Archive for April, 2010

Top 10 Track Killers

Wednesday, April 14th, 2010

Alright time for another blog, this time i’m gonna talk about the biggest mistake you can make while making a beat. An important thing to note, is that these things may not kill the beat, but they will kill the track, this is aimed at people making beats for a rapper, not for sale. I’m also going to tell you the solutions to these problems. So lets get in to it.

10. To Fast/ To slow

I’m a rapper, been one way before i started making beats. This has happen to me a million times. You find or make a great beat, it’s just the right theme for some lines you have laying, but you just can’t keep up with the 100 bpm the beat got, you get a few lines in and is completely out of breath. You press next and find another beat, same feel so you try it out, but the beat is so slow, that you could spit the whole verse on one line.

Solution: When i make a beat, i know who’s going to rap on it most of time, i know who can follow the beat at high tempo, and who can get really slow on it. However sometimes i never heard the rapper before, and thereby completely in the dark when it comes to what tempo they like to rap in. In these cases i rely on two things, first of all i make the beat in 80-90 bpm, this is pretty standard and most rappers can rap on it, secondly in case the rapper wants to go faster or slower, i make sure, i can change the tempo of the beat. In Cubase this basically means that any audio file is loaded as a musical file, your sequence probably got a function for this too, find it, learn it and you are going to love it. This make it possible to change the tempo a bit, i wouldn’t recommend changing it more then 5 bpm.

9. To Many (or wrong use of)  Scratch, Dubs and Snips.

I admit it, i’m a sucker for these three, but beware these may shift focus from the lyrics. Remember that human beings got limited attention spans, you need to make sure they focus on the right things. Nothing ruins a track like a loud scratch in the middle of the most important line of the verse, or a vocal sample in at the middle of a complex change up in the beat. Remember these got two uses; shifting focus from repeated beats or nonstriking vocals and to add emphasis to things that need to strike.

Solution: I always add these after the vocals is recorded, i cut them in to pieces so they can be moved after the production. My strategy is to add these when something becomes either to nonstriking, or to repeated. Basically if i got 8 bars in the verse, with nothing that strikes, then i start adding dubs and snips, making a striking effect. Remember that if you add a scratch, dub or snip to your striking punchline, then keep it quite, if it gets to loud it shift focus instead. It’s a fine art to add dubs and snips, but once mastered it can be the savior of the track.

8. To loud a beat

This is a simply thing really, theres one rule: The beat may never overshadow the vocal. This isn’t really that hard to do, since in most cases you produce, mix and master the beat with the vocal. However if you make beats for sale, then you run into a real problem, a unmastered unmixed beat, isn’t really gonna sell, unless you are lucky, and recording very hot.

Solution: If you put a beat up for sale, mix and master it, but keep the project file. Simple as that, when somebody contacts you to buy the beat, ask them if they want the premix, premaster or the mastered wave file. This way they can choose.

7. Orchestral drowning the drums

This is a relative thing, you can add a lot orchestral on one beat and never face this problem, and then on the next beat you only add a little bit and find it totally drowning the drum. There are mainly three factors here. First of volume, if the drums are significant lower then the orchestral then of course it’s gonna drown the drums. Second there is frequency, as you can read in tweaks guide, you need to carve a room for each instrument in the frequency spectrum. Third there is the stereo image, if you don’t pan out, everything is going to be on top of each other, making a  huge mess of things.

Solution: Three thing to do, make sure your drums are loud enough and your orchestral is at acceptable level. Not all drums need to be louder then the orchestral, percussion can be quieter or at the same level. This brings me to frequency, if you got two instruments at the same place in the stereo image, you need to cut the frequency spectrum for both, else they mask each other. Last thing orchestral can easily be panned both right and left, so pan them out of the way for the drums. Do all three every time, where to cut the frequency or pan the orchestral to. Well that all depends on the beat.

6. To many, to few or wrong use of change ups

This is a both a double edge sword and a relative problem, some beats can have a lot of change up, with out the listener getting lost, others have them lost a the first change. In general, it’s a good idea to have some change up, so the listener don’t fall asleep. The troubles comes in at the point where the change ups is to abrupt, to big, or just simply out of place. Even while we fight to keep the track fresh, we also need to make sure that the track have a red thread though it, keeping it together as one track.

Solution: This is again relative thing, if the rapper got a lot of change ups in his flow, you might need a lot in the beat, or may have to keep the beat without a change up, so that people don’t get lost in the many change ups. There is no hard and fast rule here, i use to say follow the track here, both ideas may work on the same track, but they will take the track in two different directions. If you follow the rapper, the track can become very complex, and this may result in a too complex beat, if you keep the beat simple, it may have a live feeling or a unfinished feeling. The trick is to make the change up smooth, but notable. A good idea is to have some lead up to the change like, if you change the snare, on a verse or chorus after the break, then have a snare roll with the new snare in the end of the break. When you go from verse to chorus, you may benefit from a small lead up to the crossover, adopting the same idea when doing change ups will in many cases make it more smooth. Sometimes a small and abrupt change up will work better then a large and smooth one. The best advice is really to listen to the beat, and then when you feel yourself bored, throw in a change up, how to make the change up depends on many factors such as place both in beat and section, what instrument you have playing, bars left of the section. For example a change up in the second to last bar of the first verse may be smaller and smoother, then the change up in the last bar of the last verse. Follow the track here, it’s hard to do, but you need to make the right choice, else the track will not seem as one. Study the beat, find the right spots, and experiment till you find the right change up.

5. To Contrasting Instruments

As with most things on the list, this is again relative. While congas and celtic harps  may sound great together in one context, they may not always sound great together, in fact most times, it won’t work. Beats are very free of limits, since they require no live instruments, (unlike a rock band), in this lies the problem, that once you get a sampler, you get a lot of instruments in the factory presets. While some samplers got bigger presets then others, any sampler got more instruments then a classic rock band. Limits is not always bad, sometimes a few limits is just what you need. While sometimes contrast is good, sometimes it’s not a good idea to go to far out. Ethnic instruments of any kind is great fun, but not always fitting.

Solution: First of look at the track as a whole, the lyrics may lead you in a direction, or the other instruments. Sometimes it may work, if you have the caltic harp and congas panned right and left, this can create a good contrast. But a general rule should be stick to the same region, like Asian, Latin or African. But note the word general, this is really hard to say, how you should pick your instrument, only you can really know, but it is a good rule, for when you start out or when you are clueless about what to choose.

4. To many, to few or wrong use of drums.

Drums are perhaps the most important instruments in beats. Therefor it’s crucial to get them right. Again we got thousands of drums, and we need to make every choice correct. Even the smallest triangle hit need to be right on. Again it’s all relative, like most things on this list. The basic ideas is to make the drums feel good, making a good groove. The main drums are the kick and the snare or clap. It’s very important that all other drums fits with these, breaking the groove, just for a second, is going to kill the track. Keep the main body simple, but not boring. While many fall in the trap of adding to many drums shattering the groove, some fall in the other trap, not enough drums, living the groove half baked and unfinished,  the tricks is to find the sweat spot, where it is varies.

Solution: Here you really need to get to work, and keep at it. Sometimes you need to rework the groove many times, deleting hits, adding hits, changing instruments and adding fills and rolls. A good idea is to start with the basic kick snare/clap groove, from there start adding hats, cymbals and percussion. Be discrete and subtle but strong and full of attitude. This is a fine line, and it moves, so keep at it. Keeping the percussion simply and the hats in the main groove. Make sure that nothing mask the groove, and make sure the main parts are pronounced and in the face, leave the subtle parts of the groove to percussion and small hits. You need to think of the groove in to context, first off think of the groove in the section, and secondly think off the overall groove of the beat. While you probably are changing the groove through out the beat, you need to make sure you never brake the groove. Make small lead up to the changes, avoid  making to big changes at once, spread them out and make it smooth. Glitches are good, but to big glitches in the groove can kill the track,  keep big glitches out of the groove. Don’t worry Tweak got a great guide on how to make drum patterns fast, use this as a starting point, if you are lost, but always add a bit of you to it. Sometimes you spend the most time on the smallest little changes in grooves, i have spend maybe half an hour on the main groove, and then i spend 3 to 4 hours perfecting the groove. Of course there is a danger in overworking anything, but the smallest things are hard to make perfect, or well nothing totally perfect, but you need to get very close when we are talking groove. It’s a painstaking process, changing the conga with bongo, the bongo with gongs and the gongs with bright blips. All the while you are getting more and more insane. Take brakes when need, this is the one and only rule, that always fits. If you feel like you have spend to much time, with no reward, consider killing the project. It’s never an easy thing to kill a project, but if you are on week two, without the groove working, well here i would kill it in most cases, but you don’t have too. If you feel like it worth working on the groove for a year, do it, but if you don’t feel it’s worth it, kill it. If you still are a bit unsure on grooves, i will dive deep into this subject in my next blog.

3. Drowned groove

This is a death sin, when you finally get the groove right, you need to keep it clear, i already told you about the orchestra dubs and all that. But there is another killer out there. Effects are one of the quickest way to kill the groove, just a touch to much on any drum, and it’s gone. Another thing, if you got a different reverb on each and every drum, no matter how small, it will kill the groove and the track with it, since it sounds like every drum was recorded in different places, and people loose attention.

Solution: First off use sends and returns for delay, chorus reverb, and anything you want on more then one track. Tweak it till it’s pleasing on everything you got running through it, then start working on the send value of each track, this will keep sounding as one groove, but still allow you to find the right sound one each track. No you don’t have to use the same reverb on every drum, but keep the same on the kick and snare or clap, if you are using reverb on the kick, keep it a low level, just subtle almost unheard, the snare or clap can get a bit more. Percussion and hats may be on a different reverb, depending on how big a part of the groove they are, and never to different. You may also wanna delay certain percussion, all depends on the track at hand. There are no universal solution to this problem. Trial and Error is the name of the game, maybe you can have everything running through different reverbs and delays, never worked for me though. These guidelines are a great place to start, but don’t be afraid to experiment.

2. To weak a beat

This is a hard one, sometimes the beat just don’t work. It just don’t feel right, it’s not that it’s to simple or complex, it’s just not right. It just can’t stand on it’s own.

Solution: First off go through the 8 points above, are any of these the problem, also check for regular problems, like masking, to bass shy or bommy mixes. Assuming none of these are the problem there are a few method that may solve the problem. First there is reworking the beat, this is my personal favorite. What you do is start muting tracks one by one and listen to the beat without them. When you hear the feel of the beat change, unmute the last track you mutes and delete the parts others, then rework them , or replace them with anything, as long it don’t change the feel. Sometimes a simpler pattern on the percussion may do. However most of the time you got maybe 10 out of 30 tracks left, and to get the beat right you may need to rework all 20 tracks you deleted, this is time consuming, but i like it because i want to keep the feel, that i have worked on getting. Another solution is to remix it, first of let me tell you that this is my preferred way of remixing, Tweak explain another one in the guide. Here unlike when reworking, we don’t try to keep the feel or anything, i start at the orchestral first i try to use the same instrument, just changing notes maybe add or remove pitch shift modulation and every other effect on it, if this doesn’t work i call up another instrument. I leave the groove alone when doing this, but you can remix this too. This is just as time consuming as reworking, and to me less rewarding, since you easily lose the feel of the beat, which, at least to me, is the whole idea of making the beat in the first place, but sometimes reworking just doesn’t work. A third approach is to get a strong vocalist, like i said the indicator of a weak beat (without any imminent problems) is that it can stand on it’s own, if the vocalist is really good, s/he may be able to carry the beat. This is normally not advisable, since you still got a weak beat, and as a beatmaker this isn’t good promotion. There are two situations however where i take this method, cyphers and freestyles why? These two situations are build on vocalist skills, therefore having a weak beat, will let the rapper get full attention of the audience, of course there is a limit to how weak the beat can be. Finally you can always kill the project, but only do this as a last resort, when it’s taking more time then it’s worth.

1. To strong a beat

Sometimes it’s the other way around, the beat is great on it’s own, but once a rapper gets on it, s/he can’t keep up with the quality of the beat.

Solution: NEVER weaken the beat, this will just further weaken the track as a whole. Get a better rapper on it rewrite the lyrics. If you rap on it yourself, train your skills as a rapper, mimic successful artists’ flow and technique and learn how they do it, then make your own personal style. Try and shorten the beat, if it’s only two verses and a hook, you can spend more time working on the flow and lyrics of each, then if it’s three verses a hook and a brake. Other then that there is not much to do.

You may be wondering why i put the strong beat as the number one and not the weak. This is because i believe a strong vocalist can carry the beat better, then a strong beat can carry the vocalist. Is the vocalist more important, depends, in many cases i would argue yes, because in many cases the vocalist is focus. However recently i have noticed more and more attention being laid on the beat instead the vocals. If this holds true for your style, i would say that it’s a 50/50 relationship between them. This is however my personal opinion, not a fact.

Also not i have left out a lot of general problems, why? Because Tweaks guide already explained them, better then i ever could, also if i had to include all those general thing, this would be a top 100.

Little trivia

RZA never quantizes his drums, and he is the man behind the score on Kill Bill.

Like i said next blog will be on the groove of the beat, until then peace.