Producing Killer Hip-Hop Beats

By Ivan Valles

I’ve written before about the key elements involved in producing a song. For this article, I wanted to focus on tips and techniques to getting great sound out of your hip hop music.

Hip Hop production started around the late 70’s and early 80’s, with DJs mixing in two identical records (which is called beat juggling). The result of this mixing was that you could prolong a particular section of the song, resulting in a very groovy, musical and tasteful loop. In the 80’s some bands like Run-DMC became very popular for using songs that relied on digital beats taken and created in digital samplers (these are devices that can record and store audio signal samples and later play them back at a range of pitches when they are triggered). Once this new approach to music became mastered, it became a brand new platform for experimenting and maturing a whole new style of music later known as hip-hop. There are three basic elements involved in producing a hip-hop beat: Sampling, Beat Making and Scratching.

Sampling elements are normally used in a hip-hop track to substitute musicians that might be out of the regular production budget, or simply to help establish a particular mood that was already successful in the recording where you’re taking the sample from. The bad part about sampling is, that even though it requires no cost while recording, it sometimes ends up costing a huge amount of money in terms of sharing the record sales with the rightful owner of the sample(s) you’re using for your songs. To avoid this, producers will sometimes re-record the desired parts that they wish to include as part of the track, thus avoiding having to pay for the use of other master recordings to other record labels.

Drumbeats are sometimes sampled as well, but it is normally common to construct them from scratch. To make a powerful drum beat you must look for the right sounds carefully and exhaustively, particularly those of the kick and snare drums. I often find the right sound for these elements in a combination of two or more samples. For instance, I like the deep low and classic sound of the Roland TR-808 machine, and I combine it with another kick sound that will give me a more attacked sound. I like to record things like claps and finger snaps myself with whoever I have available at the time to help me, later mixing them together with some reverb and compression to create a nice and full sample. Typically, I like to maintain most of the beat in a constant loop, but every once in a while I throw in a variation, like changing the hi-hat or shaker pattern for the choruses, or simply adding a new break to the song in order to break the monotony of the basic loop. I also like dropping some or all elements of the drum beat at certain points throughout the song as well, this also helps change the dynamics and groove of the beat.

Scratching is used by DJs to interpolate samples or beats. DJs have become a very useful and colorful spice into the hip-hop mix, as they are capable of producing very unique and original sounds. The sound emanating from old vinyl records coming from a turntable also help enhance your production. Since a DJ is not always available and contemplated within production costs, I sometimes take previously recorded scratches and vinyl sounds and blend them with the hip hop music I’m creating. This creates a relatively similar effect without having to involve a DJ in the equation and thus avoiding potential fees derived from the contents of the DJs recordings.

Besides these three key elements of hip-hop, certain effects can help you accentuate different parts of the lyrics in the song. It is common to hear planes, cars, coins and other cool effects that you can use to help support a specific part of the track whether rapped or sung. There are plenty of different websites that offer these effects at very inexpensive prices or even free of charge.

Recording and producing vocals is also an important element to get the most out of the hip hop tracks. I record the hook or chorus parts several times, until I hear the sound is full enough. There are several tools are available in the market to align the vocals and tighten the performance. My personal favorite is VocAlign. I normally record all of the chorus parts and harmonies only once and then paste them into the remaining choruses. MCs have different ways to approach their rap parts. Some of them double, triple or even quadruple their performance exactly the same, while others will only rap once throughout each rap section. Some artists like adding one or more tracks of adlibs. Adlibs play an important role in coloring the verses and choruses, they are most time simply spontaneous responses to the main vocals. They are phrases or particular words that support the main performance. There are several condenser microphones are common to capture the vocal performance of Hip Hop music. I like the Neumann U87, Telefunken U47, and a couple of Sony microphones.

Once I’m done with the tracking and editing, and am getting ready for mixing down, I sometimes use some outboard gear, like compressors, equalizers, etc. to fatten the sound of some of the tracks. Sequenced keyboards and Drum parts sometimes need fattening. To do this you’ll need professional audio equipment. For this purpose I like Manley, Avalon and other Professional brands out there. You must route the output of the audio track to the input of the desired gear, and then the gear’s output back into an input to be recorded as a new audio file in your recording System. When I’m mixing, I am always careful in this style of music to have an extra amount of low end in the mix, since this is very welcome in this music. However, you must be careful with low end, as it can easily cloud your judgment, ears and mix altogether. Make sure you listen back to your track in different sets of speakers, to make sure your overall levels are right. When I feel I have control over the mix, I often add the final touch-ups to the vocals like filters, distortion, delays and other effects.