Most people’s first attempt at a hip hop production tends to be the hardest, not least because they’re working on a tight budget. Often, the best option is to make your own beats, but not everyone has the time or the skill for it. Free hip hop instrumentals, which you’ll find at dozens of music websites, have made things a bit easier. Just listen to a few beats and decide which one best suits your music, and you’re good to go. These have allowed more than a few artists to put together a demo and kick-start their careers.

When you have the budget, however, buying exclusive instrumentals may be more worth your money. Exclusive means that you pay for the rights to use the material, which in turn means that no one else can use the same track. The advantage to this is that you can be sure you get a unique sound. With royalty-free instrumentals, there’s a good chance that someone else is using the piece, and your material can sound eerily alike. This isn’t always a bad thing, but it can be an issue for people who value originality and creativity.

Price points vary for different hip hop tracks, from just a few dollars to several hundreds or thousands. It’s even possible to find the same track offered for free on one site and for an exclusive fee on another. This should be a cause for suspicion: there’s always a reason why a company would give something away. It could be that the sound quality is low, or that some of the notes are off-key. If it’s free, you can always give it a try and see for yourself. Sometimes the flaws are minor enough to fix in an editing program, and the time you spend tweaking is worth the few dollars you save.

Of course, this also means that paying for something doesn’t always mean you’ve got exclusive rights to it, although that’s the theory. When you find a good instrumental, look it up and see if it’s available somewhere else. You may find that it’s actually a royalty-free piece, or at the very least get it for less from a different dealer. You can also consider making your own beats. Both approaches are more time-consuming, but it’s an important investment—if you plan on doing this professionally eventually, you don’t want copyright troubles to get in the way.

Hip hop production seems easy—just whip up some lyrics and find hip hop beats online to go with it. But those two steps are more complicated than they sound. Finding beats is especially challenging. Many people have a hip hop beat in mind but can’t quite find a sample to match it. Some just don’t have enough sources, while others don’t like having to pay to use them. Others lack the equipment. In any case, there are all sorts of hurdles to finding hip hop beats—and that’s just part of the whole picture.

One way around this is to use royalty-free tracks—pieces that are free for anyone to use, as opposed to exclusive tracks which can only be used once. An obvious drawback is that you’re probably not the only one using it, which can compromise originality. However, you can use editing software to tweak the sound, such as change the pitch or the tempo, so that it sounds more like your own. This is a popular solution for artists on a low budget, or those working on a demo.

Exclusive tracks give you the advantage of being the only one using the piece, which means you may not need as much editing. They cost a lot more, however, so they’re far more common among professionals. Also, if the track doesn’t quite match the song, a composer might run it through an editing program anyway.

If you have a good ear and the time to play around, you can also try making your own hip hop beats. Beat making software allows you to mix and match speeds, pitches, and other elements, as well as use a variety of simulated instruments. There are several free programs online, which can do the job if you don’t need that much functionality. If you plan on working on more projects and eventually making money off them, it might be a good idea to go for a more feature-packed paid program. Most of them offer 30-day trial versions so you can see which programs best suit your needs.

Finally, whatever your medium is, make sure you have a good set of speakers and other audio gear you might need (e.g. microphones). This ensures that you get accurate and consistent results—you don’t want your piece to sound differently from one computer to the next. When you go out and show your work to others—especially to potential partners or record labels—you want to make sure they hear it the way you intended.