Beat making is fun, exciting, controversial, and incredibly prevalent throughout the world of music today. Whether you are aware of it or not, it is with you every day, at nearly every turn no matter where you go. From Tokyo to Islamabad, the art of the beat is happily practiced, proliferated and pounded out through speakers all over the globe and it is here to stay. Some questions that the uninitiated or the curious and aspiring computer music maker might ask are:
1. What is beat making really?
2. Why is it considered an art?
3. Where does it fit in the world of music today and,
4. Who are the people who make it?
These are valid questions and some of the answers are still undecided and quite controversial in certain circles. In this article, I will try to suggest some possible answers.
Beat making is the art of creating the rhythmically infectious underpinnings of musical expression which have dominated the popular culture for at least the last 30 years or so since the first commercially successful rap album transformed the American airwaves.
It primarily involves the arrangement of rhythms, or patterns of “beats,” made using sampled audio and computerized sequencers.
A sequencer is computer program or programmable hardware that keeps all of the sounds in a pre-defined order or sequence for recording and playback.
In decades past, the beat part of this equation was accomplished with electronic beat machines and synthesizers which could produce sounds that were extremely similar those of real percussive instruments like a drum set, a cymbal or a bell, etc…
Today, those same sounds can still be produced using a computer or a hardware device like a drum machine or a synthesizer as well as a computer. However, advances in technology have also made the process of creating and using sampled sounds of the original instruments much simpler and more accessible to the masses, which has lead to a tremendous increase in not only the quality of the sounds produced, but also the number of people producing them.
What is different about the beat making of today compared to what it was years ago is the advances in the capacity of the personal computer. Once upon a time, a beat maker might actually have had to be a drummer. It was either that or they would have had to hire one along with all of the other instrumentalists that would be needed.
This also means that they would probably have had to be a composer in order to write charts and scores for those musicians to follow. Or they might have had to play some sort of physical instrument like the piano or the guitar in order to communicate what they wanted to have happen musically to others.
That all changed when the computer became a personal device and the technology to produce music alone using one began to mature. In fact, the beat maker of today doesn’t need to know how to read and write music or even how to play any instrument at all. They can get nearly everything done just using their instrument of choice… the computer.
This is a controversial point of contention in the music world today. Some musicians who play physical instruments say that beat makers are not really musicians because they don’t play anything. Is this a fair statement? Perhaps.
As a musician myself, I can understand the emotion behind the argument. A person who has spent years of their life and hundreds or even thousands of lonely hours perfecting their ability to express themselves through their instrument might certainly have a problem when another person could load a program and potentially start making competitive, commercially viable music within mere hours. I used to feel the same way, until I met a beat maker and started working with him as he crafted his art.
On the other hand, some electronic music enthusiasts (and DJ’s) don’t actually know the first thing about how music works and do not give musicians or their craft the respect that many feel they deserve. In fact, some often take the opposite approach by minimizing the importance of the role that traditional musician’s play in the overall scheme of things.
This can be quite upsetting for anyone who is passionate and has worked hard to become a good musician. Especially when the majority of the samples that are used to make music sound better, are actually recordings and rehashes of the past works of traditional musicians. This only serves to exacerbate the situation and cause of rift between the two groups pitting purists against purists. Each of whom may claim that their way is art.
Which brings up the next point, what makes beat making art?
Well, before continuing on for one more sentence, let me point out that the act of defining what “art” might be is highly controversial to say the least. It is an extremely broad ranging and fiercely disputed topic that I will make no attempt whatsoever to define fully.
Instead, and in order to carefully broach this subject, I will simply say examine one aspect that is addressed in the realm of art. It is the fact that one of the goals of art is to invoke aesthetics in a way that can influence, mind, senses and emotions. In other words, it can move you.
Each person communicates a message which reveals their uniqueness intertwined with all of their perspective, individuality and life experiences when they create any kind of art.
Even with an identical set of tools, resources and subject matter, two individuals can never produce exactly the same results. For example, two poets who speak the same language will never use exactly the same combination of words when they write, even though they may both possess roughly the same vocabularies. In fact, a single individual will find it extremely difficult to accurately reproduce their own results exactly the same way twice as well, especially in fine art and music. No matter how similar the final products appear to be, it is inevitable that there will be variations.
With that said, we must assume that the beat maker is no different. As long as they are actually following their own inspiration and creating through the use of their own imagination and personal expression, the results will still become manifestations of their own uniqueness no matter what tools they are using. That by itself, in my opinion, points toward the conclusion that beat making is an art, similar to the work of traditional song writers and musicians from the perspective of creativity and inspired, imaginative innovation.
Finally, the art of beat making and producing computer music still requires a well defined skill set, as do all artistic endeavors. Although a person can set up a computer with the appropriate software and quickly begin producing music, it nonetheless takes time, practice, patience and understanding and some level of dedication to produce any quality results worth sharing.
Once that is accomplished, however, the results can be astounding. The evidence is out in the world for all to see. Some of the greatest hits in popular music owe their success to the work of a producer who created the underlying tracks using the beat making process on a computer. Some, in fact, have been completely comprised of tracks made this way.
This is especially true in hip hop, techno, trance, house, and much of the dance music and other genres topping the charts today. Of course this does not usually include the vocals even though the invention and wide overuse of tools like auto-tune has turned that area a little gray too.
So, in the end, the computer revolution has given beat making two hearts.
One is carbon based, pumps life giving blood through our bodies and has an unending capacity for emotion and expression. It serves and the vessel through which the human spirit may express. It is a funnel for our inspirations.
The other is a silicon chip. It is a playground that allows us to interact with electrons and holes, happily accepting our commands and giving rise to whatever demands we may choose to place on it. It has a high tolerance for heat.
Computer music production has changed the face of the music maker forever. That is because anyone of us can make our own music today with the simple click of a button. This might seem like a bad thing at first, but when you realize that it has the potential to give a voice to someone who might otherwise have none in the world. And even though we probably won’t always like what we hear, knowing that makes it seem not so bad anymore.
Besides, the truly noteworthy work will still emerge because those who have real talent and work very hard will continue to make it obvious as they always have. So, the cream will continue to rise to the top. And remember, cream always tastes sweeter after it has been whipped for a while, so you know that the best stuff will only come from those who put in the honest work.