How to Make Your Own Beat/Backing Track from Samples
A Guide for Songwriters
If you’re a singer-songwriter or rapper, you know that backing tracks can become a costly expense for making your lyrics into finished songs. Track stems can cost you anywhere from $50 dollars up for a single instrumental. But even if you can’t play an instrument yourself, there is a pretty easy way to create your own backing tracks and save some money. You interested?
Today, I’ll teach you how to build a complete backing track for your song based off a single sample loop. No instrument-playing skills will be required for this tutorial, just some basic music theory and elbow grease.
The Components You Need To Make A Beat
Less is more for backing tracks. The more instruments you add to a mix, the harder it will be to seat them all and the muddier your song will start to sound. So there are really only three components that you need to build a solid backing track. They are:
- A riff (or harmony)
This is all you need to start a modern pop, rock, or rap beat. And, depending on the mood you’re after, you may not even need all three. For example, if you want to create an intimate and calm acoustic track, you may forego drums. There are plenty of hit songs that include nothing more than vocals and a guitar or piano.
The outline below should teach you the fundamentals needed for building your own instrumentals inside of your DAW whenever you need them. First, let’s learn where to find samples.
Where Can I Find Samples?
There are two primary places from which you can buy samples:
- A sample repository website, like Splice, Cymatics, Sounds, Loopcloud, and Looperman.
- Independent beat makers and composers. Many aspiring instrumentalists and producers will sell sample packs on their Beatstars or Airbit shops but use social media (YouTube videos, Instagram posts) to showplace their work. If you want to find unique loops that haven’t been used to death by other artists, try searching for indie beatmakers on YouTube who post loop pack previews.
Many samples are sold on a royalty-free basis. That means you pay a one-time fee to use the audio clip and the seller/creator of that clip waives any rights they have to collect royalties on it’s commercial use. For more information on royalties, read through my guide about them here.
If you have any concerns about the risks vs advantages of samples, head on over to my article discussing their pros and cons before you continue.
Music Theory for Making A Beat
In order to craft a coherent backing track for your song, you’ll need just a pinch of music theory knowledge. If you’re a total beginner to harmony and composition, then I recommend you read my articles about chords and keys here:
- I Have a Melody but No Chords!
- What is the Difference Between Harmony and Chords?
- Are Chords the Same as Melody?
- Keys vs Scales vs Modes
Now there are two pieces of information you’ll need to know about your sample before you start building your beat. All of this information should be provided by the sample maker before you even purchase or download it. They are:
- the key, and
- the tempo
As long as you know what key the riff fits in, you’ll know exactly what music notes will play well with it.
Key and Tempo
Unlike MIDI files, where the tempo can be tweaked or the notes transposed with a few mouse clicks, an audio sample will already have a fixed tempo and key. So it’s best that you pick your sample first and use the key and tempo it was composed in. There are ways to modify audio files to change both of these elements but—depending on the bitrate of the WAV file you’re working with—it could cause nasty distortion to the sample and make your backing track sound quite ugly.
If you’re new to all this, pick the sample first and use it’s natural tempo and key for your beat.
The 10 Steps to Making a Beat With a Sample
Now it’s time to actually build the instrumental!
- Note your track information. Before you even open your digital audio workstation (DAW), you’ll want to write down your song structure info on either a piece of paper or a notepad file. I usually add this information on the same page or same notepad file as my lyrics. The stats you’ll want to write down include:
- Tempo in BPM
- Key (maybe even the scale or mode)
- Chord progressions for each section (chorus, verse, bridge, etc)
- Structure outline (such as: intro→ verse → chorus → verse → chorus → outro)
- DAW prep work. Now open your DAW and start a new project file. Set the tempo of the track; if your song also uses an odd time signature (like ¾ timing), now is the time to correct the signature info for the track before you start recording. You want the tempo and time signature of your project file to match that of the sample so it can be easily looped.
- Import you sample. Create a new audio track and import your audio sample for the main riff. You can usually do this via drag-and-drop from Windows Explorer or manually select the import option in your DAW’s toolbar menu. Check how many bars your audio sample takes up.
- Map the song structure. Count how many bars you’ll need for each section and mark each song section with markers, that way you can see visually when each chorus or verse will start; this will come in handy if you need to jump around while recording dubs of certain parts. In Cakewalk, you can do this by moving the playhead to the beginning of each bar you want to notate, then right-click and choose “insert marker”.
- Loop your sample. This can be done a variety of ways, and your DAW’s feature may vary. Either copy and paste your loop over and over for each section or edit it into a loop file. In Cakewalk by Bandlab, you can do this by right-clicking on the file and select “Groove-Clip Looping”, the choose “OK” on the prompt that appears. You can now drag out the file and it will seamlessly repeat. If your file does not fit cleanly into an even number of bars, you’ll want to trim it before applying the groove-clip loop feature.
- Add drums. Create a soft synth track and load your drum VST or sampler. Load a preset or, if none are available yet, build a preset using drum samples you have downloaded. Now you can either drop a pre-written drum MIDI loop into your sampler/VST or compose it from scratch. When I’m working out a drum pattern from scratch, I often listen through your sample on repeat a few times and thump out a beat with my hands on the desk. For beginners, I recommend you compose at least one full drum pattern, make a copy of it, and strip that one down for quieter sections of the songs (like, remove the hi-hats from one section, or take out the snares, etc).
- Add bass. Create another soft synth track and load your bass VST or synthesizer (with a bass patch). This is the part where you’ll want to reference your chord progression and/or key. The bass should follow the harmony of the sample riff; if your riff does not provide a clear harmonic progression, now is the time to determine which chords will fit in your key and A/B test different progressions. To build a simple but effective bass section, you can start by following the chord root notes harmonically but following the kick drum’s rhythm pattern.
- Vary song sections. Now that you have basic drum and bass parts, you’ll want to vary their appearance from section to section to create dynamics and clearly define verses from choruses. A few common ways to do this is by having more drums and bass in the choruses and less going on in the verses, or vice versa for refrain-like chorus sections.
- Gain staging. Now that the composition and arrangement are complete, you’ll want to gain stage the instrument tracks in preparation for vocals. This is where you adjust the volume levels for each track to balance the instruments out. If necessary, now is the time to also apply some preliminary EQ and compression in order to seat each instrument into the mix.
- Bounce tracks. Lastly, you should consider bouncing or freezing each MIDI track (bass and drums); this is a process that mixes down each MIDI file into an audio file but keeps it on the same track. Bouncing reduces the workload of your CPU which can improve latency come time for you to record the vocals. In Cakewalk, you do this by pressing the “freeze track” button (it looks like an asterisk).
This rough outline should leave you with a finished instrumental backing track ready for vocals to be recorded. Remember to save your work frequently as you go. It’s best practice to start adding all the fun effects (reverb, chorus, etc) once your vocals have been recorded, as mixing requires different latency settings than live recording.