15 posts categorized "Inside the Beat"

October 16, 2014

BeatTips Inside the Beat: Creating an Arrangement to Fit an Idea

Using Your Composite Idea as a Guide to Capture the Essence and Feel You Envision

By AMIR SAID (SA'ID)

Eight years ago, my father died. He was the first person to introduce me to music... Because of his interest in "hi-fidelity" stereo systems, premium speakers, and recording equipment in general, I suppose you could say he was also the first person to introduce me to audio recording. But his love for music and audio equipment aside, he's also responsible for producing some, let's say, rather turbulent times when I was a kid. So while working on a new beat one day, I was playing back some of those times in my head, and it helped me to come up with a composite idea for beat.


I like to use the term composite idea to refer to the complete picture, i.e. the framework or blueprint that I get in my head for a beat/song. It's like a photographic snapshot that I both see and hear. Perhaps you could say that it's a little more than intuition. But for me it's a special moment in my creative process. So I like to dignify that moment by giving it a name.


For the song "I Remember My Dad," included below for study, the composite idea that I had was for a beat with some sort of overall challenging pitch/tempo scheme. Something that could audibly parallel the real shifts in happiness, anger, and disappointment that my father provoked when I was a kid. And, because above all, he really was a kind-hearted, no-nonsense sort of man, I wanted the framework of the beat to convey this conflict while honoring him as much as I could. I wanted a sound that not only expressed his tragedy, but a sound that also authentically reflected both the good and bad of those times, and how they filtered through to help shape who I am today.


With this in mind, I immediately thought about sampling some strings. So I went through a couple of albums that I have with female jazz vocalists. (Incidentally, there are some terrific string arrangements to be found with female jazz vocalists.) Among the records I listened to, I didn't find anything that quite fit my composite idea. But by listening to those records, I did get a clearer picture of it. And now with a sharper focus, I stuck with the female vocalist theme, and shifted my diggin' search from jazz to soul, where I found exactly what I needed to begin the foundation of my composite idea.


There was this really uplifting choir & harps section on this one record. By itself, it was light. But I knew that after I sampled it, I could add weight, i.e. bass, boom, dirt, etc., as well as some "color" to it. This way I could make it sound haunting and robust. Of course, part of boosting it up came before I even sampled it, when I adjusted the EQs on my mixing board, where I have my DJ mixer routed to before it hits the inputs of any of my samplers.


Having sampled this choir & harps spare-part phrase (I discuss compositional phrases in The BeatTips Manual) via my Akai MPC 4000, I chopped it (manually, not auto-chop) to spec. Then, I filtered it using my MPC's high-pass filter. Once I had the feel and the sound in place, I duplicated the sample and created two versions of it, one at the original pitch level that I sampled it at, and the other several pitch levels down. So now I had, C&H (choir & harps) pitch 1 and C&H pitch 2.


With the two choir & harps phrases, C&H pitch 1 and C&H pitch 2, I created a 2-bar sequence with C&H pitch 1 starting the first bar and C&H pitch 2 at the opening of the second bar. Together, this 2-bar sequence made up a "break" (in The BeatTips Manual I explain this concept of the break in greater detail).


At this point, half of my composite idea was already set. What I needed to do now was to work in the right drum framework. In keeping with the theme of contradiction (or contrast), I wanted to build a drum pattern that was solid enough to rock on its own. I didn't want anything soft or deferential to the choir & harps sound. Also, I wanted to use hi-hats and rides in a way that helped to push and shuffle the beat along as I rhymed to it. Note: I only used one hi-hat and one ride, BUT I used them in at least four different ways, ranging from different velocity and duration settings on the hi-hat/open hat to elongation and truncation on the ride hits.


After I created the drum pattern on my MPC, I recorded it into Pro Tools. In Pro Tools, I quickly added some reverb and light EQ to each of the drum sounds, then I sampled the pattern — not the individual drum hits — back into my MPC. Once back inside my MPC, I assigned the entire drum pattern to one drum pad. This is what I used as the drum framework: a drum break created and customized by me. Note: This didn't take long at all, because I only recorded about two bars worth of the drum pattern into Pro Tools. Once I sampled back inside the MPC, I chopped it down and looped it. Now the framework was nearly complete!


But I still wanted to add in some stylistic changes.... First, I sampled a vocal part (from the same record as the Choir & Harps) that had some bass behind it. I did this on purpose, because I knew that I was going to turn it into an elongated sound-stab that could play and rise up at certain parts of the verse section of the arrangement. Once I sampled it, I chopped it down. I wanted to make it rise and to sound somewhat brighter, so I filtered it with the MPC's notch filter and turned up the volume on it.
(I should point out that when I had the entire beat tracked into Pro Tools, I had to slap a limiter on this sound-stab so that it didn't rise too much.)


Next, I sampled a piano & guitar riff, which I chopped down and filtered with my MPC's high-pass filter. I had to cut a lot of the original treble to make it much warmer, and to make it blend with the fade of the choir & harps sample.


Finally, I worked in my customized floor tom. Here's where knowing your sounds really comes into play. I used my floor tom, at two different pitch levels, not as percussive elements but mostly as bass support for the choir & harps sample. When you hear the song below, listen carefully to how I arranged the floor toms. You will notice that the timbre of the floor toms work like a bass when pitched, arranged, and combined with the fade of the choir & harps sample. Because I know my floor tom sound, I know what it's capable of and how it can be used like a bass-stab.


When I was finished with the beat, my composite idea was realized. And the only thing then left for me to do was to write and record the composite rhyme that I had....

The music below is presented here for the purpose of scholarship.

Sa'id - "I Remember My Dad" (Prod. by Sa'id)

Download "I Remember My Dad" by Sa'id


Sa'id - "I Remember My Dad" beat breakdown

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The BeatTips Manual by Amir Said (Sa'id).
"The most trusted name in beatmaking."

May 17, 2014

BeatTips Beat Breakdown: The Game - "Old English," Produced by Hi-Tek

Crafted Like a Horror Flick Score; Groove Engages with Its Slow-Tempo Urgency

By AMIR SAID (SA'ID)

I was confused upon my first listen of "Old English" (Doctor's Advocate, 2006) by the Game, produced by Hi-Tek. I was dumbfounded. I couldn't comprehend how well put together the song was. It was haunting — figuratively and sonically. Nothing that I had previously heard from Hi-Tek prepared me for such a wonderful, powerful piece of music.

The beat is centrally characterized by the groove. First, you're welcomed by this milky smooth, deadly bass line. A measure perhaps better served for a suspense sequence in a horror flick, the bass movement that Hi-Tek goes with here is nothing less than sinister and instantly haunting. No doubt the bass line was played live originally, but I have a strong suspicion that Hi-Tek sampled it and "worked-it-over."

Then, sticking with the horror-flick theme, Hi-Tek paints in this three-note organ arrangement that crawls up the spine of the beat. Rather than over-playing the organ, a mistake most likely made by even the best beatsmiths and those inclined to overproduce, instead, Hi-Tek lets each stab sustain itself. With its singular tonal impact, it's clear that he saw fit not to corrupt its nature. Because of this, each stab of the organ — masterfully agreeable in pitch and mood with the bass — makes the bass line seemingly maneuver from side to side, weaving the groove in its own sort of rhythmic spell. And for added accentuation, Hi-Tek throws in what appears to be a sampled guitar phrase that fades at the end. (Like the bass line, I'm convinced that he sampled the live guitar phrase and worked with that.) He follows the guitar accentuation up with a desolate, spaghetti-Western style whistle.

For the drumwork, Hi-Tek sets out to remind you, in case you've forgotten, that this isn't a movie score, but instead a beat...in all of its defiant glory. His use of a short-truncated stomp-kick bookends all of the action, while the rim-shot snare knocks on the "2 & the 4" like a count down. And for the hi-hat, a difficult decision for many, here on "Old English" Hi-Tek uses a brushed half open hi-hat, which he floats politely across the entire arrangement — no gaps, no stutters, or drops.

As for the rhyme, Game (formerly the Game) rightfully so dives in for a story-style rhyme. Even though the groove is slow and steady, Game takes on the tempo and works in double couplets, i.e. four-bar rhyme schemes (abab acac). Finally, the hook, song by Dion, drags across the instrumental measure more like a cautionary tale than a hook on a hip hop/rap song.

The music and video below is presented here for the purpose of scholarship.

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

January 21, 2014

Using Multiple Drum Sounds for Movement, Depth, Texture, Variation, and Masking

There Are a Number of Different Creative Uses for Drum Sounds and Drum Sound Arrangements

By AMIR SAID (SA'ID)

With the bevy of quantize (time-correction) features, plug-ins, and effects available in today’s EMPIs, the temptation is to over rely on them, especially when it comes to creating movement, depth, texture, and variation. But the truth is, there are a number of different ways to generate movement (particularly swing and shuffle) and to add depth, texture, and variation by creatively using multiple drum sounds. The key is to know and understand the different types of layering and arrangement schemes and the results that they’re likely to produce.

Working with Two or More Kicks for movement, texture, and knock
One of the most common methods for adding knock (a hard, dominate drum pulse) is to layer together two or more kicks. But this isn’t the only effect that two or more kicks layered together can produce. Two layering techniques that I frequently use are “punch and boom” and sound fattening.

Punch and boom scheme
The punch and boom scheme refers to a two-layer kick scheme involving a punchy kick in tandem with a boom kick. The effect achieved can be anything from a booming kick that punches through, to a rounded boom with prolonged sustain. Typically, this scheme involves layering a standard sounding kick over an 808. But even here, you’re only limited by your imagination. For instance, any kick, especially a sustained 808, can be adjusted in the sound envelope. Adjustments in, let’s say, the attack of each kick allows for even more stylistic customization.

But the punch and boom scheme is not only for creating unique sounds and texture, it can be used to create movement as well. When layered, the boom “moves” the punch. That is to say, the effect of the layering of the two kicks is that it increases the combined span of the kick sound. This means, even though there are actually two kicks present, they represent, in effect, one sound. And the manipulation of the sound properties of each kick (separately) effects the combined sound property of the two kicks together. NOTE: whether you use this layering scheme during the making of a beat or not, you can save considerable time by simply making the kick before hand. For example, I have a kick called “PB Kick”, which stands for “Punch Boom”. Whenever I’m making a beat that I think calls for a punch/boom layer effect, I just use my PB kick, and adjust its velocity and/or ADSR to the specific beat that I’m working on.

Important note about ADSR: Every sound (dynamic tone) has three components: attack, sustain, and decay. Taken together these three components (parts or dimensions) are known as the sound envelope. (I should also point out that I like to extend the definition of sound envelope to mean: the entire span—from start to go—of a sound.) With regards to synthesis techniques — synthesizers/samplers — there is a fourth component, release; taken together these four components are known as the ADSR envelope. When you modify or remove any one or a combination of these ADSR components, the sound’s properties change, rendering an array of different effects. Thus, it’s important to understand what each component within the ADSR envelope represents, if you’re to modify them in ways that best serve your beats’ arrangements. (In The BeatTips Manual, I discuss the ADSR and drum arrangement in even greater detail.)

Also, you should note that while there are various ways to blend/mix a punch and a boom, one general idea to follow is that the boom should remain at a low velocity and the punch should be light on the high and high-mids.

Sound Fattening
Sound Fattening refers to a two- (or three) layer kick or snare scheme wherein a weak or shallow kick or snare sound is fattened or rather “beefed up”. Often, like with the punch and boom scheme, sound fattening layering techniques are usually done to create more knock. However, this is not why I typically fatten up sounds. Instead, I use a sound-fattening layering scheme whenever I what my kick in the drum pattern to be more out in front, particularly when the volume of the non-drum sounds is too low. Think of a the effect of a louder break-beat inspired drum pattern. I also use this scheme when I’m thickening up a sample (part or whole) or the entire texture of beat. For instance, if I fatten up a sample or non-sampled sounds and I want the drums to match the weight and texture, I’ll fatten up the drums as well, or a I might just fatten up specific parts of a primary sample or the non-sampled sounds that make up the core groove.

Multiple Drum Sounds Arrangements

Syncopation is a mainstay in beatmaking. But lesser known is the many different ways in which drum sound arrangements can effect everything from the swing to the overall feel of the beat. For example, using the same hi-hat at two different pitch levels and filtered/EQ’d differently — one high, the other low — can push, shuffle, or pull a beat, depending on the actual hi-hat arrangement and other sounds within a beat.

Drum sound arrangements can also be used to mask gaps in sounds, loop-glitches, and pitch-shifts. Furthermore, they can be used to effect the feel of the tempo without actually changing BPM settings. This is especially helpful, as it’s an alternative to using quantize features to fix or correct unwanted blemishes. Personally, I try to avoid quantize features because I like my arrangements to be blended and cut together as natural as possible, something akin to a DJ cutting, mixing, and blending different sounds and rhythms together. This, plus other techniques and customized — NOT STOCK — drum sounds, help me maintain my own style and sound.

Below I have a included a beat that demonstrates some of the schemes and effects that I’ve discussed earlier in this tutorial. I recorded the beat to play through for about 40 seconds with all of its elements, 8 tracks, then for specific elements to drop out so that you can hear the changes and the immediate effect that each dropped element has on the beat. This way, you can reverse engineer the beat and get a better idea and understanding for why I added particular drum elements and structured the arrangement the way that I did. The 8 tracks include: kick, snare, hat 1 (“hat X”), break (primary sample), hat 2, clap, bass-stab (boom), and a tambourine.

Particular things to listen for:
How the clap alternates where it hits.
How hat 2 seems to play quarters, but there's never a fourth hit in the sequence.
How the tambourine shadows hat 2.
How the bass-stab (boom) fattens the front of the primary sample, giving it a rounder sound and thus sustaining its effect.
How hat 2 and the tambourine layered together shuffles the beat along, which creates a great pocket to rhyme in.
How "hat x", which is something like a crash, effectively represents a change.
How all of the variation gives the beat one solid texture and nice depth.

The music below is presented here for the purpose of scholarship.

"Cut 1013" - Produced by Sa'id

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The BeatTips Manual by Sa'id.
"The most trusted name in beatmaking."

August 28, 2012

It's Never *Just* a Loop

Truth Is, Creating a Loop is Only Part of the Equation

By AMIR SAID (SA'ID)

With regards to sampling, no statement is more misguided (and irritating to me) than someone saying, "It's just a loop." Whether sampling and then looping a 2- or 4-bar phrase of music, or piecing together spare-part phrases and sound-stabs, there's much more going on in the total creative process than some beatmakers care to acknowledge—or that some hip hop/rap bloggers even realize.

The gleaming misconception about sampling is that it's easy; that anyone can do it. While it's true that anyone can buy a digital sampler and press record, the notion that anyone can automatically acquire a skill for what goes on before and after they press record on that sampler is ridiculous. Truth is, no matter what any beatmaker samples, no matter how much or how little he or she samples, the total creative process of sampling requires any number of decisions to be made at various levels within the process. And these decisions, prompted by the residue of skill and understanding, are not always easy to make.

The Main Decisions Made Before, During, and After a Sample is Looped

What Should You Sample?

What to sample is obviously (well, perhaps obvious to those who actually make beats) the first decision to be made. And, of course, this decision depends on everything from one's mood to motive (purpose), to their style and sound preference, to their imagination and individual work ethic. For the purpose of this post, I've used the song "Heartbreak Hotel" by The Jacksons.

I chose "Heartbreak Hotel" for a number of reasons. First, it's a well-known hit—with a great groove—by a popular group (certainly a song easy enough for readers to locate online). Many people are familiar with the record; so coming up with a beat and song that references such a hit, while still creating something "new" and appealing, is a bit of challenge. Second, I wanted to choose a vinyl record that could readily be found in used record shops or at online vinyl record stores, or in a relative's basement or attic. Third, "Heartbreak Hotel" has been sampled before, and I wanted to demonstrate the versioning tradition that runs deep in hip hop/rap music's roots by offering up my version. Fourth, because "Heartbreak Hotel" has a dominant drum pattern; and as such, I wanted to show how even a sample with drums can be tailored to your style and sound. (Also, any seasoned beatmaker knows the type of obstacles drums in a sample can present.) Finally, I chose "Heartbreak Hotel" because I'm a big fan of The Jacksons, and this is as good as any reason to thoroughly listen to one of my favorite songs by them (actually, it's one of top 10 favorite songs of all time).

What Section or Part Should You Sample?

Now having settled on the song, what section of the song should I sample? The beginning? The middle? Near the end? Either way, it's gotta be a part of the record where the groove is "open" (well, as much as possible with a record like this). So that being said, it comes down to either the intro, the lead-up, or the bridge. I ruled out the bridge, simply because I heard something before with that part. And the strings intro isn't the part of the song that most people are familiar with.

So I go for the "2nd intro," or what I'm calling the "lead up," as in lead up to the first verse. But exactly where in the lead up? There's approximately 35 seconds between the beginning of the lead up and where Michael Jackson's first verse vocals begin. And within that 35 seconds, there are slight embellishments on the basic groove of the song. Not to mention, at one point in this lead up, we hear one of Michael's signature vocal exclamations. No one wants that in there, right? Wrong! I do. I think it's dope; so I decided that no matter what, it had to be in the phrase that I would sample. (In my "Heartbreak Hotel Remix" below, you'll hear it.) Note: If I was using "Heartbreak Hotel" as source material for a beat for another rapper, I'm not sure what section I would've used. But since I'm rapping on this joint, I know which part of the song will suit my style, delivery, and flow.

So, How Do You Sample It?

Now that I've chosen the section of the record that I want to use, I have to decide how to sample it. Wait, what? You mean there's no one way how to sample a record? That's right! Some beatmakers sample in stereo, some in mono. Some sample wet—that is, with effects—, some sample dry, no effects. Some sample in 24 bit, 16 bit, even 12 bit.

For starters, I always sample in mono. Next, I always sample wet. I never sample any audio without its signal first flowing through my Numark DJ mixer (aside from the EQs on my mixer, a DJ mixer makes me feel linked to the earliest roots of our tradition). My DJ mixer routes into my Mackie mixing console, where I do further EQ'ing, like "beefing up" (making a sound heavier or warmer) the sample. Then I run the signal from there—the DJ Mixer's output on the Mackie—into either (a) My Akai MPC 4000; or (B) my Akai S950. For the sample below, I sampled a portion of "Heartbreak Hotel" into my Akai S950.

What about the pitch question?

Do you sample the audio leaving the pitch as is, or do you turn it up or down? This decision, like others in the creative process, mostly depends on the ultimate beat/song that you envision. For my "Heartbreak Hotel Remix," I turned the pitch up a bit before I sampled it, then I fine-tuned it as I arranged my drums (and note: NO timestretch function was used in the making of this beat/song).

Did somebody say chopping?

Of course, how to chop something is one of the big decisions in the sampling process. But I supposed the more complete a phrase is, the less difficult it is to loop, right? Not always! In fact, depending on what's actually in the phrase, getting it to loop "correctly" (according to your own rhythmic standards), it can be rather difficult finding and fine tuning the best start and end points. (In The BeatTips Manual I discuss looping, as well as composition, in greater detail.)

Here, let's remember that all of these aforementioned creative decisions have been made before the drum arrangement enters the picture. Of course, as those above decisions are being made, one should already be thinking about the ways in which to arrange the drums...

Which Way to Go with the Drums?

Even if one skips most of the aforementioned processes, he or she must still come up with a suitable drum framework. To pull this off takes a decent arsenal of drum sounds, a knack for choosing the right ones, and the ability to arrange those drum sounds into a drum pattern that works effectively with the so-called "loop" sample. So, again, decisions, decisions.

With audio that already has drums in it, you can fall back and let the drums in the sample do the work, only adding in light touches of your own drum sounds. Or you can also add your own drums to completely "mask" (cover up) the drums in the sample. Or you can match your drums with the drums in the sample; but this can be very difficult, especially if you don't posses the right kind of drum sounds.

Now, with a song like "Heartbreak Hotel," who could blame someone for going easy on the drums, that is to say, doing nothing much at all. Well, I never sample anything without a base idea of how I'm going to arrange the drums. Moreover, depending upon the extent of the groove—i.e., the feel and the level of kick and snare drums—that I've sampled and the ultimate groove that I'm going for, I will usually not only mask and match the drums, I'll flank everything with my own signature percussion. And this is exactly what I did with my "Heartbreak Hotel Remix."

*Editor's Notes:
The construction of the sample(s) is only part of the equation. Diggin' for the actual source material is another major part of the equation. Also, never forget the matter of the overall sound design. Here, I'm referring to the "color" of the sample that's achieved through sound modification techniques like filtering and EQ'ing, etc.

The music below is presented here for the purpose of scholarship.

Sa'id - "Heartbreak Hotel Remix" (Prod. by Sa'id)

Download "Heartbreak Hotel Remix" by Sa'id

The Jacksons - "Heartbreak Hotel"

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

October 03, 2011

Nottz’ “Shine So Brite” Illuminates Beatmaking's Impenetrable Force Field

Song Punctuates Beatmaking's Ability to Suspend Hip Hop/Rap Music in Time

By AMIR SAID (SA'ID)

Here's a simple truth: Within the beatmaking tradition (of the broader hip hop/rap music tradition), the more beatmakers who make beats, the more fluid the notions become about what constitutes a dope beat. But hip hop/rap music, perhaps more than any other twentieth-century American popular music form, has the incredible power to reuse, retool, reconceptualize, and recontextualize the very fundamentals that gave rise to its existence. Because of beatmaking, hip hop/rap music's chief compositional process, hip hop/rap is one of the only popular Western music form that can rotate in new generations of music makers who feature sounds that authentically span any of its pivotal styles and eras.

This means that any serious student of the beatmaking tradition can reproduce any one moment in hip hop/rap's history (particularly its most soulful moments), in the exact style, sound, sonic template, feel, mood, and texture. Thus, for all intents and purposes, hip hop/rap music has an impenetrable force field. One in the form of a legion of beatmakers (now and in the future) whose commitment to hip hop/rap's core musical processes, in effect, protects against its own demise.

By perpetually reusing and recalibrating beatmaking's most unique processes and methods—in the finest, perhaps truest manner—, these beatmakers ascend towards the graces, and sometimes ranks, of beatmaking's most important architects and pioneers. To be certain, these beatmakers that I speak of (both masters and novices) may not always get the recognition from the mainstream, or even the underground, that they deserve. However, all of these beatmakers embrace and enjoy their personal role in helping to preserve the hip hop/rap music and beatmaking traditions. This is why I've always appreciated Nottz and the music that he makes.

Nottz Makes Timeless Hip Hop/Rap Music

It is from the basis of this context that I was compelled to breakdown Nottz' song, "Shine So Brite." Nottz, who's music is by and large both a fine example of, and homage to, the soulful "boom bap" sound of the hip hop/rap music tradition, is acutely tuned in to the essence of using recorded music in his creative process. And his mastery of the art of sampling—as well as the art of arrangement—is on full display in the song, "Shine So Brite."

From the first note, "Shine So Brite" aims to intimidate. The "1" drops, and over the aggressive, mid-pitched guitar sample is a fist-full-of kick that makes the "twang" of guitar strum spring forward like a countdown to a nefarious missile launch. In fact, this is why the "Shine So Brite" bounces so hard: the "punch" of the primary sample phrase lands on the "1," "2," "3,", and "4." Over the top of the kick is a truncated crash-cymbal that stalks the full measure, stabbing, in lock step with the chromatic pattern of the primary sample phrase, at the quarter points of each bar.

As for changes, the organ parts that Nottz works in are absolutely stone cold! Eerie and deadly serious, the organ phrases skip over the core rhythm, sounding like Jimmy Smith in a 1960s Harlem rib shack. Then there's the sampled vocal harmonizing, a spiritual musing that directly reinforces the soulful casing and arrangement of the beat. Finally, the "scratch-hook," a mainstay of hip hop/rap music made most famous by DJ Premier's precise rendition, is used here in conjunction with Nottz' rapping of a refrain, which is itself doubled-up with a high-pitched vocal rendering of the same refrain. And to round out the hook section, Nottz goes with a very light (barely audible) melody synth line that glides and fades in and out, almost without notice.

With "Shine So Brite," Nottz is not taking hip hop/rap "back" to a glory time, any less or more than he is helping to take it forward. This is the beauty and real genius of what Nottz is doing with "Shine So Bright." He's tapping directly into the energy and essence of one of beatmaking's (hip hop'/rap's) most notable schools of sounds, staying within its fundamental parameters, and giving it a fresh and entirely respectful interpolation. The result: a timeless sound that engages on its own merits and terms—a sound that both old and new beatmakers can enjoy, study, and appreciate alike.

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

Nottz – “Shine So Bright”

Nottz – “Shine So Bright” (Official music video)

Nottz "Shine So Brite" from Raw Koncept on Vimeo.

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

September 27, 2011

BeatTips Wah Wah Guitar Music Catalog: "Bullet in a Horoscope"

The Wah Wah Guitar Back Story; First Series Release

By AMIR SAID (SA'ID)

In 1999, I started my first company, Wah Wah Guitar Recording and Filmworks. The plan was for Wah Wah Guitar (named as my homage to the proverbial "wah wah" guitar sound featured in many 1970s films, particularly those commonly known as blaxpoitation movies) to serve as my umbrella entity through which my independent interests in music and films would be commercially realized.

Prior to 1999, I had been rhyming and studying the art of rapping for seven years, and I had been developing a skill for beatmaking for six (I began rhyming as a teenager in 1992; I began making my own beats a year later), but for various reasons (distractions, other interests) I had yet to attempt to go pro, so to speak. So when I started Wah Wah Guitar in 1999, it represented the first carnation of my understanding of commerce and entertainment, specifically, independent production, manufacturing, and distribution.

Although I had set up an entity to pursue a career in music, the truth is, I never went after it with the sheer narrow focus that many have. Aside from my strong reservations about how the music industry was ran (and some of the specific industry types who ran it), I also held deep reservations about being a “rapper.” So even though I had the talent and dedication to carve out a music career (indeed, at one point I received legitimate label interest and I passed on the opportunity, see Sa'id's Mental Memoir: DJ Tony Touch Thought "Milk" Was A Monster"), as the year 2002 drew near, my goals shifted.

Before I ever wrote one rhyme or made one beat, I was a writer, one with a particular interest in film, history, and culture. And while I was serious about music, I had to embrace the reality that I wanted to do more than rhyme or make beats. Moreover, I realized that I didn’t want to maneuver from the “inside” of the music industry. So I committed myself to bypassing the exhausted deal-shopping path, and I focused instead on working from the outside. The aim being to create a platform that would allow me to do my own music on my terms and to be flexible enough to pursue wherever that took me.

As I saw it, Wah Wah Guitar would become the entity through which I realized my music goals. It would be the independent company that would permit me to do music completely on my own terms. But an ironic thing happened (well, perhaps not too ironic) three years into this plan: I wrote a book about beatmaking (The BeatTips Manual)! Soon, my rapping and beatmaking aspirations subsided; and it became less important for me to release my own music and more important for me to examine and thoroughly research the hip hop/rap music tradition—specifically, beatmaking—and publish my findings. In short, it became more important for me to document the beatmaking tradition and to work towards preserving the hip hop/rap music tradition as a whole.

Still, this huge shift in focus aside, in the three years that Wah Wah Guitar remained active, I recorded a great deal of music; the overwhelming bulk of it I never released or even let anyone hear. In fact, some of it, I've only heard once or twice—on the day that I made and recorded it! So what exists now is a catalog of complete and incomplete songs and beats; complete and incomplete verses, both one-takes and outtakes; commercial studio session recordings and home practice sessions; and more. And in an effort to continue to help more beatmakers and rappers, I’ve decided to release most (if not all) of this music here on BeatTips.com.

Thus, for the purpose of scholarship (discussion and study) and to extend my work in the study of the hip hop/rap music and beatmaking traditions, I will, at least once each month, post a recording (at random) from my Wah Wah Guitar Music Catalog. And along with each recording, I will include as much commentary as possible, which shouldn’t be hard to do, since I’ve kept notes, often very meticulous ones, of every beat and rhyme that I made and recorded during the Wah Wah Years. It is my hope that by releasing this music and personal commentary, fellow beatmakers and rappers will (1) learn more about the fundamental ways that the two art forms—beatmaking and rapping—affect each other; and (2) be able to incorporate some of my ideas and approaches (if helpful) into their own processes.

As always, I encourage any questions, observations, or anything else that will be helpful. So post your comments and get into the discussion.


Sa'id - "Bullet in a Horoscope" (from the Wah Wah Guitar Music Catalog)

The rhyme
The concept for this song (which I never completed) was about a young "good girl" in the hood gone bad. I wrote one verse, just to see if my rhyme matched my initial concept and the beat. But as with a number of my unfinished rhymes, with this joint, I was mostly concerned with further developing control of my delivery, particularly at a quick pace.

The beat
For this beat, I used a one-bar framework that I copied into 2 bars. The beat is driven by a sample that I duplicated. I filtered one copy of the sample with high treble; and I filtered the other copy with dull treble. The main effect of the way that I filtered two copies of the same sample is that it made both copies sound like they had different pitch levels.

For the drum framework of this beat, I built a drum pattern that sounded like it was tumbling over. I had the kick sort of rumbling, while I tucked the snare-hits. The open hi-hat is where I tried a couple of things out. First, I experimented with the open hi-hat in a way similar to how I filtered the primary sample of the beat, in that I filtered it differently on alternating events within the sequence (meaning I programmed the high-filtered part to land, followed by the dull-filtered part). Also, I played the open hi-hat in a way that "pushed" the beat along.

I never built this joint out into a complete song, but it helped me work out different aspects of my rhyme delivery and breath control. Furthermore, it helped me gain a better feel for how to use my hi-hats, something that would soon come in handy.

The music below is presented here for the purpose of scholarship.

Sa'id - "Bullet in a Horoscope" (prod. by Sa'id, from the Wah Wah Guitar Music Catalog)

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

September 21, 2011

BeatTips Tutorial: Sampling Live Instrumentation: Guitar Riffs

Sampling Your Live Playing and Making It Sound Like a "Sample", Not Just Live Instrumentation Re-Recorded

By AMIR SAID (SA'ID)

Perhaps one of the most misused and misrepresented terms in beatmaking is “live instrumentation”. What does live instrumentation actually mean, anyway? On the surface, one might be quick to say that live instrumentation is the making of music without the use of samples. But given the fact that a great deal of so-called live instrumentation relies on the use of samples (e.g. sound modules, software samplers with stock samples, etc.) I’m not sure that’s an appropriate description. But I concede that generally speaking, live instrumentation simply refers to playing and arranging, in the traditional sense, any series of “notes” in a pattern or sequence.

As it stands today, there are those in the beatmaking community who elevate the use of live instrumentation above the use of sampling, as if sampling's primitive and "unoriginal". An absurd notion, of course, especially when you consider the fundamentals of beatmaking and hip hop/rap music and the reality of modern music production tools’ use of samples. But nonetheless, there are those who tow the generic line that live instrumentation is original, and sampling is not; or that live instrumentation is more original than sampling—you get the picture! That being said, how should sampling live instrumentation be looked at? Further, does the process of sampling live instrumentation belong in the live instrumentation side of things or in the sampling column?

While some may stubbornly debate this, my view is that sampling live instrumentation is just as original and creative as any other beatmaking method. I draw no elitist or fundamentalist distinction. Moreover, I see the process of sampling live instrumentation as clearly being a fusion of both concepts and compositional processes, wherein the more skills and understanding that you have, the more likely you’ll be able to express your ideas in the style and sound that you want.

But how do you bring these two worlds together? That depends on you and the style and sound that you’re going for. My approach is always to convert my live instrumentation into the sampling form. In other words, whatever I play out live, in the traditional sense, I sample it (and chop it) then fuse it (combine it, blend it) together with other samples—either traditional vinyl record samples or other live instrumentation converted samples. Thus, in the tutorial below, I break down my method for converting live guitar riffs into samples.

Step 1: Understand and Respect What a Riff Is and Can Be

A riff is a short series of notes played in a pattern. A riff can be simple or complex. Further, riffs are most commonly associated with the guitar (“guitar riff”) but in fact, they can also be played on other instruments, e.g. a piano riff, a sax riff, etc. All popular forms of music employ riffs, and depending on the style, sound, and form, riffs can be used as an accompanying sub-melody (motif or melody within a melody) or as the basis for which an entire song is built upon. Because hip hop/rap music is a fundamentally rhythmic, grooved-based music form, riffs often play a central role in the composition of beats (in The BeatTips Manual, I discuss this concept, as well as hip hop’s/rap’s unique relationship with Western music theory, much more in detail).

Step 2: Live Instrumentation: Play Some Riffs on My Fantom S 88 Keyboard Work Station
(Note: You don’t have to use a keyboard, you can use a MIDI controller and a standalone software sound module like Native Instruments’ Guitar Rig to do the same thing.)

Before I began playing some riffs, I adjust the filter envelope on my Fantom. Usually, I’ll adjust the ARP RANGE and ARP ACCENT. I always leave the release and tempo the same as part of my custom “preset”. After I’ve made these adjustments, I play riffs based on the ideas and themes that I have in mind at the moment. For the audio example I included below, I had a scene from a 1970s movie in my head. It was a brief scene really, nothing major, just two cats walk into a pool hall. But the background music that was playing when they walked in was dope, so I used that as inspiration. I didn’t try to mimic the notes; Instead, I went for the style, sound, and feel of that entire scene. After I play a riff that fits what I'm going for, I hit the "Skip Back Sampling" button on my Fantom and record it.

Step 3: Get Riff into Pro Tools for Effects Processing

At this stage, depending on the riff itself and the type of idea I’ve got going, I will do either one of two things: (a) I Record the riff directly into Pro Tools (my DAW of choice); or (b) I sample the riff into my Akai MPC 4000, loop it, then record the sampled riff from the MPC 4000 into Pro Tools. (Either way, I'm routing through my Mackie analog mixing console into Pro Tools.) For the example that I’ve included in this post, I recorded the riff directly into Pro Tools.

Step 4: Track the Riff on Repeat, Then Duplicate the Track

Here, I try to give myself at least 50 seconds of the riff on repeat; this way I can work the effects as I listen to what the riff is doing, all the while I’m getting a better picture of how I should flip the riff, once the effects are set. After I’ve recorded the riff into a Pro Tools track, I duplicate the track and apply all the effects on the duplicate, leaving the source riff track as is. This allows for quick A and B references. (Note: This becomes particularly important when I make multiple duplicates).

Step 5: Work in the Effects

Usually, I only use three effects (plug-ins) on guitar riffs: reverb, 7-band EQ, and compression. (In Guitar Rig you could go even further with it, adding distortion and other effects.) For reverb, I like using a “large room” setting because it gives me the dusty airiness that I’ll need to make a riff from today sound old and in line with the types of vinyl record samples I like to use. In other words, I use reverb keeping in mind the overall texture and feel of the beat that I’m going to be making.

Step 6: Sample the Riff Into My MPC 4000

Once the effects are set, I sample the riff into my MPC 4000.

Step 7: I. Gets. Busy!!!

At this stage, I’m in complete sampling mode, so everything moves FAST. After chopping the riff to my liking (the initial chopping), I put it in a sequence, then loop it. I listen to the loop of the chopped riff to see what direction to go in. Do I pitch it up or pitch it down? It always depends on the style, feel, and sound that I’m going for. With the example below, I went with the “pool hall” theme from the movie that inspired the riff, which prompted me to pitch the riff up. At this point, I also made one more chop, completely cutting off the tail of the original guitar riff.

After I got the pitch of the riff right, I built a drum framework around it, using one of my 5 default kicks, “kick 4 S950”; a snare, “snare bucket lid” (yes, I literally made a snare from striking a small bucket with a lid on top, combined with my “snare 34”); two hi-hats (two strikes of my “hat vintage”); and my signature “gunshot snare”.

Once I had the drum framework rocking, I added in a piano/bass stab that I sampled off of a vinyl record. To make the guitar riff and the piano/bass stab sound as though they came from the same time and space (not necessarily the same record), I threw a notch filter on the guitar riff to blend and tuck it, then I opened up some treble on the channel where the piano/bass stab was being outputted (I could have used the Lo-Hi Pass filter on my MPC 4000 to get the same effect, but I was moving fast; I knew where this beat was headed and I wanted to finish so I could write a rhyme to it).

After a couple a couple EQ adjustments on the Mackie console, I dumped the beat into Pro Tools. Back in Pro Tools, I did some additional EQ’ing, created a master track, and bounced the beat to disc. Done…

Note: Below I have included both the original guitar riff as I played it and the beat made using the sampled riff. (Next week I might post the rhyme vocal I did for this beat)

The music below is presented here for the purpose of scholarship

Pool Hall Guitar Riff (Live riff played by Sa'id)

Pool Hall beat (prod. by Sa'id)

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

July 27, 2011

BeatTips MusicStudy: Snoop Dogg and Pharrell - "Beautiful;" Well Constructed Arrangement

Non-Sampled Beat with Well-Thought Out Arrangement; Rhythm Track Flanked by Unique Percussion Scheme Serves up Warmth in Typically Cold Style

By AMIR SAID (SA'ID)

When The Neptunes (Pharrell and Chad) first burst on the scene with Noreaga's "Superthug" (1998), it was clear that they would soon be a production force to be reckoned with. Using the non-samples featured style as their base creative beatmaking approach, The Neptunes carved out a new sound; and in the process they created an alternative lane for other budding beatmakers to follow.

Unfortunately, far too many beatmakers moved into this lane with Neptune knock-off tracks rather than original interpretations of the sound that The Neptunes created. Indeed, within four years of Nore's "Superthug," the level of Neptune "biters" was so widespread that some began openly questioning the genius and contribution of The Neptunes themselves. Enter January, 2003. Snoop Dogg and Pharrell drop "Beautiful, one of the most well-arranged beats I've heard.

To understand how Pharrell might have come up with the guitar arrangement for "Beautiful," all you need do is listen to The RZA's work on Liquid Swords,' or perhaps even the beatwork of True Master—Pharrell no doubt studied them both during his prime developmental years. Although Pharrell doesn't use sampled sound-stabs to construct the core guitar-based groove of "Beautiful," his use of a shuffling, semi-closed hi-hat and tambourine—which spread throughout the composition like a multi-layered shaker—shades the otherwise brightness of the first generational (non-sampled, module/keyboard/live) guitar sound. And with the shine of the brightness dimmed by his creative use of percussion, Pharrell is able to work in organ bridge phrases that bookend every fourth bar. It should also be pointed out that these organ riffs, which are subtle and relaxed, are used more to sure up the rhythm and groove of the beat than they are to firm up the main melody—itself a secondary product to the rhythm in the "Beautiful" beat..

For the drumwork, Pharrell is intent on letting us know that this beat comes from the stratosphere of The Neptunes. Therefore, he uses their trademark stomp-kick as the most forceful percussive element in the track. Often in most beats, it's the snare that gets the top billing while the kick co-stars. But with "Beautiful," Pharrell reverses the roles, giving full priority to the appropriately placed stomp-kick while opting for a short-truncated snare that's barely more than a snap.

Far as the rhyme goes, lyricism takes a vacation...literally. But then "Beautiful" isn't the sort of song that you even want to hear a complex rhyme scheme on. The beatwork invites a straight-forward rhyme, and Snoop delivers something that's steady and not too hard to follow. And because of the strength of the chorus—sung surprisingly well by Pharrell—any ambitious rhyme structure and/or theme would only have distracted, not enhanced, the well thought out arrangement of the instrumental.

"Beautiful," perhaps more than any other song from either Pharrell or Chad, proved that although a beatmaster's style could be bit and copied, more seasoned beatmasters are able to rework their sound into something even more unique.

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

Snoop Dogg feat. Pharrell - "Beautiful"

Snoop Dogg feat. Pharrell - "Beautiful" (Official music video)

July 19, 2011

BeatTips MusicStudy: Sa'id - "Before We Started Fightin'"

Getting to the Rhythm, So I Can Get to the Rhyme

By AMIR SAID (SA'ID)

"As a beatmaker, rhythm is fundamental to any structure I compose. As a rapper, rhythm is vital!" —Sa'id

A couple of weeks before I made and recorded "Before We Started Fightin'," I had been experimenting with extended bar structures. That is to say, rather than doubling up 1-, 2-, and 4-bar schemes, I was exploring the use of 8- and 12-bar frameworks. Throughout this exploration, I learned a number of different things. I learned new ways to anchor my beats with lightly syncopated drum patterns; I learned more about blending separate sampled pieces into single cohesive riffs; I learned more about why certain changes work better at specific points within a sequence, depending, of course, on the number of bars in the sequence; and I learned how "double time" tempos of longer bar structures could be manipulated in ways that allowed me to avoid timing correct (quantizing).

So it was the "double time"/bar structure manipulation discovery that had the most impact on how I made "Before We Started Fightin'." As a rhymer, I like to push past the typical AB AB AB AB rhyme scheme, and come up with new rhyme paths. So as a beatmaker, my focus is always on capturing the sort of rhythms that will allow me to create the vocal syncopation that best matches the idea, topic, or subject matter that I'm rhymin' about. Moreover, I don't see my vocalization as something separate from the mix; instead, I like to view my rhymes as just another instrument in the mix. (I will be writing more about that in an upcoming article.)

So when I came up with the idea—a semi-autobiographical story about a guy who realizes (almost too late) that his girl has just double-crossed him—, I wanted a beat structure that was aggressive, but not overpowering. I wanted something that would rumble in the beginning, then taper off at the end of the sequence. I also wanted something that didn't easily fit into 4/4. After re-arranging what was initially a *12-bar* sample, I chopped off 3 bars (shaving the tail of the main sample), and started experimenting with a 9-bar sequence, adding a lone snare on "the one" (rather than a kick) with a piece of silence, right before the main sample starts. Then I added in a hi-hat that I played straight through, live, with no timing correct. After that, I color everything with random low-velocity kicks. I had also added another guitar sample, but it distracted me when I was writing my rhyme; so I stripped it from the beat, and added one more hi-hat, and I was done.

For the mix, I EQ'd the bass in a way that turned up the rumble that I wanted. In contrast, I peeled back the highs to temper the vinyl static and to allow my vocals to come through stronger without using any compression. I tucked the hi-hats and kicks in the mix, so that they blended more with the main sample.

The music below is presented here for the purpose of scholarship

Sa'id - "Before We Started Fightin'" (prod. by Sa'id)

Download Sa'id - "Before We Started Fightin''

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

June 21, 2011

"If I Can't" Gets Cue From Sampling

Hard Hitting No-Samples-Featured Beat by Dr. Dre and Mike Elizondo Follows Sampling's Lead

By AMIR SAID (SA'ID)

"If I Can't" was one of the best songs off of 50 Cent's smash hit debut album, Get Rich or Die Tryin' (2003). The song had a catchy hook, a danceable groove, and a decent—uniquely-styled—rhyme. But as much as I liked the song for its overall achievement, I like it even more today because of the lesson in beatmaking it offers.

"If I Can't," produced by Dr. Dre, co-produced by Mike Elizondo, is one of those rare hip hop/rap songs that gives a great window into the way in which certain beatmaking recipes work. More specifically, "If I Can't" demonstrates how the art of sampling has influenced the structural approaches to traditional live instrumentation.

For its core phrases, "If I Can't" uses a straight-forward two-bar alternating AB BA BA AB pattern played with bass piano keys (either from a real piano or a keyboard piano patch). It is this core phrase (structure) that drives the song; therefore, every other element in the beat works to enhance and showcase its impact and feel throughout the song. The next thing that should be pointed out is that the first of four phrases the make up the core phrases starts on the kick ("the one"); it does not come in on the snare ("the two"), and that's important to note.

Thing is, sample-based beatmakers typically chop down music phrases into smaller components that can be triggered by the pushing/playing of a single drum pad, key, and/or mouse click. Because of this, most sample-based beatmakers are often, in effect, "riff makers." That is to say, they (myself included) take various small, medium, and large-themed sound components and literally break (chop) them down into sliced variations that can then, and often are, be played as riffs. In some cases, these chops are broken down together and grouped into one main riff, and in other cases, they are merged together into a series of riffs. Thus, the core phrases in "If I Can't" is essentially a series of riffs (chops) that are played in a pattern (AB BA BA AB), structure, and nuance that owes more to the influence and programming of the art of sampling—and the new structures and forms that sampling has generated—than it does to traditional live instrumentation.

For example...

"If I Can't" - 50 Cent (produced by Dr. Dre, co-produced by Mike Elizondo)

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

Dedicated to exploring the art of beatmaking in all of its glory.

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  • Top 5 Myths About Sampling and Copyright Law


    "Sampling is piracy."
    WRONG! Piracy describes the wholesale, verbatim copying and distribution of copyrighted works. That is not sampling; that's something entirely different.
    Read more

    "You can legally sample and use any recording up to 1, 2, 3, or 4 seconds."
    WRONG! Under existing copyright law, there is no clear, predetermined length (amount in seconds) that is “legally” permissible to sample.
    Read more

    "If you use samples on a free mixtape, it’s perfectly O.K."
    WRONG! A free mixtape does NOT permit you to use samples from copyrighted recordings without the permission of the copyright holders.
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    "Sampling is easy; there’s nothing to it. Anyone can do it well."
    WRONG! Sampling is an art form that requires technical skill, imagination, and artistic understanding.
    Read more

    "Sampling involves the use of pre-recorded songs only."
    WRONG! While the art of sampling is most commonly understood to include the use of pre-recorded songs (traditionally from vinyl records), source material for sampling includes any recorded sound or sound that can be recorded.
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