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Known for impassioned vocal performances, thoughtful lyrics and heavy use of use of live instrumentation, neo soul music combines the best of classic soul and modern R&B. Popularized by artists like D'Angelo, Erykah Badu, Maxwell and Lauryn Hill in the mid-90s, early neo soul music relied heavily on jazz and funk sounds. More recently, neo soul artists have started incorporating elements of hip-hop, electronic music and more.
Neo soul has been making a big comeback in the 2010’s, with chart-topping tracks from artists like Alicia Keys, John Legend, Frank Ocean and Cee-Lo Green. In this video tutorial, Stefan Guy demonstrates how to make a neo soul beat in Reason 10.
Setting the Mood
Neo soul has a very chill, laid back vibe, so start by selecting a tempo between 80 and 95 BPM. As for instrumentation, neo soul songs typically use organic instruments like electric guitars, basses and pianos. Fender Rhodes and Wurlitzer electric pianos are also great for adding classic neo soul textures.
Reason 10 is loaded with powerful pianos like ID8 and the NN-XT Advanced Sampler, which both include presets for Rhodes and Wurlitzer sounds. For even more old-school textures, check out the e-instruments Session Keys Electric Bundle, which includes emulations of the Wurlitzer as well as Rhodes Mark I and Suitcase model pianos.
Once you’ve selected an electric piano, play a few chords use as a base for the track. Check out Stefan’s YouTube channel for tips on creating neo soul progressions with soulful chord voicings. Or, if you’re more the sample-and-loop kind of producer, pick up his Popular Progressions loop pack and choose one of the 80+ MIDI chord progressions.
Creating Neo Soul Beats
Now that you’ve got a rich, soulful chord progression to work with, it’s time to drop the beat. Start with the kick and snare drums, but instead of drawing the notes in by hand, play them live on your MIDI keyboard. It’s OK if every beat isn’t perfectly in time—that’s part of the charm! Quantizing the beat makes it feel stiff and rigid, which is no good for neo soul. By playing a little behind the beat, you can help make the drums feel more laid-back.
Next, it’s time to add a hi-hat groove. In the video, Stefan loads a Dr. Octo Rex loop, but since the original groove is un-quantized, the hi-hat feels robotic and out of place. Stefan uses the built-in ReGroove mixer to add some swing to the loop. Next, he uses the built-in low-pass filter to roll-off the top-end of the hi-hat for a more vintage tone.
After you have your initial hi-hat loop together, start experimenting with additional cymbal hits to emphasize the groove. Stefan layers in a closed hi-hat sample on the accent notes, and a long, open hi-hat that closes on the snare hits to add movement.
Time to Get Funky
Lastly, this beat needs a funky bassline to hold down the low-end. With Reason 10, you have access to an arsenal of awesome bass tones, like the new Monotone Bass Synthesizer, or UJAM’s Virtual Bassist Bundle. But whenever possible, it’s best to use live instrumentalists when creating neo soul tracks to emphasize the emotion of the song.
Bassists have more freedom to experiment with melody in neo soul. Instead of just following the root note of the chords, try to create a memorable, melodic bassline that will get stuck in your listener’s heads. Just make sure the down beats are locked-in with the kick drum to solidify the groove.
Let’s review. Soulful chord progression played on a classic vintage electric piano? Check. Un-quantized drum groove with a little shuffle and a solid beat? Check. Funky, melodic bassline that makes you want to dance. Check! Now that you know how to create a neo soul track in Reason 10, it’s time to make some music!