There’s a handful of producers in hip-hop history that stand out above the rest: DJ Premier, Dr. Dre, Kanye West, Rick Rubin and the late J Dilla, to name a few. But any fair-minded survey of the genre’s most gifted beatmakers would be incomplete without a mention of Daniel Maman, better known as The Alchemist.
Making a name for himself in the ‘90s through his work with Mobb Deep and Dilated Peoples, The Alchemist rose through the ranks to become one of the most in-demand producers in hip-hop, lending his skills to a staggering list of rappers that includes Nas, Eminem, Mac Miller, Lil Wayne, Rick Ross, The Game, 50 Cent, Jay-Z and Jay Electronica and Kendrick Lamar - and that’s just scratching the surface.
The Alchemist has shared his studio secrets for the first time as part of an Aulart Masterclass, an in-depth series of video tutorials that dig deep into his crate-digging ethos, Akai MPC techniques and beatmaking wisdom. Here, we present a selection of ten essential beatmaking tips and tricks pulled from The Alchemist’s Masterclass, released today through Aulart.
1. Inspiration is key
“A record is just source material. It’s there to inspire you. If you’re not inspired, and it’s time to make beats - you might skim the needle over a record, and find nothing there. It may be that you’re not inspired. Because if you’re inspired to create, you can take any piece of noise and make something creative.
“It’s not the record that’s gonna make your beat, it’s you that’s going to make the beat. It’s just source material. I’ve listened to the same record in two different mindsets to have to realize this. Of course, there is such thing as a good record, but I’ve seen guys make beats out of nothing. It’s the person - it’s not the record, it’s not the drum machine. These are pieces to the puzzle, but you have to drive the car.”
2. Start with the sample first
“In the early days, I used to find the sample first. Finding the sample first is still a great technique. You can really kill a beat if you have a vision when you take the sample first. You might be sitting in a Starbucks somewhere, and a sample comes on, or you might be in the car with somebody and you Shazam something. Your ears always have to be on. In those instances, getting the sample first and organizing from there is the way to go.”
3. Or... start with the drums first
“For me, I got to a point where finding a sample and then adding the drums and bass became boring. It was too specific. I wanted to make things that were beyond me. When I make the drum beat first, I don’t know where I’m going, and there’s possibilities there that are beyond what you can imagine. I start with the rhythms, the tempo, and then when I play records over the top, something is gonna land off-beat, and it’s not gonna be so planned.
“I play the drum beat, and let the record play. That’s a technique that’s more about your ears than your hands. When you do that, the record’s not all in time, and there’s moments that’ll happen when you hear something and you’re like - oh shit! Stop the beat, spin the record back, and grab that sample. Then, it’s not so perfect, and those beats are the ones that I’m more gratified by.”
4. Layer your samples
“Layering is how you create the magic. The MPC is a really raw machine. There’s not a lot of effects within it. They were made for drums, but we got crafty with it and started adding sounds into it and chopping them up. So we’re already doing something the machine wasn’t made to do.
“To make a beat with a lot of layers sound like a finished product is tough to do with the MPC. This thing is raw. It’s not blended well enough sometimes, just coming out of this machine. So for me the trick is to add as many layers as you can. But as you add your layers, there’ll be these different elements - but when you mix them all together, the goal is that most people’s ears won’t be able to hear those layers.”
5. Label your samples
“If you’re an organized person, I would recommend labelling your samples while you work. To be honest, I go really fast, and I don’t name shit. But if you name stuff, you’re the man, and I do recommend it. It’s a good idea, but I’m still trying to learn that one. I will say, I’ve had a lot of problems when it comes time to clear your beat. Learn from my mistakes and label your samples, name your folders.
“If you intend to sell beats on a high level, it’s a good idea to remember and write down all the samples that you use. You will get into some hot water later if whatever rapper’s hot at the time picks your beat, and the label wants to know where all your samples come from. If you don’t have your answers, there could be a problem.”
6. Use mute groups
“If I’m gonna chop a sample, and it’s a basic sample, I make all the pads cut each other off. The way you do that is by going to the voice overlap and creating mute groups. The pads in the same mute group will cut each other off, while the others will continue playing if you press the assigned pad. I’ll create a group for the drums as well, so the kick and snare cut each other off, but I’ll leave the hi-hats out, because they’ll be playing with the kick and snare.”
7. Be creative with structure
“I like to build a beat while I’m making it. As soon as I get two bars tight, I’ll copy it to four. Then I’ll turn that four to eight, and I’ll change one bit of the drums on the eight. Maybe I drop a hi-hat or a kick out. Or I might add a fill. So it’s a little bit more interesting of a sequence. Then I’ll take that eight and copy it to 16, and I’ll add some sounds on the 12th bar. Essentially I’m building a song.
“In the early days I didn’t do this. My beats were just taking whatever sample, making a basic loop, and playing it through. But I learned over the years that you should give your beats a little bit of structure, even if it’s imagined structure, in your head. This would be a cool intro, or this is where a rap might come in, for example. Create a race course for a driver to drive through when they hear the beat. Don’t overdo it, but give a little bit of detail to it because it can give a writer some type of direction.”
8. Use quantization carefully
“Some beats you want to be more robotic, and some beats you want to be more loose. But when you make music, it’s good to have one thing that’s locked in. When I say locked in, I mean quantized, locked to the grid. For me, that’s my starting point. Depending on what the beat is, I’ll pick one element to be that. The rest of the material, I’ll leave loose, and I don’t quantize. Or if I do, I go into the step sequencer and move notes around.
“Swing is important too. That’s the neck snap. That’s what I call the funk. The swing on the MPC goes from 50 to 75. There are some numbers I lean towards, and everybody finds their own. 62 or 63 is my comfort zone.”
9. Tailor your vocal chain
“I use a light vocal chain. For EQ, I use Waves Renaissance Equalizer. Everybody’s voice is different. Havoc, from Mobb Deep, never needed any EQ. His voice was made for rapping. Prodigy was trickier to mix. He had more of a boomier voice in the mid frequencies. A lot of the time it’s removing that’s necessary, not adding. The key is to find the frequencies that are uncomfortable.
“From the EQ I go to the Waves Renaissance Compressor. I keep it pretty simple, I like it to compress but not too much. I want the rapper to sound in front of the snare. If the snare is hitting louder than the vocals, that’s a pet peeve of mine. If the vocals sound right, the rapper will be leaning his back on the snare, with his legs up on the kick. That’s how a vocal should sound, if you’re doing it right.”
“From there I go to the Waves DeEsser, and I’ll find any vocal frequency that’s unnecessary, I’ll duck that, then I’ll add some Pro Tools DVerb. That’s it.”
10. Reference your final mix
“When I’m working on an album, I wait to mix the songs until the end. We’ll mix a couple songs, and I’ll pick one and say that’s a good mix. There’s our reference point. I like how those vocals are sitting, frequency-wise, with the beat. That’s our bar, let’s aim for that. That will be the bar that the rest of the mixes will be compared to. If you don’t have one of your own, pick a mix out there that you love.
“Steve Sola, Mobb Deep’s engineer, always had one Mobb Deep song, called Burn, that he’d mixed - it’s an excellent mix, it had all the elements you want. And whenever we’d mix, he always had it on the A/B button, where he could switch and reference it.
“It’s a good trick to keep a good song that you love - preferably a mix you’ve done, if not, a mix by anyone - keep it on the A/B. By which I mean, have a button in your set-up that means you can switch from your DAW to your reference song. You’ll have a point that you’re aiming for, so that you don’t want to fall down the black hole of endless possibilities. That’s key.”