If you’re starting off making beats – or any other type of music – and you’re just a little like what I once was, you’re probably thinking that you need the latest Korg Pa4X and the best pair of KRK Rokits in the market, to start making dope beats. But of course you’ve already read or heard somewhere (everywhere, come on) that this isn’t true. Let’s talk about it.
1. Ground 0: choosing a DAW
You haven’t even started making beats, but you want to, like right now. The problem is, a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) can go from 50$ to over 600$ – depending on what you’re looking at. Now, taking a leap into purchasing a DAW without even knowing the basics could turn out frustrating: you won’t understand how the program functions, where or what everything is, and you’ll just get scared. I remember the first time I opened FL Studio, I thought I’d never understand how it worked. So here’s my suggestion. Nowadays everyone knows someone who makes [digital] music. Why not ask for a couple of hours a week to get your head around their DAW, get to know the basics and to feel more confortable about purchasing one of your own. If that’s not possible, head out for free DAWs. There’s tons of them: REAPER; PreSonus Studio One 3 Prime, ProTools First (yep, even ProTools). Heck, you can even use Audacity if you start sampling. Apollo Brown did it, why can’t you? Just one thing though. When you do decide to take that step and buy a DAW, check out all the demos possible. Putting a price tag on it kind of makes you want to stick to whatever decision you make and even though all DAWs can do the same (aside from a feature or two), it all comes down to workflow. I started on a friend’s FL Studio, but when I wanted to sample, I just couldn’t deal with that kind of [work]flow. Ableton changed that. So always keep in mind: just because others find it perfect, it doesn’t mean that you will.
So, you still with me? Next up: instruments. Because we live in a digital era, nowadays you don’t need to buy a guitar to play one. You just need a DAW or a VST (Virtual Studio Technology). So basically, you can have your instruments in your computer and play them with your computer’s keyboard. Dope, right? Now, of course it won’t be the same. It isn’t going to feel as realistic most of the times, plus, you won’t be playing the actual instrument. But it’ll get you started and maybe further ahead you’ll be able to play real instruments, or work with someone who does. If you already got a DAW, it’ll most likely bring instruments. That’s a good starting point. But if you’re looking for more, the internet’s filled with free VSTs. Here’s an example – Combo Model F. But you should actually be looking out for soundfonts as well. Soundfonts are basically sampled instruments, prepared to be played as MIDI instruments. But for this you’ll need a player first. Native Instruments gives out a free version of Kontakt that’ll work perfectly for this. And hey, here’s a bunch of soundfonts: NewGrounds.
As for controllers, honestly, your computer keyboard will be enough for you at the beginning. I know I used it a lot. But yeah, at some point you will feel the need to buy a set of keys, or a drum pad, so make your research first. When it comes to physical stuff, people often make impulsive purchases. My first midi controller was an Akai LPK25 and don’t get me wrong, it was a good purchase, I still use it on a daily basis. But had I waited a couple more months, and I would’ve bought a keyboard with 49 keys instead. Don’t be impulsive. It’s not about making bad purchases. It’s about not waiting for making better ones. If the low price version of whatever you want serves your needs perfectly, then go for it, otherwise, just wait a little more time, save the money and buy exactly what you need. I needed a bigger keyboard, in fact, I still need one, but I went with the cheaper version, because I wanted a keyboard ASAP. But as for a drumpad, after comparing all the MPCs and Maschines on a price-quality ground, the Maschine Mikro was, and still is, perfect for my needs.
Let’s talk specifics. Of all things you’re going to invest on, this might be the most important one. Not because it’ll make your sounds greater automatically. If you don’t know squat on mixing, it doesn’t matter if you have the highest quality racks. BUT, having a good sound image is key to know what you’re working with. If you’re working with a pair of earplugs (please don’t do that…just, don’t), you might think your sound is the hottest thing on right now, when in fact it isn’t. Or vice-versa. When I made the People Change beat, I thought it sounded alright, but when I got to hear the drums on a pair of monitors…damn, they were lit. Both scenarios are possible. What sounds good on headphones, might not be the same on the car stereo system, for example. So, if you can’t afford an audio interface and a pair of monitors/studio headphones, work with what you have. Get a standard pair of headphones (these’ll give you more low ends) and get to know how they sound. Try mixing a beat, take it to your car and see the differences, test it out until you get a clear mix. I’m working only with a pair of AKG K518LE. These are great headphones, but for mixing, they aren’t as accurate as studio headphones or monitors. But knowing how they work on all ends (and after a lot of ear training), I’m starting to get my mixes a lot nearer to where I want them to be. Train your ears, understand what you’re working with, compare your beats with what’s out there, and mix a lot – DON’T BE LAZY.
Hip-Hop instrumentals were made by people who couldn’t afford any instruments, and look at where it got them. You don’t need a lot to start making beats. Just work, research and a lot of trail and error.
Hope this gets you going a little further, and hope you didn’t fell asleep halfway. Leave any more opinions or suggestions in the comments below.