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Beats and rhythms are fundamental to driving and exciting a piece of music.

They can often be the framework around which a song is created and finding the right vibe can be what turns a decent track into something really special.

You can get samples, loops and drum patterns from all sorts of places ready to drop into your track. But what about if you want to build your own beats? In this article, I’m going to show you two ways of making your own beats on a computer, first with MIDI and then with samples.

The key ingredients of any beat are the holy trinity of Kick, snare and hi-hat combined with the influence of feel, velocity and accent. There are many more sounds and many more aspects but these are the basic elements that are the foundation of all the beats.

In terms of where you make your beats, you are going to need a DAW. A DAW is a piece of music production software that lets you record and edit multiple tracks of both audio and MIDI in order to produce a song. There are many different flavours in both professional and free versions in which you can build beats. You may have heard of Ableton Live, FL Studio, Pro Tools, or Studio One; all of these will do the job nicely. Check out our article on the best DAWs on the market and also the best free DAWs if you are only just starting out.

The beat-making methods I’m going to be showing you are completely possible in any DAW you may be using. They all have very similar and common tools and abilities and this tutorial should work in any of them. You can use MIDI controllers to play beats or program them with hardware drum machines but in this tutorial, we’re focusing on the mouse and the computer.

MIDI and Virtual Drums

Making beats with MIDI

The first method of beat making we’re going to look at is using MIDI sequencing and virtual instruments. With MIDI you are playing virtual sounds created by your computer or routing out to hardware drum machines and synthesizers. The idea is that you create patterns of events (or notes) that trigger your chosen drum sounds. It’s extremely versatile because the sounds being used are not permanent and you can change the sounds while the pattern remains the same.

Load up a drum kit. DAWs will come with some sort of virtual drum kit for drum sounds. If not then check out our article on the best free virtual instruments to acquire yourself some.

Your DAW may have a specific drum editor but we’re going to keep things simple and use the Piano Roll editor. Every DAW will have a piano roll editor. It has a vertical piano keyboard on the left which denotes pitch and a time-based grid to the right that is usually defined in bars and beats. This is the space in which you build your beats.

In this tutorial, I’ll be using PreSonus Studio One in the MIDI section and Ableton Live in the sample section.

Preparation

On your drum kit track create a 4-bar clip, event or space and put markers around it so you can loop it around continuously. Click on the piano keyboard to discover which keys trigger which sounds. Commonly you’ll find a kick drum on C1, a snare on D1 and a hi-hat on F#1 but it’s not always the case. There are probably loads of other sounds but we’re going to keep it to these three elements.

We’ll start by setting the tempo in BPM or beats-per-minute. The speed your beat is playing is up to you but there are some BPMs that are common to certain genres of music. Here’s a rough guide:

  • Hip hop: 80-100 BPM
  • Trip Hop: 90-110 BPM
  • House: 115-130 BPM
  • Techno: 120 – 150 BPM
  • Trance: 130 – 145 BPM
  • Grime: 140 BPM
  • Dubstep: 70 with a double-time feel of 140 BPM
  • Drum and Bass: 174 BPM
  • Rock: 110-140 BPM
  • Metal: 100 – 160 BPM
  • Pop: 100 – 130 BPM
  • R&B: 60-80 BPM

For this tutorial, I’m going to set it somewhere in the middle of around 130 BPM.

Next check the grid or quantize settings. Quantizing ensures that all the notes or events land directly on the beat represented by the grid. If you set the Quantize to 1/8th it will give you a grid of 8 beats in a bar which is perfect for our basic beat.

Building your beat

Studio One piano roll editing hi-hat velocity

To kick off our beat we’re going to place a kick drum on the first beat of every bar. If you set your DAW playing in a loop you’ll get a good, solid regular thump. Next, add a hi-hat to every beat in the first bar, so that’s 8 in total. Use your mouse to select all 8 notes and copy them. Move the Song Position marker to the next bar and paste the hi-hats in. Do this for all four bars. Finally, we’ll add the snare to offset the kick. Put a snare on the 5th beat in every bar. And in bar 4 add it to beat 7 and 8 as well just for the simplest fill at the end of our 4-bar loop.

That’s it, that’s your beat built. Ok, so it’s not the most original thing you’ve ever heard, but it’s a solid start from which a million things can happen. Let’s see if we can give it a bit of a vibe.

Adding feel

Solid is good but we want something with a bit of feel to it. You can add a vibe to a MIDI drum track by playing with the velocity. Velocity is a measure of how hard a sound was struck. At a basic level velocity changes the volume of the sound but, depending on the features of the virtual instrument you’re using, it might change the sort of sound that’s being produced. When you hit a drum harder it sounds different, right? So, varying the velocity would make it feel less rigid and more human.

This works really well on the hi-hat. A Piano Roll usually has a velocity lane associated with it at the bottom of the grid. The lines or stalks represent the velocity level for each note. Set a single bar looping and try pulling down the velocity on a couple of hi-hat notes to around 40 or 50%. It gives it an instant groove even though the timing is still exactly the same.

You can also try adding an accent by pushing the velocity up to maximum on a note or two. I find that accents should be used more sparingly that dropping the velocity. It’s better on a single note in a bar or every other bar. Copy your newly humanised hi-hats to the other four bars and let’s add an accent to one of those snares at the end. Push the final snare up to maximum velocity and take the one before it down to 50%. This gives a great contrast between the two and enhances the turnaround of the loop.

Shuffle & Swing

Studio One piano roll adding swing

Our beat is still fully committed to being on that grid and for many sorts of music that is exactly what you want. But for more groovy and laid back genres you want to feel the push and pull of being slightly off the beat. You can manually add this in by turning off the quantise snap-to-grid and moving notes off the lines. Again it’s the hi-hats that work well here. If you move every other hi-hat note a fraction to the right of the line you’ll find the beat takes on a much groovier feel.

It’s very easy to mess this up and it’s also labour intensive to do by hand. Most DAWs have the ability to add a bit of “Shuffle” or “Swing” to a track. What this does is automatically push things off the grid to create a very pleasing groove. In some DAWs it will physically move the grid lines and on others, you can only hear the effect. It has the advantage of still being able to work in a grid while feeling like you’re off it.

Taking this further it’s also possible in some DAWs to extract a groove from an existing sample or loop and use that as a template for the groove of your own song.

Building beats with Samples

Arranging samples in Ableton Live

The other common method of making beats is with samples. You can get samples from all sorts of places, you’ll often get loads with your DAW, or you can purchase libraries of samples from many online stores. These are going to work a little bit differently from the MIDI sequencing method but many of the concepts are the same.

So, find three samples; the kick, snare and hi-hat, and drop them onto an audio track in your DAW. We’re not going to be using a piano roll as this is not about notes triggering sounds, this is about arranging sounds in tracks so they play when you want them to. You can arrange samples on a single track but it’s much easier to have separate tracks for your kick, snare and hi-hat. This also gives you the versatility of adding different plugins to each sample and adjusting levels independently.

The build of our beat is going to follow the same idea as the piano roll. You should be able to set up a grid to snap to in the Track or Arrange view of your DAW. Set up a 4-bar loop like before and copy/paste your kick drum onto the first beat of each bar. On the snare track place snare samples on the offset to the kick plus those couple of extras at the end. Add in the hi-hats to every 8th note in a bar and you’ve rebuilt your beat out of samples.

As you play it back and marvel at your awesomely simple beat don’t forget to mute the audio track that has your three samples on it.

Dynamics

Adjusting clip Gain in Ableton Live

Adding feel back into a sample-based track is a little bit different as we’re not dealing with MIDI and velocity. This time around we have to set the gain or level for each sample. Usually, within a DAW there are handles within a sample clip that let you adjust the fade-in, fade-out and overall level for that sample. But not always. In my example with Ableton Live, the level of a clip is dealt with in the Clip Display beneath. I can use the Gain control to adjust the level.

The idea, as before, is to vary the level of some of the hi-hats to give a more realistic feel. Give yourself a 1-bar loop and try it out. You can also add an accent to one or two of the hits by boosting the gain a little bit. Once you’re happy with that loop you can copy/paste it out to the other bars. Maybe vary it a little bit, maybe accent one of the snares. Once you can feel what it’s doing then you’ll find this useful in all sorts of places.

Another good tip is to use the length of the sample to vary the sound. Shortening the occasional hi-hat will make it feel different and so introduce more variation. Use the fade handles to smoothly close the sound down so it’s not too noticeable.

Timing

Adding a bit of shuffle or humanisation can be more difficult when playing with individual sample hits. It seems that MIDI notes can be easily adjusted whereas the start time of sample clips appears much more independent. Some DAWs will let you add a groove or shuffle to the main grid which could also affect the samples but many do not. This leaves us with a couple of options. We can shift samples ourselves by turning the grid off to try to find the rhythm we’re after or turn our multitrack drum loop into a single loop.

DAWs tend to like drum loops and can often give you tools to process and adjust the timing within a loop. For instance, in Ableton Live I can use the “Consolidate” command to combine the individual samples into a single loop. I can then use the Groove option in the clip display to add different feels to the loop from a library of options.

It’s interesting how both the MIDI and sample-based options have their pros and cons.

Going further

From this point the key is experimentation. Try deleting the kick drum event and placing them about differently while the loop is playing back. Try layering up different samples to give a different sound to alternating hits. Try browsing through different drum kits or maybe drop in some sound effects. Talking of which, why not put one of the snare samples onto a track on its own and add a short delay plugin.

You can also combine MIDI and sample tracks. Start with a beat made from a drum kit and then augment that with samples, hits and even some loops.

With your beats coming together you’ve now got a solid foundation for your basslines, chords and melodies.

Don’t forget to check out our list of the best beat making software that may open up a new world for you!

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