I was recently asked a question by someone looking to get into beatmaking. The question was simply, “how do I make beats?”, which caught me off guard because I’m always focusing on things for people that already make beats. I thought about it for a bit and then I wondered what the best answer would be to this question. My first answer to him was, “well that’s a pretty open question”, but then I followed it up with the one thing that I think is the most important – rhythm.
We all take rhythm for granted because since we make beats, we’re all caught up in the different advanced stages of beatmaking. Trying different things with new plug-ins, recording an acoustic guitar, or perfecting the mix are just some of these things. But rhythm is the most important part of making beats because without rhythm, we’d all be doomed!
When I say “rhythm”, I’m also referring to “tempo”, for example. One of the first things that I was taught back in the day in an audio engineering class, was the simplest thing. My teacher asked, “if you were playing an instrument and it was your part to play in a song, how would you know when to start playing?”. The answer? Rhythm/tempo. It’s like when an emcee is doing his thing over a track and then there’s a part where the drums are taken out – he’s still able to rap even though there’s no drums. This is because he has the tempo in his head and he knows when the drums will drop back in.
Using Your Ears
Rhythm is the most important thing you should have, but I would say just right after that, it’s the technique of using your ears. We all use computers every single day and when we’re making beats, a lot of times we’re using visuals to guide us to make a dope beat. But what about your ears? The ears are essential because you can have all the computer screens in the world right in front of you running Pro Tools, but without good hearing, you won’t be able to do anything.
I’m going to tell you a story. When I first started making beats, I was using a drum machine and sampler because that’s all I had. There were no computers in my workspace and the thought of having one to make beats hadn’t even crossed my mind. I was perfectly content making beats with just these two boxes. It wasn’t until a few years later that I wanted to take my beats to the next level, and I realized that I would need a computer in order to do some proper mixing.
At this point, I had my drum machine, sampler, and a computer running Cakewalk as my DAW. What ended up happening was that I got so comfortable using the computer for mixing, that I was using it for making beats as well, and my drum machine and sampler were left on the shelf to collect dust. I know, it’s a travesty and I’m kicking myself for doing so, but the computer had everything I needed!
So here I was making beats on my computer and everything was going great – until about a year later. I was trying to make a beat one day and then it hit me – this is boring! I was doing everything the same and I felt like I was coding a computer program, rather than making music. My beats were good, but I knew that they could have been way better if I wasn’t using the computer. I was so stuck on staring at the screen and trying to place the snares or the samples in certain numerical spots, that I forgot to actually use my ears. In essence, it was like I became a robot that was just putting out beats regularly by piecing together audio and MIDI clips so that they lined up. This isn’t beatmaking.
Now I use Maschine. I never actually pictured myself doing something with 16 pads on it because I was so used to the computer and keyboards, but once I started using Maschine, I got hooked. It could have just as easily been an MPC 2000 or MPC Renaissance, I just happened to choose Maschine at the time. What happened though was that I quickly realized that I had been missing out all of these years. I could have been making some really banging beats but instead my stuff sounded too robotic (to my ears).
Sure, Maschine is part software and part controller, but I’m sure most people that use Maschine don’t stare at their computer screen and try to piece clips together. I only look at the computer screen when I need to fine tune a sample and zoom in (I have a big monitor) so it really helps. For the rest though, I only use the Maschine controller and its LED screen, which is great because it gives you everything you need.
The centerpiece of my setup is now my ears, as it should be. The days of me staring at a screen are long gone and I don’t miss them. All those other beat makers over the years that used an MPC or SP1200 made such incredible beats because they were letting their ears make the decisions, not their eyes. This is why the beats were so “funky”, if you will. Those beats had a nice swing to them and were just dope.
Take for example something you might hear from Top 40 radio. It could be Rick Ross or Drake, it doesn’t matter. If you really listen to their music, I highly doubt their producers used their ears. They most likely relied on the computer screen, and that’s why those songs are so clean and loud. Beats made with your ears might have swing that’s a bit off or a certain sample doesn’t come in right on the kick. It’s not lined up perfectly but it still sounds dope, and it definitely doesn’t sound like it was pieced together. In other words, it’s just dope.
If you’re currently relying on your computer screen to make your beats, consider switching it up once in awhile. You don’t have to ditch all your gear and go buy Maschine, of course not, but you could just turn off the screen or even just close your eyes and stop looking at the screen.
If you do want to buy something like Maschine, then I would say go for it. Having a piece of gear in your studio like that will only enhance your beats because of all the reasons I mentioned above. Whatever you choose to do, always remember to rely on your ears instead of your eyes. So, do you use your ears?