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How Timbaland Makes a Beat in 4 Steps
Timbaland isn’t a one-man show. His assistant producers, Fede and Angel, and his audio engineer Chris, enable him to quickly transform sketches and improvisations into fully realized songs. (The team is referred to as “Team Timbo.”)
Throughout his career, Tim has made his name as a master collaborator, working equally well with world-famous and anonymous partners. Whether he’s working out a beat with Jay-Z or Missy Elliott, or using a chord progression from a new artist, Tim embraces dialogue, respect, and a shared love of music to produce the most compelling sounds possible.
- Sing your ideas. Timbaland starts a lot of his tracks by singing beats into a microphone. Right off the bat, this makes him different from a lot of producers, but the results speak for themselves. Finding the perfect sound on your keyboard, or the perfect drum loop in a software library, can derail your creativity. Rather than interrupt his process, Tim grabs a mic and begins improvising parts, from beatboxes to vocal melodies. His engineer Chris keeps the loops repeating so that Tim can add on layer after layer. Many of his songs are built by layering on top of four-bar and eight-bar phrases. Harmonically, the songs often remain the same from start to finish. But instrumentation, texture, and vocal melodies vary with different parts of the song.
- Create drum sounds. Starting with a beat, rather than a chord progression, gives you lots of options when you start adding a vocal melody and harmonic texture. The chords and texture come later, and Tim’s topline comes last.
- Experiment and surprise yourself. Timbaland uses Ableton Live software, a popular program for dance, pop, and hip hop producers who use pre-recorded samples. The second tool he uses is an Ableton device called a Push, which controls the software using light-up pads. Tim creates drum racks on his Push—in other words, he assigns drum sounds to each one of the pads. When he presses one pad, you hear the sound of a kick drum, and when he presses the pad next to it, you hear the sound of a hi-hat. He creates custom drum racks by placing the drums in any order he wants—he's intentionally random about it. The element of surprise pushes him creatively so that he produces sounds that are fresh and unpredictable. A huge part of Tim’s style is to create sounds you won’t hear from any other producer. So he’ll chop up the samples he finds (using the “slice” mode in the Ableton program), or he’ll use programmed presets that speed up and slow down playback. With both his samples and his drum sound selection, Tim makes spontaneous choices while browsing through Ableton’s libraries. You might say that part of his plan is to not over-plan.
- Build texture. Timbaland refers to his production cohort as Team Timbo. On a given track, Angel and Fede might take responsibility for the chordal harmony and texture, which they create using third party plug-ins and their programs’ built-in effects. For example, Angel might contribute an ethereal vocal sample, which he can alter using the Kickstart sidechain, some EQ tweaking, and a Tantra plug-in, which can offer all sorts of effects: filter, delay, distortion, and flanger to name just a few. Meanwhile, Fede might be working on creating a “vinyl” effect, which simulates a DJ scratching/dragging a vinyl record. He might also have his own vocal sample for Tim’s consideration, and he’s using a reverse effect to play it backward. (Most delay plug-ins or built-in effects will offer a “reverse” feature.)
What Is a Topline?
In the genres of Top 40 pop, dance, house, EDM, and hip hop, the term “topline” refers to the melody (usually a vocal line) that sits atop a bed of drums, bass, and chordal textures. Often the topline is written by one songwriter, while the other parts of a song, which are collectively called “the beat,” are created by a different group of people—such as the group that comprises Timbaland’s Team Timbo.
So when a rapper like Ginuwine, Ludacris, Magoo, Kanye West, Bubba Sparxxx, Snoop Dogg, Rick Ross, or Swizz Beatz enters the studio with Timbaland, he or she can expect a fully prepared beat upon which to lay a topline. The same is true for R&B singers like Rihanna, Katy Perry, Drake, Chris Brown, Pharrell Williams, Sam Smith, or Keri Hilson.
This was also the process that Timbaland used with superstar performer Justin Timberlake on their hit album Futuresex/Lovesounds, featuring the Grammy award-winning hit “SexyBack.” It was also applied to other Timberlake hits like “Cry Me A River,” “One In A Million,” and “My Love.”
What Do the Best Timbaland Beats Have in Common?
The best Timbaland beats share a number of characteristics:
- Vocal improvisation
- A focus on rhythm
- A joyful sense of experimentation
- A generous sense of collaboration
Whether you’re looking to be an R&B music producer, a hip-hop producer, a beat club DJ, an international superstar, or just a person messing around with a new synth or drum machine, keep these principles in mind.
Want to Learn More About Producing Music?
Whether you’re an aspiring singer-songwriter or have dreams of changing the world with your music, navigating the complex world of record labels and contracts can be daunting. No one knows this better than music producer Timbaland, who has worked with artists like Jay-Z, Missy Elliott, Justin Timberlake, Beyoncé, and Aaliyah. In Timbaland’s MasterClass on producing and beat-making, the Grammy-winning producer shares what he has learned about collaborating with vocalists, layering new tracks, and creating hooks that stick.
Want to become a better musician? The MasterClass All-Access Pass provides exclusive video lessons from master musicians, pop stars, and DJs including Timbaland, Christina Aguilera, Usher, Armin van Buuren, and Deadmau5.