Archive for the ‘hip hop’ Category

How to Become a Hip Hop Producer

Saturday, July 4th, 2009

Their is difference between someone who makes beats – meaning composing and performing (or programming) original instrumental music, someone who is really a producer, and a recording engineer that specializes in hip hop tracking and production.

The fastest way to learn to beat making is to make beats with whatever you have available. I have worked with a couple of heads who were complete geniuses with the Playstation software from MTV. Their music was simply amazing. Software that is highly under-rated is FL Studio or FruityLoops. The step sequencer is the easiest way to make music quickly. Read the manual! Watch videos online.  Start working with as many other beat makers that you can find on the net, in your home town. For me, competition made me write stuff that was much better than working by myself in a vacuum. The three big instruments to learn would be keys, drums, and bass. You did not need to work in a studio to do this kind of work. You need a computer, a decent audio interface (Not an M-Box), and a couple of nice monitors. If money is a factor, don’t get a Mac. You get a lot more computer in the PC world and there’s tons of software available.

A real producer puts the whole show together. They hire everyone, often write songs with the artists, choose the studio to work in, find live musicians to fill out the sound. Sometimes that means doing everything yourself. A lot of the time the producer FUNDS the project and gets the biggest share of the profit (if any).  A producer is a big picture person usually with an excellent understanding of the psychology of creative people, motivation, fear, competition and excellence. This is something that comes with lots of experience, a strong musical background, charisma and usually fame or money.

An engineer deals with the tiniest details of tracking and mixing. Moving a mic a half inch, rotating a mic off axis, how to attenuate the peaks of the kick to get it to sound bigger, without making it wimpy. Attack and Release time minutia for compressing drums, bass and vocals. How the sound stage can be used to the best advantage, how to either avoid masking or use it to create new timbres. You need to learn this either in a studio as an apprentice, in a good audio school that has great facilities (I teach at New England Institute of Art in Boston and at U. Mass Lowell both have great facilities) and then leverage that into getting good internships.

Sometimes there are people who really are all three. Sometimes you will find yourself in one role or the other depending on who you’re working with.

The best job to get to learn audio engineering is working for live sound companies as a grunt. You will carry the bass bins, mic stands and a 43 foot console. But you will get to watch the FOH and monitor guys throw down. Live is good because it forces you to learn to do things quickly and it puts you around dozens of musicians every weekend. Not wanting to be embarassed is a very powerful way to learn.  You are always on stage being watched from the time you load in, to the time you strike the stage.

(posted to GearSlutz 7-4-09)

Preparing Beats and Instrumentals for a Vocal Session

Friday, March 13th, 2009

I work with a bunch of hip-hop artists and a few R&B singers. Most of the time they bring their own instrumentals to the studio instead of having me write music for them. I usually charge $300 or so to write and produce instrumentals for artists and there are 3 zillion kids with FL Studio using the title producer that will put something together for free.

The problem with free beats is that most of the time the quality of the audio really sucks.  Most MC’s are downloading instrumentals off of the web or the beats are coming in over email.  These are always compressed files which lack accuracy and sound quality.  OGG Vorbis files, MP3’s, WMA’s and Apple’s M4P’s or AAC’s all can sound pretty bad.  If you are starting a recording project, you want to start with the best quality audio that’s possible.  The following guidelines are intended to help people avoid releasing crappy sounding music.  Mix down your instrumentals using the following suggestions as a guide.

  1. Use full-quality uncompressed digital audio like WAV or AIFF files.  At the very least, these files should be 16 bit 44.1Khz stereo files.  I prefer to work with 24 bit files at either 44.1 Khz or 88.2 Khz.  The quality of the audio is much better and is easier to manipulate.  Using uncompressed files is the best way of ensuring that your engineer will be able to make a great mix of your songs.
  2. If you must use a compressed file-format, use FLAC (the Free Lossless Audio Codec) <>
    FLAC is great because it is lossless, which means that even though the files are smaller than uncompressed files, they sound just as good as uncompressed files.  By using additional processor power you can make FLAC files even smaller.  In a series of tests that I did with my colleague Connor Smith, we discovered that FLAC was capable of shrinking our test file of uncompressed audio at 5.3 MB down to 1.6 MB without loosing any audio quality at all. FLAC files are sometimes small enough for people to email if they are short.
  3. Give the engineer stems. Stems are separate stereo tracks for each of the instruments in the instrumental.  For instance, you would have separate files for the drums, the bass, the rhythm instruments, the keyboards, the samples.  When you give the engineer stems they are able to mix the different instruments with the vocals.  A lot of the time the instruments block out the vocals in a mix.  If you send stems, the engineer can lower the instruments without lowered the drums and the bass. If you don’t bring stems, the engineer can’t leave the drums loud if the instruments are getting in the way of the vocals.
  4. If you have to use compressed lossy files, use the best possible quality that you can get.  OGG Vorbis, MP3, WMA, and AAC/M4P all offer the option of making higher quality files that are larger in size or smaller files that sound bad.  Here’s the audio choices going from best sounding to worst sounding:Ogg Vorbis (.ogg) is Open Source, Free and Awesome <>
    Microsoft’s Windows Media Audio (.wma) <>
    Apple’s Advanced Audio Codec (.aac or .m4p) <>
    Mp3 (.mp3) MPEG layer 3 (Motion Picture Engineering Group) <>
  5. Use the highest bit rate that you can use with all of the above audio formats.  I recommend a minimum bit rate of 256 Kbps for Ogg, WMA and AAC, but a minimum of 320 Kbps for MP3 audio.  VBR or Variable Bit Rate can be a little squirrelly, so to be safe always choose the highest quality option available.
  6. Find out if the engineer has the same software that the beat was created in.  I have FL Studio XXL so I can get FruityLoops files with the loop bundle and mix the  instrumental with the vocals directly.  It’s very likely that your engineer has software that can work with your format.
  7. If the file was ever a compressed file, you can never make the quality better.  For instance, if a beat-maker emails you a beat as an MP3 and you then convert it to a 16bit 44.1 Khz WAV file, it will never sound better than the MP3 file.  Never try to burn a CD with MP3 versions of the music.  You are just making the problem worse.

Please don’t hesitate to ask questions about file formats.  I can also help you to get great mixes either with advice or you can send me your projects to work some magic.