The Beginners Guide To Making Beats
The art of creating drum tracks, manipulating and editing sounds, creating and recording sound content, and finally using them in music has changed fundamentally in the past two decades.
What used to require a huge room full of expensive recording gear could in fact now be done on an iPad. Just think about that!
Beat Making Equipment
Today, beat making can happen just about anywhere.
In a car, at the beach, local coffee shop, library, airport, even at the International Space Station…the possibilities are endless! All you need is an App on your phone to get started, really.
But what can be a cool looking gadget can also be the worst thing that can happen to your creative flow. And that’s probably the first thing to consider: when you’re trying to get that drum track playing in your head recorded, there’s no time to waste.
Does this mean it needs to be a simple? No, it can be as simple or as complex tool as you can find — as long as you feel natural using it and it supports your creativity.
Here are few important things to consider, when learning how to make beats:
- Does it support my creative flow?
- Does it integrate to my workflow and with other tools?
- Does it include everything that you need?
- Does it have a learning curve?
- Is it expandable?
- Is it future-proof?
- Does it fit my budget?
The first one is obvious: if the equipment doesn’t allow you to express yourself in a setting, that supports your creative flow, don’t do it.
This might be one of the least discussed aspects of music production but could also be one of the biggest deal breakers for many starting music producers.
It doesn’t matter if your beat making tools are pieces of software running inside a DAW (called plugins) or external equipment, such as pad controllers, groove boxes or iPad running music making software — the user needs to be in control and stay inspired.
Anything that you choose to use for your beat making has to also work together with your other tools; a grid or push controller working seamlessly with a DAW, an iPad application that uses Inter-App Audio or perhaps a sampler that accepts files from a computer using drag-and-drop are just few examples that come to my mind — all of these will again support your creativity.
But there is also another aspect for this: some producers find limiting possibilities works best for them to reach their goal. Hip Hop producer Young Guru offered great insight into this in his Grammy interview.
All in all, it’s important to know your tools properly to be able to utilise their full potential in your workflow.
Many producers, like Kanye West for example, opt for hardware that offer tactile controls, while others prefer software user interface, that gives them ability to receive more refined visual feedback.
There are also great hybrid solutions that give best of both worlds as well as specialised controllers, that try to fill the gaps between these two.
One important thing to consider here is expandability: some great pieces of software can be quite limited (especially free or LE versions) and it’s good to know if there is an upgrade path if you’d need more features in the future. It’s also important to check, if the developer is actively bringing in new updates to fix bugs and bring in new features.
This goes for hardware as well, since most equipment run an onboard operating system (with the exception of fully analog gear of course) and many of them work together with software running on your computer.
How To Make Beats – Big bucks vs Budget Brigade
- Budget FREE
- Budget Under $500
- Budget Over $500
Let’s face it: music equipment is not always cheap.
Remembering that music production still typically happens on a computer running a DAW (be it free or commercial), acquiring a sound card, maybe a pair of monitor speakers and a midi controller can easily set you back at least a good $500 dollars to begin with.
There are ways to go around some limitations but you’d be pretty much stuck if you’d willing to take your music production to the next level without investing in at least a decent computer.
But what if you are on a budget?
Here are the good news: there are loads and loads of free software plugins and even free digital audio workstations out there.
There is also another great way to get in, if you are considering investing in home-studio equipment: many sound cards and midi controllers come bundled with limited versions of popular DAW software, and the manufacturers usually include an upgrade path to go for the full version.
Downloading a demo version of any software (be it an iPad App or plugin) also offers a great way to see the software in action.
If you wish to find a good hardware solution it will require a bit more work here, since you might need to track down a local reseller.
Always go and try the equipment out in a local music shop and talk to the staff to show you around – it will save you from a lot of headache to figure out the best solution for your needs!
It’s always a great idea to check reviews and product videos from the internet to see what the equipment is capable of and what other users think about it.
Subscribing to a newsletter from a manufacturer or developer might also bring in a surprise: many of them will offer special discounts during popular holidays and many offer educational prices for students!
Bigger budget will of course offer more flexibility and features but there are great solutions out there for any budget, starting from a simple iPad App to a sophisticated music production station.
|Free Production Software DAW’s||Paid Software Plugins / VST’s||Hardware Midi Controllers|
|Ardour (PC, Mac, Linux)||KVR Audio||Arturia DrumBrute|
|Avid Protools First (PC, Mac)||Pluginboutique||Dave Smith Tempest|
|Presonus Studio One 3 Prime (PC, Mac)||Roland TR-8|
|Ohmstudio (PC, Mac)||Elektron Analog Rytm|
|Soundtrap (Any)||Akai MPC Live|
|Native Instruments Maschine|
But hey — music should be fun and accessible for anyone, right? Ultimately, you are not required to invest anything to have fun making beats.
Try the Acid Machine website with your web browser (Chrome recommended) for some classic drum machine/bass fun or just download any free music app to your phone.
A starting point for creating good music can really be anywhere.
Start with an idea
So, you have chosen your equipment and now is the time to make the most of it in a creative way. A little knowledge in music theory will help a bit to get you going but it’s not as necessary as you might think — as long as you can work with sounds in tempo.
Yes, modern beat making is all about finding the right sounds and laying them down on a timeline. This can consist of pretty much anything – a pattern or sequence, sampled phrase or a loop, but it always includes tempo and time signature.
Working in modern music software consists of working with blocks that contain data as means of adjusting the timing of sounds within a block.
Digital audio workstations typically use MIDI for writing and reading notation as well as other control data, which is still exactly the same thing that is used in any standalone music production hardware, old and new.
At the heart of it lies a musical idea that needs to be recorded and edited. It doesn’t need to be a song and it certainly doesn’t need to be exactly like you hear it in your head.
Sound of the drums
- A starting point can be anything.
- A cowbell or a funky drum loop.
- Beatboxing sample or your grandma sneezing.
- Anything that inspires you.
- Now is the time to put your creativity to the game.
Great thing about today is that there are tons of great sources to find sounds to be used with your tools, so you don’t have to start from nothing.
Sample and loop libraries are essential, when you’re looking for that specific recorded sound. Any modern day DAW will adjust these loops automatically to fit the tempo.
Many of the tools will also ‘slice’ these loops according to their transients (also called hitpoints), so you will be able to reorganize, isolate, manipulate and play them in a completely different manner than originally recorded!
Don’t underestimate the power or recording sounds by yourself though: you don’t even need to make perfect recordings to make it count — the best thing about using software is that you can edit and change these sounds to just about anything.
Just look at Tim Exile do his magic to a bunch of simple sounds he recorded and put into FLOWs (which is a free instrument to be used with free Reaktor Player) and you will soon realise how incredibly crazy you can go with just your phone to record simple sounds and digital audio workstation running the above mentioned!
Some sample-based instruments and samplers have also loads of great soundsets available for them.
Here are some recommendations to tracking down some impressive content for sample-based instruments, both hardware and software:
The Loop Loft, Undrgrnd Sounds, Goldbaby.
Hardware units are great for creating your own sounds: some have excellent sampling and synthesis engines that excel many software creations.
Subtractive analog synthesis seems to still be one of the most popular source for drum sounds.
Some classic drum machines, such as Roland TR-808, relied heavily on subtractive synthesis.
DSP based digital synthesis such as FM, physical modelling and some other synthesis types are also quite common to find in hardware, such as Machinedrum.
Drum machines and samplers can have a sound of their own, which is great news for making sounds fit in specific styles of music, and to sound original.
Not so long ago all music equipment had dedicated interfaces for controlling them: grand piano with its keys and sustain pedals, electric guitar with its strings, volume and tone knobs, and whammy bar — and all they could control was a single instrument.
Later came CV/gate control and DIN sync, which eventually evolved to MIDI. This gave us ability to use one interface to control another instrument.
Now we have OSC (Open Sound Control) and Ableton Link. Controller data can be transferred in wired and wireless networks, between devices and environments almost in real time.
It’s not just MIDI keyboards and push controllers — theoretically anything can become your musical interface!
There are gloves that transform movement to MIDI data along with other gesture-based controllers. Or you can use just your voice to create MIDI data.
You can even connect your favourite vegetable to make music! We’ve certainly come a long way.
All of this has shifted musicians from being instrumentalists to controllerists, which has certainly opened doors for people who cannot play certain instruments to being superstars.
Just ask Deadmau5.
This brings us to the necessity of working with computers in the traditional setting altogether:
some rather take their trusty box into a darkened room and just start banging beats.
Never walk alone
Making music can be a lonely business, but reflecting your work is essential in helping you make better music. This is why you see producers like Jay-Z hanging around with other producers in his studio.
It’s about sharing inspiration, finding the right pieces to fit in the puzzle, getting honest feedback and generally — having fun doing it.
If you’re just starting up it might also help to have a more experienced ‘mentor’ or a producer friend to lead your way and answer your questions.
Local music shops, talent nights and music schools are great places to find people with similar state of mind.
But there are also some great websites to find people to work with: Splice and OhmStudio for example, are geared towards collaborative music making over the net.
Try these places to find the right connections and make the most of these channels to get going, and making your music heard!
Who is using what
The big question that keeps getting asked is what is the right setup for me.
Unfortunately, there is no single right answer to this as there are so many different ways of producing music.
Some music producers swear by their outboard gear and don’t necessarily want to reveal their production techniques.
And you always have to remember that the big name producers have years and years of experience working with their chosen equipment — a first look into something like Akai MPC or Apple Logic Pro can be a really daunting experience.
But don’t let that hold you back! Try different tools and different ways to make your own beats, and eventually you’ll find the right way for you to make the magic happen.
Luckily, we have websites like Equipboard that try to give at least some level of insight into what the big boys of music industry are using, so you can study this even further:
- Ørjan Nilsen – Steinberg Cubase, Image Line Fruityloops exclusively for drums.
- Junkie XL – Steinberg Cubase, Avid Pro Tools, Native Instruments Kontakt, Spectrasonics Omnisphere, various drum machines.
- Kanye West – Avid Pro Tools, Ensoniq ASR-10, Akai MPC2000 (and others) and Roland VS-1880 for sampling.
- Kid Cudi – Avid Pro Tools, Native instruments Machine.
- Soulja Boy – Image Line Fruityloops.
- Timbaland – Propellerhead Reason.
- Young Guru – Apple Logic Pro, MPC3000 (and others).
- Daft Punk – Avid Pro Tools, E-mu SP-1200, various drum machines.
- BT – Image Line Fruityloops, Apple Logic Pro, Arturia BeatStep Pro, Refx Nexus, ProjectSAM Symphobia.
Example setups for creative beatmakers
Above are some examples of quite successful music production setups.
Remembering, that big names would likely have a budget big enough to just call the nearest music shop and bring pretty much anything into their studio, their chosen pieces of production gear are actually quite straightforward: a trusty DAW and many times a specialised tool to work exclusively on beats.
This can only mean one thing: getting your hands on an unlimited full copy of any digital audio workstation is clearly a major step towards serious music production.
Any digital audio workstation will basically give you access to all of the tools necessary to make complete professional quality music from start to finish, even on an iPad (just check Auria Pro or Cubasis 2 and be prepared to be blown away!), while the sample and loop content (including sound sets and romplers) are pretty much up to personal preference.
Versatility and expandability are key players in any setup and should not be overlooked.
Here is our shortlist, which focuses around beat making and creating professional quality music (minus recording from external sources):
There is nothing better than free stuff. This said, you’d still need own at least an entry level computer or an iPad to get started on this option. PC and Mac
Ardour – A very powerful free digital audio workstation with no limitations whatsoever.
Great support for different file types, very expandable. Sleek, professional look. Works even on Linux!
Kontakt 5 Player – Free version of the popular professional software sampler.
Limited to be used with instruments that are built exclusively for Kontakt Player.
Mixing and effects plugins
Our hat goes off to these developers.
There are simply too many good plugins to list here, but here’s a selection of great sounding and versatile tools to help with any mixing and mastering task (and they’re free!):
Retronyms Tabletop – Currently the only free digital audio workstation App for iPad that includes importing your own sounds, saving sessions, MIDI input and is expandable.
This said, Tabletop is really more of a collection of devices, or a modular audio environment, as they advertise on their website, and while being an open platform for developers, doesn’t currently work with Audiobus, Inter-App Audio or AU instruments, so you’ll be restricted to playing around with devices, that are Tabletop-environment only.
Budget: Under $500
While $500 might sound like a lot, we’re actually still taking baby steps into creating a professional music production environment.
PC and Mac
Alesis VI25 Keyboard Controller– This small but powerful keyboard controller has full sized, velocity sensitive keys, knobs and pads, and is easy to program. Comes with free copy of Ableton Live Lite as well as AIR Music’s Xpand!2 virtual instrument.
Ableton Live Lite features Impulse (a built-in drum sampler instrument) and Simpler (simplified version of Ableton’s bigger sampling instrument) as well as all essential tools for your mixing and effecting duties. It will set you back roughly $200.
Softube Heartbeat (drum synth plugin) -Maybe not the obvious choice to get into the world of drum machines, but this virtual drum instrument deserves a hard look at $149.
If you’re into drum sound programming, this will definitely keep you busy.
iZotope Elements Bundle (mix, master, repair) – iZotope has really set the bar high with their set of innovative Elements plugins: Neutron Elements is an astonishing new approach to audio mixing, Ozone 7 Elements is an essential tool for any mastering application and RX is a powerful tool to repair any problems associated with bad recordings.
At $149 this trio is an absolute bargain that helps you to achieve professional results in a straightforward way.
Standalone Digital And Analogue
Novation Circuit – One of the great things about this little box is that you can work with it completely without a computer.
Its innovative sequencing represents the future.
At $350 Novation Circuit is an excellent value for money although the sample memory of just 60 seconds will not satisfy heavy users.
Arturia KeyStep keyboard controller – A great combo to be used with Novation Circuit – features a built-in step sequencer, 25 velocity sensitive keys and great connectivity (USB, MIDI, CV/Gate).
Perfect for controlling any external devices, while being extremely portable. KeyStep will be yours for $119.
iPad / IOS
Steinberg Cubasis 2 + Classic Machines (IAP) – An excellent digital audio workstation software that offers unlimited audio and MIDI tracks, real-time time-stretching and pitch-shifting through zplane’s elastique 3 engine.
Cubasis comes with a well-modelled channel strip on each mixer channel and MiniSampler to spice up those sampling duties. Classic Machines collection offered as $6.99 in-App purchase is a definite recommendation. Steinberg Cubasis 2 comes with price tag of $49.99.
Retronyms We – $149 Retronyms Wej is a portable stand and MIDI hub for your iPad, operates as low-latency wireless bridge and solves the problem with external devices that require a lot of power to function properly. Through Wej you will be able to connect just about any USB-powered MIDI controller to an iPad.
Very programmable and portable keyboard controller, ready to be taken on the road.
The iPad becomes truly powerful when loaded with some quality music apps.
The big advantage is that these tools area able to work together via Audiobus software, so you are able to bring any plugin or environment to be routed at Audiobus.
- Audiobus3 $9.99
- Korg iElectribe $19.99
- Retronyms Akai Professional iMPC $2.99
- Novation Blocs Wave Free
- Audiodamage Pumphou
- Audiodamage Dubstation 2 $4.99
- iMusicAlbum Audio Mastering Series $29.99
Budget: Over $500
A music production setup, that will enable you to create music in a professional setting.
While the sky’s the limit here, we still want to stay in a reasonable budget. PC or Mac.
Ableton Live Suite + Push 2 controller – A full-blown digital audio workstation with a dedicated controller – could it possibly get any better? Push controller features a next level of integration with Simpler sampling instrument.
This software also goes beyond just being a DAW in terms of expandability: Max For Live offers an ability to create your own devices within Live.
You’ll also be able to hook up any supported music software or device into your studio using Ableton’s proprietary Link protocol.
At $1400 this combination offers an insane value for money.
Waves Platinum- Including 50 plugins, this collection is a massive all-around powerhouse for your music production environment.
This Waves bundle features many powerful plugins, such as their Renaissance collection and Ultramaximizer plugins, and costs $449 at the time of writing.
Waves are also known to offer regular deals on their plugins.
Slate Digital FG-X Mastering Processor – A dedicated mastering plugin, that features one of the best engines for transient preservation and is intended to add as little coloration to your mix as possible.
It might sound like one-trick-pony but is exclusively good at what it does.
FG-X is priced at $129.
Standalone Digital and Analog Hardware
Akai Professional MPC X – While the world has changed a lot from the days of the original MPC, Akai’s latest creation, the Music Production Center X, is an absolute sampling powerhouse, that has very little competition from others.
It features 16 beautifully responsive and playable pads, 16 assignable knobs, a touch screen panel, 16 GB internal storage and a possibility to hook any MIDI, USB or CV/Gate controller in a unit that packs plenty of connectivity and powerful software.
At $2199 this is definitely a boutique option, but a very capable one, and has true potential to become the centerpiece of any studio.
Wavemachinelabs Auria Pro – Auria Pro might be sound a tad pricy at $49.99 for an iPad app, but just look at what this little digital audio workstation can do!
Auria features unlimited midi and audio tracks, audio time-stretching capabilities, ships with disk-streaming Lyra sampler as well as a great collection of other plugins, such as a convolution reverb and filtering unit provided by FabFilter.
Users are finding it a little resource-hungry on an iPad Air, so make sure you’re using an iPad with decent specs.
Retronyms Wej – Again, the only viable solution to connect multiple devices to your iPad.
Retails at $149.
Behringer X-Touch + Extender – Behringer’s X-touch control platform may be a couple of years old but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a bad thing: Auria users are happily reporting that their Behringer controllers are now working great with Auria Pro.
Besides who wouldn’t want 16 motorized faders and a dedicated master fader to their setup?
There is another fun feature about these control surfaces though, which is that they offer MIDI as well as powered USB connections, so you can extend your setup as you go.
X-touch is currently $449.99 and Extender $349.99.
Arturia BeatStep Pro – This beautifully designed pad controller from Arturia does sequencing, offers performance controls and comes with a wide variety of connections (USB, MIDI, CV/Gate).
BeatStep Pro retails at $299.
Studiologic Numa Compact 2 – Ok, maybe a tad big keyboard controller with 88 keys but this one is a real pleasure to play and extends the playability of our iPad rig considerably.
At $495.95 it still fits our budget perfectly, too.
Not so long ago the biggest obstacle to turn a musical idea into a song was the technology — and more specifically — all the various limitations in it; many of the tools were underpowered and had interfaces, that were unintuitive and tricky to use, not something that was really helping with the creative process.
Today, we’re no longer so restricted about technological concepts and you can really see it in the way creative people/software developers/hardware manufacturers now approach the whole process of making music.
It’s great news for all beat makers!
But when you look at all of the variables above (and count in the ones that were deliberately left out from this article, such as recording sounds from external sources), you’ll surely realise there is almost an infinite number of different tools and workflows you could choose from.
This makes it impossible to tell which is the best for you: some require absolute portability, some prefer to have an access to more of a traditional recording studio with all the bells and whistles, some just love the whole idea of tossing the old computer out the window and doing it on an iPad.
Freedom to use a standalone solution, an iPad app or a gadget instead of a DAW is a good thing for the creative process.
But there is still only one answer if you’re really serious about making beats on a professional level: all of the big names use a digital audio workstation software to do the heavy lifting (i.e. mixing and polishing the sounds), and when you look at the amount of tools available as VST, AU and AAX format it’s clear, that the real power still lies within computer-based solutions.
But sometimes having too much can be a bad thing, too.
For example, having 30+ plugins on your digital audio workstation for a simple track compression is surely a few too many.
Knowing how to use your tools and making the most of what you have is vital, and restricting yourself to work with just a handful of them can actually do wonders for your creative process.
So, maybe the biggest insight that the pros could ever give us is the strength in finding your main go-to tools to kickstart the process of making music in the first place — and that’s the magical place, where we all want to be!