The Right Element Spacing In Your Beats Is Critical
|By Amir Said (Sa’id)|
Sonically, hip hop/rap beats have a hard-hitting, “knock” factor to them. But Despite the overall sonic characteristics of hip hop/rap beats, the use of space (and often silence) within a beat’s given compositional framework can often make or break the beat.
In my interview of Steve Sola (acclaimed mix engineer), one of the main points that arose was the nature of sound individuality. In particular, Sola stressed to me the importance of each sound being able to stand on its own in the mix. The same sentiment was echoed by Cus and Rich Keller (both acclaimed mix engineers in their own right). These discussions reminded me of my long-held approach to beatmaking. Much like how each sound (track) in a mix has to be able to stand on its own, each element in a beat must also be able to do the same as well as be able to effectively represent its own nuance. And nothing enables an element in a beat to stand on its own and to project its nuance more than the proper spacing of a beat’s elements.
Here’s the context. All of the elements of a given beat can be broadly divided into two main areas or “grouped elements”: (1) the drum elements—”the drums”; and (2) the non-drum elements—”the non-drums.” Inside of these broadly described grouped elements, there are sub-divisional elements. For instance, a drum framework is fundamentally made up of a kick, snare, and hi-hat (or some reflection thereof). In order for one single element—from any group of elements—to play an effective role in a beat, the element’s role must be well-defined, more importantly, the element must have its own space.
One thing that all dope beatmakers tend to have in common is the spacing of their beats. Inexperienced and “over-producing” beatmakers typically do not share this characteristic. Inexperienced beatmakers are often still working out how to create and merge solid drum frameworks with non-drums, and thus, their spacing is typically either too wide—too sparse, too much distance between elements—, or too shallow—too overlapping, next to no spacing or “room” for individual elements to “breathe.” As with regards to “over-producing” beatmakers, their common problem is extremely shallow spacing, which comes from constant overcrowding, which often comes from the routine composition of beats with multiple unnecessary elements. Those beatmakers who tend to do “over produce” often actually create dope core rhythms. But then they proceed to bury those rhythms with layers of unneeded elements, seemingly rejecting the fundamental role that tight, core rhythms play in hip hop/rap music.
On the other hand, dope beatmakers never create spacing between their beat’s elements that are too wide or too shallow. Instead, their beats tend to have the spacing that always fits the style and sound of the beat they’re creating. Whether working from the sample-based style or the synthetic-sounds-based style, dope beatmakers establish a core rhythm, isolate it, then add in only those elements that enhance it, which ultimately leaves the entire structure of the beat well-spaced and of course, easy to knod your head to…
3 Safeguards Against Poor Spacing
Silence is golden.
Allow for some silence in your beats. Every fraction of every measure does not have to have a definite sound or event. The effective use of silence within a beat’s given compositional framework is incredibly important. This doesn’t mean create any unnecessary gaps, but it also doesn’t mean covering up gaps (especially smaller ones) just because they exist. Certain gaps of silence at specific points in a beat’s arrangement adds incredible nuances that can’t be easily duplicated by other beatmakers.
Avoid crowding your elements
Don’t overcrowd the elements within your beats. Typically, overcrowding occurs when there’s just too many elements fighting at once rather than taking turns and meshing together in a cohesive cycle. Make sure that each element has its own space and adds its own nuance to the overall structure and texture of the beat. For instance, kicks need space to knock and anchor the pace of the drumwork. But if they’re smothered with useless elements, they tend to lack depth and purpose. With the proper spacing, kicks are able to breath and play their role.
Avoid unnecessary elements
If an element in a beat doesn’t hold its own space and nuance, then it’s merely an incidental sound. In other words, if it’s an “incidental” sound, not “consequential” (not causing any notable nuance that enhances the quality of a beat), then it’s not necessary to the beat. Many beatmakers fall into the trap adding unnecessary elements to beats, simply because they take a quantitative approach to arrangement. Understand this: The arrangement of a beat is determined by its quality, not the sheer quantity of elements that it contains.
Study Examples: “Fish” by Ghostface f/ Raekwon & Cappadonna (beat by True Master); and “If I Can’t” by 50 Cent (beat Dr. Dre & Mike Elizondo)
With “Fish,” listen carefully to where the elements of the sampled breaks (primary and secondary samples) fall. In each case, the samples ease thru each measure in its own space and at its own pace. And even though the drums are obviously moving at the same time, notice how each element is taking their turn, so to speak. This “turn-taking,” if you will, is the beat’s spacing (it’s use of space). Specifically, pay attention to the nuance of the “hushed” and “brushed” hi-hat that True Master uses, and how he utilizes a very simple and straight forward kick and snare pattern, which he offsets with various sampled breaks and sound-stabs.
For educational purposes…
“Fish” by Ghostface f/ Raekwon & Cappadonaa; beat by True Master
With “If I Can’t,” listen to how the simple 3-note synthwork “walks up,” then “walks down,” repeats, then loops over, while the snare suspends and lingers (for a brief beat) on the “2” & the “4,” before each phrase of the synth arrangement comes back around. And similar to the kick pattern in “Fish,” here in “If I Can’t” (a non-sample based construction), the kick is never overworked, but steady, just moving along in its own space, with its own subtle texture. Finally, notice how when the counter melody (synth changes) and the stacking (specifically the horn phrases) come in, they compliment and enhance the core rhythm, they do not overcrowd it or take away the unique nuances of the individual elements within it.
For educational purposes…
“If I Can’t” by 50 Cent; beat by Dr. Dre & Mike ElizondoArticles, Beatmaking, BeatTips, BeatTips MusicStudy, Drum Sounds and Drum Programming, Arranging, and Composing, Editor's Choice, Music Education, MusicStudy, Sound Design, The Art of Rapping, The Art of Sampling, Themes, Theories, and Concepts