One of the primary characteristics of the 2-step sound – the term being coined to describe "a general rubric for all kinds of jittery, irregular rhythms that don't conform to garage's traditional four-on-the-floor pulse"– is that the rhythm lacks the kick drum pattern found in many other styles of electronic music with a regular four-on-the-floor beat. A typical 2-step drum pattern features a kick on the first and third beat, with a shuffled rhythm or the use of triplets applied to other elements of the percussion, creating a "lurching, falter-funk feel", and resulting in a beat distinctly different from that present in other house or techno. Although tracks with only two kick drum beats to a bar are perceived as being slower than the traditional four-on-the-floor beat, the listener's interest is maintained by the introduction of unusual snare placements and accents in the drum patterns, or scattered rimshots and woodblocks, as well as syncopated basslines and the percussive use of other instruments such as pads and strings.
Instrumentation usually includes keyboards, synthesizers and drum machines. Other instruments added to expand the musical palette include guitar, piano and horns; these additions are almost always sampled. The primarily synth-based basslines used in 2-step are similar to those in the style's progenitors such as UK garage and before that, drum and bass and jungle, but influences from funk and soul can also be heard. Vocals in 2-step garage are usually female, and similar to the style prevalent in house music or contemporary R&B.Some 2-step producers also process and cut up elements of an a cappella vocal and use it as an element of the track. Much like other genres derived from UK garage, MCs are often featured, particularly in a live context, with a vocal style reminiscent of oldschool jungle.
Influences from hip hop and drum and bass, particularly the hardstep and techstep subgenres have also been noted by critics. The fact that the scene had a significantly different atmosphere to those that surrounded precursors with less aggression at live events was also noted by some critics.