Learn how to create hard-hitting trap bangers in 6 steps. We discuss musical composition, sample selection, 808 and percussion processing and the different FX you can use.
By Charles Hoffman
Genres are defined by a shared set of conventions, which most people can identify, but aren’t necessarily capable of articulating. What makes hip-hop music hip-hop? What about country music? This guide chisels away at a variety of trap songs to provide a 6-step trap beat formula that you can use to write trap beats at lightning speed.
1. Use a Repetitive Melody Loop
Step one to becoming the Mozart of trap is to find a 2 to 4 bar melody loop and repeat it throughout your song. When choosing a loop, avoid picking a melody that’s hard to follow along with; simplicity is king.
In “Keanu Reeves” by Logic, the same melody repeats itself multiple times throughout the song, but it’s transposed up/down at various points in time to avoid sounding “stale.”
Keep in mind that you’ll be adding other elements to your beat, so the melody should be catchy, but it doesn’t need to carry the entire weight of the song. It’s easy to over-produce a beat when you don’t have vocals filling space in your mix, so anticipate the addition of vocals and arrange your song accordingly.
When it comes to the sound design of the melody you select, choose a sound that won’t conflict with vocals in the 1-5 kHz range; this is where the intelligibility of vocals comes from, so it’s best to avoid frequency masking if possible.
If there is some unwanted frequency overlap, use an EQ like the F6 Floating-Band Dynamic EQ to carve out space in the melody for your vocals. To do this, place the F6 on your melody track, and route the vocal to the F6 as an external sidechain.
The great thing about the F6 is that you can toggle the SC Source of bands individually to EXT. This means that if you only want the vocals to affect a band centered between 1-5 kHz, then you can do so.
2. Choose the Right Kick and Snare
Trap beats usually make use of punchy kicks and dry, heavily compressed snares. You can hear both of these characteristic sounds in the track “Death By Dishonor (w/ Ghostemane x Shakewell x Erick The Architect)” by Pouya.
The reason that trap kicks are often short and punchy, as opposed to long and dense, is that they’re regularly layered with 808s; the kick is used for its attack, and the 808 is used for its decay. Apply a fade to the beginning of your 808s to allow your kick to come through, or use a sidechain compressor like the C6 Multiband Compressor only to attenuate conflicting low-end frequencies.
Check the phase correlation of your kick and 808 when you layer them together using InPhase. When the two samples are in-phase with one another, they will sound more powerful and impactful when they playback through your speakers than if they are out of phase with one another.
You may have noticed that the snare in Pouya’s song sounds like a “splat” that spans the entire width of the song’s stereo image; this takes a bit of a detour from the common punchy, center-panned snare that you hear in most other genres.
The unique widespread snare effect can be achieved with the use of a delay like Doubler and a limiter like the L2 Ultramaximizer. Enable voice 1 and 2 in Doubler, pan them hard left and right, and then delay voice 1 by around 20 ms and voice 2 by around 40 ms.
Balance the level of the Direct signal with the level of voice 1 and 2 so that they sound evenly distributed across the width of the track’s stereo field. To finish this effect off, run the widespread snare through the L2 to glue the three snare signals together.
3. Distort Your 808s With Saturation
Nothing screams “trap” like an 808 that makes you grit your teeth. “Sumo” by Denzel Curry contains a mean 808 that acts as the main driving force behind the entire track. Seriously, listen to how raw this thing is:
There’s a fine line between “dirty” and “muddy” when it comes to processing 808s. Typically, you want the extreme low-end of your 808 to remain pure and non-distorted, and the mid to top-end of your 808 obliterated.
You can process the low-end and top-end of your 808 independent of one another using multiband saturation. It’s easy to apply custom multiband processing using a multiband audio effect like the C4 Multiband Compressor.
Duplicate the track you plan to apply processing to; label one of these tracks “Top-End” and the other “Low-End.” Place the C4 Multiband Compressor onto the “Low-End” track, set the low-frequency crossover to 100 Hz, and solo the Low band; make sure the Range value for this band is set to zero so that no gain reduction is applied.
Place a different C4 Multiband Compressor on the “Top-End” track, set the low-frequency crossover to 100 Hz, and then solo the low-mid, mid, and high bands; ensure that the Range value for all of these bands is set to zero as well.
What you’ve done is split the frequency range of your 808 in half at 100 Hz. You can now apply saturation to the top-end of your 808 without affecting frequency content below 100 Hz.
Apply a saturator like J37 Tape after the C4 Multiband Compressor on the “Top-End” track for a mild distortion effect, or go all out and run the top-end of your 808 through Berzerk or MDMX Overdrive. Another option is to insert MultiMod Rack on the original 808 track and simply distort the mid and top-end bands.
4. Use Hi-Hat Rolls to Progress Your Beat
Hi-hats rolls are another defining characteristic of trap beats; they help carry the rhythm of your beat and can deliver the “head bob” that every beatmaker is after. Listen to the song “Stir Fry” by Migos and pay attention to how the hi-hats are arranged in a way that grabs your attention on the “and” of beat two and holds onto it until you almost face-plant into beat three.
Another fun and creative arrangement technique you can use is called a polyrhythm; this is where you mix together two rhythms from different time signatures. For example, it’s possible to write a song in 4/4 time, but add elements to it that play in 3/4 time. Hi-hats tend to overlay with 4/4 beats in 3/4 time exceptionally well. You don’t need to put all of your hi-hats in 3/4 time, but changing their time signature here or there can create an exciting switch up and draw attention to them.
If your hi-hat patterns feel stale, consider using a plugin like MetaFilter or Brauer Motion to pump some movement and life into them. The LFO found in MetaFilter can apply sinusoidal filter effects to your hi-hats that evolve over time, perfect for ethereal tracks.
Alternatively, you can use the step sequencer MetaFilter provides to affect every other hi-hat sample and create the illusion that multiple different hi-hat samples are being played back.
Static hi-hats can become boring, which is where Brauer Motion steps in. Brauer Motion lets you modulate the position of your hi-hats along different stereo field paths using four different LFO shapes. If you want to create hi-hats that rhythmically sweep through your mix, Brauer Motion is the tool to use.
5. Use Background Pads to Set the Vibe
Sometimes you might be feeling a little wild and decide that your trap beat should have more than just a melody and some drums. In that case, you can use background pads to fill in space and interact musically with your main melody loop. Background pads can completely change the vibe of a beat, and since they act as harmony elements, they can infuse your beat with various types of emotion.
In the following beat that I made called “7 Sins,” listen to how the swelling background pads create an eerie feeling that permeates throughout the track. They lay the groundwork for the rest of the beat, which is actually quite simple, but effective nonetheless.
The Flow Motion FM Synth uses FM and subtractive synthesis to generate sounds and works exceptionally well for creating pads. This synth comes with 1,000+ built-in presets that you can take modify and make your own.
One of my favorite pad processing techniques involves drowning a sustained sound in reverb with Abbey Road Chambers, and then heavily compressing it, using around a 4:1 ratio on the CLA-76. A moderate attack and release time of four on the CLA-76 should work for this purpose. Print the pad to audio and then apply fades where necessary to control the monstrously thick sound.
I once received a great tip regarding setting the levels of pads: you want to feel pads, but not hear them. Obviously, you can set the level of your pads however you want, but if you’ve only added them to your beat for the vibe they bring to the table, then you can actually get away with setting their level quite low; this will provide more space for the main elements in your beat, like the melody loop and vocals.
6. Use Chants and Ad-Libs to Fill Space
Chants and ad-libs can help fill space in your tracks, pump them up, and create variation. Lil Pump is an artist that uses tons of ad-libs in his tracks, and whether you love him or hate him, his songwriting formula works. The following track by Smokepurpp that Lil Pump is featured on has been viewed millions of times, so he must be doing something right.
If you aren’t familiar with what ad-libs are, they’re the weird vocal one-shots that make absolutely no sense in the background of Smokepurpp’s track. The next time you record a rapper, make sure to record a handful of ad-lib-only takes during your recording session so that you have the option to add them to your beat later on. Consider requesting additional ad libs that you can use in other projects as well.
It’s possible to repurpose vocal chants and ad-libs that you already have in your sample library by applying creative processing to them. “10 Creative FX Tips You Can Use Right Now” covers vocal effects like flanging, phasing, chorusing, tremolo, vibrato, vocoding, and more. Read the full article for an in-depth look at how you can make the most of your fledgling chant and ad-lib libraries.
Trap beats aren’t necessarily the most musically complex, but they’re accessible and fun to create. By making use of melody loops, appropriate sample selection, 808 saturation, hi-hat rolls, background pads, and chants/ad-libs, you’re well on your way to producing hard-hitting trap bangers.
Want more on hip-hop production? Learn how to master hip-hop tracks with one plugin.
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