Hop to it
A genre built on a complex legacy, hardened reverence and ongoing stylistic variation, hip-hop means different things to different people; from the funk-, jazz- and R&B-inspired retro flavas of boom bap and the quintessential Britishness of grime, to the ominous sub-bass moods of trap and the polish of the pop/hip-hop crossover.
Despite the differences between them, though, common to every style of hip-hop are the importance of the beats and basslines that define the genre as a whole. With that primarily in mind, we’ve brought together 10 pieces of software that we think every urban producer should have in their arsenal if they really want to get those two elements on point.
1. Native Instruments Maschine Mk3
Despite the pivotal role of the MPC groovebox in the early development of hip-hop, these days you’re more likely to find a Maschine MIDI controller in the studio of the urban beatmaker than its historic counterpart, partly thanks to Akai taking its eye off the ball for a while at the end of the noughties, but mostly because it’s an ace bit of kit in its own right.
The Maschine controller (the current version is Mk3) hooks into the Maschine DAW that comes with it via 16 RGB-backlit performance pads, a host of rotaries and buttons and two colour displays. The software works standalone for the production of full tracks, or as a synced plugin in a host DAW. Samples can be loaded or resampled onto pads, MPC-style; plugin instruments and effects are fully supported; and a huge library of NI Expansions is available for adding sounds and presets to your Maschine library, many of them specifically made for hip-hop.
This is a genuine one-stop groove production shop, with a slick, smooth workflow and limitless creative scope.
2. DopeVST Crate Digger
The sister plugin to the equally relevant Beat Machine, Crate Digger puts a huge variety of golden-era-style hip-hop sounds at your fingertips in an interface that’s… well, adequate but in no way groundbreaking.
The 800 one-shot samples at the heart of Crate Digger are all original and royalty-free recordings, inspired by the dusty, vinyl-sourced licks, lines and hits called on by everyone from Public Enemy, KRS-One and A Tribe Called Quest to Eminem and Tupac. The simple interface maps 50 preset groups of samples to the 16 keymapped virtual pads, and offers control over volume, pan and timestretch/pitch (80-100bpm), plus a one-knob reverb. Essentially, it’s a superb and authentic hip-hop sample library wrapped up in a rudimentary virtual instrument.
While DopeVST clearly hasn’t even begun to live up to its promise of releasing a new Crate Expansion pack “every month”, there are three available for a tenner a pop, each containing ten new presets (160 samples).
3. D16 Group Nepheton
Southern hip-hop and trap are all about Roland’s seminal TR-808 drum machine - most importantly, the ultra-phat downpitched sub-bass of its synthesised Bass Drum - and given that you almost certainly can’t get your hands on a real one, the next best thing is D16’s sublime emulation of it, Nepheton.
Capturing the quirks and character of the 808 and adding to them with various ‘new’ features, Nepheton lets you access all 16 instruments simultaneously (plus the added Laser Gun), rather than having to choose between Maracas and Hand Clap, Hi Conga and Hi Tom, etc, and boasts multiple outputs for routing each one to its own mixer channel in the host DAW. It can be triggered by the onboard step sequencer or set to receive incoming MIDI note data; and the pattern Randomize function is applied globally or to selected instruments for instant rhythmic inspiration.
There are endless 808 sample libraries out there, but if you’re serious about those subs, the flexibility and control of Nepheton make it the vastly superior option.
4. iZotope Ozone 8 Advanced
If you want to get your finished hip-hop projects sounding on a par with those of your production heroes, you’re going to need to call on the services of a professional mastering engineer and a zillion pounds worth of outboard hardware. Or will you..?
Ozone 8 Advanced gives you all the tools you need to master your own tracks from the comfort of your Mac or PC. Its modular design enables up to six incredibly powerful processors to be chained together, including EQ, compression, maximising, imaging and the new Spectral Shaper, which does an amazing job of dialling down harshness and sibilance.
Also new in v8, the machine-learning-driven Master Assistant establishes a starting point for your master based on ten genre-specific spectral curves. Clever stuff.
The one thing Ozone can’t help you with, of course, is your own sonic judgment, so handle with extreme care while you develop your ‘mastering ears’ through practice and experience!
5. Synapse Audio The Legend
Sampled from the performances of Parliament/Funkadelic keyboardist Bernie Worrell, amongst others, the squelchy basslines and legato squeals of golden era West Coast hip-hop are instantly recognisable, and the instrument responsible for many of them was the industry-defining Minimoog synth.
There are a number of stellar software Minimoog emulations available, but we’ve chosen Synapse Audio’s take not only for its staggering recreation of the original’s oscillators, filters and all the rest of it, but also the well-thought-out new features it brings to the party.
First of all, The Legend can be switched from authentic monophonic behaviour to four-voice polyphonic and unison modes, making it viable for chords, pads and stacked basses and leads. Then there are reverb and delay effects, a legato envelope option, extendable pitchbend range, amplifier saturation and more - it’s a lot of fun.
Epitomising the synth tones of P-funk and thereby G-funk, The Legend plays beautifully and sounds phenomenal.
6. Garritan Personal Orchestra 5
From Gang Starr, Ice Cube and Mobb Deep to Kanye, Common and Lupe Fiasco, sampled strings have been a staple of hip-hop since way back in the day. While you can easily nab suitably syrupy loops and spiky pizzicato runs from charity shop orchestral and easy listening records, availing yourself of a quality orchestral ROMpler enables you to build your own from scratch.
Packing 12.5GB of superb orchestral sounds, played, processed and mixed within the Aria Player interface, GPO5 represents great value for money. Alongside a ton of pianos, organs, brass, woodwinds, harps and percussion (all hugely useful, too!), the all-important strings amount to 4GB of multi-articulation patches, including solo instruments, large and small ensembles, and a full orchestra section.
The samples themselves are top notch - mix-ready, as they say - and no knowledge of string arrangement is required to be able to craft effective violin hooks, cello underlays and other string lines using this excellent plugin.
7. Serato Sample
Serato’s streamlined sampler is a virtual crate-digger’s dream, facilitating the instant extraction of triggerable loops and one-shots from full tracks.
Simply import a track and Sample calculates its key and tempo, both of which are then freely adjustable via the developer’s groundbreaking Pitch ’n Time algorithm. Find a point from where you’d like to begin playback of a sample (a snare hit or horn stab, say), and click one of the 16 keymapped pads to assign it to that ‘cue’. Set a few cues to play specific sounds, and in no time at all you’ve got yourself a playable drum kit, sliced-up bassline or reconstructable vocal - it’s a fast, effortless workflow that perfectly embodies the sampling ethos of old-school hip-hop. A single sample can be mapped up and down the keyboard at a click, and a polyphonic mode allows for chordal play.
Despite offering almost nothing in the way of editing and effects, Sample is a brilliantly designed plugin that we can’t get enough of.
8. Spectrasonics Omnisphere 2
Considered by some to be the greatest synth - hard or soft - ever made, Omnisphere 2 is pretty much essential for every producer, regardless of genre. However, its eclectic presets and ability to import external samples make it particularly at home in the hip-hop arena, where, at any given moment, you might want to layer your own lifted sounds with a freaky abstraction of a Fender Rhodes, a massive electro-synthetic b-line or an evocative pad.
The onboard library of samples and presets itself is truly epic in scale, measuring 64GB, and comprising 7540 patches built on 4879 sampled ‘soundsources’ captured from a mind-blowing roster of instruments, found sounds and field recordings. That’s really only the start, though, as Omnisphere’s absurdly powerful synthesis and signal processing engine lets you mess with and combine those elements to an extent that few other plugins can match.
It might appear expensive at first glance, but Omnisphere 2 would still be a bargain at double the price. It’s a ‘desert island’ synth if ever there was one.
9. IK Multimedia MODO Bass
Whether you’re looking to replicate a classic funk bassline for royalty-free usage or create original ‘live’ bass parts, MODO Bass is an invaluable virtual instrument for hip-hop production. The world’s first fully synthesised (as opposed to sample-based) electric bass emulation, it features 14 physically modelled basses (by Fender, Gibson, Warwick, Music Man et al), with editable parameters including string number (4, 5 or, as of the recently released v1.5, 6) age, wind and gauge, action, and pickup configuration and position.
Amp simulation and effects are also in place, and a comprehensive set of keyswitched ‘articulations’ (sustain, hammer on/off, slap and so on) make it easy to perform and program lifelike basslines from your keyboard or MIDI editor.
Most importantly, MODO Bass sounds and feels astonishingly realistic - as in, not just ‘good enough’ for demo purposes, but utterly convincing in the mix, with a dynamism and fluidity that samples can’t easily match.
10. Goldbaby samples
When it comes to hip-hop sample libraries, New Zealand soundware producer Goldbaby is, ironically, the daddy. Tape808, released over a decade ago, is a bona fide hip-hop production classic, and has since been joined by a consistently superlative parade of standard-setting toolkits.
Most of the man’s work centres on vintage drum machine one-shots, with occasional excursions into keyboards, FX and ‘noise’ layering tools; and his trademark phat, warm, punchy sound is achieved using an enviable array of analogue outboard, turntables and tape machines.
For newcomers to the Goldbaby catalogue, we’d recommend starting with the new MPC Collection ($39), a stunning remastered compilation of his previous MPC60 Vol 1, 2 and 3 packs. Alternatively, if you’ve got the funds, the Urban Cookbook Bundle ($109) brings together all three of the titular libraries, adding up to 3400 samples, complete with patches for numerous software samplers, and covering a more diverse range of instrumentation.