well as the base compositional style that we work from. Each beatmaking compositional style—sample-based, synthetic-sounds-based, or hybrid-based—offers its own set of possibilities and challenges, and therefore, each compositional style, along with the style and sound of beats that you like, plays a big role in the tempo ranges you will ultimately work within.

For instance, with regards to sample-based beats, up-tempo is usually not the norm for most sample-based beatmakers. One reason for this has to do with the "pitch limits" of sampling. Although sample-based beatmakers (myself included) enjoy utilizing the flexibility of being able to pitch a sample up or down, we're mindful of the fact that drastic pitch moves—up or down—away from the original pitch of the sample can encumber the sample's true potential, and thereby torpedo the chance of a dope beat. For example, if you speed the sample up too much, do you then also speed up the overall BPM of your beat's sequence? And if you increase the BPM rate, do you then have to decrease or increase the number of steps (events) in your drumwork? Sometimes, speeding a sample up (specifically, the primary sample) can be properly reconciled (depending on your style and taste) by slowing down the overall BPM of a beat, and by increasing the number of steps (events) in your drumwork. But of course, that all depends on the type and tone of the sample that you're working with.

With the synthetic-sounds-based compositional style (the so-called "keyboard beats" style), there is perhaps more flexibility with tempo ranges. After all, once free of the sometimes inflexibility of samples, synthetic-sounds-based beatmakers can presumably work from a much broader tempo range. Well, in theory that's correct. But in practice, this isn't always the case. Here, the important thing to remember is that contemporary hip hop/rap music is pretty much underscored by a median tempo range, I'd say somewhere between 93 - 99 BPM. Still, there are certainly slower and faster tempos being used in hip hop/rap. But anything much slower is typically used for today's "R&B" ballads. Likewise, anything much faster is typically used for urban pop dance tunes rather than core hip hop/rap styles and sounds. Hence, even most synthetic-sounds-based beats ascribe to similar tempo ranges that are found among sample-based beats.

But even though the three main beatmaking compositional styles defer, generally speaking, to the same tempo ranges, the reality still remains that some beatmakers get stuck in a tempo trap, making beats that are consistently too slow or too fast. So how do you break from this? For me, the key to escaping the pitch trap has always been my insistence on practicing making beats within four distinct tempo ranges (BPM ranges): 83 - 87; 88 - 93; 94 - 98; and 99 - 103 BPM (fine tune +/- 5%).

Typically, most of my beats fall within the 94 - 98 BPM range. However, I still practice (experiment) with much slower and faster tempos, because doing so helps me to better understand the subtle vibe and nuance differences between smaller tempo ranges. For example, on the surface, the difference between let's say 96 and 97 BPM is minimal. But depending on all of the elements of the beat—samples, synthetic sounds, arrangement scheme, drumwork, etc.—the slight incremental BPM difference can either "push," "pull," or "shuffle" the movement (pace) of the entire beat.

As a rhymer, I can not stress enough the importance of feeling the right pace of a beat. If I feel (know) the beat is "pushing," then I know to be quick with my rhyme flow and to truncate more words at certain spots in each measure. If I feel (know) the beat is "pulling," then I know to lag with my rhyme flow. And if I feel (know) the beat is "shuffling," then I know to increase my word count in each bar, which requires me to be very careful with my breath control. In each case, when I'm creating a new beat, knowing the subtle differences that occur between incremental BPM changes helps me to quickly identify what tempo the beat should be at (especially for me to appropriately rhyme to it). Because of this, I never get "trapped" in either a slow or fast BPM zone. Instead, I'm always prepared to set the right tempo for the style and sound of beat that I'm working on.

Finally, I should also point out that even though I rarely use beats that are north of 99 BPM, there are several reasons that I like to still practice making beats at faster tempos. Using my own tempo and loop exercises, in which I use higher tempo ranges (usually 103 - 125 BPM) with the same primary sample over different drumwork sequences, allows me to work on ideas that I have for new drum structures. It also helps me to audition new snare sounds. I should also add that practicing with faster tempos also helps me to better understand the different ways that loops can "work" at faster and slower tempos.

*Editor's Note: The BeatTips Manual includes a detailed discussion of the sample-based, synthetic-sounds-based, and hybrid compositional styles of beatmaking.

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The BeatTips Manual by Sa'id.
"The most trusted source for information on beatmaking and hip hop/rap music education."

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