Arranging and Performance

I wouldn’t say the standard, but [performance is] becoming an intricate part of hip-hop. Sampling is what created the genre. Sampling and rapping over music we really respected.”
Pete Rock, hip hop producer

Once you’ve selected your samples, it’s time to stitch them together in the arrangement process. Like any good song, your beat should be dynamic, possess a natural flow, and exhibit a balanced soundscape.

There are several things to consider when arranging your beat:


Will your beat be built around a repeated verse and chorus? Or will you opt for something more fluid, where parts enter and leave over time? Either method is valid, but be sure to keep the structure interesting for the listener. Try to introduce a new element or change/remove an old one after every four bars. Drum fills are great way to break up monotonous drum loops.

Sonic positioning:

Every sample in your beat should inhabit an intentional sonic “space”. Think of your beat as a stage: Bring samples closer and farther by raising and lowering volume. Send samples to the left and right with panning. Filtering and reverb can help add depth to an otherwise “flat” beat.

Frequency balance:

Try to make a beat with a sample palette that extends across the entire frequency spectrum. Listen for overabundance or lack of a certain type of sound. A fat bass line with deep drums and a low synth will sound more balanced with some mid- and high-range samples in the mix.

With those attributes in mind, get to work arranging your samples. For some, this will involve dragging and dropping sound files with a mouse and DAW. Others – including myself – prefer to use controllers and keyboards for arrangement. I use the MPD 26 for its tactile, performance-based design.

Some beatmakers, such as Memorecks, use performance as a method of arrangement. The improvisational aspect of performance can lead to incredibly dynamic, natural-sounding beats at best, and sloppy, jumbled beats at worst (the example I’ve posted at the end of this is somewhere in between).

If you’re performing using an MPC or MPC-style controller, you’ll need to decide how to position your samples across the 16 pads. Your decision should be based off whether you use unassisted loops (samples that play repetitively without user input), or if you plan to play totally “live.” If you do play live – that is, without unassisted loops – you’ll have to choose between playing one- or two-handed drums. With the former technique, one hand will be devoted entirely to “drumming” while the other plays additional samples. Two-handed drumming splits both hands between drums and additional samples.

The example below is a rudimentary example of performing a beat live with one-handed drumming.

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