I listen to a lot of instrumental chill beat music, often called lo-fi hip-hop or chillhop. Some of the beats these people make are so dope, and I’m still learning how to do what they do.
If that sounds like you, I’ve got some advice: it’s best to start with the basics. First, learn the basics of building beats. Then once you know the rules, break them.
But what are these “rules”? Where do you even start when making a beat?
That’s what this step-by-step guide is here for. These are the basic stages of building a beat…
Collect Your Tools
Before you start, you’ll need to make sure you have all the right beat-making tools.
The first and most obvious tool is a digital audio workstation (DAW). This is your recording software — it’s one of the essential tools in any recording setup. And it needs to be a DAW you’re familiar with, or else building beats will be slow and frustrating.
Next, you’ll need some sort of virtual drum machine — a drum plugin to import to your DAW. There are plenty of free drum plugins that are great, like DRUM PRO, the T-REX 606, or even the free trial of Addictive Drums 2.
After that, you’ll want to pick up some sample packs. This can be any sample that catches your ear — a vocal, a sweet guitar riff, or a smooth organ sound. I’m not going to encourage you to sample other artists’ records because you can get into legal trouble that way.
Now you’re all set to start making your beat…
Make Your Beat
The first step is to open up your DAW and create a new virtual instrument track, choosing the drum plugin you want to use. Make sure the track is armed for recording, and then choose a tempo that feels right.
I’d suggest coming up with the kick-snare rhythm first. This will be the backbone of your beat. It’s very important you use a click track and/or turn on the “Snap to grid” setting if you’re adding parts without a MIDI controller. Snapping to the grid will make the MIDI notes line up perfectly with the tempo.
Next, you’ll want to add some sort of continuous rhythm to accentuate the kick and snare, like a hi-hat or shaker. It might be helpful to use a reference beat — a beat from another artist that you want yours to sound like. Listen to how the kick, snare, and hi-hat/shaker interact with each other and you’ll get an idea of how to use them all together.
If the beat is made up of just a kick, snare, and hi-hat, it’ll probably be pretty boring. That’s why it’s a good idea to add in some extra percussion sounds, like claps, bells, or chimes. Doing this will really bring your beat to life.
And lastly, but maybe most importantly, it’s time to add samples. Samples will give uniqueness to your beat — they’ll differentiate your beat from all the others. You can think of the sample(s) you choose as your hook, so it could be cool to find a melodic sample. Again, check out the sample libraries I mentioned above.
The main thing to remember when building your beat is how you’re feeling during the process. Are you bobbing your head? Do you find yourself closing your eyes because you’re so into the music? If so, then that’s good. You’re on the right track.
Edit Your Beat
After you’ve got the meat and bones of your beat, the next step is to edit and tweak it.
First, make everything snap to the grid by simply turning on the “Snap to grid” setting in your DAW. This setting makes all the parts perfectly line up with the metronome.
You’ll also want to tweak the velocity of the drum hits. “Velocity” describes how hard or soft the hit is — by varying the velocity of the different parts throughout your beat, you can make it sound less robotic and a little more human.
And the last main thing you should listen for is aggressiveness and whether or not you want to bring it down. Aggressive sounds usually show up in the higher frequency instruments like the hi-hat and shaker, so to counteract this, you can cut some of the high frequencies using EQ. It may also be as simple as lowering the volume of the harsh instrument.
If neither EQ nor volume fix the harshness, you can try a formant shift, which makes the sound more muffled. Typically, a formant shift setting is included with whatever pitch plugin your DAW has.
Add Music To Your Beat
Depending on what you plan to do with your beat, you can add a music bed on top of your beat. This could be a chord progression on guitar, organ, virtual strings, or whatever instrument fits the groove. Adding music can really fill out the track and give it more emotion.
If you plan to sell your beat, there’s no need to add music. The producer who buys it will probably want to add their own music.
Mix And Master Your Track
Finally, you’ve made your beat and it’s time to mix and master it.
Mixing is where you (or a mixing engineer) set the volume levels, pan the instruments, EQ stuff, use compressors, and add any other effects you want.
When it comes to mastering, if you’re just selling your beats online, you may not need to master because that would happen after it has been mixed with the buyer’s song.
However, if you’ve decided to add your own music on top of the beat and you want this to sound professional, you’ll definitely want to master the track. It polishes the song and prepares it for sharing on streaming platforms.
If you’re new to making beats, you may not yet have an income from your music, so the thought of paying a mastering engineer $100 a song may overwhelm you. But with eMastered, you can pay a reasonable monthly price to master an unlimited number of songs.
And that, my friends, is how you make a beat from scratch. Got more questions? Ask them in the comments!
Caleb J. Murphy
Caleb J. Murphy is a songwriter and producer based in Austin, TX.