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5 posts from October 2012

October 15, 2012

The BeatTips Community: Merging Your Sampling Skills with Live Instrumentation

Making Sample-Based and Live Instrumentation Arrangements


DJ PAS, a TBC (The BeatTips Community) member, posed a great question about getting into DJ'ing to help his beatmaking skills, "Strictly Sample Based Chopper goes Komplete 8 Ultimate" In his comment, he mentioned his recent interest in incorporating Native Instrument's Komplete 8 into his setup in an effort to include live instrumentation ("keys, strings, and horns...") into his production. He specifically wanted ideas on how to mesh his sampling with his non-sampling. PAS's original question, followed by replies from Castro, Kregan, and myself. Note, the thread kind of went in a different direction after Kregan's post, but the breast of Kregan's comment, as well as my own, are nonetheless important to this discussion.

As strictly a sample based producer, I didn't think that I'd spend some money on instrument software. But as NI has done a crossgrade price drop, I couldnt resist.
So I'm starting to collaborate my sampling skills with live instrumentation soon.
It's less of a question than it is searchin for tips on how YOU do it as a non-sampling producer.

How you get your chords together?

I remember times that i tried to play the keys
(I had 4 yrs Keys education as a child) for producing, but most of the time it sounded for me like childish gibberish toy melody, you digg?
How do you get your shit together on a pro melody (Keys, Strings, Horns...)?

Thanx for tips n tricks how you get your non sample music groovin. —DJ PAS

Castro's reply:

What Up Pas,

Right out the gate I can truly appreciate what you're doing, furthering your means for which music can be created. What NI products are you looking into?

If I'm not mistaken, I believe what you're asking is how to arrange instrumentation as well as playing chords. As far as arrangement goes, that's entirely up to you. (It should be noted however that this is by far one of the most difficult things to do in music. It's one thing to play an instrument, it's another thing to know where and when it fits into compositions.) Strictly speaking, listening to artists like Queen, who were able to make a song into this rock opera style, is really impressive. The arrangements of songs like Bohemian Rhapsody are a testament to true musicianship. Listen to artists who do more than loop phrases, even a song like Ronnie Spector's Be My Baby is a good example of a perfect arrangement. Knowing where and when to make transitions is just as important as knowing how to create the actual sounds.

With Chords, it's a little less ambiguous than arrangements. http://www.8notes.com/piano_chord_chart/ That's a website for learning chords, use it. Most people who start playing stuff out on keyboards are generally limited by not being ambidextrous, which is natural, as it takes time to build up muscle in your "weak" hand. There are finger exercises to do in order to increase elasticity as well as speed across keys. Practicing with a metronome is advisable as well in order to learn how to stay with the time signature.

Here's a trick I learned regarding chords: Take a scale from any note, pick out a couple of notes from that scale and play it in a chord like fashion below C 0 (or down 1 octave). Then take some of the remaining notes from the scale you haven't triggered in the lower octave, and play them one or two octaves above. This is a kind of "cluster" chord or scale chord that tends to have real full and pleasing tone.

Piano notes are measured in halves, so a white key to a white key is full step. In other words, if you go from C to D, that's a full step, but if you go from C to C#, that's a half step. So in order to figure out the Major Scale for any given note, here is the formula: 1 w(hole) 2 w 3 h(alf) 4 w 5 w 6 w 7 h. This means if you start on C, the next note in the scale is D, then D#, then F and so on. For a minor scale, the formula is: 1 w 2 h 3 w 4 w h 6 w 7 w. The 8th note will always be the note you started on in the octave beneath it.

There are also some VSTi's, as well as hardware, that have a "Chorder" option, like the Fantom X. You can create and program your own chords and then trigger them by touching just one key. The only problem is that most chorders only allow a single chord at a time, (not just that you can only press key at a time, monophonic, which is true in most cases), but you can't put two or more different chords across the keys at once. It acts as more of a "hit" than actual piano playing.

I hear good things about Komplete 8, let me know your thoughts on it after you've had some time to explore it.

I must admit, I'm still somewhat confused by what you mean as far as "process of finding chords". I can't say that I've personally gone into a beat with the mentality of let me start in the key of C or play a diminished chord etc etc, I just go with what feels right. Sometimes I create my own chords, a combination of keys that just sounds pleasing to my ear that I run with, might not even be a "real" (major, minor etc) chord sometimes. I will say however that once I've found that initial chord, depending on its complexity, finding the next appropriate chord in the progression can be tricky, sometimes I even have to play it out key by key. It's in doing this though that you start to understand how one chord moves to the next, and it becomes simpler to do with other chords.

Again, arrangement is entirely up to you. There is no "right" way, there may be some templates for certain genres, like hip-hop having an 8 bar hook and a 16 bar verse with a 4 bar breakdown or bridge occasionally. Arrangement should compliment the sounds/instruments that comprise it and vice-versa. Sometimes you might have a dope patch, something totally unique or just dope for whatever reason, but rather than obliterating the track with the same noise in a repetitive fashion, maybe you just throw in a pinch here and there. Think of arrangement like cooking, you don't have to over-do it on the spices in order to get flavor, they just have to be balanced.

If you are not a trained pianist, then you should not expect yourself to perform as such. You know how to get to Carnegie Hall? Practice! It might sound "childish" to you right now, but that could be more than just your ability to play. Sometimes, even the simplest melodies/notation, are brought to life by how they sound and not how they are played. (Interestingly enough, the counter argument, that it's how you play it, is just as important, so it's quite the paradox) Consider adding reverb, adjusting the Cutoff or Resonance, ADSR etc etc.

What might be most beneficial to you at this juncture would be to learn more about sound design. The more you know about wave shapes and what goes into creating a "voice", the deeper you will be able to edit and modify sounds according to your specifications. I would recommend the Yamaha Sound Reinforcement Handbook, technical read, but worth it. There's also the tried and true method of just messing around as well, even though if you wind up making something dope, you might want to know how you did what you did (of course you could always work backwards but hey).

Kregan's reply:

I experimented with synths and such a couple years ago after I had been sampling for a year or so. When I did, I didn't even really stress about melodies, I made a handful of beats that were right there in quality with my sample based beats very quickly.

However I wasn't using traditional sounds like pianos, I was using more atmospheric sounds, tweaking the patches, then laying other random sounds over the top and that sort of thing.

If you want to learn how to play melodies and such that's cool, more power to you, but don't think it's required or even necessary especially since we are talking about hip hop music.

There's so much flexibility and customization with a good synthesizer that being able to play a melody won't even come up, unless of course that's what your aiming for which is also cool.


What's Up Kregan, I was hoping you could elaborate further about the end of that statement, the "especially since we are talking about hip hop music" part.


Hey Cas

I was referring to how in hip hop music rhythm is the main priority, and melody and harmony play a secondary role to the rhythm.

I learnt this from the beattips manual and have made it a focus in my own practice.

Out of curiosity what is your compositional style? I would guess your either sample based or you take the hybrid approach.


A part of me agrees with that initial statement about rhythm but it seems somewhat quixotic or somewhat of a paradox. I don't wish to derail this thread by going into it, but I'm not sure if it's as simple as rhythm>melody>harmony.

I try to cover all sides of the spectrum when it comes to my style, a little bit of sampling a little bit of keyboards etc etc. For the most part I do not sample anymore, unless it's just one of those "have-to-flip" scenarios. It's been more rewarding creating my own material by far. As of late my interest is in playing the actual instruments, because the one thing that synth's don't replicate is the "air" and "warmth" from certain recording processes. Aiming to be a one man band, so one day someone will want to sample my material.


Peace Castro,

With regards to hip hop/rap music, I don't think Kregan was trying to simplify the roles that rhythm, melody, and harmony play. In nearly all twentieth-century popular American music, musicians can not escape the principles of rhythm, melody, and harmony—typically, all are always in effect in some form or fashion. However, it is a *fact—objective, and nothing to agree or disagree with—that certain musics and music traditions (here in America and around the world) prioritize rhythm over melody and harmony.

That said, people are welcome to make music in any way that they prefer. This means that people can play up the role of melody and harmony in the music they make, and decrease the role of rhythm whenever they want to. Of course, in hip hop/rap music, this is where subjectivity meets the crux of the tradition.

Thing is, everyone has there preferences for styles, sounds, and methods. And it is this choice of each beatmaker that represents the *subjective realm. The *objective realm involves the facts. Fact is, hip hop/rap music began as a music tradition that focused squarely on the rhythm. Over time, starting with the Studio Band Period of beatmaking, the role of melody and harmony grew in hip hop/rap music amongst a number of beatmakers. Again, these are the objective facts of the tradition over 30 plus years.

So naturally, where we stand today is, there are beatmakers who hold tight to rhythm more than they do melody and harmony. Conversely, there are beatmakers who hold tight to melody and harmony more than they do to rhythm. And that's where the subjectivity comes in to play. Some beatmakers prefer to stick closer to the crux of the tradition, the more fundamental or primary tropes. For others, however, such an approach is less important, as they're less interested in that and more interested in creating a style and sound that prominently infuses tropes from other music traditions. One compositional path might focus more on sampling; the other might focus on live instrumentation. Both choices are valid, and as such, they should both be respected. However, this does not mean that we should ignore the fact that one style is closer to the roots of our tradition than the other.

But let's be clear, here: The methods, styles, and general approaches that we choose keep us squarely within, on the margins of, or outside of one music tradition or another. Each music tradition has its own boundaries. And that's a good thing. These boundaries help us identify, understand, and distinguish one music from another. However, for years, musicians have been pushing these boundaries, merging the edges of multiple traditions into a new style and sound. This is called "fusion" (which I'm sure you know). Fusion is responsible for a lot great music. For example, British ska, seriously one of my all-time favorite music traditions, relies on a blend of reggae, Jamaican ska, punk, and pop. But it's important to remember that a fusion of styles and sounds is not necessarily better or worse than any of the singular styles that comprise it.

So Kregan has simply made an educated choice. He's looked at the history of our tradition, he's considered the mainstays and numerous developments over the last 30 plus years, he's factored in his own sensibilities, and he's concluded that he'd like to identify with a style and sound that's closer to the roots of our tradition, which means opting for a more rhythm-based style and sound. However, another person could read the exact same history and information in The BeatTips Manual and come to an opposite conclusion, opting for a style and sound that's further away from the roots of our tradition, going for a style and sound that prominently features melody and harmony and reduces the role of rhythm. That's certainly not beyond the pale of things. But for the prior choice (Kregan's case), a focus on melody and harmony is not a requirement, "especially since we are talking about hip hop music."


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The BeatTips Manual by Sa'id.
"The most trusted name in beatmaking and hip hop/rap music education."

October 11, 2012

BeatTips Advice Column: Should I Switch Back to the MPC from the Maschine?

Feel, Nuance, Needs, and Approach Holds they Answer


Each day, I get emails from BeatTips readers asking for advice on a number of different topics. Some questions are quite specific, but most share common themes or at least present consistent parallels. Therefore, I will be compiling an ongoing list of the questions that I receive daily, and I will present them here in the BeatTips Advice Column, along with my complete answer and any additional insight that comes to mind.

I should further point out that if I'm ever asked a question that could be answered more thoroughly by another BeatTips contributor or colleague, I will be sure to post their answer here instead.

For each installment of the BeatTips Advice Column, I welcome and encourage everyone to chime in with any additional questions or accounts of their experiences as it pertains to the particular BeatTips Advice Column question. Finally, I want to make it clear that it is my hope that readers will gain the level of insight necessary to act on the various questions and concerns before them.

If you need any advice on any issue involving beatmaking or your music career, email me at beattips [at] gmail [dot] com, and I will get back to you as soon as I can.



"Wanted to get your advice on something. I've been making beats since 1990 and came up on the sp12 and s900 than went to the sp 1200 to s950 than the mpc 3000 til I sold it and went over to a software-based setup, where I now use Maschine. As cool as it is with being able to use plug ins with it and all that, I just ain't getting that boom bap, golden era shit I love. I recently MIDI'd up a s950 I recently got to it, and I did get some really good results. But im trying to decide if I should cop an mpc 60 that i recently got offerd as a trade for maschine. Im tryin to decide if to rock wit mpc 60 MIDI'd to my Mac using Logic pro 8 or maschine and my s950."


I completely understand...
Here's the thing. When it comes to the musical instruments or gear that you use, more important than anything else, you have to feel good about the instruments that you're using to make your music. Regardless of what anyone might try to convince you of, the way you feel about your gear translates directly (and indirectly) into the music that you make! Remember, creating music is more psychological than it is physical.

As for software gear options, certainly software programs are capable of achieving the technical steps. However, achieving the nuances, in this case, a boom bap feel and such, is another dimension. Can the nuances of boom bap be achieved with software-based setups like Maschine? I believe so. BUT, how are these nuances captured using software vs. using hardware? That's the critical question. Someone with a background on an Akai MPC or an E-Mu SP 1200 is more likely to capture that nuance differently when they switch to the Maschine than someone without a background with those standalone hardware instruments.

I have experience with Reason, and I understand its flexibility and its appeal. But I prefer my MPC/S950 rig. I use my MPC 60 II/ S950 combo prominently. I also use my MPC 4000 by itself and MIDI'up with my Akai S950. Personally, my production setup makes me feel more like a musician; software, on the other hand, makes me feel more like a computer programmer, even though obviously my MPCs and S950 rely on an internal computer and operating system.

Thing is, I just turn on my MPCs and S950, and I just start playing. I don't get the same feeling with software. However, I suspect that there are many people who do connect with software-based setups in the manner that I just described. Incidentally, that's one reason why the Maschine is popular—it offers a bridge between the a hardware instrument and a software environment. There are tremendous advantages to that setup if you feel you need them for your style and sound.

But my advice in your particular case, especially since you know what style and sound that you're going for and you have a solid grasp of software, is to cop the MPC 60, then MIDI it up with the Akai S590. Two notes: Make sure that the MPC 60 is in good shape and fully functional. Also, make sure that you have full memory in your Akai S950.

Bottom line: Go in the direction that you feel, never convince yourself of anything based on flexibility specs alone. Instead, go for the capability/functionality that matches exactly what you know that you need (and will likely use) for your particular beatmaking approach and the style and sound of music that you want to make.


The BeatTips Manual by Sa'id.
"The most trusted name in beatmaking and hip hop/rap music education."

October 07, 2012

What's Your Meaning of “Dope”?

Why the Best Meaning of Dope Defers to Hip Hop's Graffiti Heyday


In graffiti, you couldn't fake your way to the top... You had to have skill, knowledge and understanding of color and light, a strong sense of design, and the guts to actually tag a wall or subway train. Necessarily, "dope" wasn't a loose term bandied about by graffiti writers. “Dope” was taken seriously; it wasn’t a casual word. Instead, it was a reference meant to convey recognition of top quality in the craft.

To the early graffiti writers, “dope" meant something powerful. It didn't just mean that something looked good; it held several important connotations. If a writer’s piece was deemed dope by another writer, it meant that the writer who made the claim well-understood the art form. It meant the writer understood the fact that various styles gave way to new styles, and that the writer could appreciate the fact that general styles developed off of the styles that came before, and that personal styles developed as writers stood on the shoulders of dope writers before them. Deeply important was recognition of the chief architects and leading practitioners of the various styles. Equally important, it meant that the writer, through his own style and fundamental understanding of the art form, knew how to create an original piece of artwork. Moreover, it meant that the writer knew how to render his own interpretation while still representing the core style he or she was working from. In this way, the word “dope” was guarded, if you will, by the well-recognized and broadly understood importance of knowledge of craft, sense of originality, and dedication to quality. In other words, there was a shared understanding of the word dope among hip hop’s early graffiti writers.

If we were to apply the early graffiti writer’s understanding to the hip hop/rap music tradition, and more specifically, its biggest sub-tradition, beatmaking, could we say that today “dope” carries the same meaning and weight? To be certain, as sub-cultures and art forms like hip hop/rap music make their way into the mainstream, so does much of its language. Newscasts now regularly feature mentions of someone being “dissed”; politicians openly give “shout outs;” and so on. Likewise, terms usually reserved by the actual artisans of the culture become the mainstream public domain as well. Which now means that even the most casual fan of hip hop/rap music can call something dope just as much as someone’s who’s life backdrop is hip hop. Fair enough.

But what then of the meaning and weight of the word “dope”? It’s absurd to say that any one group owns the word. Still, no culture has more claim to the word dope than hip hop. And within that scope, no one has more say in defining what’s dope than the artisans of each of hip hop’s four main artistic elements. Now, every artisan has his own opinion, of course. But certainly, aren’t there some shared characteristics at work when someone calls something dope? Or at least shouldn’t there be? So in the beatmaking tradition, shouldn’t there also be a shared understanding of the word dope?

Let’s think about this. Shouldn’t there be some fundamental characteristics of dopeness that all beatmakers understand, recognize, and revere? Or should it be simply be left alone as one beatmaker’s “opinion” when he or she assigns the “dope” attribution to a beat or another beatmaker?

I suspect that the word dope will continue to borough deeper into the mainstream, and in that regard, beatmakers (and rappers) will not have any say in defining what the word means. However, beatmakers do have a say in defining what dope is in our realm. We can speak up against the loose tossing of the word dope. We can remind each other of the fundamentals of our craft. We can hold the chief architects and practitioners of our craft with the high esteem that they deserve, all the while recognizing that new styles and sounds stand on their shoulders. And we can reject the cheap dismissal of our architects and pioneers by those new music makers who regularly chose to do so. We can draw attention to the elements, factors, components, nuances, and characteristics that have always been considered fundamentally dope in the hip hop/rap music and beatmaking traditions. And we can inform those who are truly uninformed about all of these well recognized and well established elements, or speak out against those who attempt to degrade them. We can remind ourselves that dope is a continuum of our culture and tradition, not a departure from it.

Finally, when each of us deems something to be “dope,” we can all simply ask ourselves, ‘Who else among us would likely say the same, and why?’ When I was writing rhymes and developing my skill at it, I'd ask myself, 'Would Kool G. Rap, Rakim, or Nas think its dope?' And when I was making beats and developing my skill at that, I'd ask myself, 'Would Large Professor, DJ Premier, The RZA, or Pete Rock think its dope?' Still to this day, when I write a rhyme or make a beat, I still ask myself that same question.

The BeatTips Manual by Sa'id.
"The most trusted name in beatmaking and hip hop/rap music education."

October 05, 2012

BeatTips Presents The Imperial Beat Picks

3 Tracks that Beatmakers Should Listen To and Analyze


It’s been said before that in order to make good music, you need to listen to good music. As a beatmaker, you always want to surround yourself with inspiration and be an active listener. Production analysis is a valuable tool, as it provides the answers to many of your questions, and inspiration for future projects. If you spot a production technique purely through listening, you are gaining a valuable insight into the producer’s world, which will enable you to hone your own skills.

The 3 tracks I have selected offer different lessons. Whilst there are many things that could be said from a production perspective on each of these tracks, I have picked out some key lessons from each track that I think are of value to all beatmakers.

The music and videos below are presented here for the purpose of scholarship.

Mr J Medeiros – "Pale Blue Dot 20syl Remix" ft. Shad (Pale Dot Blue EP)

If you haven’t heard of Mr J Medeiros, Shad or 20syl, do yourself a favor and check them out ASAP. Mr J has been a favourite emcee of mine for a little while now. He is one half of group The Procussions (Stro Elliot, the other half, mainly handles production duties). The good news for Pro’s fans is they are currently working on a new album that they hope to drop in early 2013. It’s powered by an indiegogo campaign, so support if you can. Both members of The Procussions have worked with 20syl (French producer/DJ/Emcee for Hocus Pocus and C2C) before and this remix shows off why he is worthy of all the plaudits he gets. 20syl combines sampled and non-sampled elements with ease. On the track presented below, notice how the sampled ‘chorus’ vocals harmonise with the sung vocals in the chorus and also carry their own hook. Through additional synth parts, filtering and drops in the drum pattern, the track keeps rolling and has a good dynamic ebb and flow. Also, peep how the arrangement is quite dense during the verses, but through good use of panning and EQ, no parts are competing for space in the mix.

Pep Love – "Hip Hop My Friend (Rigmarole)"

Pep Love has given us the one of the greatest Hip Hop tracks of 2012. The beat, the concept, and the production are flawless, and it encapsulate all that is good about hip hop and music in general. Produced by Scandal Beats, this track shows him to be a producer with an ear for a sample. Whatever your view on whether or not you should chop samples, re-arrange them, process them, detune them, etc., you have to admire how this track has been put together. The simplicity of the instrumental is a good reminder of the less is more philosophy in beatmaking. There can be a danger of over-complicating a beat and not leaving enough space for an emcee or even a hook. Too many chops can lead to a disjointed instrumental with no sense of groove or hook. Here, the drum programming works immaculately with the sample and the additional bassline is blended nicely with the sample. To achieve this, the slope of the high-pass filter applied to the sample is extremely important. A steep slope (36/48db per octave) will clean up the low end without affecting too much around the set cut-off point. Around 150Hz is a good starting point. Sometimes it pays to keep it simple.

Oddisee – "Let it Go (People Hear What They See)"

Anything Oddisee touches turns to gold! (Furthermore, the whole Mellow Music Group team are producing quality hip hop and are well worth following.) Oddisee, with a long list of production credits has already established himself as a heavyweight in the beatmaking arena. “Let It Go” is reminiscent of Isaacs Hayes’ 1971 theme tune for Shaft, as it builds from 16th note hi-hats and wah guitar, albeit at a slower tempo. Oddisee seamlessly combines samples with recorded instrumental parts, in fact, so much so, that it’s hard in places to pin point what is a sample and what is an original recording. The use of instrumentalists is something he has been focusing on recently in his production. He is both a beatmaker’s beatmaker and a traditional producer’s, producer. The inspiring lesson from Oddisee’s production is to break out of the bedroom with your MPC/Maschine/Logic/FLStudio and meet musicians who play physical instruments. Indeed, Oddisee reminds us of the importance of learning microphone technique—choice, position and placement; learning about acoustics and reflections; and learning about music theory. (The BeatTips Manual includes a great part on music theory.) Of course, all of this learning takes time, and it is not always practical or appropriate on every beat to add recorded musicians. However, writing music with other musicians will stretch and challenge you and you will be a more rounded producer for it.

Dave Walker (Imperial)

The BeatTips Manual by Sa'id.
"The most trusted name in beatmaking and hip hop/rap music education."

October 03, 2012

There's No Quick Fix for a Core Setup

Building Out the Setup That’s Right for You Means Taking No Shortcuts


When it comes to beatmaking setups, if there's almost one sure thing, it's the likelihood that you will, at some point, add and/or subtract something from your setup. Indeed, the right core setup is not something that most beatmakers obtain easily, or early. Although some beatmakers are still using the exact core setup that they began with, many more are using a core setup that is different from the one that they began with.

For years people have asked me one of the most deceptively simple questions, "What do I need to make beats?" Well, the truth is, what I need, what someone else needs, and what you need are three entirely different things. Because each of us are different—in terms of taste, creative style, and work ethic—it naturally follows that each beatmaker needs the music production tools that are best suited for them. Now, it's certainly understood that beatmaking requires specific electronic music production tools. However, although these tools may share some similarity in the functions that they embody, the ways in which these functions manifest themselves in an individual's own music-making style and workflow differs dramatically.

This brings me to the point of the article: No quick-fix core setup. I've received many questions about "how to make my drum sound like MPC drums," or "What's the best way to customize .wav file sounds?" Typically, these sort of questions are followed by, "Should I just get...?" Thing is, many beatmakers approach building a setup like they're trying patch multiple holes in a broken water pipe system. Sticking with this analogy, one must recognize when it's time to not merely add or replace a pipe here and there, but instead, to replace the system itself.

Thus, when building out your beatmaking (music production) setup, I strongly recommend that you do not take the "quick-fix" approach. That is to say, take no shortcuts! Whether you have the financial resources at the time or not, invest in the sort of music production tools that fit your personal approach to creativity and your preference for working within a hardware or software environment. And keep this in mind: More often than not, the beatmaking tools that are right for you are usually the tools that are perhaps most right for the sound and style that you're trying to achieve.

The BeatTips Manual by Sa'id.
"The most trusted name in beatmaking and hip hop/rap music education."

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