Illustration by Elizabeth Manning

If you want to start making hip-hop beats, the holiday season is the perfect time to put some equipment on your wish list. But if you’re not sure how to get started, knowing what to ask for can be a challenge.

First, you have to figure out which approach you want to take: hardware or software. Hardware includes physical pieces of equipment like keyboards, synths, samplers and drum machines. Software refers to digital audio workstations (DAWs), with the most popular being programs like Ableton Live, Logic and FL Studio.

Software-based production has quickly become the route most newcomers take. The beauty of modern DAWs lie in their ability to be paired with Musical Instrument Digital Interface, or MIDI, devices, recreating the physical interaction between the artist and the music that software alone cannot. Most modern keyboards have MIDI capability, allowing them to connect to the computer and input digital notes into DAW software. This allows you to play piano chords, add in basslines and trigger samples all by playing and manipulating the settings of your keyboard. Although cheaply made and not known for their longevity, the MPK series by Akai is an affordable option to begin with MIDI. Another inexpensive and easy-to-use keyboard is Korg’s microKEY; both are designed with beat production in mind.

If playing keys isn’t for you, the best substitutes are drum pads. These are rubbery squares on a grid that can be tapped for different sounds. Depending on what you assign to each pad, that could be a snare hit, hi-hat or literally any other audio clip you desire.

Native Instrument’s Maschine line includes a few different pad-based units, seamlessly pairing their own software with hardware drum pads and controllers. Like most controllers, the Maschine cannot be used without being hooked up to a computer, but with their on-board screens and buttons, you can create most of your work right on the device itself. It gives you the choice of using your mouse or strictly your pads to control the program. Check out the Maschine MK2 for a serious production device with dual screens and a gorgeous button layout, or the Maschine Mikro for a smaller and more affordable device. Both come with the same software, but you will have to do a little more menu surfing with the Mikro due to its small screen and compact design.

While software cannot be matched in its manipulability or processing power, hardware equipment has long done justice to hip-hop. Sometimes with software, you have so many possibilities bogging you down that nothing actually gets done.

If you want freedom, nothing can touch Akai’s Music Production Controller (MPC). MPCs paved the way for modern hip-hop, and you’d be surprised by how many hit songs are still made using them. The MPC1000 arguably presents the best option for new beat-makers at a reasonable cost for a used unit and a combination of positive characteristics adopted from each of its predecessors. It is small and fairly portable, yet gives a very balanced MPC experience with productive sequencing and streamlined design.

If the MPC is too expensive and complicated, Roland makes a series of portable samplers with great effects. The SP-404sx is arguably their best model due to its SD memory card storage, processing speed and ability to run off batteries for ultimate portability. They have many limitations, but force the user to get extra creative.

At the end of the day, both hardware and software have their pros and cons; it is how you use your gear that matters most.