Hip Hop Beat Construction
The Elements of a Beat, plus Arranging, Orchestrating,
and Production Tips for Hip Hop
Hip Hop series page 1
hop has been with us for over 20 years.
It has diversified greatly during this course of time as artists have explored,
inventively, with sounds and rhythm. This article will keep it simple.
My goal is to give you what you need to know to make beats that are immediately
identifiable as hip hop and show you how to start your own process of sound and
beat creation in your own studio. I will walk you through standard hip hop
beat construction and give you some sound development and production tips.
Once you have the basics down you should take the format into your own hands and
make beats conforming to your own artistic vision. At least one of the reasons
for hip hop's popularity is that the rules are flexible, open ended, and allow for
The basic elements of the beat early in the construction process.
The first 8 bars will be the verse and the second will become the chorus.
Note how this beat has both MIDI and Audio Loops together.
1 and 2 for bars 5-12 of this 16 bar example
Breakdown of a Hip Hop Song
There are two basic parts
to a typical hip hop song: The Beat and the Vocals.
Each consists of several tracks. While this article focuses on the construction
of beats, lets lead off with a description of all the elements of
a hip hop song so you can see how the beat fits in.
What are Beats?
This is the most important term
to understand in Hip Hop construction, cause if you don't know it, you'll never
understand what people are talking about. The Beat is basically, the whole
song minus the vocals. It usually includes the following:
- MIDI Drum patterns or audio drum
loops, which comprise the complete drum tracks
- A Bassline (MIDI sequence typically)
- Supporting Orchestration (could be
synth pads, string sections, horns)
- Dubs and snips (samples that accent
and give character)
The Beat can be long or short.
In its shortest form it is 8 bars. If short, it is usually looped over and over
again, for as long as the vocalist wants. If long, it may be comprised of
different parts for the verse and chorus and may add an introduction,
a break, and an ending. Often, the HH song follows classic pop
form of Intro (8 bars). Verse (8-16 bars) Chorus (8 bars) Verse (8-16 bars) Chorus
(8 bars) Break (2-8 bars) Verse or Chorus (8-16 bars) then ends in a fade out.
This structure, called the arrangement, of course, is not written in stone.
It can be modified to suit the piece at hand.
What do the vocal tracks consist of in a Hip
- Main vocal: The main vocalist
performs the rap
- Second Vocal: Some songs may
have a guest vocal or second vocal that takes a verse
- Background Vocals: Are often created
to give a sense that a whole group is participating
- Overdubbed vocals: During the
chorus and at other parts that the artist wishes to emphasize, the main vocal
may be doubled, tripled or even quadrupled
We'll get to vocals in a later article.
Elements of a Hip Hop Beat
Lets dissect a basic hip hop beat
and talk about the 4 basic elements I described above.
1. MIDI Drum patterns or audio drum loops
This is the "core" of the song
so you should take great care with what you are laying down here. There are
two basic methods here and you may use either or both in the same song.
a) Audio Loops This
is the simplest way to proceed. Most sequencers come with a selection of drum
loops and these can be used, edited, re-grooved and effected. Audio can be
tweaked to give you the sound you want. Loops can be time stretched and compressed.
You can add effects with plugins. Perhaps the more creative tweaks one can
do is in an audio editor like Recycle or Sound Forge. Here you can destructively
(meaning you are actually altering the sound file) modify parts, even single hits,
within the audio loop.
b) MIDI drum patterns
While this method is slightly more complicated, if usually gives more exacting and
easy-to alter results. Here the keyboard, control pad surface or electronic
drum kit triggers samples for each drum. The samples may reside in a software
sampler, synth, hardware MPC type sampler or even as an instrument in some applications.
In all cases the drums are a pattern of MIDI notes that correspond to sampled hits.
In your sequencer this may be on a grid, dedicated drum pattern editor or piano
You can use loops or MIDI or both.
It's common in Hip Hop, as well as other forms of electronica, to have more than
one drum loop playing at once. As long as they work together and enhance the
groove, its fine. Hip Hop artists have been very creative with drum tracks
and our ears are accustomed to great variance with unusual timing offsets.
Drums in hip hop are allowed to go places sonically that other genres will not.
2. A Bassline
You can find basslines in audio
form already made out for you, but it is often better to use MIDI, given you have
some decent bass samples, a good soft synth for bass or a hardware synth with decent
analog emulations. Why use MIDI? Bass audio loops do not transpose easily
and may leave warbly audio artifacts when you do. An analog or digital synthesizer,
however, can create a fresh low waveform in real time. Good bass sounds
for hip hop come from a variety of synthesizers. Old analog Mono synths and
their software and hardware emulations are the first place to go. Basslines
are rarely complex in typical hip hop, but are thick and low and usually have a
sub-bass element, brought out by filtering and overcompression. Many, though
not all, classic HH basses rely on a low pass filter with resonance, which is the
most standard filter found in analog synthesis. This kind of filter removes
the high frequencies and fattens the low end. That gives you a muffy, puffed
up bottom yet allows the vocals to pass right over in the mix, keeping them clear
and distinct. Some HH basses emphasize the high frequencies rather than the
low, leaving the kick drum to carry the low end entirely. And of course a
real bass can be used as well. Keep it simple, repeatable.
3. Supporting Orchestration
While the term "orchestration"
may sound complex, it is really a simple concept. To orchestrate is to select
instruments that "go together". Hip Hop and rap began with orchestration that
was sparse and often minimalist. Instruments are chosen often more for their
impact on the groove than for their melodic capabilities. How do you know
what instruments to select? You do it by trial and error basically.
But I find it helpful to use a "metaphor" of other ensembles when coming up with
my own orchestrations. For instance, using an RnB metaphor, you might add
a smooth electric piano, funked up jazz guitar strums, some nasty horn hits, congas,
maybe a vibraphone. You visualize the old RnB band in your mind and use that
vision as the metaphor for deciding your orchestration. A "symphonic" metaphor
may have you bring in heavy string sections, gongs, timpani, orchestral percussion,
glockenspiels. A "downtown session" metaphor might include studio brass, clean
guitars, standup bass. A "club" metaphor might have a drunken
crowd and musicians that play sloppily. Ask yourself: Who is in this
band? What are they thinking? Where are they playing? In a club, on the street,
India, or in your homies basement?
4. Dubs and snips
Hip hop and rap arose when sampling
took off around 1986. With sampling, there was finally an easy way rip audio
material off of vinyl (and CDs), which is exactly what the early artists did.
Drum beats, record scratches and surface noise, string, brass and full orchestra
hits, sax riffs, guitar chords, electric piano chords were sampled as "one shots",
a term popularized by Akai, were laid out on the keyboard and put right in
the midi pattern with the kick, snare, hats and other drum hits. Today you can buy
royalty free sample sets that give you all the dubs and snips you want, though people
are still going to capture snips from the records of the past to get that subliminal
recognition. Today's audio editing and multi channel samplers allow
separate channels and separate effects for dubs and snips. Since audio was
added to our sequencers we can now drag samples straight to an audio track and give
each its own custom treatment with plugins. This has made the often hard work
of editing samples to a rather easy process. Dubs and snips of audio dramatically
add character, time and space to the composition, just like flipping through a collection
of old photographs. Its a quick abstract reference to another time and place,
that ideally fits with your metaphor.
Tools of the Trade: Samplers, Synths and Software instruments
Hardware samplers have been
making Hip Hop beats since the beginning. Those outfitted with "pads", like
the MPC and MV8000, are convenient to use. However, software samplers, like
Kontakt 2, Battery, Halion, Gigastudio are just as good and can offer more flexibility
if your computer is strong enough to run one inside a sequencer. You can use a control
pad surface like the Akai MPD16 to give you some hardware control over your software.
Hardware or software synthesizers
can be used for constructing basslines and other elements of orchestration.
Having a variety of sound sources is ideal. Vintage synths, in real or emulated
form, are great resources. In addition to the obviously needed analog synths,
old FM synths like the DX7 and its offspring, cheap Casios, and other digital synths
can work well for hip hop elements. Some artists like to use dinky sounding
cheap synths for short little blippy sounds. However, not everything can be lo-fi.
It pays to have a modern beautiful sounding sample library for strings, brass and
other instruments that you want to put out there front and center. A workstation
quality synth like a Fantom or Motif can do many of these quality sampled sounds.
Perhaps an underestimated synth for hip hop is the Alesis Fusion.
MPC series samplers
have been used in Hip Hop production since the very beginning.
The later MPCs such as the 4000 (above) the 2500 and 1000 offer the
convenience of importing samples over a USB connection to your
computer. A powerful alternative to the MPC is the
Roland MV8800, shown below with an optional video display.
Native Instruments Komplete Software Suite
KOMPLETE 6 brings together seven cutting-edge
products that no studio should be without. Containing groundbreaking
and multi-awarding samplers, synths, guitar/bass amps and creative
effects, this collection represents Native Instruments' most
powerful software tools.
Want to emulate an MPC in Software. MOTU's
BPM and any MPD will do the job in your computer based recorder.
Mark of the Unicorn (MOTU) BPM Beat Production Software
BPM unites drum machine-style operation with
advanced virtual instrument technology to give you the ultimate
rhythm programming experience. Combine drum kits, sequenced
patterns, sliced loops and instrument sounds to realize your
rhythmic vision, mixing and matching any playing style with any drum
kit. Or plug in your pad controller or MIDI keyboard to capture your
live, groove-quantized performance directly in BPM.
Akai MPD18 Compact Pad Controller
The MPD18 is the easiest way to add genuine MPC pads
to your setup. This MIDI-over-USB pad controller for DJs,
programmers, producers, and other musicians is built around the pads
and controls from Akai Professional's industry-standard MPC series.
The MPD18 is an expressive and intuitive instrument for the studio
and stage. The MPD18 is built around the pads of the
industry-standard MPC and contains some of the same technology that
gives tracks made with the MPC an unmistakably human feel. The MPD18
is an expressive and intuitive controller for the studio and stage,
and its compact footprint is easy to fit into any setup. When
combined with virtually any MIDI software, the MPD18 delivers
everything needed to create tracks that feel great.
Assembling and Arranging the Beat
Assembling the beat refers
to the process creating tracks and filling in the orchestration, while Arranging
the beat refers to how these tracks change over time from verse to chorus from
the start to the end of the song.
Assembling the Basic Beat, step by step
- You can assemble the elements in any order
you want, but I tend to work the kick drum track first, then the claps, hats,
and snares into a good solid 8 bar pattern.
- Then I will put on the bass. Just pick
one that has some girth. Later on you will have to find one that fits
perfectly with the song.
- Before going any further, it makes sense to
try different grooves and find one you can commit to for the entire beat.
Listen for a "lock". That's when you hear something that is so cool you
know it can drive the song. There are lots of tricks here. Get to
know how your sequencer can use a quantized swing template. Check out
my notes on Groove considerations near the end.
- Then you can add supporting orchestration.
Remember, think of a metaphor for your ensemble.
- Next, copy the 8 bar grooved pattern with
its bassline and other elements to make it a 16 bar pattern. You might
drop out one of the orchestrated elements for the first 8 bars so it only plays
during the second 8 bars.
- Then, copy the first 8 bar drum pattern to
the third 8 bars an start developing a chorus. You might replace drums
with others. Replace or alter the bass. Keep the kick but change the snare
and claps, adding perhaps a different effect. Now add new supporting orchestration
to the chorus.
At this point you have the basic beat. It
should look something like the pic at the top of the page.
Arranging the Beat
The "arrangement" of a song is
the fitting together of verses, choruses, breaks, intros and endings. The
HH beat is no different. While it can be as simple as a single 4 bar drum
pattern repeated forever, we are going to assume, for this article, that you want
to go all the way.
Take a look at the picture below.
You can see where I copied and pasted sequences, and at which point of the beat
I added and subtracted parts. Again, this is just a guide, not all songs work
this way. You make these decisions based on what you feel the song needs as
it plays. As you refine the beat in subsequent passes, you ask yourself:
Is that part too long? to short? does it need something else?
what would make it really cool?
The full beat is arranged into form, with a 4 bar
intro and fade at the end. All I have to do is mix and add vocals for a full
hip hop production.
- We will start the arrangement with a 16 bar
verse and an 8 bar chorus.
- Highlight all 24 bars, copy, and paste to
the next 24 bars. So now you have Verse/Chorus/Verse/Chorus.
- You can stop there and repeat it again, or
you can develop a break for the next 8-16 bars. A break is an "alternate
chorus". As before, you can keep the kick line and change everything else
if you want, add or remove elements, possibly even remove all the elements except
for the kick and give space for a massive vocal rendering.
- After the break, its logical to either go
to another verse or to the third chorus which may continue till you fade it
out. Your song will tell you which way to go.
- Adding on an introduction. You
can choose 2, 4 or 8 bars here. It can be a short as a drum flam, or a
4-8 bar acapella vocal, just the instruments with no drums; just the
drums with no instruments. But it should borrow sounds and phrases from
the body of the beat. I like to choose the most interesting part of what
i have constructed, insert it in front of verse one, then modify it by dropping
elements or adding them. This is the hook and it makes your listener
want to keep listening.
- The structure of the beat is done. Play
it through and smooth out the elements that need smoothing. After all,
at this point it's still kind of crude. You may need to add some fills
to the drums and do some general processing to make the beat sound true but
don't get bogged in processing yet.
- If you like it, it's time to put on the vocal
tracks. You may have to tweak the arrangement with the vocalist.
This may require shortening or extending a verse or chorus. Not a big
deal as you have all your building blocks in place.
- If the vocals succeed with the beat, then
the arrangement is done. You then you move to editing and processing,
where you put each track under a microscope and fix bad loop points, change
a few things in midi loops so they don't sound exactly the same (unless that
is what you want). Try out compressors on the elements that need to be
on top of the mix. Tweak and tune the kick drum. Start looking for
a better bass or tweak the one you have and as the image starts to gel in a
pleasing way, start the mixing process
There is some freedom when arranging
hip hop, but its not a wide open universe. You can shrink parts to 4, even
2 bars for effect, but the main body of the vocal should be in an 8-16 bar verse,
otherwise the listener can get lost. You can also make the first verse 8 bars and
the second 16. Sometimes a shorter 8 bar verse can keep things moving where
16 would make eyes roll with ensuing boredom. Heh, if you are bored
listening to it you can bet your last dollar your audience will not be listening
at all. As in rock, pop, jazz and other forms, as you transition from verse
to chorus there should be some fill action on the drums, perhaps a dub or snip added,
as the listener needs these signposts to follow the song.
Hip Hop series page 1
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