How to Make Beats: The Basics
August 30, 2017
As you may be well aware, making beats has become accomplishable in just about any environment. It doesn’t matter if you have a 5-year-old laptop or a brand new tower, getting your hands on the tools necessary for the job is easier than ever.
The only thing it takes is a little musical inspiration and a few hours of trial and error. However, you need not worry. This walkthrough will give you 3 steps in the right direction towards starting your own beat making.
Let’s do this.
How to make your own beats: Getting started
Step 1 - The Hardware
First let’s dive into the hardware needed to get starting with beat making.
Item 1 - Audio interface
The audio interface is a piece of equipment that serves as the external sound processing unit. In other words, this is the workhorse behind processing the virtual instruments and effects you will be using.
These puppies work off of a programming language called ASIO, which processes sound very efficiently. They come equipped with pre-amps that boost the signal of any physical instruments you plug into them (like guitar, bass or vocals). But also, they handle the heavy load generated by all of your virtual instruments when creating a track.
If you’re using a dated laptop or desktop computer to build these beats, it is absolutely essential that you have ample processing power to handle this task. Your computer with its included sound card simply cannot handle this task alone.
It’s always good to prepare for the future when purchasing electronics. If you plan on making these beats multi-layered, and even thinking about adding vocals to the mix down the road - invest in capable hardware for the job.
My picks - The audio interface I would recommend for your first device would be the Saffire 6 USB by Focusrite. This is a great little unit that you can pick up used anywhere from $75-$100. If you’re willing to spend a little more dough, my second pick would be the Roland Quad Capture ($250 new).
Item 2 - Midi Controller
The midi controller is where I may begin to touch on familiar ground. It’s a digital piano! But unlike your old school Casio keyboard, this device simply controls virtual instruments that are loaded onto your workstation.
Having a midi controller unlocks the creative potential needed for finding melodies improvisationally. There’s nothing better than sitting down with a percussion beat playing back to you and experimenting in real time to see what sounds best over it.
Every audio workstation comes with what’s called a piano roll - which is basically an on-screen piano. However, working within it takes some practice, especially if you’re not yet comfortable with the layout of the piano. You may use the piano roll to lay down the percussion track (the most precise method), but use your midi controller to play around with melodies to compliment the beat.
These controllers simply plug right into your machine via USB and usually require little to no tinkering to get it ready for recording.
My pick - A great all-around midi controller I would recommend is the M-Audio Oxygen 49. It has plenty of keys, modular controls and even 8 trigger pads. These are awesome for percussion tracking. Pick one up anywhere from $175-$220.
Item 3 - Monitors and headphones
It goes without saying that you will be needing a set of decent speakers or headphones to get the best experience when creating your music. This does two things. Not only is it cool to listen to what you’re recording with optimal clarity, but it also serves as a means to get the most honest sound.
What does that mean? Well, in actuality, you don’t want the crispest and most refined sounding speakers for mixing. This can give a false positive of a well-rounded mix when you actually don’t have one. This is exactly what monitors are - an honest and flat representation of your audio.
Trust me when I say it’s always disappointing to hear a fresh track played on your friend’s car speakers only to have it sound totally different from what you heard at home. Having a set of decent monitors or monitor headphones ensures that you will get uniformity of sound, no matter the speakers your music is played on.
My picks - My first monitor headphones that I could always count on were the Sony MDR-7506’s. The bass register is very tight and pronounced. It also helps that they last for ages. As for monitor speakers, you really can’t go wrong with a pair of KRK Rokits.
Step 2 - The DAW
DAW is just a fancy acronym for digital audio workstation. Ever heard of Fruity Loops or Pro Tools? These are digital audio workstations.
Selecting and purchasing a DAW is the most foundational choice in your beat-making journey. This software will be the host of all the virtual instruments that will comprise your tracks. You should do some diligent research to find which one best suits your tastes and workflow preferences.
Imagine that this creation process is a kitchen. In this kitchen, you have your favorite knives and pots. You may have the same knives and pots that another kitchen has, but this kitchen is yours - it’s your home. The kitchen is your DAW and the knives and pots are your virtual instruments and effects. Two different DAWs may contain the same virtual instruments. However, it may feel awkward using someone else’s kitchen that you’re not comfortable with.
For the most part, all industry-grade DAWs contain the same features. However, it’s how they are laid out within the software itself that makes them either intuitive or clunky. Choose wisely.
My picks - My personal favorite DAW is Reaper. The user experience is silky smooth and it always does exactly what I want it to. And at a whopping $60 - you can’t go wrong.
Step 3 - The VSTs
As previously mentioned, VST is just a fancy acronym for virtual studio technology - AKA virtual instruments and effects.
Unlike selecting a DAW, choosing the right VST for you isn’t a zero-sum game. There are a plethora of virtual instruments to choose from. They can range anywhere from Hip Hop percussion instruments, all the way to entire orchestra sections. The possibilities are quite marveling. The trick is choosing the ones that are right for beat making while not cutting your wallet in half. They can become costly very quickly.
One alternative to slightly amend my comments on DAWs is to choose a costlier DAW to save money on VSTs. How? Reaper, unfortunately, does not contain any virtual instruments, only effects. But what you can do is get another premium DAW like Logic Pro, and use their proprietary VSTs included with the software (they are amazing, by the way). This way you don’t have to buy a boatload of VSTs to get some tracks going. Keep in mind though, Logic Pro is only available on Macintosh.
My picks - Two powerhouses for percussion and synthesizer instruments are Battery and Omnisphere. Battery is my go-to VST for ANY hip-hop percussion. Secondly, Omnisphere is simply the best synthesizer I know. Whether it’s bass, piano, strings, leads or pads - this synthesizer is incredibly diverse and powerful.
If you were completely unfamiliar with the technical aspect of beat making, I hope this guide taught you some valuable first steps.
Your journey into music creation will be a somewhat challenging one. But it will be worth it to hear your beats come to life in the end.
Let forums and YouTube be your friend through when you’re facing technical problems in this process. And as always, check out the Ditto Music blog for all sorts of music tips and tricks to expanding your knowledge of recording and production.
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