How To Make Hip Hop: 11 Essential Tips!
Learning how to make beats on your computer is easier now than it ever has been before. All you need is a decent computer, strong work ethic, and the will to learn.
This is a small list of essential tips for any hip hop producer. For beginners if you start implementing these into your production workflow, you will quickly start seeing the improvements they can make to your beats.
And if you’re an experienced producer this can be good to go over just to remind yourself of a few things you may have forgotten!
1. Sample Selection
Having an ear to choose the right samples in any situation is one of the most important skills of a talented music producer.
It may sound easy, but it can take years to reach the level where you know exactly what sample will sound the best for your beat - and where to find it in your files - and do it quickly (we’re talking 5-10 seconds).
Skills like this are the most important when you’re working in a session with an artist as well, because you don’t want to keep people waiting around while you look for the right snare sound.
You want to start building your own personal libraries of samples with only your favorite sounds, especially for drums. Having your own separate folder for all your favorite kicks, snares, hi hats, shakers, 808s, percussion, instrument one shots, and whatever else you can think of will make the production process much easier in the long run.
Luckily, it’s now easier than ever to find good samples to start building your libraries with.
Check out our FREE DOWNLOAD VAULT for all of the latest Cymatics free sample packs, the Oracle, Cobra, and Eternity packs are all perfect for hip hop production.
2. Kick & Bass
The relationship between the kick and bass is important in any genre of music but specifically so in hip hop.
As a general rule, you don’t want the frequencies of the kick and bass clashing with each other, which means you don’t want them playing at the same time.
To easily fix this issue, we use what’s called “sidechain compression” to duck the volume of the bass track any time the kick track is producing an audio signal.
To explain how you can do this, we made a free tutorial on our YouTube channel that goes through the basics of Sidechain Compression (starting at 40:14).
You can apply this technique to any DAW with your stock plug-ins.
In addition to the tutorial, we’ve laid out the necessary steps for you to follow to properly sidechain:
- Apply your stock compressor to the bass track (make sure that whatever compressor you apply has a sidechain feature)
- Select the kick track as your sidechain input. This means that whenever the kick hits, it will trigger the compressor to duck the volume of the bass track, leaving room for the kick to come through.
- Make sure you have a very fast attack setting, adjust the release to taste depending on the length of your kick, a 2-4 ratio, and adjust the threshold until you hear the kick blending in nicely with the bass.
3. Hi-hats Are Key
In modern hip hop, it’s commonplace to find a 16th note pattern for the hi hats, while the open hats are placed in the offbeat. The groove is achieved by the switch-ups from the basic pattern to 32nd or 8th note sections.
Triplets are also very effective in hip hop, but we will cover this separately in another section.
Creating the right groove is not easy, though. On top of finding an ideal pattern, you need to give them a human feel. This can be tricky when constantly drawing them in your DAW.
Check out these savvy tips to help you humanize your drums!
4. 808 Saturation
One secret to a thick 808 bass is saturation.
You want your 808 bass to carry a heavy low-end, but also be felt through your laptop speakers (which are not very good at projecting low end).
You can achieve this by applying different saturation techniques.
But before we get into that, the first step is to make sure you know how to create an 808 from scratch. If you don’t know how you should check out this free “Making 808s 101” tutorial on YouTube.
Since 808s are often generated from a sine wave, which is very low in frequency, you will not be able to hear it on most smaller systems and speakers, like your computer or phone.
This is when saturation comes into play.
Saturation is the process of distorting and adding harmonics, so it becomes audible on most speakers. Without saturation, your sub bass will sound weak and won’t generate enough energy on your track.
We recommend inserting your saturator on a return channel and sending the original signal through it. This way, the original signal and low-end weight remain intact. Then, you can blend in the saturated signal with the original to taste.
Pro Tip: if you’re an Ableton user, a great option for a powerful 808 is the Hip Hop Sub Bass preset on Operator, paired with the “Kick Tight” preset on Corpus. Give it a shot!
5. Keep It Simple
One of the most important things for a hip hop producer to keep in mind is that there will need to be space in the mix for someone to rap on.
The vocal needs to be the centerpiece of the mix, and when there are too many elements making the mix busy, it can create a lot of problems when trying to make a quality, professional sounding song.
Focus on trying to produce simple and minimal beats that sound amazing, without relying on drastic melody changes, long transitions or anything else that could interrupt the flow of someone rapping over the beat.
To start, try to produce a beat with simple drums, one or two main musical elements, and a solid bassline.
By listening to some of the most famous hip hop hits, you’ll notice that they usually have a few distinct elements that make up the core of the track.
6. Reference Your Favorite Beats
Studying the beats that inspire you is a very underrated way to learn how to structure your own productions.
Not just listening, but paying attention to when every percussion hits, how they change subtle things from bar to bar to keep it interesting, and how they use silence in certain parts to create space. These are the minute details you should be listening for and taking note of then implement them into your own beats.
Understanding what every element of the track is doing and how everything interacts with each other is one of the most important skills a producer can have.
A great way to practice this is to try and recreate your favorite beats from scratch.
Analyze and recreate each element of the track one-by-one, starting with the kick and snare. Where do they hit? What’s the hi hat pattern?
Use your ears and try to find samples that sound the same as the ones in the beat.
If you do this often, it will shave years off your learning curve and allow you to understand the techniques and arrangements used by professional hip hop producers.
7. Don't Overuse Quantization
You don’t want your drums to be robotic.
So how do we achieve that perfect balance of flow, rhythm, and tempo and still humanize your drums?
Well, if you completely turn off quantization, your tracks will feel human. However, in this genre where tempo and rhythm are its core, you risk throwing off your MC.
The flow needs to be constant throughout the track so that the listener and rapper know what the rhythm will be and won’t be thrown off.
To achieve this, we recommend these simple steps:
- Keep the kick, snare, and hi hats strictly quantized and on the grid at all times.
- To humanize you can play around with the velocity of the hi hats and repeated kicks. For example, if you have two kicks close to each other, the first one can be a little softer than the second one.
- If you have any percussion or foley elements, you can try to move them around slightly off the grid to create a swing. By not being in the front of the mix like the kick, snare, and hats, the listener won’t be caught off guard if these are not strictly quantized.
- Play your melodies/chords on your MIDI controller for a more realistic feel, or manually adjust the velocity of each note after you draw them into your DAW.
8. Triplets, Triplets, Triplets
A triplet is when beat is split into three notes, instead of the typical two or four, as shown here:
Hi hat triplets are pretty much standard in most modern hip hop beats at this point, usually mixed in with a straight hi hat pattern and coming in at different points to add variety.
Another common technique with triplets is to pitch the hi hat down when the triplet roll comes in.
You don’t want to overdo it with hi hat triplets, but study how they are used in other songs and you will quickly learn where to place them.
Quick tip: try using triplets as transitions, even if you’re following a straight rhythm throughout the track!
9. Utilize Melody Loops
Sometimes it can feel daunting if you’re not in the mood to sit down and come up with a new beat from scratch, especially if you don’t know music theory, trying to come up with melodies or chord progressions on the fly can take a while.
Thankfully there are tons of royalty free melody loops you can download to help quickly provide inspiration to take in any direction you want.
Check out our 2020 MELODY COLLECTION, it’s a free pack with 40 royalty free melody loops, and includes stems so you can tweak and modify when certain parts of the melody play.
10. Find Unique Samples
Sample digging is one of the most fun parts of hip hop production. Sampling in hip hop began with producers ripping samples off of vinyl records they collected and chopping them up. This is how some of the most iconic hip hop productions of all time were created.
You can use the same sample hunter mentality of the early crate diggers even if you don’t have a record player.
Look in obscure places online for samples that no one has used before, digging on youtube and google for vintage music sharing blogs can yield incredible results. Things like old television commercials, random training videos and old radio recordings can be such great sources of amazing samples that other producers will start asking you what your secret is.
Keep in mind when sampling copyrighted material though, because if you use uncleared samples it could catch you in legal trouble down the line. If you are a small producer you most likely don’t have to worry about anyone coming after you unless you start making money off the track, but content ID services can still flag and take down something if they recognize an uncleared sample (It happens all the time).
We recommend using royalty free samples to avoid this problem, you can find thousands of royalty free samples on our FREE DOWNLOAD VAULT.
11. Keep It Dry
Because of the minimalistic nature of hip hop, you’ll be tempted to add lots of effects to fill in the gaps to make your track feel “fuller.”
So when you face a dilemma, like whether to add reverb or not, stop and ask yourself if it’s indispensable.
This is because you’ll want to keep your drums relatively dry and in the front of the mix. You can add a touch of reverb to the snare if it’s very short and snappy, but make sure it stays punchy and not drenched in unnecessary reverb.
The elements that will require reverb will be the melodies and background samples. Adding reverb, delays, and other effects will furthermore help to place them in the back of the mix.
You’ll want to keep a lot of space in the mix for the vocals to cut through and the bass to hit hard.
At the end of the day, music production is an art and these rules don’t always apply in every situation, but like they say; “you need to learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist”.
Start implementing these methods into your music production workflow and learn how and why they apply to hip hop production specifically.
- Start with the right samples
- Balance your kick and bass
- Focus on the detail of your hi hats
- Make your sure your 808s cut through (Saturation)
- Keep it simple
- Reference tracks
- Don't overuse quantization
- Experiment with triplets
- Work with loops
- Dig for samples
- Keep it dry
Here are some additional resources that we think you may find useful: