Honest, straight forward, and in-depth answers to the frequently asked questions in the world of beatmaking.
DISCLAIMER: BeatTips FAQs is designed to answer frequently asked questions within the beatmaking community (as well as other related music communities), and to provide information on creating, producing, marketing, promoting, distributing, and selling hip hop/rap beats and music and related topics. It is understood that the publisher and the BeatTips staff and contributors are not engaged in rendering legal, accounting or other professional services of the like. If legal or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent and qualified professional should be sought. The publisher and the BeatTips staff and contributors shall have neither liability nor responsibility to any person or entity with respect to any loss or damage caused, or alleged to have been caused, directly or indirectly, by the information contained in BeatTips FAQs.
—Amir Said (Sa’id),
Question: Since I’m dropping a FREE mixtape, do I have to clear the samples on it?
Answer: A free mixtape does NOT permit you to use samples from copyrighted recordings without the permission of the copyright holders. It does not matter if the mixtape is free or not. Without the permission of the copyright holders, you run the risk of being sued for copyright infringement. However, bear in mind that some sample uses on a mixtape may meet the fair use threshold.
Now, that said, the decision to attempt clear samples is one that each artist must make personally. But non-diplomatically speaking: I released my first album, which was full of samples, and I did not attempt to clear any of them! And if I were to release a free mix tape, I wouldn’t attempting to clear any samples on it.
Think of it this way: If your free mixtape brings you notoriety, in terms of good press, show bookings, and the like, then that’s a great. It’s a chance to take, but a minimal one in terms of what you can gain. Far too many people buy into the myth and conjecture surrounding infamous copyright infringement lawsuits, without learning the facts or without any consideration of the artists (and their highly recognizable status) that made such lawsuits infamous in the first place.
If you want to really gain a solid understanding of copyright law and the implications that it holds for sample-based music, read my book, The Art of Sampling.
Question: I heard great things about (fill in the blank new gear), should I switch my setup?
Answer: First, and foremost, understand this: Gear doesn’t make you. Gear is a tool in the equation of expressing yourself—your musical ideas and feelings. Understanding and clarity is more important.
Switching setups is common and often necessary, depending on where you’re musically and what you want to do creatively. Switching gear in the ’90s was certainly different than now, as there were fewer choices to choose from. Therefore, the decision to switch setups was much more clear cut. For example, in the early to mid-1990s, a number of beatmakers (producers) switched from the E-Mu SP1200 to the MPC series. Others opted for the Ensoniq ASR-10. Today, there’s a bigger variety gear, which means that there’s a lot more choice. But with so much parity between gear, the decision to switch from one setup or one central piece to another is less clear cut.
I believe that the setup that you ultimately go with should be the one that does three main things: (1) reflects your specific sensibility for beats; (2) helps you achieve your creative goals; and (3) flexible enough to mesh with modern technology. If your current setup does NOT meet these three thresholds, then yes, you should switch your setup to one that does.
Special note: If you’re confused about what you really wanna do musically, there’s NO gear that’s going to straighten it out for you. Be honest about the style and sound of music you want to make, because that’s often the real issue, not a setup switch.
Question: Should you pay for feedback?
Answer:There’s a big difference between “feedback” and consultation. Feedback is essentially an opinion of your work. Feedback can be praise, it can be constructive criticism, or it can be a flat out disliking of your work. Consultation is a formal service that is usually provided by an expert or regular practitioner, within any field or industry, to an individual, group, or company for the purposes of helping that individual, group, or company achieve specific goals. Consultations are usually done for a fee; they are typically private; and they involve an organized and thorough assessment and recommendation for the client seeking consultation. Effective consultation involves detailed, well-structured advice and strategies for how to achieve clearly defined objectives.
Anyone (in or outside of music) can give you feedback. However, not everyone is qualified to provide consultation services. In fact, merely being a regular practitioner within an industry or sector does NOT qualify someone to provide professional consultation services. Furthermore, while some peoples opinions may be more meaningful to you, feedback should never be confused with consultation.
That said: While I do believe that the right kind of feedback can be helpful, I do not believe that “feedback” should ever be paid for. Legitimate consultation is different. If the consulting firm or person providing the consultation has proven results, that is, they have a respectable track record
for helping people achieve what they advertise, than consultation may be worth it. Provided, of course, that you’re comfortable with a consultant’s fee, their platform, and their likeliness to help you achieve your stated goals.
Special Note: Be aware of people who try to sell you “the music industry,” or who try to present themselves as insiders with serious status and actionable connections. In this wide-open indie climate, it’s best to pay for products and services that are likely to advance your goals, or at the very least, deepen your understanding.
Question: Is it O.K. to just use a loop, or should I always try to add something ?
Answer: A lot of times, an ill loop, with ill drums, and a dope verse is all you need. Remember this: A “loop” doesn’t *find itself. Nor does it loop itself or come complete with instructions for ill drum programming.
Side note: I used to hear a lot of, “…doesn’t contain any samples.” As if that automatically means a superior beat. Now I’m hearing a lot of “…doesn’t contain any *record samples, just ‘vintage sounds’ from this sample pack,” etc., etc. Dope is dope! There’s no charity in music making distribution. You do get points simply for the number of times you chopped something, or whether you did or didn’t use samples. You create the style and sound of music YOU want, the stuff that YOU do best. Then, You put your best shit out, and hopefully it competes.
Question: Is it fair to compare the music of today to another era?
Answer: Of course it is… Dig this: I like Led Zeppelin and I like Cold Play; I like Gang Starr and I like The Wiseman. I can buy the music of all four groups on iTunes. Right now there’s equal access to music of different eras. Which means listeners can consume music from recording artists of different eras, and decide for themselves what they like and do not like about each. This is natural. Comparison is natural. And in the grand scheme of personal music tastes and honest music analysis, the issue of “fairness” is mute.
Special note: If recording artists of today want to be seriously considered as a part of the continuum of music history, then they must accept (and embrace) the fact that their music will be judged (as it must) both by what came before and by the existing conditions, trends, and developments of today. Further, to be seriously considered among the “best in history,” the music in question must be compared to the canon of music that has already earned this recognition. There can be no excuses or cries of unfairness…
Question: How do you make bass lines sound dope?
Here’s the exact question from a BeatTips reader:
“…I’ve just noticed how sick the alchemist’s bass lines are, and sometimes even just bass stabs. You did an article dissecting his beat on “Keep it Thoro” but I was wondering if you could talk about how he does his basslines. I have the minimonsta along with maschine but I can’t quite get it to sound quite as sick, maybe if you could talk about mixing it a certain way? I’ve also messed around with sampled bass but I read somewhere that Alchesmist uses a mini moog. I also know that Jaisu uses the minimonsta and his basses are sick. So I guess if you could answer the question how do I mix a bass to make it sound DOPE, then that would be awesome.”
Answer: As for your question about bass lines, specifically The Alchemist’s bass lines, I first have to point out one thing. Fundamentally, bass lines from all sample-based beatmakers share two things in common: signal chain (and amplification) and personal ear. That is to say, that while the signal chain that The Alchemist, DJ Premier, Kev Brown, Marco Polo, etc. may use may be different, it plays a role in how the bass line will ultimately sound. Likewise, the tuned ear of each will also play an important role. That said, there is no *one piece of gear that will deliver Alchemist’s sound (or any other producer for that matter).
Instead, however, there are methods and processes that can help you achieve a parallel sound that matches that same overall style and sound, while being true to your own ear and sensibilities. These methods and processes usually include the use of a combination of 5 things: (1) a unique signal chain and amplification, for example, a DJ mixer, a compressor, an equalizer (brand and model is subjective for all pieces of equipment); (2) a pre- and post-EQ mix approach, for example, how fat your bass lines sounds going into your sampler will usually determine how fat it sounds in the beat, do you want to boost it up? do you want to brighten it up? do you want to darken it?; (3) ADSR manipulation, this refers to the sound envelope of a given sound—Attack, Decay, Sustain, Release, (4) post-filtering, after you’ve sampled the bass sound/stab or line, how do you want to filter it?; and (5) the final mix. in the final mix you pay attention to where the bass line sits in relation to the other elements and it helps you determine if you should cut some frequency, boost it up, or add a touch a brightness. Also, remember that the type of beat itself will dictate how the bass line should sound. Furthermore, depending on how thick, deep, shallow, muddied, or elongated you want your bass line to sound, chances are you’ll be able to get that sound through a combination of the four methods and processes I described above.
Special note: I should point out that while any combination of these 5 things may be used, the aim should always be to develop your own subjective ear for how you want your bass lines to sound.
Question: Should I Switch Back to the MPC from the Maschine?
Here’s the exact question from the BeatTips reader:
“Wanted to get your advice on something. I’ve been making beats since 1990 and came up on the sp12 and s900 than went to the sp 1200 to s950 than the mpc 3000 til I sold it and went over to a software-based setup, where I now use Maschine. As cool as it is with being able to use plug ins with it and all that, I just ain’t getting that boom bap, golden era shit I love. I recently MIDI’d up a s950 I recently got to it, and I did get some really good results. But im trying to decide if I should cop an mpc 60 that i recently got offerd as a trade for maschine. Im tryin to decide if to rock wit mpc 60 MIDI’d to my Mac using Logic pro 8 or maschine and my s950.”
Answer: I completely understand…
Here’s the thing. When it comes to the musical instruments or gear that you use, more important than anything else, you have to feel good about the instruments that you’re using to make your music. Regardless of what anyone might try to convince you of, the way you feel about your gear translates directly (and indirectly) into the music that you make! Remember, creating music is more psychological than it is physical.
As for software gear options, certainly software programs are capable of achieving the technical steps. However, achieving the nuances, in this case, a boom bap feel and such, is another dimension. Can the nuances of boom bap be achieved with software-based setups like Maschine? I believe so. BUT, how are these nuances captured using software vs. using hardware? That’s the critical question. Someone with a background on an Akai MPC or an E-Mu SP 1200 is more likely to capture that nuance differently when they switch to the Maschine than someone without a background with those standalone hardware instruments.
I have experience with Reason, and I understand its flexibility and its appeal. But I prefer my MPC/S950 rig. I use my MPC 60 II/ S950 combo prominently. I also use my MPC 4000 by itself and MIDI’up with my Akai S950. Personally, my production setup makes me feel more like a musician; software, on the other hand, makes me feel more like a computer programmer, even though obviously my MPCs and S950 rely on an internal computer and operating system.
Thing is, I just turn on my MPCs and S950, and I just start playing. I don’t get the same feeling with software. However, I suspect that there are many people who do connect with software-based setups in the manner that I just described. Incidentally, that’s one reason why the Maschine is popular—it offers a bridge between the a hardware instrument and a software environment. There are tremendous advantages to that setup if you feel you need them for your style and sound.
But my advice in your particular case, especially since you know what style and sound that you’re going for and you have a solid grasp of software, is to cop the MPC 60, then MIDI it up with the Akai S590. Two notes: Make sure that the MPC 60 is in good shape and fully functional. Also, make sure that you have full memory in your Akai S950.
Bottom line: Go in the direction that you feel, never convince yourself of anything based on flexibility specs alone. Instead, go for the capability/functionality that matches exactly what you know that you need (and will likely use) for your particular beatmaking approach and the style and sound of music that you want to make.
Question: How do I make my drums sound like DJ Premier’s (or fill-in-the-blank well-known producer)?
Here’s the exact questions from two BeatTips readers:
“I like DJ Premier’s drums, how can I make my drums sound like his?”
(NOTE: I’ve received this question many times before, referencing other beatmakers like Pete Rock, J Dilla, or The Alchemist. But by far, the question has been about DJ Premier’s drums.)
Answer: While I understand the premise of this commonly asked question, I think the question is somewhat misguided, as it actually over looks two larger, more important points: The development of one’s own ear and the development of one’s own sound. You see, when someone inquires about how to achieve a sound like DJ Premier’s, they’re usually talking about EQ settings or mix techniques. In this regard, it’s not terribly difficult to duplicate sound waves or trade EQ settings like recipe ingredients. But then, that’s *just mimicking. And in the end, your drums will sound — at best — something like DJ Premier’s (or whomever you’re trying to copy). Not sure if that’s the best route to take if you’re focused on trying to distinguish yourself.
So there’s a difference between knowing how to follow a EQ/mix recipe and understanding how someone’s musical ear was built. DJ Premier’s ear was built differently than most new beatmakers (producers). This means DJ Premier’s ear was developed through the music and sounds that he regularly listened to. In other words, Premier’s ear was developed through the music and sounds that he regularly listened to before he became a beatmaker (producer) and during the early years of his career. This built in him a certain sensibility.
A plug-in doesn’t teach you about warmth, nor does a DAW teach you about feeling. You develop that sensibility…or you don’t. For instance, while I’m answering this BeatTips FAQ, I’m listening to Marvin Gaye’s “After the Dance”. This is a song that I know DJ Premier listened to. In the past, I’ve learned more about warmth and feel from this song than I could from a plug-in.
And again, it’s not terribly difficult to duplicate sound waves or trade EQ settings like recipe ingredients. But outright mimicking or trying to clone someone’s already established sound is terribly unoriginal. So if someone wants to know how to mimick DJ Premier’s drums (or any other beatmaker’s), I can’t help in that regard. That’s the wrong focus. A better focus instead is to understand where DJ Premier and other notable producers of his elk are coming from, then use that understanding to develop your own drums style and sound.
Ultimately, inspiration from other beatmakers (or any other artists) is deeply important to new and veteran beatmakers. However, for those who take creativity seriously, it’s never about sounding exactly like the distinct sound of someone else, it’s about making your own. And an important component in the development of your own distinct sound (and deeper understanding) is the development of your ear. This, not coincidentally, leads to the develop of your own drums style and sound.
Finally, always remember: Your drums style and sound will only be as good as your core sensibility. That is to say, the way in which you develop your ear will have a direct impact on your drums. So I recommend listening to soul and funk drumming from the late 1960s through the late 1970s. Also, study jazz (especially jazz fusion) drumming of the 1940s through the 1960s. Studying the drumming of both eras will help you tune your ear; it will also teach you a great deal about timing and syncopation possibilities.
Question: How do you blend samples?
Answer: As for how I go about blending samples, my #1 rule: NEVER force anything to go together. In other words, when I blend samples together, I ONLY blend samples that have similar tones — sounds that already sound like they’re a match. For example, I wouldn’t try to blend a guitar riff sampled from an early ’70s song with a bass line from a late ’80s song unless they have a similar sound and texture (which isn’t often the case in recordings a decade apart); this creates a mix-match texture. So to begin with, I’m always in the mind state of combining samples that have similar feelings or textures.
Next, in what way are you blending these samples? Are you blending two or more samples to make one new sample? Or are you blending different sampled phrases to make up an arrangement? If I’m making one sample out of multiple samples, I make sure that I EQ and filter them each in a way that they all sound as if they came from the same recording. If I’m blending multiple samples for an arrangement, I have more leeway, as the objective is entirely different. In this case, while I want to make sure that each sample sounds like one composite idea, I also need to makes sure that each sample’s character is represented properly. This means not only that I have to adjust the EQ, I also have to make sure the start and ends of each sample have the most effective lengths and ADSR (Attack, Delay, Sustain, Release) settings. Of course, this is where my understanding of chopping comes into play.
Bottom line: When it comes to blending samples, first know what your ultimate goals are with the samples that you’re trying to blend together. Are simply working in stabs or embellishments that will stand alone? Or are you combining samples together to make one main sample? Each goal will call for a different approach, but, above all, you should aim to blend samples in a way that highlights the feel and texture that you’re going for.
Question: Are producer showcases worth it?
Answer: For most people and in most cases, no.
At most producer showcases, here’s the typical scene:
Three to five judges — usually with notable production credits or an association with a reputable record label or some other music industry insider post — sit conference panel-style on a stage and observe as producers come up (usually one by one) and play their beats, typically three to five of them in 60-second snippets. As each producer’s beats play, judges presumably take mental notes, showing approval with head-knods or dead-serious study faces. For their part, producers stand on stage doing their best version of their own hype man, which incidentally makes for an odd live performance aspect to all of this. (In fact, there is indeed often an audience in attendance, albeit 95% guys!) When all of a producer’s beats have been played, the judges give feedback to him or her. Most of the time, this is a compliment or feel-good criticism of some sort, followed by a cliched, “keep up the work” or “keep doing what you do,” but it’s not out of the norm for judges to plainly say something is whack. In any case, the producers thank (and sometimes praise) the judges, then leave the stage. After the actual production showcase is over, there is often a mingling period, which is usually promoted as a “networking” opportunity. During this period, people have drinks, socialize, reveal current projects, and, presumably, trade contact info.
Since 2006, I’ve attended more than 20 different producer showcases, including ones in New York, Georgia, North Carolina, Florida, and California. I’ve met a number of different producers (well-known and not) and music industry insiders at some of them. I’ve been invited to participate as a a judge and sponsor on several different occasions, and I’ve donated hard copies of The BeatTips Manual to at least five different producer showcases. All of this experience has given me a sharp understanding of the good and bad — the overall effectiveness — of producer showcases. And what I’ve found is that producer showcases mean less and less in terms of new artist (rappers and producers) introductions or success pathways, since people can easily learn about new artists online in advance of their participation in any showcase, and since more and more artists are realizing that it’s much easier (and less expensive) to put out their music rather than get “permission” or approval from industry insiders. Thus, for most people, most of the time, I don’t believe producer showcases are worth it.
Of course, there is perhaps an exception to every norm. Which is to say, it depends on what each person considers it to be “worth it”. While producer showcases are largely not the pipeline to success as some make them out to be, they do seem to give a sense of achievement to some of the producers who participate in them. However, I believe releasing your own music and establishing a production presence and fan base — without the tacit approval of a producer showcase — gives one a greater sense of achievement. Further, producer showcases, depending on the operators and location, can provide some foot-in-the door kinds of connections. But here again, the proverbial “door” is opened much wider in today’s music industry, which is flanked by an increasing number of different tools of distribution for artists to make their own way through. So while meeting a celebrity judge (producer or A&R) at a producer showcase might be a chance to make a new contact, glean a random piece of advice, get a compliment or even a great Instagram moment, I don’t believe this makes producer showcases invariably worth it.
Now, will some people benefit from attending producer showcases? Perhaps a handful, but not most. Will some people make useful connections at producer showcases? Perhaps a handful, but not must. Will some people receive constructive feedback on their music? Maybe — depends entirely on who the judges are and their level of objectivity and articulation.
Also, it’s worth mentioning that, in recalling their experiences to me, some former associates, judges, and producer showcase participants have described such showcases as “shakedowns”, “gimmicks,” and “useless” endeavors that do nothing more than “make money for the people putting on the showcase.” To be fair, not all producer showcases charge entry fees. But the truth is, a producer showcase is not a sustainable business model anyway. So some producer showcase operators have now moved into beat brokering, re-branding themselves as beat shopping houses. But given the wide open nature and unpredictability of beat placements, that’s not much of a sustainable business model either. And so now leading producer showcase operators have moved into production info-seminars and workshops, another indication that production showcases are not as influential or effective as some think they are.
Ultimately, the main problem with producer showcases is that, like other hold-overs from the old music industry, their power and influence paradigm is broken and near useless. This is because the very premise of most producer showcases, particularly the more established ones, still essentially defer to the notion of a closed music industry, where only a handful of people get the chance to be picked. But it’s no longer a handful-of-people industry. It’s no longer about getting picked. Literally anyone from any corner of the world can put themselves on in today’s open music industry. Moreover, it’s certainly never been about low-level industry insiders (with bloated or misrepresented track records) playing the role of king makers.
Special Note: The producer showcase circuit has helped to cultivate a different class of producer: A class that has a romantic view of the music industry; a class that believes in permission access — the idea that you need permission from music industry experts to take action; a class that sees commercialized networking as a suitable alternative to finding useful business and creative connections; and a class that mostly sees making sample-based music as an ill-advised creative path.