Over my years as a hip hop producer, I’ve frequently been asked by people looking to get into beat-making: what gear should I get to start making music? Being the helpful chap that I am, I always try to steer them in the right direction but, the truth is, it’s a very difficult question to answer. Of course, the simple response is this: any set up that lets you make the music that you want at a quality that is acceptable. Unfortunately, the simple answer isn’t very helpful. So, I’ve decided to put up a series of blog posts that might help people make an informed decision.
In the world of hip hop production there are two separate paradigms – the MPC-based production set up and the PC/Mac-based production set up. Due to the fact that the MPC is really nothing more than a relatively sophisticated sampler/sequencer, MPC-based producers usually find themselves using a computer for some stages of their production process (tracking and mixing, mostly). Computer-based users have the potential to work completely “inside-the-box” but many will find themselves sending their mixes outboard for one reason or another – increased character, decreased “digitalness” or just the increased functionality of outboard gear.
I won’t get into a dispute whether Mac is better than PC (I use a Mac for my mixing tasks) as it all comes down to personal preference and the both have their pros and cons. Regardless of which system you use you’re going to need three things:
1. A quality audio interface
2. Flexible and functional software
3. Reliable foldback/monitoring (sorry, folks, headphones just won’t cut it)
Let’s start with the audio interface. Most hip hop production can be done with an audio interface that has as little as a stereo/two mono inputs and a stereo output. This will allow you to input signals from a variety of sources. For added flexibility, you will want an interface that has mic level inputs (some interfaces have multi-purpose inputs). Any mic level inputs should have a phantom power option as well so that you can use condensor microphones to record sound.
The other thing to consider is the way in which the interface connects to the computer. The two most common (and cheapest) forms of connection are through Firewire (IEEE1394 on PC) and USB. Either of these options is acceptable. Firewire is faster than USB2.0 but newer USB3.0 interfaces are lighting quick too. Interfaces that run only two ins and two outs should not suffer under the USB2.0 standard, though. Cards with more ins and outs (6 I/O or more) are going to be pushing the USB format to the max.
Lastly, you may want to consider an interface with MIDI in/out. This is not crucial though. Standalone MIDI interfaces are cheap and, in my experience, work better than MIDI systems tacked on to audio interfaces.
As for software, there are so many options that covering them all is an impossible task. The big names in the game are as follows: Logic 9 (Mac only at the moment); Cubase which is stable and useful for the vast majority of plugins from version 3 onwards; FL Studio, which has a unique take on the production workflow but is extremely powerful when used properly; and, Ableton which is an excellent performance-styled program but not quite as sophisticated as the others.
I’ll leave the issue of monitoring solutions until the next post.