The code of the beat.

Programming Hi-Hats to Fit Your Style of Beats


A Solid Understanding of Time and Rhythm Leads to More Effective Hi-Hat programming


A while back, DK ( Contributor and core member of The BeatTips Community [TBC]), posed a question regarding a Remix Magazine interview of 9th Wonder. Fundamentally, DK’s question had to do with hi-hat programming and what 9th Wonder meant by something he said. Directly below I have included DK’s original question:
In this interview with 9th Wonder, it says: Nevertheless, he does reveal one clue about adding a little swing to the mix. “I learned this from producer J Dilla: Move your hi-hats, slidin’ your hi-hats on the scale,” he says. He scatters the samples across the loops, resulting in hooks that move with the grace of the soul songs that Wonder loves, including his favorites by Curtis Mayfield and Al Green. From old-school singers to classic hip-hop producers, Wonder studies the masters. “I learned a lot from Premier and Pete Rock and J Dilla [aka Jay Dee]from bass lines,” he continues. “Wails and moans, I learned from RZA.”
Can someone explain what this means? to slide hats on the scale? and, how would one do this in FL Studio?

Here’s My Response…

I never read or heard Dilla’s original quote, so it’s difficult to assess exactly what he said or what he may have meant. However, I interviewed 9th Wonder for The BeatTips Manual (full interview included), so I’m confident that 9th wasn’t using the term “scale” in the music theory context of the word. Instead, I think he was using “scale” as in the scale of the beat—an adjective to describe the scope and length of the sequence. So what Dilla most like meant is: playing hi-hats hits (and other drums) much more naturally on or rather across the pattern, sequence, etc. However, that being said, it must be noted that since 9th Wonder used FL Studio (at the time of the interview) and J Dilla used an MPC 3000, 9th Wonder had to translate and transfer Dilla’s knowledge and method to a software environment.

Programming through the use of a software program is different than with an MPC. This is not an endorsement of way or the other, it is simply a fact. A fact that must be considered whenever one seeks to emulate ANY method, technique, and/or concept that was first developed and formalized through the use of hardware EMPIs (Electronic Music Production Instruments). Again, I’m not necessarily saying one setup approach is better or worse, I’m pointing out the fact that certain aesthetic approaches and techniques were first developed using hardware, and are therefore, often more suited for hardware. But this doesn’t mean that those aesthetic approaches and techniques can not be translated and transferred to software EMPIs.

For example, hi-hat programming techniques can indeed be achieved (realized in) with FL Studio. But, before one moves to modify and adjust any functions (parameters) within FL Studio (or any other software solution), they must first grasp the notion of how hi-hats work in beats as well as the common hi-hat pattern types (i.e. 1/8th and 1/4 note placements, etc.) In that way, it’s not about making hi-hat programs like Dilla or 9th Wonder or any other beatmakker. Instead, it’s about understanding how to make hi-hat programs that fit your own unique style of beats.

Another thing want to point out is that to view rhythm abstractly through mathematics can actually be counterproductive to making dope beats. Just as with other black music traditions, rhythm has always been a major aesthetic of hip hop/rap music and its main compositional practice: beatmaking. But rhythm isn’t just a mathematical concept, it’s a ‘time’ concept as well. Rhythm, fundamentally speaking, deals with how musical elements move through time. When you attempt to reduce (or pin down) rhythm to a solely mathematical principle or equation, you actually subtract away from the “natural essence” of time in music. For instance, think about timing correct. Timing correct is the “mechanical correction” of time. It corrects or perfects—depending your aims—the value of timing that you set in your sequencer. But another way of looking at timing correct is that it disrupts (if not absolutely destroys) the natural—live—sense of timing, by making time artificial.

Finally, it’s important to note that when we make beats, we are essentially moving between artificial and natural (live) realms. And the more artificiality we incorporate into our beats, the more likely they are to sound more mechanical, stiff, “stuck,” or just plain lifeless. On the other hand, the more naturalness that we are able to incorporate into our beats, the more likely they will have a ‘real’ feeling to them, more vibe. Hence, hi-hats (and other percussive elements) are ideal for incorporating a more natural feel to your drum patterns and your beats overall. Therefore, the less corrective measures you take with hi-hat programming, the better the chance you’ll retain some naturalness and vibe in your beats.

The BeatTips Manual by Sa’id.
“The most trusted source for information on beatmaking and hip hop/rap music education.”

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About Author

Amir Said (aka Sa’id) is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of BeatTips. A writer, publisher, and beatmaker/rapper from New York, Said is the author of a number of books, including ‘The BeatTips Manual,’ ‘The Art of Sampling,’ ‘Ghetto Brother,’ and ‘The Truth About New York.’ He is also a recording artist with a number of music projects, including his latest album 'The Best of Times.' Follow him on Twitter at: @amirsaid and @BeatTipsManual

  • JonJon

    I’m not trying to blast the author here, but I think it’s simpler than what you wrote. Dilla laid his hats out on the 16 levels note variation. That’s the “scale”

  • JonJon,
    Thanks for your comment.
    I don’t take your comment as a “blast” against the author. I encourage comments here, and my goal is always productive discussion. So if you or anyone adds clarity to the discussion, I’m all for that.
    And as I clearly wrote in my article, I never read or heard the Dilla quote that 9th Wonder was referencing, so I was unclear about 9th Wonder was referencing. But your comment makes sense. Laying hi-hats (or any drum sound) on the 16 levels note variation is a known technique, and although 9th Wonder was perhaps (most likely) referring to this, I believe he was also discussing arrangement in general.
    Furthermore, this entire post—my response—is (and was intended to be) a much more broader discussion about programming hi-hats. The post was NOT just about what Dilla or 9th Wonder may have meant, but instead, it was about programming hi-hats as it relates to rhythm and timing as well programming techniques translated through software and hardware EMPIs.

  • Prestege

    Actually what is being referred to in the 9th wonder interview speaking on Dilla….is when programming hi-hats do NOT have them on the scale…meaning if you are working in 16th notes…don’t allow the hi hats to conform to the grid of 16th notes but stagger them or slide/shift them forward or backward in time just a little….Turn off the quantize. Black Milk talks about that in this part of his beat making video when he refers to ” the sound we are doing over here ” meaning Detroit/Dilla sound. Check it out !!

  • Prestege,
    Thanks for your comment.
    That’s what I suspected was being discussed! In my article I wrote, “…playing hi-hats hits (and other drums) much more naturally on or rather across the pattern, sequence.” I also touched on the use of timing correct (quantize), and the aim of making drum hi-hats sound much more natural. Thank you for helping to further clear that quote up.