Beat making sounds simple and it can be… However, there are layers to it and several levels of depth. Use this flow chart to determine what you should do:
Beat Making Flow Chart
If you’re experienced, you can pound out a kick, a snare and a hi-hat, layer a synth or two, a bass, and a piano; loop it, upload to SoundCloud, and boom, you’re done. I’ve made beats and published them to the internet in minutes this way. After all, the goal is to share your music with your friends, an artist, or some kind of audience, right? Maybe. I find (like many things) defining the end result is the key to determining what you do and how you do it. Making a beat is no different.
For example, if you know lyrics will be added to your beat, you may choose to leave 8 – 16 bars open for a verse. Or maybe you’re going to be making something in the style of Hip Hop for the background of a film or video. In this case, you might choose non-intrusive instruments as not to overpower the film or the focus. Or, maybe you just want to jam! Any one of these ends could impact how you proceed to make a beat…
But what if you’re a beginner?
The Rollz and Dice Guide To Beat Making explores the concepts, philosophies, and processes of making beats from the view of a complete beginner. If you want to begin producing your own beats, you will eventually need to invest in some kind of instruments and means of recording. You can use a computer with a sequencing/recording program (like GarageBand, Audacity, Pro Tools, or Ableton). There are even apps for your smart phone that can sequence and record (GarageBand for iOS and FL Studio Mobile for Android to name two). I will be mentioning sequencing and recording tools like these as well as instruments, but a big part of this guide will be to explore the fundamental parts of beat making. The guide is broken down into the three following parts:
Downloaded the full guide here.
Table Of Contents
- Part 1 – Writing
- Finding Inspiration
- Beat Boxing and Drums
- Example – Beat Box Template
- Voices and Instruments
- Example 1 – Voice 1 Template
- Example 2 – Voice 2 Template
- Arranging and Orchestrating
- Example – Arranging Template
- Writing Conclusion
- Part 2 – Recording
- Signal Flow
- Multi-Track Recording/Mixing
- Scratching and Turntables
- Part 3 – Sharing
- Premastering and Mastering
- File Types
PART 1 – WRITING
For the first part, the only things you will need are a pencil, the templates provided in this guide, and your vocal chords (instruments are a plus). It’s important to understand the process of coming up with the beat first before moving on to the recording and publishing stages because that is just the order of operations! This part is for beginners, but also is a bit technical so make sure to read through the whole thing. It contains information on how to write a beat with varying approaches and is broken down into sections. Each section is accompanied by examples of what is taught for you to practice and reinforce how it’s done. You can download beat making templates along with a printable version of this blogpost here:
R&D Guide To Beat Making (with accompanying templates)
The beat boxing and drums section lays out a way for you to set the foundation for your beat using percussive rhythms. The voice section is laid out to start adding layers and depth. A rhyming template gives a foundation for writing lyrics, and the arranging section lets you see the overall structure for you to finish the beat. Before we get into it, I want to explain some of the terminology that will be used.
When writing a beat or a song of any sort, you can break the song into several different parts. For the purposes in this guide, we will use the following terms: Intro, Verse, Chorus, and Outro. These are pretty standard song sections and a good way to think of them is as follows:
- Intro – A good beginning prepares the listener for the beat to drop. It’s cool to hold back the kick and snare in the beat box and hold back the bassline here to build anticipation in the listeners ear.
- Verse – Drop the bass! I like when an intro has no bass and just all of the sudden, BOOM! A nice bass line with a full drum kit sound great in a verse.
- Chorus – Hold back nothing! In the chorus, a great sound is to have all the instruments playing at full volume!
- Outro – This section is a lot like the intro. It’s cool to slowly peel away all the instruments, one at a time. Sometimes it’s cool to let the beat ride a bit with a slow fade out 😉
Alright! With the terminology explained, let’s find some inspiration.
A lot of the music that I make is based off of a moment when I am feeling inspired and something just comes to me. This includes beats, melodies, lyrics, songs, etc… If you are the type that experiences these impulses as well, try to recall the moment and use this as your starting point and develop the rest of your beat off of this moment. If you cannot recall that moment, wait for another one to strike and record the idea with the voice app on your smart phone or in the template to remember it for next time. When you come to the table with inspiration, you’ve already got a starting point and can work backwards to create the rest. There is no strict order to the process so do what works the best for you. If you’ve got that inspiration, use it! If not, this section will explain how you can get going and I promise, once you start writing, the inspiration will come.
Next, you will want to think about which instruments and voices will make up your beat. If you’re an instrumentalist, you may determine that drums, bass, piano, and vocals will do the trick. Or you may find a sample you like then add drums, bass, a synth, and vocals. Any way you look at it, it helps to have a plan. For this example, we’ll explain the concept using beat boxing and two voices – voice 1 and voice 2.
Beat Boxing and Drums
If you’re a drummer and have a drum set, you’ll be able to come up with a rhythm pretty easily. If you are, play those drums and make those rhythms! If you don’t have a drum set, you can use any flat surface and your hands to create rhythms. Seriously, the idea here is to lay down a foundation to begin building something. Using your hands and a flat surface, make those rhythms! In this example, I’ll explain the writing process using beat boxing as an example, but the same concept applies to a drum set or any object that can make a rhythm.
We will write a one-bar loop using words that sound like drums and then mimic actual drum sounds with our voice if possible. This is known as beat boxing. Beat boxing is not only an affordable easy way to explain the writing concept, but it is also a cornerstone of hip hop and has been used since the very beginning. If you’ve ever listened to popular music, you will have undoubtedly heard drums. While there can be many drums in one drum set, three core pieces are called the kick drum, the snare, and the hi hats.
The kick (kick drum) is the thud that generally dictates the pulse of a beat. It is low sounding and very powerful. We’ll make the kick by saying the word “BOOM”. The snare is generally used to offset the kick and sort of acts as a response. To make the snare, we’ll say the word “SMACK”. Finally, to finish off our beat box drum set, we’ll use the hi hat. The hi hat is to fill in the blanks when you aren’t saying “BOOM” or “SMACK”. For hi hats, let’s say “CLICK”.
In the example below, starting from the top row and moving from left to right, I’ve set up one bar made up of four beats. The beats correspond to their drum, the numbers 1-4, and the word “and”. 1, 2, 3, and 4 represent the downbeat and “and” represents the upbeat. If you were to count this bar reading the top row highlighted in green, it would go like this: “one and two and three and four and” then repeat. Next, I filled in the parts for the Hi hat, snare, and kick. If we were to perform this it would go like this” “BOOM CLICK SMACK CLICK BOOM CLICK SMACK CLICK” and repeat.
Example – Beat Box Template
Notice that I chose simple words to represent my drums because not everybody can actually beat box, but if you feel like using different words or trying to mimic the actual sounds of kicks, snares, hi hats, then you will actually have a beat box on your hands! Also, you may decide to change the timing or subdivisions of the beat to make a more intricate/complicated rhythm. It’s your beat, the choice is yours!
Now that we’ve now written our drum beat via beat box, try on your own on the Beat Box Template downloaded here:
Download the full R&D Guide To Beat Making (with the beat box template included)
Voices and Instruments
Next we’ll take a look at voices. You figure that a beat is made up of more than just drums or beat boxing, right? Well you figured correctly. You can add as much or as little to make your music. Instruments/sounds other than drums also help to make up a beat in most cases. In this guide, we will represent those other instruments and sounds as voices. This can be your voice. If you happen to have an instrument or something else that produces tones, you can use that as well. To get through this section, we will have to go through an explanation of a simple music theory concept. Don’t worry though, it is quick and is only explained here to help introduce the process writing a voice. Here goes…
In Western music, there are 12 tones (or notes) that make up music. Those notes are A, A#/Bb, B, C, C#/Db, D, D#/Eb, E, F, F#/Gb, G, and G#/Ab (# = sharp | b = flat). A#/Bb would be pronounced like this “A Sharp/B Flat” and the same concept goes for the rest of them. At any rate, the purpose is to know this so you can hum one of these notes as your bassline voice. Placing the word “HUM” in the cells below, we will create a bassline. If you want to be sure you are singing back the right note, you can always Google the phrase “online tone generator”. There are numerous sites that generate any one of these twelve notes for you so you can get in key. Or if you have a guitar or keyboard sitting around, just plunk out the notes that way. Once you generate whichever note you choose, try to mimic the pitch by humming. If you can’t, don’t worry, just use whatever sound you are making! Seriously, the idea is just to understand the concept of building this thing. So in the cells below, I wrote in the word “HUM”. In the cells where I wanted to hold the hum, I just drew a line.
Example 1 – Voice 1 Template
In the second voice, we will do the same thing except try this one using a higher pitch and different word. How about “DA”?
Example 2 – Voice 2 Template
At this point, we’ve written three different parts together. Try on your own using the writing template which can be downloaded along with a printable version of this guide here:
Download the full R&D Guide To Beat Making (with voice templates included)
These are just suggestions and your beat can be any way you want it. Keep in mind that this isn’t an easy thing to do so if you are struggling, that’s okay. It may take a bit of trial and error until you get a sound you like, but I promise you, grasping this part will help so much later on down the road. Give it a shot! Once you’ve written an intro, verse, chorus, and outro, you’ll be ready to move into the next section – Arranging and Orchestrating!
Arranging and Orchestrating
Arranging is the process of placing these sections that we’ve written into song order. For example, you could want your song to go like this:
- Intro 4x
- Verse 4x
- Chorus 4x
- Verse 2x
- Chorus 2x
- Outro 1 time
Or, you may want it to go like this:
- Chorus 4x
- Verse 8x
- Chorus 4x
- Verse 8x
- Outro 2x
You can arrange the sections in any order you want! That’s the beauty of making music. If you’ve written all the parts already, all you have to do is place them where you want them! You can simply write out how you want the beat to go, but you can get even more detailed about how you do it with your orchestrating choices.
When you orhcestrate, you choose which instruments will and will not be played in a certain section. Let’s use the first example from above. If I want to play the intro four times (4x) I may not want the voices on the first bar. I may want only beat box. I used another table to lay this out. Each cell in the table below represents a single section or ‘bar’ of the beat. In the row labeled “Section”, I wrote intro, verse, chorus, or outro. Then, in the row for column for bar 1 where it says beat box, I placed an X indicating this is where I want to play this instrument. I left the boxes black that I did not want to play. I continued this process for the first example above and as you can see, I have a fully arranged and orchestrated song ready to be performed!
Example – Arranging Template
Download the arranging template.
Now that we have a fully written, arranged, and orchestrated the beat, it’s time to think about the rhymes! The next section explains a simple formula for writing rhymes.
This section may be the most personal of all. Rhyming is poetry really. You have to look inward to come up with a good concept and make it work. Sometimes it helps to write a catchy chorus line that you can sing over and over again. Other times, it is good to just start writing a verse. At any rate, I find it helpful to write in groups of fours. For example, In the track “The R&D Show”, I wrote the first four lines and said them over and over again until I could feel the rhythm.
- A good rhythm will make you move to your feet.
- A good boom will make you feel the beat.
- Good lyrics make you listen closely.
- And the rhymes are hooks for messages mostly.
Use the rhyming template as a guide while you are making your rhyme come together. A good amount of bars for a verse to strive for is 16. Sometimes Dice and I trade 16s or 32s. He will write 16 bars and I will write 16 bars. Give it a shot!
Download the rhyming template along with the full guide here.
This is just one way of explaining the writing process and there are certainly many other ways to do it. Once you have everything written, the next step is to make sure you can perform it. This may take some practice, but it will pay off when it is time to record! Let’s get into it!
This is a part that can be overlooked, but absolutely holds importance in the process. Think of each instrument and voice as a single performance. If the performance is lacking then the beat won’t come out right. Performing is a skill so the more you practice the better you’ll be. But the good news is that you have already written everything down so you can take however long you need to get ready. Referencing the templates, perform the beat. Rehearse until you are ready to record.
PART 2 – RECORDING
Let’s start this section off by acknowledging that recording is a very complicated (and can be expensive) process and there a ton to learn solely on this topic. When looking to record something, it’s good to go to a professional recording studio because they have all the fancy equipment and knowledge that is required to make a great recording. But if you’re like me, you’re interested in learning this knowledge and acquiring this equipment yourself. Below, I list some recommended tools that will help you record and after that, I will focus on the fundamental topics that make up this great art.
- Macintosh Computer – I recommend getting a Macintosh computer. This could be a laptop or desktop. Here’s why I say go with Apple – they are very consumer friendly out-of-box when it comes to music making. GarageBand generally comes for free on them (if not it’s like 15 bucks) and is loaded with virtual instruments and all sorts of other stuff that you need to learn and create. In fact, you can even produce professional quality music in GarageBand. Don’t get me wrong, PCs are dope and honestly if you’re going to customize your computer to max out the specs, you might want to go with a PC, but otherwise, go with Mac. They come standard with everything you need and won’t steer you wrong.
- DAW – DAW, also known as Digital Audio Workstation is another way of saying computer recording software. GarageBand is a DAW. Pro Tools is a DAW. Some other popular DAWs are Logic, Ableton, Reason, and Cubase just to name a few. This is the brain of your recording operation. Before DAWs were the days of tape and analog recording. While there are hardcore dedicated studios that are strictly analog, these digital workstations are the way of the future and are much more affordable and user-friendly. Learning to use recording software is difficult and there is a learning curve associated with it, but it is a necessary piece of the puzzle.
- An Audio Interface (2 channels minimum) – This is a major upgrade to your computer’s sound card. And while a single channel will allow you to record your voice or any other single source, two channels will prove more versatile. An audio interface connects to your computer via USB, Firewire, Thunderbolt, depending on the model of computer and interface. It has preamps that amplify the signal coming from a microphone and converts the signal to a digital format that your computer can process. A couple entry level audio interfaces are the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 and the Presonus AudioBox USB.
- A Condenser Microphone – The microphone plugs into you your audio interface using an XLR cable and gives you the highest quality way to record audio into your computer. A condenser microphone specifically is the microphone to use when you need detailed high quality audio, like vocals. Be careful though! This microphone will pick up everything so you will want to make sure there is little to no background noise. (I.e. turn off the dishwasher and washing machine and even maybe the air conditioning! Some examples of condenser microphones are AKG C414, Rode NT1000, and the Blue Bluebird.
- A Dynamic Microphone – This microphone is a little more rugged than its condenser counterpart and not as detail oriented, but has its place for sure. In fact, the trick is actually knowing when to use a dynamic versus condenser microphone. Use this microphone when you need a more focused hard hitting sound or direct/live vocals. Some examples of dynamic microphones are the Shure SM57, Shure SM58, Sennheiser e835, and the Electro-Voice RE20.
- Instruments – You guessed it! Guitars, bass guitars, drums, saxophones, trumpets, etc… If you’ve got ‘em use em! Instruments are you best friend when beat making. Don’t shy away from them. Pull up a piano and get to it!
- Virtual Instruments – These are what you use within your DAW. They are sampled or synthesized sounds that are saved in libraries so you can access things that you otherwise would have to record yourself. For example, if you wanted to create a beat that has trumpet, but you don’t actually play the trumpet or know anybody who plays the trumpet, you could use a virtual instrument trumpet. These range from really crappy to absolutely incredible depending on what you get. However, I tend to embrace crappy sounds AND incredible sounds! Life is what you make it! A few companies that make virtual instruments are Native Instruments, Arturia, Toontrack, and IK Multimedia. Some DAWs come with Virtual Instruments like Ableton. Others require that you acquire them separately like Pro Tools.
- MIDI Controller – You use this to trigger the virtual instruments in your DAW. It’s basically a device that you hook up to your computer, typically with a USB cable. These controllers are usually in the form of a piano keyboard piano or a beat pad (Akai MPC), but look like anything really. A lot of folks get beat pads with a keyboard all in one device. These days, there are even MIDI guitars and saxophones! A bunch of companies make MIDI controllers, but to name a few: Akai, M-Audio, and Novation.
- Sampling Drum Machines/Sequencers – If you aren’t using a computer to record, an alternative would be a sampler or a sequencer. These are standalone units that have a native brain. Some have there own storage methods while others just produce sounds – Akai MPC, Roland TR-808, LinnDrum, E-mu SP-1200
- Turntables – These are those old record players that are sitting in your parents basement collecting dust. There are direct drive and belt driven turntables. The type of turntables used for scratching records are direct drive tables like Technics 1200s or the Roland TT-99. Turntables are to hip hop as the guitar is to rock n roll or the saxophone is to Jazz. Add some scratches on top of your beat and you really got something.
- Digital Turntable Emulators/Interfaces – These digital interfaces take the analog motions of scratching turntables and convert them into digital signals. This means you could record something and instantly scratch it like it is a vinyl record. These interfaces can take your beats to the next level – Serato Rane SL2, Traktor Scratch
While the gear list could go on, the pieces I listed above are to give you an introduction of what you need to start the recording process and have a good foundation. Make sure to thoroughly research a piece of gear or software before you purchase so you are ready to hit the ground running. And with that, let’s get back to fundamentals.
All the equipment in the world is great, but if you don’t know how to use it, then none of it even matters. To understand recording, you have to understand signal flow. Signal flow can be thought of a lot like the way water flows through a hose, or better yet, like rain as it travels from the clouds to the river to the ocean. Sound travels just like this water does. It originates from one source and ends up at another. Signal flow is the single most important concept of recording and live sound because as the audio engineer, you are acting as the river bank. You direct where the sound goes and what it interacts with on the way.
In digital recording, the sound (any sound) goes into a microphone, through a cable into a preamp then analog to digital converters (audio interface), into your DAW and out your speakers or headphones. This sounds pretty simple, but can get complicated when you start adding effects and other treatment to your sound because then you start getting into bussing and auxiliary tracks. Don’t worry too much about them now – just understand signal flow as the movement of audio through your gear.
In multi-track recording, the idea is to take several individual sound sources and combine them into one cohesive thing. Think of an orchestra for example. There are trumpets, oboes, saxophones, basses, timpani, choirs, and more. If they are to be beautiful, they have to be cohesive and not clashing, separate, all over the place, or at different volumes. Or a non-musical reference could be a cake – sugar, flour, eggs, temperature, time all separately are their own things, but when put together the right way, you got a cake! What happens when multi-tracking, is you are dealing with multiple parts – you can record something, play it back, and layer another thing on top of it and that’s the beauty of it. You can make something by layering multiple items together. Beat making is no different, you layer instruments to come up with the beat.
Then you have effects. Effects are used in the recording or mixing process to change the sound along its path. For example, you could use the reverb effect to add the perception of ‘space’ in your sound. Or you could use the compression effect to decrease the dynamics of a sound which would allow you to bring the overall volume up. There are tons of effects. To name a few, you got Equalization, De-Essing, Limiting, Echo, Delay, Gating, Phasing, and the list goes on. We won’t go too far into details on this subject, but just acknowledge how they can impact the sound.
Another thing worth mentioning is MIDI. It stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface. In scientific terms, it is a protocol that standardizes communication between different digital devices. Without overcomplicating this explanation, it basically enables electronic instruments to be compatible with computers. This opens doors for use of things like virtual instruments and software synthesizers which play a huge part in the way we record music today. You only need to know that it exists and how to hook it up, so don’t worry too much about understanding the technicalities of MIDI.
Hip Hop was born from looping break beats and groovy parts in existing music. If you are finding inspiration from existing music, that’s where sampling comes in. There are a few legal things you should know about using other peoples’ work if you are planning on distributing your beat. Namely, you will need written permission from the owner of the rights. This can cost money sometimes so you may need to prepare for that. That said, if you’re just sampling to make a beat for personal listening, then you can do whatever you want!
Sampling is an art form. Whether it’s that part of the song where there is an instrumental break that you’re really diggin’ or it’s a break beat from that soul record that’s stuck in your head, finding the sample is part of the art form. Now, to get down to business.
My favorite part about sampling is building something new using existing sounds. There are a number of things you can do to a sample to change it. For example, you could slow the tempo down, speed it up, combine it with other sounds, transpose it (change the pitch), and a whole lot more.
Also, sampling can come from any source. Depending your source, will affect how the sample is taken. If you have a CD, you could burn the track and load it directly into your sequencing program. If your sampling from an analog source, you may have to use a microphone put up to a speaker or some direct audio source. Sometimes, you may find the need to sample from a vinyl record or even a movie!
While there are many ways/thing to sample, a common instrument in hip hop is the Akai MPC. This machine provides a user-friendly sample taking and chopping method that has become a standard way of doing it. You record the sample into the machine and chop it up and place it onto different drum pads then pound out the beat to a click and build on your loop. There are a lot of other things you can do with it, but the trick with sampling is to get creative. Try not to just use pre-existing loops. Try to create something new and unique. Be creative!
Scratching and Turntables
While turntables and scratching are not required for beat making, they can take your beat to the next level. One technique you could use is scratching to add rhythm to a song. Or you could use it more like a guitar solo. Tastefully sprinkle scratching throughout your mix to make it better. Just remember not to overdue it!
A loop is another word for a repeated measure. In hip hop, it’s typical to build loops and repeat them while adding and taking away different layers. The trick is to use loops to your advantage and not just let them go on forever.
PART 3 – SHARING
This is the part where you show everybody your music! But how are you going to polish your work so that it is comparable to the music you hear on the radio? What file types do you need to produce? What channels/vehicles are you going to share on? These are all questions that come into question and are part of this process called Mastering.
Premastering and Mastering
Premastering (often done in conjunction with Mastering) is the process that happens directly after mixing. This process prepares your sound for your desired audience. A well-trained audio engineer in a well-treated room uses effect processors to do things like adjust volume levels, add space, and other audio treatment. If you’re just sharing your music with friends and don’t plan on large distribution, you can get away with a basic chain of effects to bring the volume levels up and remove unwanted noises, but in any scenario where you music is to be widely distributed or commercially used, you would want to go to a professional to get this done. Then the music is mastered into a suitable format – think CD, vinyl disk, or cassette tape.
In today’s age, we oftentimes prepare our music for digital distribution. In this case, you will want to determine which format your music needs to be.
Depending on who you are sharing your beat with will depend on how you share it. You could be ready to upload to SoundCloud right now! Or you could be sending it off to an artist to put vocals to. Or you could have all of it done and your sending it to a mixing or mastering engineer to further develop and produce your beat. Whichever you are doing will affect how you prepare the file. For example, SoundCloud will take mp3 files because they are nice and small. However, since mp3 files are small, they are of less quality. If you are transferring files to another artist who is working on the beat with you, you will want to preserve the highest quality possible and send that. These are files that can save your audio without losing any quality. Some examples of these files are .AIFF and .WAV. Use these file types when sending your mastering and audio engineers. These guys will know how to best preserve your audio for whatever the next steps are.
Finally! Distribute your music! Get it on SoundCloud or Bandcamp. Get a record label to sign you and produce CDs and Vinyl records and sell millions!!!! But most importantly, share it on the Rollz and Dice Facebook page here: facebook.com/rollzanddice.
Well that’s all we got for now. Hopefully this gives you an overview of this whole process of beat making and let us know what you think. If you want more, you can always listen to our podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, and Google Play by searching for “The Rollz and Dice Show”. We are always chatting about music production, beat making and general awesomeness! We hope you like it and happy beat making!
Practice all the techniques mentioned in this blogpost using the templates in the full version of The full Rollz and Dice Guide To Beat Making which can be downloaded here.