Making a little musical thing

After software development, music is probably the thing I know the most about. My brain is full of history, trivia, and a modest bit of practical knowledge on how to read notation and make music come out. That said, I haven’t really practiced music in several years. I’ve been busy nerding out on other things, and I’ve grown a bit lazy. Too lazy to find people to play with, too lazy for scales, too lazy to even tune a stringed instrument. Very, very lazy.

Long story short, I’ve been wanting to get back into music lately, but I want to learn something new. Something entirely mysterious to me. Given my recent fascination with hip-hop, I’m eager to try my hand at making the beats that form the musical basis of the form.

There are a lot of priors to cover (tinkering with various sequencers, drum machines, and synthesizers; steeping myself in sample culture; listening to the actual music and understanding its history), but I just made a short, mediocre little beat and put it on the internet. Herein, I reflect on making that little musical thing:

  • I’m sure that, if I get serious about this, I’ll need real software like Ableton or Logic. But for my tinkering, it turns out GarageBand is sufficient. The included software instruments aren’t amazing or even idiomatic samples (no TR808, no “Apache” break included), but with a little bit of tinkering, they produce results.
  • Laying a drum track down that is little more than a fancy click track helps to get started. GarageBand has a handy feature where you can define the a number of bars as a loop and then record multiple takes, review them, and discard the takes you don’t want.
  • What an app lacks in samples you can make up in effects. Throwing a heavy dose of echo and a ridiculous helping of reverb made an otherwise pedestrian drum track way more interesting.
  • I didn’t go into this with anything in my head that I wanted to make real. For the drum track, I ended up with a pretty typical beat. A little quantization made it end up sound better and more interesting than it really is. This process, manual input with some computer-assisted tweaking, produced way better results than the iOS drum machines I’ve used in the past.
  • Tapping out the bass-line took a little more time than the drums. I didn’t have anything “standard” in my head, so I doodled a bit. This is where the “takes” gizmo in GarageBand came in really handy. Record a bunch of things, decide which one is most interesting, clean it up a little, throw an effect or two on it to make it more interesting, on to the next track.
  • In retrospect, lots of effects is maybe a crutch. I don’t have enough taste yet to tell.
  • With the drums and bass down, it’s time to adorn the track with a melody or interesting hit for effect. I added one subtle thing, but couldn’t think of anything I liked that was worth making prominent. If I were actually trying to use this beat for something, I’d keep digging. But for my first or second beat, it’s not a big deal.

I wanted to jot down my thoughts because I’d like to write more about making and understanding music, but also because I keep meaning to write down what I find challenging and interesting as I start from a “beginner’s mind” in some craft or skill. And so I did.

You’re six hundred words into this thing now, so I’ll reward you, if we could call it a reward, with “An Beat”.

Adam Keys @therealadam