117 posts categorized "How to Make Beats"

October 28, 2014

BeatTips Top 30 Beatmakers of All Time

A Top Beatmakers List with a Deeper Meaning and Purpose

By AMIR SAID (SA'ID)


NOTE: If you've already read the disclaimer about the nature of the BeatTips Top 30 Beatmakers of All Time, you can jump down to the rankings and click on the corresponding name for a helpful breakdown of each beatmaker.


Whenever lists of this sort appear, they’re generally presented with little or no serious discussion about the list beforehand. Perhaps that’s fine for pure entertainment purposes. But for readers to get the best learning experience from a review list of this kind, I believe there are a number of things that readers should know up front. Thus, I’d like to offer an important disclaimer about the nature of the BeatTips Top 30 Beatmakers of All Time list and the criteria used to determine which beatmakers were added to it.


The Nature of this List

The BeatTips Top 30 Beatmakers of All Time list is one of the first sub-projects of the BeatTips Art of Beatmaking Education Project (ABEP) that I recently started. The fundamental purpose of the BeatTips ABEP is to help preserve, promote, and expand the beatmaking tradition of hip hop/rap music through a series of specialized projects. In this way, the BeatTips Top 30 Beatmakers of All Time list is meant to serve as a discussion, MusicStudy, and general research portal.


Next, the BeatTips Top 30 Beatmakers of All-Time purposely omits the word “producer”, and here’s why. In the hip hop/rap music and beatmaking traditions, the term “producer” is often synonymously used to describe a beatmaker. But as I point out in my book The BeatTips Manual, this is not always appropriate particularly because the definition of “producer” can be murky: “Hip hop production is the creation of hip hop music. And although this description broadly covers every dimension of hip hop/rap music, the term hip hop production is used most commonly to refer to the making of the hip hop/rap instrumental — the beat. So technically speaking, a beatmaker, one who makes beats, is a hip hop producer; ergo, a beatmaker is a producer.” But “producer” is a loose term that can be used to describe anyone within the process of the final sound of a recording. Simply put, a beatmaker is someone who actually makes beats. A beatmaker can indeed be a producer; in fact, most double as both. (Further, being a beatmaker is not in anyway less noble than being a producer!) However, and this is a critical point, a producer need not be a beatmaker. Hip hop/rap music is littered with people who have “producer” credits, even though they never actually made (or assisted in the making of) any beats. Thus, The BeatTips Top 30 Beatmakers of All Time List only includes beatmakers. Of course, each beatmaker on this list has also rightfully earned the title of producer.


There are four other important things to know about the nature of The BeatTips Top 30 Beatmakers of All Time list. First, the purpose of this list is to educate. Hopefully, new beatmakers will be introduced more appropriately to some prominent beatmakers that they’ve only heard about in passing. And beatmaking veterans will be reminded of just how far the beatmaking tradition has come. In either case, I’d like this list to prompt some serious exploration and reflection from readers. Preserving and expanding hip hop/rap’s beatmaking tradition requires historical examination, present-day review, future speculation, and, at times, constructive (helpful) debate.


Second, this isn't a list to appease anyone that I know personally. I can count a number of beatmakers as friends; and I’ve interviewed many well-known and lesser-known (but quite acclaimed) beatmakers. That aside, I’ve made no effort to show favoritism in the making of this list. My objectivity — and naturally subjectivity — in the making of this list was based on the catalog of work of each beatmaker that I seriously considered.


Third, this is not a list intended to be safe, so as to not offend anyone. Top lists of any kind tend to offend one group or another, so I'm all right with that. And certainly, a top 100 list would have given me enough coverage to include everybody’s favorite. Even a top 50 would have allowed more room for adding all of what many would consider to be the obvious names. Still, a top 30 list presents a challenge, especially when you consider beatmaking’s classic past and its mixed present. I’m not interested in gathering up an easy list of names. Instead, I want readers to seriously think, perhaps even broaden their own thoughts about how, why, and where they rank their favorite beatmakers.


Fourth, The BeatTips Top 30 Beatmakers of All Time is not a "hottest in the game right now" list. I deeply respect longevity, particularly because it requires talent, drive, integrity, and hustle. I'm less interested on shining a light on just this moment in time. In fact, I believe all-time lists offer a better learning (and discovery) experience for readers. This is especially important for new beatmakers who are often less familiar with the names and critical works of earlier times.


The Criteria

When making the BeatTips Top 30 Beatmakers of All-Time list there were many different things that I considered, far too many to mention here. But there are eight main criteria that I used in making this list:


(1) Body of work. Without the work speaking for itself, there could be no serious consideration of any beatmaker who made this list. And while I did not deem it necessary that each beatmaker on the list had a massive catalog, the sheer number of beats (recognized and respected songs) of certain beatmakers could not be ignored. Therefore, a larger body of acclaimed work was appropriately given more preference. Also, special attention was paid to how many songs a beatmaker had within the cannon of hip hop/rap music, as well as whether or not a beatmaker contributed to the career of another pivotal hip hop/rap artist’s career. I should further add that the body of work that I've considered here is hip hop/rap only! Whether a beatmaker could or did produce music outside of the hip hop/rap genre had no bearing on where I ranked them with respect to hip hop/rap music. If I were ranking all-time horror film directors, it would be silly to include the comedic works of those directors as consideration in where they should be ranked. Likewise, neo-soul, drum-n-bass, dub step, etc. has no influence on a hip hop/rap ranking.


(2) Critical acclaim for a clearly distinguishable and/or signature sound. Preference was given (as I believe it should have been), to those beatmakers who either established their own well-recognized signature sound or contributed considerably to one or more of the eight distinct periods of beatmaking (In The BeatTips Manual, I examine and detail all eight periods).


(3) Minimum of at least three critically acclaimed (not just top sellers) songs, albums, collaborative works, etc. within the last 30 years. Part of being a standout in any art medium is recognition within the field. Sometimes this means big hits, other times it means well-respected songs that most skilled beatmakers know of or appreciate for what they are. And note: this particular criteria reflects the reality that some of the best in any given field are overlooked for various reasons. However, this does not diminish their work. Moreover, history is loaded with artists who didn’t get their proper appreciation until late in or well after their careers.


(4) The number of lyrically acclaimed rappers — in their prime — who rapped over their beats, and/or the subsequent “classic” songs created over the last 30 years. This is of particular importance for two reasons. First, it serves as proof as a particular beatmaker’s automatic place in the canon of hip hop/rap music. Second, it demonstrates the popularity and respect of a beatmaker among the best rhymers of their and other times.


(5) Real, not misperceived, impact and influence on other top beatmakers
of all time. Everybody has to be influenced by someone. But who influenced most of the beatmakers on the BeatTips Top 30 Beatmakers of All-Time list? Not surprisingly, many influenced each other.


(6) Real, not misperceived, overall impact (or likely impact) on the beatmaking tradition. In other words, what was their recognizable impact on the beatmaking tradition itself? For instance, what developments, styles, techniques, ideas, etc. did they contribute to the beatmaking tradition?


(7) Longevity. How long was a beatmaker able to maintain his career. For various reasons, some beatmaker’s careers were cut short, while others have continued to blossom since they first began. Thus, longevity wasn’t measured in a sheer number of years, but in terms of body of work within the frame of time a beatmaker made his name. Think of it this way: Jimi Hendrix’s entire body of work is just four years…


(8) Projected influence and impact on future beatmakers. Of course, this is speculation at best. No one can predict the future. Still, we can recognize the lasting contributions made to the beatmaking tradition by certain beatmakers.


One final note about this list: It’s not static. That is to say, the beatmaking tradition is constantly expanding, therefore, this list will necessarily need to be adjusted to account for new production output by beatmakers, as well as new research by myself. Thus, each new year, in September, a new BeatTips Top 30 Beatmakers of All-Time list will be generated.


(Homage to DJ Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, and Afrika Bambaataa — the grandfathers of modern beatmaking.)

#30 • Statik Selektah

#29 • Dame Grease

#28 • True Master

#27 • Bink

#26 • The Beatnuts

#25 • DJ Khalil

#24 • Havoc (of Mobb Deep)

#23 • Rick Rubin

#22 • 9th Wonder

#21 • Alchemist

#20 • Buckwild

#19 • Madlib

#18 • Nottz

#17 • Prince Paul

#16 • DJ Paul and Juicy J

#15 • Kev Brown

#14 • Showbiz

#13 • DJ Tomp

#12 • Just Blaze

#11 • The Neptunes

#10 • Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad (of A Tribe Called Quest)

#9 • J Dilla

#8 • The Bomb Squad (Hank Shocklee, Eric “Vietnam” Sadler, Keith Shocklee, Chuck D)

#7 • Kanye West

#6 • Dr. Dre

#5 • Large Professor

#4 • Pete Rock

#3 • RZA

#2 • Marley Marl

#1 • DJ Premier


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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."

February 14, 2014

Sampling Non-Percussion in Mono or Stereo, What Should You Consider?

It Usually Comes Down to the Source of the Sound

By AMIR SAID (SA'ID)

When deciding whether or not to sample any sound — in this case, a non-percussion sound — in mono or stereo, the decision should really come down to the "source" of the non-percussion sound that you want to sample. To keep it simple and straightforward, (and not getting too technical), consider these three factors:

(1) Has the Non-Percussion Sound Been Recorded Prior to the 1980s?
By and large, music recorded between the 1950s and mid-1970s used mix schemes that included hard pan assignments. (Note: some people still use hard pan assignments today; it depends on the mix engineer and their style). This means that most sounds were either panned hard left or hard right. That being said, sampling a non-percussion sound—from this era—in mono will not hurt. Conversely, sampling a non-percussion sound—from this era—will not improve the "quality" of the sound. Furthermore, I routinely sample certain non-percussion sounds in mono, then after I've recorded the whole beat in Pro Tools, I duplicate the track. Here, my aim is not to emulate a "true" stereo sound, but instead, to manipulate the texture and "character" of the sample, by enhancing, highlighting, and/or undercutting certain elements within the sample.

(2) Is the Non-Percussion Sound First Generational or Second Generational?
Sounds played by someone on a keyboard (synth)—directly from its L/R outputs are "first generational;" whereas a typical sample from a record played by someone through an MPC, etc. is "second generational"—a pre-recorded sound as opposed to a live recorded sound. For example, most of the time I play something from my Fantom (keyboard), I'll sample it through my MPC 4000 in stereo. This allows me to capture to true stereo signal that's being sent. HOWEVER, if I want the sound coming out of my Fantom to have an "old" sample feel to it, I'll sample it in mono through my Akai S950.

(3) What Kind of Sound (Sonic Texture/Impression) Do You Want to End Up With?
Perhaps most important of all is the aim of the final sound. With the given beat that you're working on, are you going for a brighter, fuller sound? Or are you going for a warmer, (fatter), perhaps older sound? In either case, this is why I'm a big fan of having a DJ mixer—preferably, one with L/R 6-channel band EQ.

Final comments. Although I do concede that in some cases the decision to sample a non-percussion sound in mono or stereo is a personal taste one, I also believe that the decision is more often predicated upon the "source" of the non-percussion sound that you want to sample.

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

February 11, 2014

Do Things that Allow for a Flow of Fresh Ideas

Concrete Vertical Development: the Sum of Creativity, Knowledge, and Imagination

By AMIR SAID (SA'ID)

I'm often asked a number of "how to" questions. And while I always try to answer them, even the ones that aren't nearly as black and white as some people like to believe, my main concern is pushing one point: It's important to move vertically and make progress. And when it comes to creating music, making progress can be quite elusive.

Thing is, no matter the style or sound of music you make, no matter the tools you use or the production environment you work within, no matter how many practice hours you put in on your setup, the simple truth is that music — both on the at-large industry and personal levels — progresses thanks to ideas and creativity. And ideas and creativity emerge when knowledge and imagination collide and connect. Having said that, I regularly urge people to do things that allow for a flow of fresh ideas. Likewise, I caution people to carefully consider doing anything that does not allow for a flow of fresh ideas.

For example, there's one school of thought in the beatmaking community that says you should make as many beats per week as you can. I've interviewed several well-known beatmakers (producers) who've stressed that this was a mainstay of their development. However, I've interviewed far more who did not follow a set, beats-per-week quota of any sort. In my own development, I tried taking both paths, and what I ultimately learned was profound.

At that point when I was working under a beats per-week quota, I found that I tended to be less focused on new ideas and creativity. Instead, I was more locked into simply completing new beats. While this process did give me a lot of new beats each week to catalog and critique, it did not yield as many creative observations as I would've liked. So, I abandoned the beats-per-week quota approach and switched to a more practice-centric approach. (In Chapter 8 of The BeatTips Manual, I discuss this approach in greater detail.) Having made the switch, I found that my ideas flowed more easily, as I was less focused on completing a new beat for completion's sake. Also, my creativity expanded, as I was now making more creative observations and taking time to explore them. Before, under the beats-per-week quota approach, I would overlook and ignore new ideas if it helped me finish a beat faster. Undoubtedly, I learned some things under the beats-per-week quota, but I didn't make much concrete vertical development doing things that way.

So the greater lesson that I learned—and it's a lesson that's not just applicable to the creative side of music—is that it's crucial to do those things that allow for a flow of fresh ideas. Whether you're weighing the pros and cons of going for one style and sound over another, whether you're thinking about adding or a removing a piece a gear from your existing setup, whether you're sizing up if you should go to an expensive music industry networking event or conference, always consider—both in the grand and minor scheme of things—will the move in question increase your flow of ideas, add useful knowledge to your repertoire, and lead to vertical movement? Or will it cloud your flow of ideas and leave you stranded indefinitely in horizontal movement?

And note: By "fresh" ideas, I mean ideas that work for you, ideas that motivate you to the kind of action that moves you vertically and towards a realization of your goals. Remember, "fresh" ideas aren't necessarily new ideas. Likewise, be careful subscribing to so-called new ideas that rely primarily on broken, old music industry models and other stale advice.

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

July 18, 2013

O.C. Smith and Gordon Parks - "Blowin' Your Mind": Skill, Rhyme, and Rhythm

The Single Most Important Thing About Rhyme, and the Significance of the Core Rhythm and Groove

By AMIR SAID (SA'ID)

Skill. If you’re bold enough to set out on that journey of writing rhymes, then it’s damn well something you better have. But how do you get it? When it comes to rhyme, the typical thing to do is study the rhyme-greats of the hip hop/rap tradition.

For those fairly new to rapping (and here, I’m talking 5 years experience or less), the easy starting point is Jay-Z, Biggie, Nas, Eminem, Kanye West, you get the picture. And for those willing to take it back—that is, those interested on discovering the core metrics of the modern lyrical skill set, there’s the mighty lyrical sextet of T La Rock, Silver Fox, LL Cool J, Rakim, Kool G. Rap, and Big Daddy Kane. (NOTE: there are some who focus on the trinity of Rakim, Kool G. Rap, and Big Daddy Kane to the exclusion of LL Cool J. I can assure you that such an act is utterly, ridiculously, stupendously, and but-ass-crazily foolish, as early LL Cool J is lyrical sickness! That’s "dope" for all the squares who front, or "amazing" for the part-time rap reviewers and crowd followers.)

For the extra accelerated students of rhyme, you know, those who want to know the base components of the rap tradition, the origins of it all, there’s the “originator’s class”—Melle Mel, Grandmaster Caz, and Kool Moe Dee, and the countless unsung M.C.s from 1973-1978. Anyone of the aforementioned dimensions of hip hop’s rhyme lexicon that I've laid out here will give you some level of skill. But if you want to really teleport to the essence of the oral tradition of “rap” that gave way to modern “Rap”, then you have to go off the path—way off the path…

This is where I found myself years ago, fever-thinking about how to improve my rhyme skill. Regular BeatTips readers know that I began rapping before I made beats. And for me, the goal was to capture skill and develop my own unique voice. This meant that not only did I have to study the greats of hip hop’s rhyme lexicon, I had to find a horizon that not too many rhymers had gone to before. And I found that horizon in O.C. Smith’s “Blowin’ Your Mind” from the Shaft’s Big Score soundtrack (1973).

Modern rhyme lexicon aside, nothing taught me more about how to rhyme than O.C. Smith’s rap (lyrics by Gordon Parks) on “Blowin’ Your Mind.” Smith, an acclaimed vocalist with a background in jazz, does more high-level rapping than singing on “Blowin’ Your Mind.” First, there’s the natural adlib before he begins the first verse. After the instrumental has cooked, twisted, turned, and rattled for 1 minute and 24 seconds, and after the horn section does a 4-second staccato crescendo, Smith slides in abruptly-smooth with the command, “Now, look here…,” before he begins a rhyme that doesn’t focuses on rhyme itself:

“Who twists your spine, till it feels like jelly and it heat your blood till it’s boiling wine?—/
Who splits your heart in a zillion pieces?—”

The magnificent thing about this two-line opening is that Smith doesn’t rhyme “rhyme”, he rhymes “rhythm”. That is, his lyrics go against and to the rhythm of the instrumental. Smith is not concerned with crafting a concise rhyme, he’s only concerned with putting you on to (or reminding you) just who Shaft is—a bad motherfucker! And for that purpose, the purpose of conveying in-your-face information in a heavily rhythmic lyrical cycle, Smith doesn’t even bother with a typical ABACDA rhyme scheme. Instead, in the opening verse, he runs off a deceptive AB-based rhyme scheme, where nothing “rhymes” cleanly or neat. He pulls this off with various oral techniques—vocal drags, gaps, pauses, and elongations, all of which he uses in deference to rhythm, with no emphasis on presenting a clean rhyme. It’s not until the third verse does Smith offer a clean AABBCCDD rhyme scheme:

“Wo, he’s a smooth cat/
And knows where it’s at/
A bad spade/
Don’t pull your blade/
A super brother/
A gone mother/
A cool dude/
And shovels his food—”

And even though this is the cleanest rhyme of the song, Smith’s delivery is anything but. He raps this rhyme scheme in a rhythmic breakdown, one that drives the instrumental bridge in the song. Skill.

It was upon listening to “Blowin’ Your Mind” that I made my most important discovery about the art of rhyme: Rhyming is about the rhythm of words and their relationship to the rhythm of the instrumental; that words rhyme cleanly, or even at all, is a secondary notion. This single thought, that rhyming, particularly at its highest level, is about the negotiation of two rhythms—that which the rapper brings and that of the instrumental—and words that mean what they say, gave me the basis for the rhyme skill I always sought. Not only did it give me a deeper understanding of how to master the various tropes and nuances of modern rhyme (1985-to the present), it helped me figure out everything from how to develop my own breath control techniques to how to identify those word frameworks that work best with my style and voice.

But “Blowin’ Your Mind” didn’t just teach me more about rhyming, it taught me a great deal about how to make beats. When you first hear “Blowin’ Your Mind,” you’re struck by the cinematic orchestration of it all; of course, it was a theme song for a movie soundtrack, so that’s to be expected. But it’s the nature of this orchestration that interested me the most.

Everything centers around the rhythm and the groove. The bass part, deadly repetitive and menacing, stabs over and over with a 4-note sequence that splits anchoring duties with the drums. Then there’s the rattling tambourine and spots of the shaker here and there. And no Shaft-like instrumental would be complete (or perfect) without twanging rhythm guitar passes. The drums bump and role, certainly, but the earlier described bass sequence leads the rhythm section for the most part, so the drums are grounded, content with holding a steady backbeat. And sure, there’s a big, over-the-top brass section on “Blowin’ Your Mind,” but that was par for the course when it came to 1970s film scores. Only, the brass section here, just as with the strings, dances and jabs in and out to the movement of the core rhythm.

The main takeaway from my study of Gordon Parks’ arrangement on “Blowin’ Your Mind” was how to keep the core rhythm going, while adding in changes that didn’t corrupt the feel and mood. The type of beats that I’m mostly interested in (those that motivate me to wanna rhyme the most) are those that commit to a deliberate rhythm. I can appreciation orchestral beat productions (when they’re done right), but sometimes those beats come off as an overreach with useless changes and unnecessary sounds. Instead, I dig a well-maintained groove, one complete with a solid back beat and strong rhythmic force, where the melody defers to it. This is exactly what “Blowin’ Your Mind” offers. Skill.

Oh, yeah, my infamous "Gun-shot" snare drum sound was created from, and patterned off of, the snare at the :36 mark…

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

O.C. Smith and Gordon Parks - "Blowin' Your Mind"

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

June 17, 2013

Conveying a Feeling in Your Music Should Always Be a Part of Your Focus

Method and Process is One Important Dimension, But a Notion of Feeling Is Also Crucial

By AMIR SAID (SA'ID)

As beatmaking goes, just as any other music tradition really, there are common successes, as well as common failures. And one of the great failings of many beatmakers is the inability to convey feeling in their beats.

I often stress that no matter the style or sound of beats that you prefer, the one quality that you should always strive for is “feeling” in your music. While this may seem obvious to some beatmakers, I fear that it’s often not necessarily a direct concern for many others. With the various misconceptions about the seriousness or ease of beatmaking (pushed forward by both well-known beat vets and newcomers alike), the rush to keep up with trends, and the general commercial forces surrounding hip hop/rap music, the "feeling" element often gets lost.

In hundreds of one on one conversations that I've had with beatmakers, from well-known, lesser-known, and “unknown” names, I’m always surprised whenever the notion of feeling does not enter into our discussion. I’m not sure if this is because the idea of feeling in one’s beats is overlooked or ignored by many, or perhaps just subconsciously implied. But when I consider all of the other characteristics of beatmaking that are routinely discussed (at times obsessed over), I can’t help but wonder how much the notion of feeling is fading into the background of many new beatmakers' minds.

I recently received an email question about a particular beatmaking process. As it turns out, and as I explained to the emailer, his question was actually less about process and more about the fact that he never even considered the notion of feeling when he was making beats! Specifically, his question, which was about sampling and using synths, was of the “Should I do this or that” variety. I asked him flat out: “What feeling are you trying to convey?” His reply, “What do you mean?” Clearly, he did not understand that the notion of feeling, or rather the feeling that you're trying convey is often what determines the effectiveness (success or failure) of a particular method or process, especially when it comes to sampling.

At that point in our email exchange, I explained to him that without feeling, any decision you make about process may ultimately result in a “lifeless” style and sound. Thing is, although there are many processes (some more complex/meticulous than others) in beatmaking, those individual processes/methods only account for one dimension in the overall music-making process. Another dimension, and a very important one at that, is the notion of feeling. In other words, a beat may be technically suitable, you know, drums out in front, clear bass line, etc. But a beat that's technically "correct," so to speak, is different from a beat that conveys feeling or mood. Feeling isn't something that's inherent to a given beat; it has to be thought of and cultivated. In this way, feeling is a personal extension of the individual beatmaker; it's the mood and feel that a beatmaker consciously captures.

Although I encourage every beatmaker to learn and master those processes/methods that they need in order to facilitate the kind of beats that they want to make, I’m even more concerned with encouraging beatmakers to focus more directly on injecting feeling into their beats (music). After all, the ability to convey feeling in one's beats is a key ingredient in creating emotional and intellectual responses from all listeners.

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

January 22, 2013

BeatTips Rating: Big Noyd, Large Professor & Kool G Rap – “Naturally Born” (prod. by Ayatollah)

Vintage Rap with Fresh Bite

By AMIR SAID (SA'ID)

BeatTips Rating: 4.5/5

The knee-jerk tendency is to say that these four rap veterans have “brought back” this style and sound. Truth is much more simpler than that: This style and sound has never left.

Ayatollah has always made smoothly grungy sample-based beats with drums that matter more than thin tin cans. Big Noyd has always made karate-hard rap music that was street serious in rhyme tone, flow, and approach. Large Professor has always dropped rhymes with a steadfast delivery and lyrical chip on his shoulder that conjures up the MC bravado that triumphed at the height of the park-jam era. And Kool G Rap—1/3 of the lyrical trinity that includes Rakim and Big Daddy Kane—has always worked beats as part street poetic, part human film projector, using rhyme bars to seer close-up street experiences and lyrical dexterity in the minds of rap fans.

So the aptly titled “Naturally Born” is not new in the sense that these four stewards of hip hop/rap music are drudging up something lost or forgotten. What is new (or perhaps renewed), however, is the force and intensity of this latest non-tinkerbell offering from four rap pros who collectively tout a long list of similarly biting songs.

The beat is no less than one of Ayatollah's best. Apparent here, as with all of Ayatollah's work, is real-feel timing and a slicing snare that registers in the mix just above a tuck. Then there's the main sample work, where Ayatollah uses a small guitar pluck and riff to rupture the smoothness and otherwise sadness of the strings. Chopping ain't easy; and looping your chops is never as easy as the uninitiated to beatmaking would have some believe. And here, Ayatollah keeps the theme and feel of the beat steady, splashing in a perfect tambourine sprinkle here and there throughout. Through in the scratch hook, cut up by DJ Dutchmaster, and what you have is a hook that comments on the present while nicely backing the theme of "Naturally Born" with some of rap's 2nd Golden era voices.

If “Naturally Born” is any indication of the quality to be found on the forthcoming Coalmine Records compilation, Unearthed, then I suspect it will be one of 2013’s best reviewed and best selling hip hop/rap projects.

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

November 19, 2012

Two Mixing Techniques to Help You with Your Overall Drum Sound

Using Side-Chain Compression and Parallel Processing to Get the Drums in Your Beats Just Right

By DAVE WALKER (IMPERIAL)

Drum production in hip hop is about more than selecting the right sounds and putting them in the right places. Having a wide range of mixing techniques at your disposal goes a long way in helping you get that overall drum sound that you’re after.

This article explores two mixing techniques that I often use along with my drum production techniques. These techniques will help give your drums clarity and punch. For example, I used these techniques on my remix of “Tower of Cards” by Mr J Medeiros, which I include below, along with accompanying audio and images to help you understand the processes involved. The images are taken from Logic Pro but the principles apply to any DAW.

Side-Chain Compression

Compression is one of the most commonly used processors, yet it is commonly misused. (You can make or break a track with compression!) Essentially, compression reduces the dynamic range of a signal, making the louder things quieter and the quieter things louder. For further reading on compression and parameters go here: http://www.beattips.com/beattips/recording-mixing-and-mastering/

A compressor begins reducing the volume of a signal when the input source goes above the threshold. The input source is typically the signal you want to compress. However, most compressors have side-chain (sometimes called ‘key’) inputs. A side-chain input allows you to use another channel to control the compressor, as opposed to the channel the compressor is inserted on. Side-chain compression is heard on the vast majority of dance records with a compressor acting on the whole mix, and being controlled by a side-chained kick drum. This ducks (reduces the volume of) the signal of the entire mix when the kick drum plays. To hear this in fully effect listen to Daft Punk’s ‘One More Time’

Low frequency muddiness is always an issue in hip hop. You want to get the most out of your kick drum and bass, without them having to compete against each other for space in the mix. Side-chain compression can be really helpful in cleaning up the low end of your mix and providing that space. A common application is to use a compressor with a side-chain input from your kick drum to duck the bass. This enables the kick to poke through the mix and not be masked by the bass.

First off, add a compressor to your bass channel and select the side-chain input from your kick channel. In Logic the side-chain input is selected in the top right corner of the compressor. To ensure the compressor reduces the signal of the bass quickly, use a fast attack (under 10ms) and set the response to peak level not RMS (average level). The release time is important in deciding how quickly you want the bass to return to its original volume after the kick drum has stopped playing. I have used a quick release time of 9.5ms. By juggling the threshold and ratio the bass signal is reduced by 5dB when the kick plays. This is a subtle amount of gain reduction, but enough to ensure the kick is not masked by the bass. Listen to the examples below to hear the drum and bass mix with and without side-chain compression. Notice how the kick pokes through the mix when side-chain compression is used.

Bass without Side-chain compression: BASS_S-C_CompressionOFF.mp3

Bass with Side-chain compression: BASS_S-C_CompressionON.mp3

Parallel processing

Parallel processing is another technique used to creatively add punch to your drums. It allows you to have a dry (unaffected) signal and a wet (affected) signal playing at the same time. In hip hop, it’s common to utilize parallel compression (also known as NY Compression) on the drum stem (sub group), or even entire mix during the mastering stage. If applied to the drum stem the result is extra power and RMS level without losing the dynamic variation and transient attack of the drum hits. Some producers will also add shelving EQ in conjunction with compression to bring out the low and high frequency content.

Parallel processing isn’t limited to compression. You can use all sorts of processors and effects creatively to blend in with your unprocessed signal. In this remix I have used parallel processing on the drum stem, to compress, distort and EQ the signal. To set this up in Logic Pro, I sent my individual drum channels to a stereo aux channel (labeled ‘Dry Drums’) to create the drum stem. Via a bus send, I have routed the drum stem to another stereo aux channel (labeled ‘Para Drums’) ready for parallel processing (see image above/below/left/right).

The compressor on the parallel processed channel is reducing the dynamic range of the drums by 15dB. This is heavy compression and is used to increase the average level of the drum track. Distortion is then added through Logic’s inbuilt guitar amp simulator ‘Amp Designer’. This is giving the drums the crunchy character needed for the track. Using EQ, I have scooped out 12dB centered around 1.5kHz as the Amp Designer is adding unwanted resonances in the mid-range. The volume fader of the parallel channel is lowered; it isn’t intended to dominate the drum mix, rather add depth, character and reinforce the unprocessed drum stem.

Listen to the examples below to hear the drum stem with and without parallel processing. Notice how the average level is louder and the distortion adds texture, depth and crunch to the drums. This is all achieved without losing the dynamic range and transient attack of the drum hits.

Unprocessed Drums: DRUMS_Parallel_ProcessingOFF.mp3

Parallel Processed Drums: DRUMS_Parallel_ProcessingON.mp3

Like many production techniques, make sure that you understand what you are doing and why you are doing it before you begin, as this will help you achieve better results.

You can listen to the full track in the player below.

Dave Walker (Imperial)
imperialbeats.co.uk

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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

By AMIR SAID (SA'ID)

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.

—Sa'id


QUESTION:

"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."

ANSWER:

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.

—Sa'id

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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

By DAVE WALKER (IMPERIAL)

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)
imperialbeats.co.uk

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

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

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