Hip Hop Production - Setting Up A Home Studio

Hip hop is an eclectic form of music. It is also, inherently, an electronic form of music. With the advent of modern recording technology, hop hop production has never been more accessible. Some might argue that this has had a negative impact on the art form, and they'd probably be right, in part, but more than ever, young, aspiring producers, who would have otherwise not had access to the tools necessary to craft their musical visions, are finding it possible to create excellent music, on a modest budget. Here we'll delve (albeit shallowly) into the world of recording, from the perspective of the aspiring hip hop producer.


1. Recording Medium:

You need something to record your brilliance onto. Back in the 50's and 60's this was 2 inch tape. As technology progressed and things moved digital, multi-track recorders with Digital Tape like ADAT recorders surfaced. While these can still be found in studios, and purchased for cheap on the used market, the predominance of recording devices now-a-days are hard drive based. Dedicated hard disk recorders, which look like audio mixers, complete with faders and nobs for setting levels and adding effects, can achieve the task of home recording quite admirably. However, due to recent price drops in what used to be the high price of recording software, most home recordings are made on personal computers.

DAWs or Digital Audio Workstations, as their known, are the software programs users can purchase and install on their PC or Mac for home recording and audio gets recorded through the audio card (more on this in a minute) and stored directly on the computer's hard drive.

2. Multiple Drives and Digital Audio Workstation:

Because of the high strain recording puts on it's host computer (streaming multiple tracks of audio from the hard drive at once as well as hosting the DAW and running any effect plug ins, etc) most home recording engineers agree that it is good to have additional hard drives, either installed in your host machine or connected externally, which serve no other purpose than to record and stream recorded audio for projects. Most DAWs allow for saving a project to this external drive, which sets it to be the drive used to record the files to and stream from. This has a huge effect on lightening the load put on the primary drive, which is already burdened with running the computer's OS, the installed DAW and all other programs.

3. Audio/MIDI Interface:

For right now, let's just chat about the Audio side of your Audio/MIDI interface.

Now you know that you need a computer (or hard disk recorder of some type.) You know that you need to purchase a software program known as a DAW. Once you've purchased these two components, you need a way to get audio INTO the computer and into your DAW. Enter the Audio Interface.

The Audio Interface is used to transfer your musical genius, in high fidelity, to the computer, so you can shape it, mix it, add effects to it, etc - inside your DAW. Audio interfaces can be both internal (PCI Cards, etc) or external (USB 2.0, Firewire, etc.) Generally, both internal and external sound cards will share a similar transfer rate, while the external sound card provides the benefit of portability. If your primary computer rig is a laptop, you'll most likely not have a choice besides purchasing an external sound card, but this ultra portable set up allows you the benefit of being able to make music anywhere.

4. Instruments:

Hip hop has made use of unique sounds from it's inception. Most DAWs these days come with built in "Software Instruments". These instruments can be manipulated through the use of midi controllers (more on this in a minute) and played and recorded in real time, right into your DAW. You'll want to shop around a bit to determine which DAW meets your needs best, based on your platform (PC or Mac) and which set of Software Instruments interests you most. However, most current DAWs provide some sort of Drum Machine, Synth, Piano and Sampler (for playing back a multitude of other sounds, and creating new ones from scratch.)

5. Samplers:

Everyone knows it. Hip hop samples older music. It really spawned from necessity. Initially, hip hop producers didn't have access to the tools necessary to create original arrangements. Since many of them were DJs and were able to create entire grooves built off break beats, this became the source for this new form of music. When DJ's would find a drum break in an old record, and "beat juggle" the same break between their two turntables, in order to keep that break going for far longer than the original recorded material and providing a groove for the MC, they were acting as the first Samplers. Samplers have built off this technique and added incredible features for use in hip hop production, but the core has remained the same - the ability to take a loop from an already recorded piece of material and manipulate it to suite your new creative ideas.

6. Midi and Midi Controllers

Midi stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface and allows for the transfer of control messages from one piece of gear to another and from musical instruments, such as keyboards, to DAWs for further manipulation. MIDI is highly complicated, but the use of MIDI is actually rather simple. There are a fair number of misconceptions about MIDI, and how it works. For those that are just starting out in recording, a very important thing to remember is that MIDI is not Audio. Also, MIDI does not transfer audio signals. It transfers control signals which determine how the Audio might be manipulated, shaped and played.

By this point, you have a computer set up with a couple hard drives and an Audio/MIDI Interface for getting sound into the computer. Also, you have a DAW with some software instruments that are waiting for a signal from a MIDI Controller in order to generate sound.

Most modern keyboards (really anything from the 90's on) should be equipped with MIDI output jacks. Also, assuming you purchased an Audio/MIDI interface you'll be able to wire up your keyboard to the MIDI jacks on your interface and play your Software Instruments. (There are strictly Audio interfaces or strictly MIDI interfaces, so that's something to be aware of.)

7. A microphone:

This one is self explanatory, as it seems that everyone knows what a microphone is. You'll want to connect up a microphone to your Audio Interface to be able to capture sound. Some microphones require what is known as "Phantom Power", which increases the very low voltage "Mic Level" signal to what is called "Line Level." Otherwise, you would not be able to mix your vocal tracks, or other recorded source tracks adequately with the rest of your mix, as Mic Level is far lower in volume.

8. Process:

Any more, the process of recording a Hip Hop record, versus any other form of music, is very much the same. The tools used are very similar, and the only differences come down to process and technique, with an emphasis on sound selection.

The drums in a hip hop track take precedence in a mix, for instance, and hip hop (as a vast generalization) might make use of synth sounds you wouldn't hear in a country mix, for example. The biggest things you could do to hone your songwriting skills would be to play as often as you can and listen. Listening to as much of the hip hop music (style, era, etc) that you appreciate and want to emulate as you possibly can, and listening critically, are the keys to being able to form your own unique sound.