12 classic hip-hop production tricks that never get tired

Freshen up your hip-hop productions with these essential techniques

On a tips tip.
(Image: © Startraks Photo/REX/Shutterstock)

Hip-hop is all about vibe, feel and groove, and it's that simple compositional framework that makes it relatively accessible for novice producers - but also potentially easy to mess up.

With these 12 tricks, tips and techniques, though, you'll be able to keep your jointz on point. From tape saturation to drum layering and vinyl emulation, there's something here for every budding Dre, Timbaland or J Dilla…

1. Get it on tape

A big part of Dr Dre's drum sound from his classic album 2001 came from the fat-sounding kicks and snares, which were recorded hot to analogue tape straight from the MPC. You can mimic this sound in your DAW by overloading your drum hits through a tape saturation plugin such as Waves' Kramer Tape or u-he's Satin.

2. Easy edits

When creating edits and turnaround sections manually, hip-hop producers keep things simple - so put down that erratic beat repeat/stutter plugin and use basic muting and volume fades to get the job done. For example, try muting all of your track parts for the first beat of a new 16-bar section; or loop over the drum track for a beat or two at the end of a phrase to indicate the introduction of a new element. Less is more!

3. Doing the rounds

A round-robin-capable sampler such as NI's Kontakt 5 can play a selection of samples back in a random order. Try creating several slight variations on a snare, hi-hat or kick using different EQ or effects processing before triggering them via round-robin - this can be great for adding an extra organic element to your drums.

4. Roll your own stereo clap

You can add extra presence and stereo width to a hip-hop snare by recording two additional handclaps or finger snaps to layer with it, using any basic microphone. When you've got them both in place, pan one
snap/clap to the left and the other to the right, each by 25%. This is a simple but effective technique to use for adding organic feel to any sampled snare.

5. Boom boom boom

It's easy to make a classic hip-hop-style booming kick drum: just layer a punchy kick drum with a short sustain and release over an 808 kick drum with a slow attack and long tail. This technique is great for adding low weight to a track without a traditional bassline, and can also be used to beef up kicks that play in the gaps left behind by a bass element.

6. Digging in the crates

Of course, your local charity shop or flea market might well house a wide selection of obscure vinyl from the 60s and 70s that can be pillaged for authentic-sounding drum hits, whole breaks or even great riffs! If you're not one for getting dusty at your local secondhand joint, however, there are countless sample libraries out there that feature recreated breakbeats.

7. Recreating a G thang

Make your own G-Funk lead line by setting any monophonic synth's oscillator to a sawtooth wave and pushing the portamento time up to taste. This will make the pitch of the previous note glide up to the next one, delivering that classic Dr Dre sound in no time.

8. Clash of the tritons

For many years, Pharell's signature sound came from the legendary Korg Triton keyboard. A real one would cost a pretty penny, but thankfully for those of us who don't own the original hardware, the lovely people at norCtrack have multisampled a number of the Triton's hallowed presets in SampleTank format.

9. Rise of the beat machine

As well as having a huge selection of neck-snapping drum hits on tap, Computer Music's Beat Machine CM (part of the cm Plugins collection that comes free with every edition of the magazine) also includes a nice selection of pre-programmed MIDI files that make great starting points for your hip-hop beat programming odyssey.

10. Round of applause

A clap sample layered with a fat hip-hop snare can really beef up the sound of the latter - try placing the clap a few milliseconds before the snare to add extra 'thwack', or slightly after to give a longer tail. You can even reverse a clap and place it before the last snare every 2 to 4 bars to lead into it, giving a different feel.

11. Old-skool flava

If your drum sampling is sounding too clean or modern, try using the different playback modes in NI's Battery to spice things up: MP60 mode emulates the tone of the classic Akai MPC60 12-bit drum pad sampler, while SP12 mode gives the reduced 26.04kHz sampling rate and grungy vibe of the E-mu SP-1200.

12. Crackle addict

If you're using clean samples and virtual instruments to make a beat, layering some subtle vinyl crackle or tape noise over the individual drum hits will give an old-school, noisy analogue sound to the hits, making them sound more like stolen samples from vinyl or cassette.

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