Get Perfect Beats – The Ultimate Guide: Part 1

Beats are arguably the most important part of the music-production process – especially, of course, if you produce any kind of dance music. They are also the first part of the process for many producers. However you work – and in whatever genre – they are certainly the backbone of your music, and sourcing, programming, producing and mastering them is an important art. Here Hollin Jones looks at producing electronic beats – ie those that we can broadly say are ‘in-the-box’ – and in the next part, Huw Price looks at the more acoustic side of beat production. For now, it’s time to get electronic, from source to CD…

Sources

There are so many ways to work with electronic beats now that it can seem daunting, but you just need to know where to look…

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Anyone looking for sources of drum sounds is spoiled for choice these days. Between virtual instruments, drum synths, sampled kits and sampled loops, there’s a wealth of stuff on offer, the vast majority of which is very good indeed. And while we couldn’t possibly cover everything out there, we can give you some advice on which kinds of sources tend to work best for specific kinds of music or programming tasks.

Mixing hardware and software is increasingly popular, and Arturia’s Spark is a powerful analogue drum solution

If you want ultimate control over practically every aspect of your patterns and sounds, a drum instrument is usually going to be better than a sampled loop, although you can also include construction kits in this since they give you individual drum hits that you can load into a sampler to build your own kits. Drum instruments typically come with a stack of content and often, though not always, an onboard sequencer. Hardware drum machines do still exist as well, of course, though they becoming few and far between.

Native Beats
Native Instruments’ Maschine software is one of the leading drum instruments on the market and is incredibly versatile, linking into the company’s other instruments to make them playable without the need for a DAW and also hosting third-party AU and VST plug-ins. The new 2.0 software adds more advanced mixing capabilities, sampling improvements and some exclusive drum synth modules to an already overflowing set of tools and sounds. There’s a controller, too, but whether you go for the Mikro, regular or flagship Studio version of the hardware, you get the same software. Maschine is really good at all kinds of electronic and urban beats.

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Native Instruments makes some excellent sampled drum instruments based on recordings of classic kits culled from different eras and locations.

NI also makes Battery, a more general-purpose drum instrument again with a large sound library and with extensive cell-editing capabilities for tuning and tweaking drum sounds as well as loading your own. Its focus is maybe more wide-ranging than Maschine, with as many acoustic as electronic sounds. MOTU’s BPM is another powerful instrument that spans urban and rock genres and has a great onboard sequencer, pre-bundled patterns and built-in effects.

The major DAWs all come with their own beat-making machines, and tools like Logic’s Ultrabeat, Cubase’s Groove Agent and Reason’s ReDrum and Kong modules are all excellent tools that you may already have in your setup. To add new sounds, you might want to focus on a particular type of music or drum sound and choose a third-party instrument that suits. FXpansion’s Tremor, for example, is great for hard-and-heavy synthesized drums in up-to-the-minute genres.

The company also makes BFD 3, focused on rock and metal drum sounds and with excellent controls for building and tweaking kits, programming parts, controlling mic bleed and more. Rob Papen’s Punch is another great synth drum box for ground-shaking sounds. Arturia’s Spark vintage drum machine is particularly adept at old-style drum sounds.

We are seeing the convergence of old and new worlds, with iPads being used as programming devices for more conventional drum hardware.

Or there’s the really easy way…
If you prefer to use loops or samples for your beats there’s an equally impressive array of sources and tools to let you do that (see the box opposite for more on some top-selling sample packs). The advantage of loops is that they are pre-mixed, so you don’t have to worry about balancing them, just use EQ/compression in the mix, plus any other effects you might favour.

Loops can be time-stretched to fit a project, or they may be in ACID or REX formats and automatically tempo-stretch on import. If loops are simple WAVs, you can use tools like FXpansion’s Geist or the slicing tools in your DAW to analyse a loop, slice it and rearrange the slices to create variations. Live, Cubase, FL Studio, Sonar and Reason all have ways of doing this.

Click here to read a buyers guide for three top drum loop retailers…

Programming

Whatever your skill level and musical style, there’s sure to be a method for drum programming that will suit you and your music…

Get a more realistic drumming feel by connecting up a MIDI drum or percussion pad to your virtual instrument.

Drums were one of the first sounds that could be programmed convincingly using technology, and remain the one element in any production with probably the widest range of programming options available to the producer. Partly this is due to their ‘one sound per pad’ character, and partly thanks to the fact that they respond better to step-based input than melodic parts. Throw in the flexibility of MIDI and recent developments in audio-slicing and sampling technology and you can make pretty much any kind of beat sound great.

The most basic way to program beats is by entering notes into a MIDI track to create a clip or loop. You can do this with the mouse or by using a generator plug-in or step sequencer in your DAW. Most have one of these, and software like FL Studio bases a lot of its sound-generation around the concept of small step sequencers.

Reason’s ReDrum has one too, as does Logic’s Ultrabeat and any number of third-party drum modules, including NI’s Maschine. Built-in sequencers are great for creating drum machine-style beats because they tend to break everything into fairly simple elements. A beat has a set number of bars and drum channels. Drum sounds are triggered by entering notes into a grid and you can control velocity and swing to give the beat a less mechanical feel (or, indeed, remove these elements to give it a more robotic rhythm).

Click here for our guide to making a dubstep beat

Advanced Instruments
A lot of drum instruments have built-in sequencers and these also generally let you sequence multiple patterns together to make songs – again, a hangover from the old way of doing things. If they don’t – or if you prefer not to work this way – you can use your DAW to program the instrument or to send program changes to the module. Some more advanced instruments, like FXpansion’s Tremor, have really clever tools that let you add things like repeat and probability parameters to notes and use graphs to slew, compress and randomise patterns.

Its sequencer also has the ability to use different pattern lengths for each individual drum channel, so you end up with a lot of programming options. Getting even more experimental, apps like Propellerhead’s Figure let you paint-in beat variations by hand.

If you want something more conventional, FXpansion’s BFD 3 has a ton of pre-programmed loops played by leading drummers and a powerful MIDI sequencer that lets you tweak the patterns or record your own, as well as swap out individual drum sounds. Toontrack’s EZdrummer and Superior Drummer also provide realistic drum programming environments for those after a real kit sound.

By using hands-on controllers you can get a more realistic feel, then post-process your beats using plug-ins in Maschine 2.0. 

With a ‘real’ drum instrument like BFD, Superior Drummer or NI’s Battery, some drummers like to hook up a full MIDI kit to the computer and play the sounds in exactly the same way as you’d play a real kit. Naturally, this is amazing if you can do it, although it requires the equipment, skill and space that you might imagine it does. For most people, a different programming approach is required. You can play beats with your MIDI keyboard, of course, and many people do. Alternatively, use a pad-based input device.

NI’s Maschine controllers are very popular for beats and AKAI’s MPC and MPD series have a loyal following, with users valuing the feel of the pads. Alesis, Korg and Yamaha also make smaller pad controllers, and devices such as Novation’s Impulse keyboards have MIDI pads incorporated as well.

Few people can program the perfect beat in one go, regardless of the input method they are using. So recording in a loop is often a good way to approach beat-creation. Your DAW probably supports this: just set a tempo, set up a loop and put your software into ‘overdub’ mode (or whatever it happens to call it). Then go over and over it, starting with a simple kick and snare and adding cymbals, toms, percussion and other sounds as you go. You can sometimes hit a button to create a new clip in order to try something new without breaking your stride.

You may want to use a ‘quantize during recording’ option (if available), though some find this a little disorienting since it will snap beats to the selected grid as soon as they have been played. It can be more natural to play the beat then quantize it afterwards, not least because this makes undoing and redoing to try different timing treatments easier. Dedicated input devices like Maschine are set up to provide quick shortcuts to 50 or 100% quantize actions, so you can apply groove or timing correction from the controller itself while recording.

Click here for our guide to programming house drums

Programming Sounds
All beats are unique, but there are some general guidelines for programming in different genres. For electro, you would probably use drum machine or synthesised drum sounds and opt for a fairly rigidly quantized, step-sequenced approach. R’n’B might use similar though softer drum sounds and a slower tempo, with less aggressive tones. Hip hop favours big kicks and crisp snares with 1/8 or 1/16 hi-hats over the top, and drum’n’bass is much the same, only speeded up to about double the speed. For old-skool tracks, use sampled ‘real’, scratchy drums; for more modern productions, urban-style synth drums.

Programming rock drums means having some good sampled kits and getting familiar with fills, since they are usually pretty fill-heavy, though rarely much more complex than kick, snare, hi-hats and toms. Pop drums are usually electronic these days and indie drum parts can often be a combination of real and sampled or synthesised sounds. Similarly, if you’re working with anything dub- or reggae-related, you would look to either old-fashioned drum machine sounds or stripped-back acoustic drums depending on the style of music, plus lots of Space Echo effect.

If you’re a serious player, consider hooking up a proper MIDI drum kit to your virtual instruments for the ultimate in drum sounds. 

Deconstruct to Construct
If you are struggling to get started with programming a beat in any specific genre, a good technique is to get hold of a loop and deconstruct it. If it’s an audio loop, this will mean listening; if it’s MIDI, you will be able to open it and see which hits fall at which points in the pattern. Remember that in many DAWs you can now slice-up audio parts, extract audio grooves and apply them to MIDI parts and quantize audio as easily as MIDI. If you have a sliced audio part, a MIDI part or a REX loop, you can generally apply randomisation to have your software jumble-up the hits in a loop while retaining the correct basic timing. Between these kinds of tools, you should have no problem conjuring up your own unique rhythms.

Production Tips and Mixing Advice

Getting a great drum sound using sampled or electronic beats can be easier than you think…

It’s not just electronic drums that are re-created in software: FXpansion’s BFD 3 is used for rock and metal, too. 

One of the best things about working with electronic drums or beats generated and sequenced using technology is that you retain almost complete control over the way they sound. When you record real drum kits there are all sorts of physical considerations and issues such as bleed – which, ironically enough, you can re-introduce using some of the more advanced drum instruments – that don’t exist in the digital domain. This ultimate flexibility can to an extent bring its own issues, such as knowing when to stop tweaking the sound and just let it lie. Approached sensibly, however, working with and mixing drum parts within your DAW can be both fun and rewarding.

One of the best things about working digitally is the ability to layer up sounds, and this is particularly true of beats. If you listen to almost any electronic music you will hear multiple layers of rhythm comprising kicks, snares, cymbals and percussion of all kinds. A beat tends to be at the heart of a track, especially electronic or urban music, and it can provide much more input than simply keeping time.

Recording the output of a hardware drum machine is quite limiting since you might have just a stereo feed containing all the drum elements. Working with software drum instruments can be much more flexible since you get separate, automatable controls for each drum channel and can often route each one out separately to your DAW’s mixer for mixing or processing.

If you are using sampled loops in any part of a production you should find that the beats contained in them are pre-mixed, so a bit of simple EQ and compression should help them to sit properly in the mix alongside other sounds.

Multiple Control
When your drum instrument supports multiple outputs you can use routing and grouping to better control the drum sound just like you might when working with live, multitracked drum stems. Although most drum instruments have onboard mixers and even effects, you might want to go beyond basic submixing when it comes to your beats. Perhaps most useful is the technique of processing individual drum sounds through plug-ins. Imagine, for example, that you have a kit in Kontakt that sounds pretty good but you want to run the snare or the ride cymbals through a specific effect, like a dub echo. By routing a channel out to the mixer you can do this easily. With external hardware effect support in some DAWs you can even use studio outboard to achieve the same thing.

Click here for our guide to building your own kit with Reason’s Re-Drum

If you have split drum channels off for processing you can use a group channel to recombine them with the rest of the drum channels from the instrument to make mixing easier in the context of a whole track. Working with a single drum fader in the mixer is easier than working with ten or 12 – and, of course, you can still use automation and level control at all stages for fine-tuning the sounds.

Kit Creativity
Many drum instruments also support sample loading or editing so you can customise kits to make them your own. In the case of synth-based instruments like Tremor,  the sound-generation possibilities are near-infinite. Almost any high-profile instrument you can think of will at least allow you to swap out elements of a drum kit for new samples, and some, like Maschine, BPM, Geist, MachFive, HALion and Reason’s Kong and ReDrum, let you sample directly in, edit those samples and use them in your kits.

This can be a really powerful way to create unique kits with minimum effort. Try, for example, reversing a cymbal in a kit, loading up an electronic blip or a vocal sound, then playing your new kit from your pad controller. Making beats has never been this flexible, and your only limit is your imagination.

Click here for our guide to drum channels in Cubase

Processing drum parts can be as simple or as extreme as you want to make it. If you’re working more conventionally, compression, EQ and perhaps a little reverb on all drums except the kick can be a good standard way to go. Adding some distortion or crunch to specific parts such as snares, or processing whole loops or kits through amp or guitar pedal or tape simulators, is another good trick to quickly create a warmer sound. Consider short delays for snares or hi-hats to create depth without space, and filtering to soften sounds that have lots of attack.

Many virtual drum plug-ins – like NI’s Drumlab – let you tweak and tune custom kits in ways that are difficult in real life.

To really take your beats to the next level you could experiment with some of the more esoteric plug-ins on the market. Instruments like FXpansion’s Geist let you slice and rearrange existing samples, and Reason 7 lets you do this with any audio parts using the Dr. OctoRex. Plug-ins such as Effectrix, Turnado and Stutter Edit are all excellent for creating instant mash-ups of any sounds, but are particularly good with beats. They can add tempo-based multi-FX such as scratching, glitch, delays and more with a few clicks.

Essentially, they enable you to sound like Aphex Twin without any of the hard work. The really clever part is that they keep everything in time and combine loads of different kinds of effects into a single plug-in.

Another useful technique to know about is beat-replacement. Imagine you have a sample or some recorded drums and you want to swap the snare sound for a different sample. This could be incredibly work-intensive, but not if you use a drum replacer. Plug-ins like Massey DRT or Drumagog are able to analyse recorded drum parts, look at their waveforms and then replace specific drum elements with MIDI-triggered samples or other sounds. As well as letting you correct a poor drum sound, this trick can be used to beef-up existing tracks.

Imagine you have a drum recording that’s just OK but you want to double-up each snare hit with a new electronic snare, or every fourth kick drum beat with a sub kick. Manually it would be difficult, but with a drum replacer it is far easier.

Mastering Advice

The mastering step carries some special requirements if your music is beat-heavy…

A multiband compressor/limiter plug-in will provide precise control over individual parts of the frequency spectrum.

Many of the same rules that you would apply to mastering tracks also apply to beat-heavy music, although there are a few specialist considerations to take into account when a track is particularly beat-oriented. It might sound obvious, but the fewer elements a piece of music has, the more upfront you can make the sounds that it does have. If your production has guitars, orchestras and choirs, there’s going to be limited space in the mix and in the soundstage for the beats, and so they will probably need to be more heavily compressed and more carefully EQ’ed so as not to fight with the rest of the sounds on show.

When a track is more stripped-back – say, an electronic production where the beats are front and centre – you can afford to be a little more bold. EQ and compress during the mixing stage so that the beats are prominent and attention-grabbing, though not overwhelming. If beats have been layered, pay more attention to making each layer work well rather than subsumming them together on a single ‘drums’ fader. Soundtrack work is an area where music can be reduced to simple elements – a few beats and textures, maybe a piano figure or two – and is a good example of how to bring rhythms to the front.

Click here for our guide to mastering beat heavy tracks

Using EQ
As ever when mastering, your goal is to give a track a good, solid level and an EQ treatment that emphasises all the relevant elements without letting any particular one dominate or be swamped by the others. If your music is quite beat-heavy you can afford to be liberal with the EQ, using a multi-band processor to pull up the relevant frequencies and make the beats sound good.

Adding a little air at the top can help to bring some sparkle to the signal, and identifying where the snare lives using Q controls can help you to shape and control it, making it snappier if it’s too dull, or backing it off it it’s too jarring. The bass end is crucial to get right too, and here you might be dealing with heavy electronic kicks or sub bass drums. Using multiband compression or EQ to tame the boomier elements of these sounds can be advisable, as can testing masters on different setups to see how the bass behaves.

 You’ll probably want to master beat-heavy music nice and loud, keeping an eye on the levels using good metering tools.

The Final Stage
The last stage of mastering is limiting, and you might want to look into using a mastering processor with a fast attack and some lookahead if your music contains prominent drums since there will be a lot of attacking sounds quite high in the mix. Don’t crush the signal with limiting – this is all too easy to do, and though it might seem nice and loud, will be tiring to the ears of the listener.

Leave some dynamic range in the signal while at the same time squeezing as much volume out of it as is sensible. This varies track by track, of course, but as a general guide you ought to be seeing fader movement on your master fader rather than a solid block of signal, which usually means you’re over-limiting.

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