In the last 10 years, beat making has become a popular way for new producers to break into the scene. And thanks to all of the advances in digital audio technology, it’s easier than ever to make professional-sounding beats at home.
But, it can still be a complicated and confusing process—especially for those who have never done it before. Don’t worry, we’ve got your back!
In this blog, you’ll learn everything you need to know to start making your own beats, including which instruments you should use, how to construct different sections of a song, and how to bring it all together as one cohesive track.
The process of making beats essentially boils down to three steps: create, modify, refine. Start with a simple melody or rhythm, modify the part to make it more interesting, then refine the part to work in the context of the track.
Let’s take a closer look at each of the steps:
Start with a theme or idea you want to explore. It could be a drum groove, a chord progression, a bassline, a melody or even a sample. In this blog, we’ll start with the drums.
After creating a short drum loop, continue to add the remaining elements, building off of your initial idea.
Copy and paste each element of your loop to create a full song with at least three different sections for the verse, chorus and bridge. Each section should feature different parts and elements.
Make each section unique by adding variation, transitions and effects. Your goal is to keep the listener’s attention for the entire beat.
Tweak each element so that the whole track feels like one cohesive groove. Each of the elements should work together and support one another.
Now that you know the basics, let’s make a beat! In this blog, we’ll explore how to make a hip-hop-style beat. However, all of the techniques we demonstrate can be used when making beats in any genre.
Basic Elements of a Beat
All music uses the same basic building blocks: rhythm, melody and harmony. Sure, there are other components, like pitch, timbre and dynamics, but you don’t need any formal training in music theory to make beats. You just need to understand the relationship between each of the elements.
Most modern music can be broken down into a few simple elements: a kick, a snare, a high-hat or other high-pitched percussion element, a bass and a melodic element. While these elements can be added in any order, many producers choose to start with the drums to build a solid foundation. In this example, we’ll start with the kick and snare.
KICK AND SNARE
Arguably, the kick and snare are the most important elements of the beat, as they establish the groove. The kick emphasizes the downbeat (1 and 3) and adds movement and excitement by playing on off-beats. In some tracks, like house and other EDM genres, it’s common to play to kick on every quarter note. This technique is called “four on the floor” and provides a powerful, driving momentum.
In most beats, the snare hits on the upbeat or backbeat. In standard 4/4 time, this typically occurs on beats 2 and 4, but it can vary depending on the feel of your track. In addition to providing the backbeat of the track, the snare drum also typically plays “ghost notes.” While they may sound spooky, ghost notes are just additional snare hits played off-beat and with less velocity, providing contrast and adding movement.
On a traditional drum kit, ghost notes are typically played by hitting the snare drum lightly or in a different spot to create a different timbre. Occasionally, drummers will set up a second snare to use for accents. When working in the digital domain, it’s common to use different snare samples to help your ghost notes sound more exciting and interesting.
Here’s an example of a simple kick and snare beat utilizing ghost notes.
HI HATS AND PERCUSSION
Now that you’ve built the foundation of your track with the kick and snare, let’s add a high-pitched percussive element to establish the groove.
In theory, you could use any high-pitched percussion element for this role, but most people use a high-hat because they can make several different sounds. This can be very useful when trying to create interesting and dynamic rhythms.
A high-hat is actually two cymbals that can be used to achieve a number of different tones, depending on how you use them. Both cymbals can be clamped together (or “closed”) using a foot pedal, which creates a short, tight sound that’s commonly used to drive the rhythm of the drum kit.
The closed high-hat sound is particularly common in trap music and used to create the distinctive high-hat roll sound heard in so many popular songs. To achieve this sound, either hold down the key on your drum machine or draw in multiple sixteenth note high-hats like so:
When the cymbals are left “open,” they create a long, sustained ringing sound. Using the foot pedal to close the high hat while it’s ringing creates a third type of sound. Much like the snare drum, these additional timbres can be used to create more interesting and dynamic rhythms.
In addition to the high-hat, other high-frequency percussive instruments, such as tambourines, cowbells, triangles and other types of cymbals can be used to create more elaborate rhythms. Don’t be afraid to use additional elements in your rhythm section as well—tom-toms, one-shot samples, and even vocal snippets can be used rhythmically.
Here’s what our kick and snare beat sounds like filled out with a high-hat groove and some additional percussion elements:
Bass acts as the bridge between the drums and the melody. It outlines the chord progression of the song and enhances the groove with new timbres and rhythms. In hip hop, it’s common to layer each kick hit with a long, sustained bass note. Most often, this is done using an 808-style sample.
When people say “808” in reference to beatmaking, they’re usually talking about the kick drum sample found in the Roland TR-808 Rhythm Composer. This legendary drum machine has become synonymous with the sound of hip hop. Originally released in the early 1980s, this iconic device was instrumental in the development of hip hop production and is still used by world-class producers to this day.
Start by laying bass notes with each kick drum. You may choose to use the same pitch for each note, or create a melody or progression by playing different notes each time. This can be a great way to add momentum to the groove and help the bass stand out.
You may find that it’s tough to get an 808-style bassline to sit right in the mix. That’s because of how the sound is made. The 808 bass sound is deceptively simple—it’s just a sine wave that lets you tweak the ADSR of the curve to create an attack and sustain that sounds like a drum.
Because of this, 808 bass notes are almost entirely low-frequency information, which can make them difficult to hear on small speakers. To help your 808s cut through the mix on any system, add a bit of saturation. This will create high-frequency harmonics that will help your ear understand the bass notes, making it easier to hear.
Here’s what our groove sounds like with an 808-style bass line:
At this point, our beat is sounding pretty good—but it’s lacking something special that helps set it apart from other songs or get stuck in your head. That’s where the melodic element comes in. Arguably, the melodic element has the biggest impact on the beat’s sonic character or style. It’s what separates your beat from all of the others.
The specific instrument you use to create the melodic element is totally up to you, although it’s important that it works well with the bass track. It could be anything—a chord progression played on a guitar, a melody played on a keyboard, even a vocal loop or chopped up sound effects.
Just make sure that the melodic element doesn’t take up too much room in the track, and that there’s still room for the vocal to be the centrepiece of the song (unless you’re creating an instrument track, of course.) Most modern productions use a short, simple melodic loop to help add some texture to the song without getting in the way of the vocal.
Here’s what our groove sounds like with the melody added:
How To Turn A Groove Into A Song
This is where a lot of people get lost when they first start making beats. You’ve put together a great-sounding loop, but it’s only 20 seconds long—how do you turn it into a full track? One simple way to flesh out your beat is to take your existing loop and modify it to three distinct sections for the verse, chorus and bridge.
Start by creating a new section. Copy and paste all of the instruments in your loop to a new area in your DAW. Now start experimenting. One easy way to make the verse and the chorus feel unique is to change up the kick and snare pattern. It doesn’t have to be a big change, but altering the drum pattern has a big impact on the overall groove.
Another great way to create separation between parts is to add and remove elements. Try removing one or two elements from your loop to create the verse, and adding one or two additional elements for the chorus. This will help the choruses stand out while leaving more room for the rap vocal in the verses.
Once you’ve created three distinct sections, make each section unique by adding variation, transitions and effects. Your goal is to keep the listener’s attention for the entire beat, which means no two sections should be exactly the same. Make sure the second verse sounds bigger and more exciting than the first verse – same goes for the choruses.
Try to identify the highest and lowest points of the song and emphasise them somehow. The highest point of the song should probably be the loudest and have the most instrumentation, while the lowest will be the quietest and most simple.
Finally, once you’ve created all three sections, go back and tweak each element so that the whole track feels like one cohesive groove. Each of the elements should work together and support one another. The track should build over time and culminate near the end of the song.
Getting Help From Reference Tracks
Figuring out what instruments to add and what your song might be missing can be tricky. Getting inspiration and guidance from a reference track is a great way to keep your ideas flowing.
Our plugin REFERENCE can help you compare your work-in-progress to a finished song at any stage in the production process. The level-match feature will balance the loudness of your track and the reference track to ensure a fair comparison.
The trinity display in REFERENCE will give you a visual of how the tonal balance of your track compares to the reference track. This gives you an idea of what kind of sounds are needed. For example, if the white level line suggested a big boost in the low-frequencies, you might decide to add a big bass sound to your arrangement.
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