Most beginner producers learn to make music by creating simple beats. And in the world of hip-hop especially, beat-making can be an entire career in itself (and a lucrative one at that). For the inexperienced producer, however, even a simple beat can seem a bit abstract. Beginning to make original beats can, therefore, be more intimidating than it needs to be.
In this article, we’ll discuss how beats are constructed and how to get into beat-making. We’ll break down the essential aspects of a standard beat, listening techniques, exercises to develop your abilities, and various resources to use in the learning process.
For the sake of this article, we’ll mostly be looking at beats in the context of hip-hop, the genre in which the beat has the most impact on the final product. We’ll be creating a quick and basic hip-hop beat to demonstrate. However, all of the techniques and concepts that we’ll be covering can be applied across all genres.
What constitutes a “beat?”
Music, in general, is the balance of two concepts: variation and repetition.
Without any variation, the listener can get bored (and will likely skip to the next song). Without any repetition, the listener doesn’t really have anything to latch onto, which can cause the music to feel unstructured.
It’s the composer’s job to find the right compromise between variation and repetition to create something that’s interesting but still relatively accessible to a non-musical listener. In the world of beat-making, where repetition is so prevalent that it can become overwhelming, finding this compromise is especially important.
While beats across the spectrum of popular music can be complex, with interesting and unique rhythms, you really don’t have to overthink things to create an effective beat.
The majority of modern hip-hop beats can be broken down into only a few standard elements: a kick, a snare, a high-frequency percussion sound, a bass, and a melodic element.
Keep in mind that these elements can be added in any order that you like; the only requirement is that all elements work together rhythmically.
Often, it’s best to either start with the drums and shape tonal elements (bass and melody) to the groove, or start with the tonal elements and synchronize a drum groove to the rhythmic phrases found in the parts played by tonal elements.
I personally like to set the drums first, so that’s where we’ll start in our discussion:
Kick and snare
The kick and snare groove is going to function as the skeleton of most beats.
The kick is the foundation, emphasizing downbeats and providing momentum by accentuating any off-beats that you deem fit.
In most beats that you’ll hear, the snare drum acts as the backbeat, a response to the downbeat on normally unstressed positions in the groove. In 4/4 time, this usually occurs on beats 2 and 4, but this rule isn’t set in stone.
You’ll also hear a lot of “ghost” snare hits in modern hip-hop, which like the additional kick hits provide momentum and outline rhythmic phrases characteristic to your particular beat. We can use one snare sound for both the main and ghost snare hits, or the ghost hits can be played with a lighter snare for a deeper sonic palette.
In the following audio example, I’ve created a simple kick and snare pattern, using a consistent kick sound for all kick hits and two snare sample to cover both the main backbeat and ghost snare hits.
We can even start adding further variation here by adding an additional snare layer to some of the snare hits. In this example, I’ve added a harsher snare with some gated reverb to every other snare hit. I’ve also varied the reverb tail’s length on each hit, again to add variation.
Hi-hats and high-frequency percussion
With the beat’s skeleton set using kick and snare drums, most beats will also have a higher-pitched drum sound to outline the groove. Keep in mind that the rhythm of any high-pitched percussion is going to set the overall “feel” of the groove, and often dictates the most natural-feeling rhythmic subdivisions for a singer or rapper to reference.
The high percussion can be anything from a single closed hi-hat or percussion instrument to a whole group of interplaying percussion sounds.
Many modern trap beats, for example, use only one closed hi-hat for high-frequency percussion, using several different rhythmic phrases for variation.
If you spend a bit of time to perfect the rhythmic phrasing, you can get away with these three drum sounds (kick, snare, and CHH) comprising your entire drum groove. Here’s an example of just that:
To add some sonic variation and create a more interesting drum kit, we can start to add some additional percussion sounds. The most common piece of percussion that you’ll hear in most beats is an open hi-hat, which helps to accentuate certain beats in the groove (downbeats and / or off-beats).
A common technique that you’ll hear in modern trap beats is a rolled closed hi-hat, which can be used to fulfill the role of an open hi-hat. This technique also has the added benefit of maintaining a consistent sonic palette in the drum kit (as the closed hi-hat sound fulfills the open hi-hat role), but the technique reduces sonic variation.
Like an open hi-hat, characteristic percussion one-shots can be used to accentuate certain beats. This can help to create a more interesting and unique drum kit, rather than using the drum sounds found in standard hip-hop kits found throughout popular music.
We can stray even further from standard drum instrumentation by having a percussion groove fully take the place of the closed hi-hat, becoming the main driving force in our rhythmic phrasing. Again, this will make the beat more unique, while still providing the groove reinforcement that we got from the closed hi-hat.
In this example, I’ve simply layered a percussion loop with our kick and snare pattern. Notice that, while having a more stripped-down feel, we maintain some rhythmic momentum.
We can combine all the above elements to create a drum groove and kit with plenty of sonic variation. In this example, using our kick and snare skeleton from before, I’ve added a closed hi-hat with some rolls, an open hi-hat, and a percussion loop to round out our drum groove.
A bass sound
With the drums out of the way, a bass will help to provide some tonality and outline the chord progression within the beat. This chord progression can be as simple (one chord, like plenty of modern hip-hop) or as complex (totally linear, no repeats) as you’d like.
In an average beat, the most common bass sound that you’ll hear is essentially a decaying distorted sine wave layered with each kick hit.
We generally refer to this type of bass as an “808”, a sound first popularized by Roland’s TR-808 Rhythm Composer. This legendary drum machine was instrumental in the development of hip-hop production during the early 1980s and continues to impact the industry to this day.
While you can certainly get away with simple bass notes layered with the kick drums, some additional notes that create more of a defined bassline can really help to add momentum to the groove. You hear this a lot in modern hip-hop with the 808 bass gliding from note to note.
This gliding 808 isn’t the only way to go, however. In the following example, I’ve gone a slightly different route, using a very short 808 bass to just add some thump to the kick. I felt this would work best with the vibe we have going so far.
Some melodic element
With this foundation in place, a melodic element helps to round things off. What you end up choosing for this melodic layer is up to your own imagination and composition, but should make harmonic sense with the bassline.
You can go for something super linear that progresses over time, providing tons of variation and relying on the drum groove to provide repetition.
Alternatively, you can take a more standard approach, using a looped melody that’s played with some characteristic sound (a technique that originates from the sampling days of early hip-hop).
Listening to a lot of modern beats, you’ll notice that this loop usually lasts one bar. The instrument that you choose for this melodic element is going to have the biggest impact on the beat’s sonic character, or “vibe”.
In the following example, I’ve added a glitchy guitar sound playing a one-bar melody to our drums and 808. To provide some harmonic variation, I’ve simply pitched the sample to provide the outline for a simple chord progression.
The majority of hip-hop songs will at least have these five elements and a rap vocal, but you can obviously add more elements for additional variation.
It’s important, however, to simplify your beat if you’re expecting a vocal to play over it. In the context of a vocal, which should be the focal point for the listener, the beat should not be distracting and is only there to provide momentum and a consistent rhythm.
This is the reason that a lot of modern hip-hop beats use a looped melodic element, as this is less distracting and allows the listener to focus more on the vocal.
Variation is often provided by creating differences in the instrumentation from one song section to the next. This can be as simple as muting certain elements in certain sections, commonly referred to as a “mute” song structure.
Learning what works and what doesn’t
Now that we’ve covered what a beat’s ingredients are, let’s look at how you can start learning some tried-and-tested recipes.
If you make music, it’s probably a safe assumption that you listen to music too. A great way to learn which rhythmic phrases and tricks work is to just listen to a lot of beats.
Make use of active listening, in which you pay attention to and analyze the music that you’re hearing. As music lovers, we have the tendency to get lost in the music, but this doesn’t really help us learn anything. Try to pick out common rhythmic phrases and the placement of certain drum sounds in the groove.
For example, an open hi-hat or closed hi-hat roll is often placed between a downbeat kick hit and backbeat snare hit (listen to its placement in the sample beat). Notice that, if you’re nodding your head downward with each kick and snare, this percussive hit catches your head nodding on the way up.
These types of rhythms make the groove more infectious by encouraging the listener to move in a certain way.
You can take your active listening even further by bringing a beat you like into an audio track in your DAW. This is arguably the best way to work with reference tracks (for learning arrangement mixing, and mastering standards), as you don’t have to switch between your DAW and a music player. Instead, you can just solo that audio channel and stay in the production environment.
With the track in your DAW, you can loop sections for more detailed analysis, using the grid to actually see how the groove is structured rhythmically. This makes active listening much easier and makes the concept of the “groove” much less abstract.
Developing your abilities
With an understanding of a beat’s anatomy and plenty of references, it’s time to put this perspective to use. There are several ways to help improve your abilities as a beat-maker:
Make a lot of beats
There really isn’t a shortcut to becoming the next great beatsmith; the easiest way to learn how to make beats is to...make beats!
Through repetition and trial of error, you’ll not only find rhythmic techniques that work, but also your own style and flavor. While there are certainly plenty of standard techniques that people have come to expect, there are a TON of beat-makers who only blindly follow these methods. Find a way to give the standard grooves your own spin.
If you’re looking to learn these standard techniques, a great exercise is to make “soundalikes”, or replicas of other producers’ beats / tracks.
Take one of your favorite beats and recreate it, trying to copy not only the rhythm and notes, but also the actual drum and instrument sounds themselves.
This helps to shine some light on the rhythms and melodic phrases that professional beat-makers use, as well as to develop your sample choice and sound design abilities. All of this helps to eliminate the mystery in what your favorite producers are doing when they compose a beat.
As we covered at the start, a simple beat really only has five to ten total elements. Therefore, once you’re comfortable making a beat, try setting yourself a timer and creating one before time runs out.
This forces you to think fast and helps to accelerate the learning process. With their limited number of elements, simple beats shouldn’t take too long to make, so you can get in a lot of practice in a short amount of time.
Making beats, and making music in general, is just a muscle that you have to develop. Once you’re comfortable with your own creative workflow, it’ll take less and less time to create a beat that you love.
Making beats with your own samples
Recording and composing with your own samples is another great way to gain some perspective on beat-making. Instead of relying on sample packs or databases, constructing a drum kit from the ground up requires you to think critically about each sample’s function.
A kick drum, for example, needs to have some low-end thump as well as a punchy higher-frequency transient. I’ve used everything from a door shutting to slapping my office chair as a kick sample.
The beat I was making in this scenario called for a somewhat industrial feel. Therefore, I recorded myself hitting a metal trash can with a pencil for my hi-hat.
Instead of beat-making with the mindset of “these are the samples I have, so this is the beat I can make”, I had the freedom to first conceptualize the beat and then find objects that could achieve that vision.
I found this process to be less constrictive than simply throwing a beat together, pushing me to actually understand what I was doing rather than basing my composition on my tendencies and habits.
Tools for beat-making
There are plenty of resources out there to support those who want to improve their beat-making abilities.
A deep sample library is the most helpful tool in this learning process. Inevitably, the samples available to you will affect your composition decisions. Recording your own samples can be pretty tedious, so using a sample database like Splice.com provides quick and broad access to tons of sonic possibilities.
Expand the number of samples you have to work with and you’ll invariably be forced to create different ideas, helping you find your own flavor when making a beat.
A MIDI controller with some drum pads can also be helpful for beat-making. While you can certainly set up a drum groove by clicking MIDI notes into your DAW, being able to play the drum groove helps to internalize the process of creating rhythms.
The more that you feel rhythm, rather than simply conceptualize it, the easier it will be to create beats that resonate with people.
Lastly, beat-making apps for smartphones can help to speed up the learning process. As we already mentioned, the best way to learn beat-making is to make a lot of beats. A mobile app can allow you to work on your skills while on-the-go and make the most out of a train ride or waiting for a doctor’s appointment.
Whether you plan to make beats for a living, as a hobby, or to help develop your production abilities, the process can be simplified and accessible to anyone. With some perspective of modern trends and a plan to improve your skills, beat-making can help you become a better producer, composer, and musician.