Bring that beat back.
When you’re learning how to write a song the hardest thing is starting.
Building a beat is a great way to get your creative juices flowing. And the more you do it the better you get at it.
In this post I am using Ableton Live to show you the basics of beat building.
By the end of it you’ll have all the tools you need to make a banging house beat. Deal?
1. Find your producer palette
Beat building is just like painting. Before you even touch the canvas you have to think about your colors.
Before opening your DAW, put together a collection of sounds. They’ll be the building blocks of your beat.
The sounds you choose will help to guide your process from the start.
There are many approaches to choosing your sounds. For this post, I’ll be focusing on two.
- Sample packs
Sample packs are great if you’re wondering how to sample without getting sued.
For the example in this post: I’m using the #Beached free sample pack from Wavy.audio. Download it and follow along.
- Virtual instruments
The second approach is to use the instruments that come with your DAW.
Virtual instruments contain high-quality samples from the best and most iconic music gear. You don’t need to save up 4000$ for a Roland TR-909.
You should always be adding to your collection by downloading free VSTs whenever you find them. Who knows when you’ll need that Frohmage.
2. Open up your DAW
Time to start building! Fire up your DAW and let’s go.
Wait up, there’s something you should know first! It will save you major headaches in the future.
Stay organized with your samples from the get go.
If you’re using sample packs, put them all in the same folder. Name the folder something you’ll remember – like ‘SAMPLES [name of your project]’.
Once you create your Ableton session, save it right away. Put your sample folder in the Ableton project folder.
That way you’ll never run into the ‘oops your DAW can’t find your files’ problem (trust me it’s no fun).
When you decide to move the Ableton project folder all your samples will be where you need them.
Hot tip: I even have folders for my Ableton projects by month so I keep track of my progression. But that’s optional – just for the organization freaks out there (like me)!
Ok, now let’s roll!
The first thing to know is that there are two kinds of tracks in your DAW – ‘MIDI’ and ‘Audio’.
If you’re using samples drag them into an Audio track. Audio tracks are also for recording vocals or an external instrument.
Use MIDI when you’re creating beats using virtual instruments or VSTs in your DAW.
3. Start your Session
Let’s start building that beat.
Ableton has two views: Session view and Arrangement view.
Session view is the default when you open a session. The tracks are laid out vertically. Use it to drag in your samples and start playing with ideas.
Choose a drum kit from the sidebar. I’m going with the Kit-909 Classic. Drag it on a MIDI track. Click on the first clip slot of the track. Open up the MIDI Note Editor.
Add the Snare Drum. I’m putting it on the same beat as the Kick. It might sound weird for now but we’ll tweak the sounds in a moment.
Now add another layer. I chose the Rim sound for some percussive variation.
But it can be anything you want, like a high-hat, a sample of your studio door locking, or anything else that fits.
Time for some Toms. I dropped one in right after the second Kick.
4. It’s Tweaking Time
Ok we’re getting somewhere! Let’s tweak some of the parameters to shape the sounds.
Click on the title bar of your drum track. Your drum device will appear at the bottom where your MIDI Editor was.
Play with the parameters of each sound in your drum kit. Experiment and find your signature style.
For the Snare I cut a lot of the high frequencies using the High Cut knob. This makes the Snare less aggressive.
Then I lowered the ‘Snappy’ knob. I also tweaked the Tuning knob to get a frequency that fit the beat. Here are the new settings:
Always tweak until it sounds right. Most of the time the default settings won’t sound good until you switch them up.
The Tom needed to be pitched down. To pitch a sound up or down play with the Pitch knob until it fits.
I also lowered the Decay and changed the Tuning knob similar to what I did with the Kick.
5. Make it dynamic
Making music on a grid can sound a bit robotic.
But there is a way to make your beat less rigid and more expressive in your DAW.
In Ableton the MIDI Note Editor has a section at the bottom called MIDI Velocity Editor.
Play with the velocity to change how fast and with how much pressure a note or beat is played. This will make your beat more dynamic.
In my beat, I’ve brought down the velocity on my Tom and the third Kick. They’re more subtle because they come in slower and with a softer touch.
6. Throw in the samples
Now you’ve got a drum part going right? Great let’s keep going. Time to throw some samples in there!
Drag and drop your samples into an Audio track in Session view to listen to them. Then use Arrangement view to place them in your beat.
Arrangement is the horizontal view made for composing and finishing your track.
There’s more than one way to do this. Some people use the Session view differently.
Select your beat from the Session view and copy it.
Switch to Arrangement view by selecting the icon with horizontal bars in the top right corner. Paste it in the Arrangement view in an Audio track.
This might be confusing but look at the walkthrough below to see how I did it.
Hot tip: select your drum clip and press Command + D (Mac) or Control + D (PC) to duplicate it quickly.
There’s a few common mistakes that happen during arranging so beware!
For example: I decided to delete the Snare in the last 4 bars to create variation.
Hot tip: Grab the corner of a clip and drag it. It’ll duplicate the clip as one longer clip. This lets you easily remove a part without having to do it on each clip.
Here’s the finished beat (I mastered it):
One beat a day keeps creativity flowing your way
Congratulations, you’ve got a beat!
The advantage of a DAW is that you can try anything by copying, pasting, deleting and undoing (phew). Once you know the basics of beat building, make it a goal to build a beat every day.
A good beat is the foundation of any song. The genre and style are up to your imagination.
Start by finding interesting sounds to work with. Stay organized. Fire up your DAW and go!
If you need some inspiration from the pros, check out this video of Four Tet making a crazy beat in 10 minutes using Ableton.
You’re still reading this? You should be making a beat.