47 posts categorized "BeatTips Tutorials and Exercises"

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


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

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

October 06, 2014

To Loop, or Not To Loop Individual Sounds?

Prolonging Sounds May Be the Answer to the Question


When it comes to modifying individual sounds, there's one common question: Should you loop individual sounds? Here's my take: I rarely loop any individual sounds, hits or stabs, other than maybe a snare that I want to give a roll-effect to. Instead, what I do is, I aim to "prolong" sounds by duplicating (copying) them, and then either splicing them together or layering them (programming them) to play either as: (a) slightly overlapping sounds; or (b) as blended (layered) sounds with different beginning/start and end chop points, and with each sound having a different velocity and/or volume level.

When I make beats, there's two fundamental concepts of arrangement that I may use. For some beats, I try to approach arrangement and structure as closely as possible to how a typical 1970s era groove (soulful rhythm section) would have been arranged. In keeping with that, the only way a sound can be extended and/or looped in a traditional live band setting is through the actual playing and prolonging of the notes (sounds) of particular interest. The other concept of arrangement that I use is more along the lines of a mid-1990s era, up-front drum programming. So for me, when it comes down to it, the looping of individual sounds in beatmaking is actually more about the prolonging of individual sounds, not the looping of them. And, therefore, when I want to prolong or sustain a sound, I opt to use more natural techniques to achieve that effect.

Let me be clear, there isn't anything particularly wrong with looping individual sounds. But I often find that the looping of individual sounds can often sound more artificial. This can make the overall beat sound unbalanced or overly modified, usually devoid of feeling and a nice swing. Also, for me, I've always felt that the looping of an individual sound limits its spacing and "fit" within a beat. That is, once a sound is looped to itself, it's "sound potential" (what the sound could be) is capped and locked into a burdensome loop. In other words, the loop of the individual sound can cause the sound to stand out throughout the beat in a way that does not necessarily compliment the beat.

For example, let’s say you have a saxophone phrase and you want the last quarter of it to repeat. There’s two ways to do this. One way to do it is, you loop the part of the saxophone that you want to repeat. This gives you the sample with its tail end looped to itself. Consider for a moment how that would sound….

Another way to repeat the last quarter of the sax phrase is to duplicate the original sax, then use the two samples — the original and the duplicate — together. What you do is chop the last quarter from the original sax, then chop the duplicate down to ¾ of its duration, essentially leaving only the last quarter of the original saxophone phrase. At this point, you can play the repeat of the last quarter of the sample—wherever you like in the arrangement, not just at the end of the saxophone phrase, because you’re not locked into the looped version of the sample. Note: By using this method and technique, you play (arrange) each sampled phrase in a way that feels more real and less synthetic, artificial, or contrived.

Still, all of this having been said, there are some occasions where looping an individual sound is helpful. For instance, let’s look at that same hypothetical saxophone phrase. What if you didn’t want to use the entire phrase itself; what if you just wanted to use it to make sax sound-stabs? In that case, chopping the sample down to small stabs and looping them can be helpful, depending, of course, on how you intend to use the stabs. For example, you could loop a sax-stab so that it rumbles, then you could combine that rumbling sax-stab with another sound stab. The possibilities for sound-stabs, from everything to texture to variance to vibe to feel, is endless.

Bottom Line
When deciding upon whether or not to loop an individual sound, always consider the overall feel of the beat that you’re working on. In most cases, duplicate an individual sound first, then combine it with it’s original. This will often put you closer to the sound that you’re going for. But if that doesn’t work, sure, you can also loop the part of the sound that you want to repeat (or give off a chorus effect, etc.)

Also, remember that merely looping the end of a phrase does not necessarily give the feel of the phrase repeating naturally. Think of a guitarist repeating the same riff over and over. Now think of that guitarist prolonging one part of the riff before he returns back to the riff’s beginning. Imagine how this human loop sounds; imagine the feel, nothing artificial! Incidentally, this is a great guide to use when thinking about chopping down lengthy phrases or multi-bar measures.

Finally, as beatmakers, we work in a world of electronic music production, wherein we can program EMPIs (Electronic Music Production Instruments) to do things that a human can’t. In some ways, this is an advantage, in some ways, it’s a disadvantage. Either way, we shouldn't deliberately sacrifice a human feel and sensibility just because production technology presents us with endless possibilities.

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

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


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

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

December 24, 2013

BeatTips Tutorial: 1-Bar/Fast-Tempo Arrangement Exercise

Working Backwards from Faster BPM Settings Broadens Understanding of Probable Beatmaking Arrangements


Coming up with fresh new arrangements and precise tempos can be a difficult thing to master. So I came up with a practice exercise that helped me conquer that challenge. I call it the "1-bar/fast-tempo arrangement exercise," and here's what you do.

First, establish a blank 1-bar sequence at an up-tempo, something like 110-120 BPM. Start/record the sequence and play a snare on the “2” and the “4” (second and fourth beats in the bar measure). After that, play a hi-hat in quarters, i.e. 1-2-3-4. Note: Because of the speed of the tempo, the hi-hats will actually move faster than true quarter speed at a slower tempo (e.g. low/mid 90s BPM).

Now, as a patterns emerge to your liking, pull back on the tempo (decrease the BPM setting) to see how everything is turning over. By “turning over” I mean how things land in the arrangement when the sequence reaches the end of the 1-bar measure and “turns over”—loops back to the beginning. [Editor’s note: The BeatTips Manual contains a more detailed discussion of “turn over” rates and “loop points.”]

Benefits and Goals

This practice exercise will help you in a number of different areas.
In regards to sampling, in particular, sampled phrases, it will help expose the full potential of a lengthy sampled phrase, giving you an increased understanding of how sampled phrases can be paired down or extended.

This practice exercise will also help you develop new drum frameworks and approaches to different types of drum patterns. It will also help you further strengthen your sense of time.

Bottom Line
Working backwards from faster BPM settings allows you to hear and explore the range of a given sequence.

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

November 12, 2013

How Do You Make Bass Lines Sound Dope?

There Are a Combination of 5 Different Methods to Use to Help You Get the Bass Sound that You're After


Here's the exact question regarding bass lines that I recently received from a BeatTips reader:
“...I've just noticed how sick the alchemist's bass lines are, and sometimes even just bass stabs. You did an article dissecting his beat on "Keep it Thoro" but I was wondering if you could talk about how he does his basslines. I have the minimonsta along with maschine but I can't quite get it to sound quite as sick, maybe if you could talk about mixing it a certain way? I've also messed around with sampled bass but I read somewhere that Alchesmist uses a mini moog. I also know that Jaisu uses the minimonsta and his basses are sick. So I guess if you could answer the question how do I mix a bass to make it sound DOPE, then that would be awesome."

Answer: As for your question about bass lines, specifically The Alchemist's bass lines, I first have to point out one thing. Fundamentally, bass lines from all sample-based beatmakers share two things in common: signal chain (and amplification) and personal ear. That is to say, that while the signal chain that The Alchemist, DJ Premier, Kev Brown, Marco Polo, etc. may use may be different, it plays a role in how the bass line will ultimately sound. Likewise, the tuned ear of each will also play an important role. That said, there is no *one piece of gear that will deliver Alchemist's sound (or any other producer for that matter).

Instead, however, there are methods and processes that can help you achieve a parallel sound that matches that same overall style and sound, while being true to your own ear and sensibilities. These methods and processes usually include the use of a combination of 5 things: (1) a unique signal chain and amplification, for example, a DJ mixer, a compressor, an equalizer (brand and model is subjective for all pieces of equipment); (2) a pre- and post-EQ mix approach, for example, how fat your bass lines sounds going into your sampler will usually determine how fat it sounds in the beat, do you want to boost it up? do you want to brighten it up? do you want to darken it?; (3) ADSR manipulation, this refers to the sound envelope of a given sound—Attack, Decay, Sustain, Release, (4) post-filtering, after you've sampled the bass sound/stab or line, how do you want to filter it?; and (5) the final mix. in the final mix you pay attention to where the bass line sits in relation to the other elements and it helps you determine if you should cut some frequency, boost it up, or add a touch a brightness. Also, remember that the type of beat itself will dictate how the bass line should sound. Furthermore, depending on how thick, deep, shallow, muddied, or elongated you want your bass line to sound, chances are you'll be able to get that sound through a combination of the four methods and processes I described above.

Special note: I should point out that while any combination of these 5 things may be used, the aim should always be to develop your own subjective ear for how you want your bass lines to sound.

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

October 28, 2013

Beats Made Per Week vs. Regimented Practice

Which is the Better Developmental Path for You?


Making a set number of beats per week has long been an activity well-represented among many beatmakers. Indeed, in the numerous interviews that I've conducted with beatmakers, many have told me about the sheer number of beats that they use to (and in some cases, still do) make or attempt to make per week. Moreover, the beats-made per-week quota has become so commonplace among beatmakers that it is now widely seen as a natural link to the development of beatmaking skill. But does the sheer maintenance of a specific quantity of beats made per week actually guarantee a deeper skill for beatmaking?

I suspect that a commitment to such a formula does generate a legitimate level of proficiency—not necessarily great skill—in beatmaking, particularly in terms of actually completing a beat. However, I wonder if this proficiency in “beat completion,” if you will, actually translates to a higher quality (and better understanding) of beats. For some, I think so. Still, for most, I’m not entirely convinced that it does.

Hear me out. Let’s say you make 20 beats per week. If you maintain that level of output, by year’s end, you will have made over a thousand beats. Does this mean that at year’s end, your sum total of beats made is an accurate measurement of your development as a beatmaker? Well, of course, in some ways it does. But I've never been comfortable with evaluating my development based on the quantity of my production output, but rather the quality of my production output, and more importantly, the individual breakthroughs (conceptual understanding, method mastery, etc.) that I experienced amid regularly scheduled practice sessions.

In fact, in regards to a developmental path for beatmakers, I believe that maintaining a strict per week beat quota raises more questions than it answers. For instance, does a rigorous schedule of beats made per week correct your beatmaking deficiencies? Let’s say you have difficulty with programming drums. Will making 20 beats per week correct that problem of yours? It might, but then again, not necessarily. For me, the most effective way to correct any deficiency, whether it be drum programming or any other process, is to hold isolated practice sessions wherein you work on nothing but correcting that deficiency. Such a dedicated drum programming practice session could be 30 minutes of studying the drum programming (patterns) of those beatmakers (producers) whose beats you admire most. And this could be followed up by another 30 minutes of sketching out your own drum patterns, using the ideas and understanding that you've gleamed from your study. I find that this kind of dedicated practice offers more promise than arbitrary beats-made-per-week quotas.

And what about those things that you do well as a beatmaker? Does a beats-made-per-week quota help you recognize the things that you do best? Again, for some, I'm sure it does to a certain degree. After all, one advantage of completing an arsenal of beats each week is that it allows you to survey, study, and audit your own style and sound. Still, I also believe that regular regimented practice sessions also help you to identify the better elements and characteristics of your beatmaking style and sound.

Thus, in my final analysis, I'd say that there's value in both approaches. I do believe that maintaining some sort of beats-made-per-week quota is beneficial. However, I caution that the maintenance of any such quota, without regular regimented practices, is far less beneficial. Indeed, practice in beatmaking, as with any other music process, is always necessary. No matter how developed you may be as a beatmaker, it's important to continue to sharpen your skills. And by this I mean, practice without the intent of always creating a new beat, but instead, the intent of furthering your skill and understanding of the multiple processes of beatmaking as well as music in general.

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

October 21, 2013

Use Compression as a Friend, Not a Foe

Understanding How to Effectively Use Compression


Mixing hip hop/rap music offers its own set of challenges. From rupturing kick drums to rumbling bass lines, hip hop/rap music doesn't always fit neatly into traditional approaches to mixing. Sure, the same sonic tools/effects are in play when mixing hip hop/rap music, just like any other music form. But how these sonic tools are applied and used in hip hop/rap music (or any other music form) can mean the difference between something sounding pleasing to the ear or something outright crummy. And there is no other effect that can make or break this difference than compression.

In hip hop/rap music, where the dynamic range is often a blend of sampled sounds, compression is the most commonly misused sonic tool. So to truly understand how and when to use compression more effectively—that is, not abuse and misuse it—, it is important to first get a working knowledge of what compression actually is and does. Fundamentally, compression is about controlling the dynamic range of an individual track or song in a way that keeps everything contained in the same zone, so to speak. Indeed, a good way to look at compression is to view it as a process of effective containment. What compression does, in a basic control approach, is it pretty much takes any sound and contains it from spilling out of a desired range of sound and color. In this way, compression keeps the most common hip hop/rap music production sounds—high velocity kicks, snares, bass lines, samples—from varying too wide in range; it makes everything stick together like glue.

Further, one of the most basic ideas of compression is to boost up the quieter dynamics in a mix and to simultaneously “squash” (reduce/neutralize) the peaks. The aim of this is to be able to turn up the overall track volume, getting the much sought after bang and punch. For instance, effective compression can increase the presence of a thin bass line, making it sound fat and warm. But the misuse of compression can make that very same bass line sound distorted and out of place—unstuck.

Having understood what compression is it’s good to break down how it works. A typical compressor (hardware or software) has basic parameters through which compression is applied to a sound (signal); they are: Threshold, Input, Ratio, Attack, Release, Input, and Output. Threshold sets the level at which a compressor goes into action; it’s the point at which the compressor starts to work. Think of it as a virtual line of decibels (dB), that once crossed, the compressor goes to work. Likewise, whenever a signal falls below the set threshold, compression stops. Because threshold works in tandem with a compressor's input level, which controls the strength of a signal coming into the compressor, the stronger the signal, the sooner the threshold level is reached.

Ratio represents the level (amount) of compression that will be applied to any signal that exceeds the threshold setting. Any sound signal coming in above the set threshold will be affected in accordance to the ratio setting.

Attack, measured in milliseconds (ms), represents the time that it takes before the compression actually happens, once a sound signal reaches the threshold. The shorter the time, or rather the faster the attack, the quicker and/or more harsh the compression. A quick attack is useful in neutralizing kick peaks, which in turn allows the overall level to be raised. Generally speaking, you want compression to happen as soon as possible. But remember, there are no hard rules on this; the sound and vibe of a track that you’re going for will dictate how you adjust compression settings.

Release, measured in ms, determines how long it takes for a compressor to let go of a signal, once it has dropped below the set threshold. With a longer release time, the compression holds on longer to the signal that it’s applied to. A long release time is especially useful for adding sustain and extended nuance to a signal. A too fast release setting can result in “pumping” (where the compression can be heard). Here, it’s also worth noting that’s it’s a good idea to always have the compressor’s meter set to “GR” (Gain Reduction). This way you’re seeing exactly how much the sound being compressed is cutting back. It is also a good view of how fast/slow the compressor is attacking and/or releasing.

Output represents the overall output level of an applied effect.

Through the brief breakdown of the basic parameters of a typical compressor, it’s easy to see the upside of compression. But there can also be a downside to compression. One common mistake is having the threshold a little bit too harsh and pushing towards the negatives too much, resulting in a sound that is smothered or struggling to get light. Perhaps the best way to tell if something has been compressed too much is by checking the velocity of the sound. That is, if the sound is coming off dull or it’s noticeably losing significant volume, then it has been compressed too much. Though volume does increase some during compression, it should not be the source for controlling volume.

Bottom line:

Because of the unique sonic nature of hip hop/rap music, there are really no magic compression settings for any one sound or group of sounds. Moreover, compression can be used in different ways; you’re only limited by your imagination. Therefore, like many processes of beatmaking and recording/mixing, experimentation and trial and error is a must. In order to find compression settings that work well with your taste and style of production/mixing, you have to try compressing different sounds with different settings, being mindful to avoid those things that flatten and dull your overall sound. And with a good grasp of what compression is and how it works, you’re well on your way to finding your own unique default settings. In the end, that's really the best way to make compression your friend and not your foe.

Some useful compression guidelines:

Begin with short attack and release times, then adjust as needed.

Begin with a 4:1 ratio, then adjust as needed.

Because bass, especially in hip hop/rap music begs to be consistent, think heavier compression on bass sounds.

Compression isn’t just a tool for controlling sound; it can be used to add color as well.

As with any sonic tool, use compression in the ways that help you get that sound and feel that you want.

Avoid using compression simply as a tool to make sounds louder.

*Feel free to leave comments and add your own compression guidelines.

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

October 03, 2013

Rhythm Blending and Masking Constrasts vs. Timestretch

Creating Cross Rhythms to Lock Up Timing


In The BeatTips Manual, in the section on timestretch, I discuss why I don’t rely on timestretch as much as I do on rhythm matching and contrasting. One of the biggest problems dealing with any sampled phrase of 2-bars or longer is the tempo change. Let’s remember, when you sample a song, you’re usually sampling a group of live musicians that played in real time when they recorded the song. As such, the tempo ebbs and flows. Humans are not machines, so natural timing moves slightly. Thus, a song moving at let’s say 90 BPMs (Beats Per Minute) may actually move between 89.7 – 90.3 BPMs over a measure of four bars or more. So the shorter the sequence, the tighter the BPM will be. Conversely, the longer the sequence, the more the BPM is likely to move slightly up or down. All told, tempo change within a sample creates a sequencing and arrangement challenge, especially when it comes to building drum patterns.

There's No Rule in Beatmaking that Says You Have to Use Timestretch: Rhythm Blending

Whether you like to call it rhythm blending (as I do), beat matching, or beat blending, the concept is all the same: combining/blending/mixing two or more rhythms to make one new rhythmic structure or sound wall. So instead of relying solely on timestretch to solve the arrangement and timing problems that can arise from tempo changes within a sample, utilize creative rhythm structures to achieve similar and often even better (more natural sounding) results.

BeatTip: Work on developing an ear for picking sounds, rhythms, or even melodies that go together or contrast nicely. This is better than forcing sounds and rhythms to fit simply because you have an idea (inclination) and the power of timestretch. Every idea that you have is not supposed to work. And if you’re not careful, timestretch can become a means for forcing some ideas that might have been better left alone.

In the song below, I use a 4-bar phrase that pounds on the initial hit (start of the sequence) then dips and rises three times before it gets to the loop point then loops over again. Instead of using timestretch to manage the shifts in tempo, I used three different hats—in three distinct ways—to shuffle and drag the flow of the beat and to keep the rhythm steady. I used a kick-drum scheme (six tumbling kick-hits) that seems to go against the flow. Finally, I used a straight forward snare on the “2”, which I heavily syncopated near the end of the fourth bar in anticipation of the entire four-bar structure starting (looping) from the beginning. Collectively, I used all of the drumwork to create cross rhythms and a contrast structure that masks the primary sample’s tempo and pitch changes.

Sa’id – “Remember Me” (produced, rhymed, & written by Sa’id)

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

September 16, 2013

Using the Hi-Hat Adjusted Attack Technique for Better Groove and Feeling

Conquering the Hi-Hat Stiffness Problem


One thing many beatmakers struggle with (myself formerly included) is getting their drums to sound more live and not so stiff. I specifically struggled with the most commonly repetitive element in a drum pattern: the closed hi-hat. This is a topic frequently brought up among beatmakers, and it has taken a long time for me to understand some of the more subtle techniques to add feel and groove to a drum pattern effectively and purposefully.

Here is a list of techniques I learned and used over the years in previous beats to achieve a more live and less repetitive sound with hi-hats:

• Layering hi-hats over each other.
• Using a few different hi-hats and alternating the velocity and pitch a little between hits (usually a little higher pitch on the harder velocity notice and slightly lower pitch on the softer velocity notes).
• Playing them in live no quantize.
• Quantizing them and then shifting them forward or backward.
• Sampling a breakbeat and filtering out the lows so you are left with a just the hi-hats and laying the filtered break over your programmed hi-hats.

These are all effective techniques especially when used in the right combination together. However, one of the more elusive techniques, which I discovered a few months ago, has turned out to be one of the most effective.

I started making beats on Propellerhead’s Reason 4, mostly using the Redrum virtual drum machine for my drums. Redrum is a great machine for adding feeling and dynamics to a drum beat quickly, as its user interface makes it very easy. A short while after using Reason, I transitioned away from the computer environment and moved to the Akai MPC 2000xl and then later the MPC 5000. One thing that caught my attention was how different the drums sounded, not only sonically but the feeling and groove of them, particularly with the closed hi-hats. In the MPC, my hi-hats seemed stiffer and un-alive compared to Redrum. I decided to do a comparison between the two to try and understand why Redrum was sounding more alive.

I loaded a drum kit I into Redrum, and then loaded the same kit into the MPC. The drum kit contained three drum samples: a kick, a snare, and a hi-hat. Then, I programmed into Redrum a simple drum beat (all events at the same velocity) and then used the same drum beat and programmed it into my MPC at the same tempo with quantize and no swing or shuffle (knowing this is going to sound robotic, but making any differences more obvious). As I noticed before, there was a very subtle difference, Redrum seemed a bit less stiff than my MPC in terms of the hi-hats. The hi-hats in Redrum sounded like they had more groove. I recorded the MPC’s output and Redrum output into Pro Tools and lined up the waveforms. They lined up perfectly and the waveforms looked just about identical.

I then returned to the MPC to try to figure out how to get a similar groove like the one in Redrum. I started looking around in the MPC’s Step Edit window on my hi-hat track. I reviewed all the options I could use to edit the hi-hat events. There are filters, pitch, velocity, and then attack and decay. I knew Redrum didn’t automatically adjust the pitch or filtering to give it more groove, it seemed more subtle than that. Then I contemplated the attack parameter. I started to adjust the attack on the hi-hat events inside the MPC making the attack slightly less steep on random hi-hat events. Then when I played back the MPC it suddenly had that similar kind of feel as Redrum, but it had even a bit more with some bounce. My guess is, at the standard medium velocity Redrum slightly rounds the attack, whereas the MPC leaves it up to you to adjust the attack and velocity separately. Following this comparison between Reason and the MPC, I discovered how effective it is to adjust the attack time on hi-hat events.

After discovering this attack technique, I used it on the next beat I made. I played in the hi-hats on the MPC quantized to the beat with varying velocity. Then, I went into the step edit window on the hi-hat track. I looked at the various velocities I had recorded and started adjusting the attack time. I made a steeper attack for harder velocity hits and softer attack for lower velocity hits. I then adjusted the decay to shorten the duration of the lower hits to add more variety.

This hi-hat adjusted attack technique is one of the most effective techniques for livening up programmed hi-hats. I encourage beatmakers to try this technique when encountering stiff sounding hi-hats or other drum elements; it works great on kicks and snares as well. These subtle differences may seem small but they really add up when it comes to the groove and feel of a beat. If done properly these techniques can make a drum beat much more interesting, lively, and less repetitive.

Below are two audio clips of a drum beat. The second clip has the hi-hats with adjusted attack and decay.

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

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

July 10, 2013

Use Your Drum Sounds to Improve Your Compositional Workflow

Knowing Your Drum Sounds Makes for a More Efficient Compositional Workflow


Compositional workflow, the collective processes, methods, and time it takes a beatmaker to create a beat, can be improved in a number of different ways. Depending on the individual EMPI (Electronic Music Production Instrument), the steps within most beatmaking processes can be condensed. Likewise, the various methods of achieving particular production goals can be realized, retooled, and/or retranslated in ways that bring about desired results faster and more efficiently. Even the reshuffling of one’s production environment can improve workflow. (Do not under estimate the power of a comfortable chair and/or a good view.) But among the countless ways to improve compositional workflow, often the most overlooked way can be found in the area of drum sounds and drum sound modification.

Most beatmakers—myself included—take pride in crafting their drum sounds, despite the fact that there are also lots of beatmakers who depend (heavily) on pre-set drum sounds with little to no customization at all. For those beatmakers who see their drums as a major component of their overall production identity, individualized drum sound customization is key. But that being said, the processes of drum sound customization can impede workflow whenever they are overly applied during the making of a beat. This is why simply knowing your drum sounds is a great way to improve compositional workflow.

Check it out… Whenever I’m making a beat, I choose my drum sounds quickly because I know them. I know their texture; I know their color; I know what types of sounds they’ll go well with; I know how they’ll sit and sound in the final mix. So for me, selecting the right drums for the right style and sound of beat that I'm working on at the moment doesn’t involve a prolonged scroll through my drum library.

And although I may make a couple of modifications to a drum sound during the process of making a beat, those tweaks are minimum and on the fly, nothing too tedious or vibe busting. Again: I know my sounds, so I reach for the sounds that I think may fit with the current arrangement that I’m working on. I do not, however, embark upon some sort of drum-tweaking journey that can shift my focus from the beat—the entire arrangement—to just drum sounds. Moreover, I do not allow my workflow to be disrupted by a prolonged search of a drum sound folder. This is yet another reason why I like to keep my drum sound library tight with a reasonable number of sounds. In other words, when I’m composing a beat, I’m leery of shifting too far away from composer to drum sound technician, or anything else for that matter.

Compositional workflow determines your ability to harness your creative moments in real time. Therefore, the longer your compositional workflow is disrupted, that is to say, the longer the act of composing is left on hold—in this case, by drum craft or “tech” work—the more you defeat your ability to harness your creative moments. This is why it's just as important to look for ways that improve your compositional workflow as it is to guard against anything that can inhibit it.

Now, technically speaking, any tweak of a drum sound during the creation of a beat makes you a “drum sound technician,” which, in effect, disrupts your compositional workflow. But to what degree? During the “live vibe/feel” of making a beat, should the arrangement and scope of the beat be placed on hold until you tweak drum sounds to perfection? Or should drum sounds defer to the overall arrangement, with little to no consideration of their fit within the arrangement? What I mean here is, is easier to find what fits from a well-known personal arsenal of drum sounds than it is from a big box of endless unknown sounds? Further, isn’t it better to spend time making major tweaks to a drum sound, in a stand-alone context outside of the beat arrangement at hand? I certainly believe there is a time for major tweaks—customization—of drum sounds, in a stand-alone context. This is why I strongly believe that it’s important to set aside time for beatmaking sessions that are solely for the purpose of going through new drum sounds, modifying them to specific taste, and creating a trusted core set of drum sounds.

But implementing extensive drum sound modifications and/or a prolonged drum sound selection process during the composition phase of making a beat can disrupt your flow of ideas, and severely limit your ability to bring about the beat you envisioned. Simply knowing your drum sounds, particularly a core set of sounds, can improve your compositional workflow and cut down considerably the amount of time it takes you to complete a beat from start to finish.

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

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