This beginner’s guide will lay out the basics of how a beat works within a piece of music, explore the roots and significance of the beat within electronic dance music, and offer some top producer tips on how to make your own beats. First things first: the ‘beat’ refers to all things rhythmic in your composition, as opposed to the chords and melodic elements (though these lines tend to get blurred). Think about the beat as the skeleton of a project, the frame around which all the other elements hang. The core function of the beat is the same across many different genres: marking and punctuating the tempo (speed) of a piece, giving the music a sense of energy and linear direction from start to finish. Many producers begin new projects by laying out a skeleton beat, so as you progress with making music it is vital to learn how to make a good beat.
Most music intended for a dance floor – indeed, most modern popular music in general – is set in 4/4 time. Standard 4/4 meter gives music a balance and symmetry that is pleasing to our ears and, in a nightclub setting, provides a regular pulse to keep the bodies moving. Here, if the beat is the skeleton of a song, then the kick must be the spine. The evolution of disco music through the second half of the 20th Century gave the world the ‘four-to-the-floor’ kick pattern, where the kick hits on every downbeat and is typically mixed in mono to give it a hypnotic, monolithic quality right in the front-center of the room. It’s hard to imagine now, but at the time audiences had never heard this distinctive sound before. Of course, ‘four-to-the-floor’ later came to dominate house, techno, EDM, and pop music all over the world. As those early disco DJs began experimenting with extended 12” mixes of popular songs – dropping ‘rhythm tracks’ in between them, songs stripped back to their most basic percussion elements, with no melody or even a bass line – more and more musicians started to make beats following this trend, for the first time focused not on radio or live performances but squarely at the sizzling dance floors of New York and beyond.
As mentioned, a straightforward 4/4 kick gives the track a solid spine, but producers of genres like dubstep, drum & bass, breaks, and electronica often prefer to make a beat with more of a swinging, syncopated kick pattern. When thinking about how to make a beat for a song, the trick is balance: combining different percussion elements to build up an overall groove, giving each hit the breathing space it needs in the mix. In terms of how to make a good beat even better, it is essential to consider and carefully craft this sense of ‘space’. Picturing the dance floor again, a common but effective DJ trick is to use the mixer EQ and filters to take the bass out then drop it back in. The crowd goes wild! The euphoria of tension and release demonstrates how taking elements away can be just as impactful as adding more. Limitations can be the best form of inspiration, and often reducing a beat works better than cluttering the space with more sound.
Let’s break down the beat into its core components. The kick typically marks each downbeat, sometimes emphasized further with snare or clap hits on the second and fourth beat. Shuffling all around this you will hear hi-hats and cymbals, which add sharp, metallic high-frequencies and often play faster, more complex rhythms to boost the energy of the beat. Then you could add toms or other ‘tonal’ percussion, which is where the line between beat and melody blurs; instruments like toms are tuned to specific notes, so you can introduce some melodic intrigue to the percussion section. Traditional percussion from across the globe has crept into popular western music over time, with musicians using these diverse sounds and rhythms to make a beat that sounds universal, even timeless. A key inspiration in the development of disco and dance music was the appropriation of traditional Latin percussion into US funk and soul styles, further shifting the focus away from songs and melody and more towards percussion and repetitive beats.
With the ‘80s came the widespread switch to electronic instruments; synthesizers and drum machines led the vanguard. This was often financially motivated, as the live bands and orchestras needed to make a beat in the traditional disco style were prohibitively expensive for most people. Thus, instead of composing for an orchestra you synthesize a similar sound; instead of hiring a drummer and a bassist, you program drum machines and sequencers to play alongside you. A classic drum machine with a legendary reputation these days is the 808, which early club DJs started plugging in and playing live alongside their records. Another legendary vintage synth is the 303; intended to sound like live bass guitar, it was an unexpected success with dance music producers, who adopted it to create a twangy, robotic sound that fitted perfectly into techno and acid house bangers. This again shows the blending together of melody and percussion, as melodic instruments become part of the beat.
Another major event in this transition to electronic instrumentation was the invention of hip-hop. Very distinct from the sounds of dance music, hip-hop beats are simple, snappy, and full of syncopation and groove. Hip-hop developed among working-class and predominantly African-American communities, and aspiring artists taught themselves how to make beats often without any formal musical training. This led to innovative rhythms, clashes of disparate sounds, and a feeling of clarity and immediacy in the music. It is almost a form of naïve art, which is meant as a compliment: new groups of people enabled and enfranchised to make their beats, to tell their own story. Classic hip-hop made heavy use of sampling, often programming a simple skeleton beat then adding some looped live drums from older rock, funk, or songs from any other genre. Particular drum loops or ‘breaks’ – the most famous being the Amen break – have been reused and recycled until they become iconic, instantly recognizable, part of the vocabulary of electronic music.
How to Make Beats on your Computer
The arrangement and processing of beats is highly individual, with distinct sounds and energies evoked in different genres of music, but on a technical level the set-up is the same. Most producers nowadays start out making beats on a computer with a software drum sampler like Battery, into which you can load drum samples and kits, tweak the EQ and effects of each individual sound, and set multi-outputs so, for example, you can mix and process a hi-hat independently from the rest of the track. A software sampler can be used as a standalone tool, or opened within a DAW so you can lay out multiple patterns with MIDI notes and start constructing more intricate songs. A good tip is to set up a template for new projects, so your software plug-ins and output channels are prepared in advance and you can jump straight in with a new idea.
Your first step might be learning how to make a beat with a simple kit of preset drum sounds, but as you further develop your own creative voice there are many cool processing tricks to experiment with. For instance, try tweaking the different envelope stages: attack, decay, sustain, and release. Slowing the attack on a kick sample will give it more of a soft, dull initial thud, while a short decay on cymbals or snares will enhance their ‘snap’. Adding echo/delay to a hi-hat pattern can fill out the overall rhythm, while reverb and distortion can be used for more experimental and dramatic effects. The ‘quantize’ function in your DAW locks MIDI notes to a particular grid, either with a straight meter or adding degrees of swing. This is really useful for cleaning up beats you record in yourself, but leaving things unquantized can also create a more natural, human feel. Adjust the velocity of different notes to add dynamic range, or you could try adding an LFO to the velocity, filter cut-off, or envelope of a drum sound. This kind of swaying movement in the beat keeps it engaging for the listener; it doesn’t sound static.
Once you’ve got the basics of how to make music beats, it’s time to expand your creative options with sample libraries and loop packs. Check out Expansions or other collections available online, which cover more or less every mood and genre under the sun. You’re sure to find something to make a beat better and give it that extra edge, from punchy drum samples to loops and more ambient or industrial soundscapes. A blank canvas can be intimidating, so throwing in a new sound can be a helpful jumping-off point.
Field recording is a way to make your beat truly unique. This means recording everyday sounds from your surrounding environment, but if you don’t have access to a microphone or recording device, there are free smartphone apps available which are capable of recording high-quality audio. Field recording could be anything from the wind blowing, to passing traffic, or even the metallic clink of a closing gate. Chop the audio up or drop it into a sampler and play around; the possibilities are practically endless for warping sounds beyond all recognition. Introducing recordings of the real, physical world into a digital project can breathe air into the mix, imbuing that all-important sense of ‘space’.
Moving on to hardware, a lot of classic electronic music was made on pad-style samplers and controllers, not the traditional piano keyboard. A pioneering design was the MPC music workstation from 1988, which had the different drum sounds assigned on a 4×4 grid of buttons. This layout has inspired a lot of more recent percussion-focused kit, such as the Maschine series. As a way to play electronic drums, it just works. ‘Finger drumming’ is a technique that has developed out of these designs, as a new form of live performance. Expert finger drummers can play the pads with such verve and expression that it sounds like a real, live kit. While exploring how to make a song beat, songwriters might play the drum pads live while they dream up melodic parts to write on top.
Getting good at making beats takes a lot of time, experience, and patience. On the other hand, you can make beats with a computer or practically anything you have to hand. To get the best out of your equipment and truly master your tools, check out manuals, video how-to’s, or just good old trial and error. Unearthing a new function in your DAW or drum sampler can suddenly bring out inspiration or take you in a fresh, unanticipated direction.
If you find yourself stuck in the same repetitive workflow, starting a project at a different tempo can get the creative juices flowing again. Techno and drum & bass use similar sound palettes, for example, but their arrangements and the way the rhythms move are very distinct. Techno has a much straighter, more rigid meter, while drum & bass has more of a lurching back-and-forth motion. Try pushing the BPM up for more intensity, or pull it right down and embrace some more meandering ambient vibes.
If you make beats and you’re into the DJing side as well, it can be a good exercise to mix in your own tracks on the decks or DJ software and reference your work against your favorite artists. Making and playing beats are two separate disciplines, but learning to beat-match and get a mix in time can give you a new appreciation for how the beats are constructed and how rhythm and meter create an overall sense of momentum. You will be joining a decades-long but ever-evolving timeline of DJs, producers, artists, and drummers in the eternal human impulse to make a beat, a groove, to dance to the rhythm of life.