How To Make Trap Music: 12 Essential Tips!February 3, 2018
Trap music has truly evolved over the years, most notably the heavy bass end of the genre.
From the head-bobbing rap-like beats to heavy hitting leads from the likes of Flosstradamus and SLANDER, this style has grown to be a large portion of the EDM scene.
Recognized for its booming 808’s and hard hitting kick drums, trap music has become a staple in EDM playlists across the world. There’s a lot of diversity within the genre, but there are still a few core elements that are common among trap songs.
In this article we’ll be going over some of the key factors that you should keep in mind when creating trap music. We’ll be going over the following to get you started:
- Picking The Right Kick & Snare
- Processing Your Drums
- Make A Huge Lead
- Build Tension With A Great Build
- Drop Production
- Use A Reference Track To Guide Arrangement
- Add In Melodic Elements
- Put In Drum Fills Or Percussion Hits
- Mixdown & Mastering
Let’s get started by taking a look at one of the most important pieces of trap music: the 808.
Having a large sub bass that really hits in your drop is a key element to trap music. Here are a few quick tips and suggestions for you to try and boost your sub to really hit when it’s most important.
Pick A Good 808 Sample
One way to make sure your sub bass sticks out is to choose from a selection of good 808 samples.
Dropping a high-quality sample into your DAW’s version of a sampler is a great starting point. Add drive, saturation, and even some overdrive to make sure you get some upper harmonics as well.
This will ensure your sub is heard on speakers, laptops or even phones. Don’t be afraid to EQ your sound to taste! Just make sure you don’t boost the low end as this may cause phasing issues down the line.
Use A Saturation Send
Another unique way of processing your bass would be to construct a send or return where you’ve placed a frequency-splitting EQ on it alongside a saturator to add upper harmonics.
Look at the pictures below. Here, we’ve created an effect rack (in Ableton) and set one chain up as a high pass to cut out the lower frequencies (Below 100hz) and another as a low pass (Cut everything above 100hz).
Simply mute the lower frequencies by making sure the little speaker icon is greyed out and place your favorite saturator onto the high pass EQ and voila! Send your sub track to this return, and experiment with the amount of saturation and input gain you throw at it.
This will help your sub cut through and allow it to be heard through smaller speakers so your booming sub will still be perceived even when the speakers don’t extend to the lower part of the frequency spectrum.
If you want to see how to construct or hone in on the right sound for you 808, check out this video!
Finding the right 808 is an important step when creating a trap song, but now you’ll have choose the right kick and snare.
This can often make or break your track, so the next section will go over some tips that’ll help you make tough decision.
2. Picking The Right Kick And Snare
There aren’t many elements to a song that stand out as much as the kick and snare. Both are hard hitting pieces of your song that you should take extra care of, especially when working in the trap genre.
When choosing your kick, you want to make sure it’s in the same key that you’re writing in. A quick and easy way to do this is to drop a tuner or an EQ on the same track as your kick, hit play, and see where the largest peak is (if you’re going the EQ route).
That’s the fundamental note of your kick. The general rule of thumb here is to make sure the kick is tuned to the same key you’re working in. Meaning, if you’re writing in F Minor, your kick’s fundamental should be the note F.
It’s also important to have good mid-range frequencies on the kick, also known as the “knock”, so that it will cut through the booming 808’s in your song.
This is extremely important as these two elements will be blended together.
The kick/808 combination is absolutely necessary when working in this style. It’s one of the key features that really stands out in the trap genre.
Choosing your snare is just as important as the kick you choose to use in your song. A snare that pops, and is unique will catch the listener’s ear.
Here, it’s important to layer your snare to create a sound that has a strong hit, full body, and stands out against the rest of your arrangement but still blends well in your mix.
Typically, you’ll need to layer a few snare sounds in order to achieve this. Because you want your snare to stand out in this genre, you’ll want to have at least two layers that take care of the lower end of the spectrum (full body end) and the higher (airy) end of the spectrum.
It’s not necessary to sit for hours in order to choose the “perfect” kick or snare, so try to avoid getting hung up here – you can always replace it later. Don’t forget how useful an EQ can be used here to alter your sound so pick something that sounds right and play around with it.
Remember to make sure that the snare compliments the kick and to choose samples that reflect that. This simply means choosing sounds that seem like they go together.
A quick way to ensure this is to pull samples from within the same sample pack. Your ear will develop over time and you’ll get a better feel for what fits as you create more music, so don’t get too frustrated over this step.
Picking which kick or snare to use is only the start. How you go about fitting your kick and snare into your mix is almost just as important. Let’s get into how you go about doing that.
When working in trap music, sidechain compression is your best friend! Sidechain compression simply ducks, or compresses, the volume of a sound so that frequencies that may have the potential to clash, don’t.
Generally speaking, a ghost kick is used alongside a compressor in order to achieve this effect.
In trap music, you’d use sidechain compression on your 808’s in order to duck the sub bass just as the kick hits so that the lower end frequencies on either one don’t cancel each other out.
By doing so, you not only prevent phasing, but this could aid in your mix by making sure your bottom end doesn’t get too “muddy”.
Pro Tip: If you use Ableton, select the lookahead to 10ms so that the compressor can see further ahead and work instantly when your kick comes in.
Now that your kick and snare are fitting better in your mix overall, you’re going to want to process them together to really pop. In trap music, this is accomplished a number of ways. Let’s move on to how you should process your drums to make this happen.
4. Processing Your Drums
One of the biggest mistakes a new producer can make is to over-process, or under-process their drums and drum busses. Drums, especially in bass music, can really make a drop stand out, so it’s important to get them right.
Here are a few quick tips to make your drums really stand out. Remember, the drums, next to the 808, are one of the most important elements in this genre of music, so you’re going to want to take extra care of them.
Play Like A Drummer
Try programming or placing your samples with this in mind: Would a real drummer be able to play this? A drummer only has two arms and two legs to work with. A quick way to make your track sound busy is to add in too much drum action.
This is especially true in trap music. During the drop, the main elements that are happening at the same time are the kick, snare, hihats, drum fills, sub bass, and the lead synth.
If you add in too many drum sounds, it would feel way too cluttered and distract the listener from what you’re really trying to let them hear: the bass and the lead.
Use Glue Compression
Glue compression is perfect for pushing your drum pieces together so that they seem more cohesive and, essentially, glued. Try adding this to your drum group and keep a slower attack and a quick release – you don’t want this compressor to squash the dynamics of your sound.
Think of it as a nice massage to get your drums to sound glued together, but nothing more than that.
Use Parallel Compression
Parallel compression, or “New York” compression, is essentially a send or a return where you squash your drum sound to make them seem punchier, livelier, and larger than life. Utilizing this type of compression can yield some big results
This is achieved by setting up a drum buss or a return, EQ out the low end below 50hz, place a compressor on it, and set your settings to taste as you send your drums to the buss.
Many third-party compressors have their own settings for achieving this type of compression, but in case you don’t have access to any of these, here are some solid settings that are used throughout the trap genre to get you started.
Ratio: At least 3:1 or higher, you really want to compress, or squash, your sound
Threshold: As low as you can go – watch for the compressor to begin to release at the end of sustained hits
Attack: Fast (2ms or faster) if you’re looking to thicken up your drums or Slow (10ms or slower) for punchiness
Release: Auto or slow (100ms and up)
Gain: Controlled by either changing the volume of the bus or by changing the amount of the group being sent to the bus. Make sure the overall volume of your track isn’t changed as you add in the volume of the compressed sound.
Saturate Your Snare
A great way to get the best bang out of your snare is to saturate it. Place a saturator onto your snare channel and pump up the drive knob by a few dBs.
Now, on the output knob, subtract the same amount you pumped up your signal by. Cross compare the amount of dBs the snare hits at with the saturator on and then off, and notice the difference.
If done properly you can save a few dBs of headroom while the perceived volume of your snare remains the same! Trust your ears here. If you perceive the volume to go down, you’ve most likely saturated it too much.
In trap music, having properly processed drums is a must. Try these tips and tricks out and watch your drums really pop during your drops.
Now that you’ve got a booming sub bass and clean sounding drums, let’s go over some ways to get your lead sound to really cut through.
5. Make A Huge Lead Sound
Sound design is arguably one of the most important pieces of your production – especially in trap music. Huge leads that thump along to a booming sub bass during the drop are the defining characteristics of this genre.
Because of this, sound design is extremely important and is what makes your track stand out above the rest. A great lead will set you apart from the competition, so let’s dive into a few quick tips to help improve your sound.
Now, we understand that sound design isn’t the easiest thing to learn overnight. An easy way to give you a head start would be to load up a number of lead presets from your favorite sound banks and dissect them.
Above you’ll see an effects chain for one of our presets in the Nightmares Vol. 2 pack for Serum. Adding in a big reverb, a multiband compressor, and distortion are common effects for a lead in this genre.
Experiment with your favorite synths and really dive into presets to start creating your own!
The bigger the lead sound, the harder your song will drop. Take a listen to NGHTMRE and Dillon Francis on their track, “Another Dimension” and really focus on the lead in the drop.
Notice that the soundscape is made up of just the kick, snare, sub, and a huge, reverb-heavy lead sound. You only need a few elements in the drop to make a banger, and that’s why a great lead is so important.
Utilize your reverbs, delays, and other effects to create a large space for the sound to fill as well!
Pro-tip: Try enabling “mono” on your synth with “glide” and make the notes overlap each other to add a pitching up or down effect.
If sound design isn’t your strength, we have a masterclass that dives into creating a sound from scratch, start to finish, in Serum – one of the biggest software synths out there. It’s featured on our website, Academy.fm, and is live now so check it out!
Every great trap song builds tension as the song goes on, right up until the drop where your huge lead and heavy bass come in. Let’s go over some ways you can really add to your builds.
6. Build Tension With A Great Build
Having a great build that captivates the listener is critical in trap music. It builds tension, suspense, and leads right up to the release, or “drop”. A good build will set the tone of the drop and should be epic in its own sense.
Add New Elements Leading To The Drop
A great way to make an epic build is to start by adding in elements as the drop approaches. We have an example of this below to give you an idea of what we mean here.
Take a listen to this build for a remix of “Stay For It” by Tascione. Listen to how he adds in new elements to build tension (kick drum, auto panned hits, building drum roll, etc). Slowly adding in new pieces helps to the build the tension leading up to your drop.
One of the main reasons this works is because of the idea of tension and release. You add in a bunch of elements and then immediately remove them, only to replace it with something else (the drop).
Also, take note of how Tascione previews his lead sound right before the drop. This is a great way to prep your listener’s ear for what’s coming and is a perfect way to continue the flow of your track right into the release of your rising tension.
Add A Rising Pitch Bend
Another element to add in your builds is a note rising in pitch as the build reaches the drop. Check out Dillon Francis’ remix of Mi Gente around the 49 second mark to get an idea of what we’re talking about.
Using a rising note like this adds an uneasiness in the listener and helps add to the tension we spoke about earlier.
A classic EDM move is to use a snare roll right before the drop. Trap music isn’t any different here.
Classic Snare Roll
Usually, this is achieved by spacing out a snare hit every 1/8th note, then 1/16th, and then finishing with 1/32nd notes right before the drop hits. Try different variations to achieve the effect you’re looking for!
Check out Zedd’s snare roll in “Adrenaline” for an example of a snare build right before the drop.
Now, a tension-filled build up is nothing without the subsequent drop. In order for your drops to absolutely slam, you need a lead sound that really sticks out.
7. Drop Production
Having a great lead is only half of the equation when it comes to your drops. Great drum sample selection, the style and flow of your drop, and creating unique turnarounds are just some of the things you need to keep in mind when working on your track.
Here are a few quick tidbits on how you can add style to your drops.
Practice, Practice, Practice
This should go without saying. If you feel your drops aren’t quite on par yet with what you’re listening to everyday, you need to practice this section of music.
Open up your DAW and set your BPM – trap music is usually between 140 and 170 beats per minute – and lay down a simple drum loop. Start at 8 bars and work your way up to 16.
Next, make drop after drop all within the same project. Once you have one that you feel is completed enough, move on and start a new drop in the same project.
Use a reference track to help guide you on where each element should sit and where each drum or synth hit should be. The more you make, the more you will learn how to improve your drops.
Change Up The Back End
Most trap drops are about 16 bars long, and as a result, the ears of your listener may get tired of what you’re throwing at them. A great way to avoid this is to change it up after the first half of the drop.
Take a listen to “Core” by RL Grime. During the second half of the release, he not only drops the pitch of the lead sound down an octave, but also adds in a hi-hat to keep you interested. Adding in an element or slightly changing something in the second half of your drop will go a long way.
Here, you could also add an arpeggiator to push your drop forward in the second half! The possibilities are endless, so experiment with a few different things in the back end of your drops to see what works!
Put In A Turnaround
A turnaround is just a fancy type of transition in music. It’s usually used as a transition into the second half of a drop or to transition into the breakdown after the drop.
Take a look at the end of the drop in Zeds Dead and Diplo’s “Blame”. Here, they use a drum fill and a neuro-like respace to transition into the breakdown of the song.
Turnarounds are a great way to keep the intensity of your drop moving and can be achieved a number of ways! Try even using silence in your turnarounds to really add depth and creativity to your drops.
You’ve made a bunch of drop ideas and now you’re struggling to get your ideas out to a full song. Don’t worry! This is a common issue, so let’s see how using a reference track can help you with the arrangement of your trap song.
8. Use A Reference Track To Guide Arrangement
Working in a new genre can be difficult, especially if you’re accustomed to working in a specific style of music that may not be at-all similar to what you’re trying to make. If you’re new to making trap music, use a reference track to help you out.
Using a reference track is just like looking at a picture while you’re drawing. The idea is to use it as a guiding point for the layout, flow, and overall help in the arrangement of your track.
The goal here is to use it as a guide – not copy the song. So, grab a favorite trap song of yours and drag it into your DAW.
Mark out the sections with location markers that sound like the verses, drops, and build ups/breakdowns. Now, let’s look at further deconstructing the song so you can get a clearer picture of how to arrange a trap song by asking a few questions.
How many bars long is each section? The sections that repeat, are they the same? What changes throughout the song? What elements come in and out? When each section is transitioning, what’s happening?
Being able to critically listen to a song and dismantle it will only help you in your productions. It’ll not only improve your ear to listen more intently to the smaller details in music, but it’ll also help you to apply the things you hear back into your music.
When you’re writing a song, the way you layout your track is just as important as how it sounds. A good arrangement means the listener will be captivated and will stick around to listen to your whole song. So, take your time and dig into the reference and learn its ins and outs.
Now, start your track any way that you would normally begin, and get to work. If at any point you feel like you’re getting stuck, go back to your reference track and see how they flow each section together or what elements make up the section you’re working on.
Use it to guide your decisions and help you clear through any roadblocks you may hit while writing your music.
As a tip, try not to focus on sounding exactly the same as the track you’re referencing. Keep in mind their track has been mixed down and mastered and you’re just beginning to get your track up off the ground.
Those stages come after your main idea is laid out, so don’t get hung up on this and let it distract you from completing your track.
Trap Song Arrangement
We’ve taken a look at trap music specifically and created this guide to help you start out in your arrangements if you’re looking to get right down to it. Try out this common trap-style arrangement for a good starting point:
Intro: 4 bars
Verse: 8 bars
Build: 4-8 bars
Drop: 16 bars
Breakdown/Verse 2: 8 bars
Build 2: 4-8 bars
Drop 2: 16-32 bars
Outro: 8 bars
Either way, if you use a reference track or use the guide above, you’ll have a great template to use moving forward as you develop in the trap genre.
Use The Arrangement Template To Get Your Idea Into A Song
Using a reference track can also help you if you’re ever stuck in the infamous “16 bar loop” of death.
It allows you to copy and paste each part, add or remove the necessary elements, and break out your loop into a skeleton version of a full song that resembles the layout of your reference. Use it to clearly see when certain elements should be added or removed!
Having a reference is a great tool to help you along the way as you’re developing your unique sound, so don’t be afraid to use one each time you produce!
Check out this article if you’re looking for more of a how-to guide for this tip specifically.
Another staple to the trap genre is the presence of melodic elements.
9. Add In Melodic Elements
Melodic elements can really add flare to your track. Things like an arpeggiator, unique synths, or adding in stabs, can make your track flow and grab the attention of the listener.
For instance, brass instruments are often used in trap music throughout the drops and can add a heaviness that’s found in this genre of music.
Check out this song by NGHTMRE where he uses a brass horn to push the melody forward in his drop. The Mi Gente remix by Dillon Francis we listened to earlier also utilizes these brass instrument stabs.
Here, Flosstradamus uses an arpeggiator in the breakdown to push the track forward to its next build and subsequent drop.
Use melodic elements where they make sense in your track, don’t just throw as much in as you can – you don’t want your song to get too busy. Generally speaking, less is more!
Now, let’s talk about how using drum fills or percussion hits can really drive your drops forward.
10. Put In Drum Fills Or Percussion Hits
A booming sub, a huge lead sound, and captivating drum fills should be the highest on your priority list when constructing your trap drop.
Tom fills, off beat drum hits, and interesting perc sounds can really make or break a great drop. Take a listen to Castor Troy’s remix of “Let Go”.
Observe how he brings you in with that dirty lead sound and breaks the tension with a quick, reverb-heavy “pop” percussion hit. He then transitions into a tom fill after the lead hits again to complete the turnaround.
Drum fills like this can really bring your drop together while pushing your track forward by keeping the listener attentive.
Take a listen to a bunch of trap artists out there right now, almost every single one will use some sort of drum fill in their drop to move their tracks along.
Also, don’t shy away from using interesting sounds or hits to make these. Your sound of choice doesn’t necessarily need to be just a tom drum.
Check out the drop in Conro’s “On My Way Up” for an example of using unconventional sounds to add character and a uniqueness to his track.
If your drop feels empty, give these tips a shot and see how more dynamic your music feels after adding these in.
This leads us to a very important concept that every producer should be utilizing when creating music in a new genre – experimentation!
As you create more and more tracks don’t forget to experiment as you’re producing!
Take bits from the styles you love and try to infuse them into your next trap song. Experiment with all of the tips we’ve provided so far in this guide!
The EDM side of trap music didn’t really begin until artists started to combine the typical structure of an EDM track with elements from traditional hip hop instrumentals. Now, trap music is everywhere.
The point we’re trying to convey here is to never lose that curiosity that you’ve had since day one when you decided to pursue music production. Don’t follow everything by the rule book!
Will that snare work when it’s layered with a tambourine? Give it a shot! You never know what you may develop so try everything!
When it comes to trap music, this type of mentality will help your tracks stand out in the long run.
Next, we’re going to go over a few important tips to help with your mixdowns and mastering.
12. Mixdown and Mastering
This is the final stage of your production – the last bit of shine and polish to make your track ready for streaming, downloads, or for use in the club. Here, you’re going to make slight adjustments to make your track sound well put together.
For trap music, you’re going to want to make your song sound huge, clean, and loud. Before we give you some tips on how to achieve this, there’s one major thing we need to note. The mastering stage isn’t meant to fix any glaring issues or problems within your track.
Mastering isn’t a magical fix-all for your song. If something is wrong as you’re mixing down and mastering your track, you are most likely going to have to fix it in the mix before you move further along. It’s very important to remember this as you work through this stage.
This process takes a long time to learn, so don’t get frustrated if your tracks don’t sound exactly the same as your favorite artists. Practice, practice, practice.
We’re not going to go into too much detail about the mastering process, as it really deserves an article by itself with the amount of information we could go over. Here are a few quick tips to get you started.
Make Sure Your Sub Frequencies Are Mono
This means all of your heavy sub frequencies are dead center in your mix. If you’re going to be blasting your banger on larger sound systems you’re going to want to make sure you don’t have any phasing issues.
You don’t want a great track to sound terrible because of this, so make sure you use either a stock plugin, or a 3rd party plugin like iZotope Ozone (above image), to ensure your low end is in mono.
There’s no need to squash your mix to make it as loud as possible. Most streaming services, including Spotify, now lower the overall volume of their tracks to be at a matching perceived volume.
You won’t need to worry about making your track louder than your competition, it’ll all sound the same now! By not over-compressing you’re also keeping in all of the dynamics of your track that you’ve probably put a lot of hours of work into.
Over-compression should be your enemy. Here’s an example so you can hear the difference between a normal and an over-compressed track.
Use Staged Limiting To Make Your Song Loud
This genre is known for songs that are in your face – but how do you achieve that as transparent as possible without destroying your song?
One of the answers is staged limiting. This simply means stacking up a number of limiters in succession and increasing the volume slowly across each one.
By doing so, you spread the workload out across a number of limiters instead of just one or two. As an example, let’s say you used 1 limiter to increase your track by 10 dB of gain.
It’s possible, that by using one limiter, you create artifacts left over from the digital clipping that is most likely occurring to get the loud parts quieter, and the quieter parts louder.
Alternatively, you could use 5 separate limiters and increase each one by 2 dB of gain, bringing your loudness level up while avoiding any artifacts.
Give it a shot, this is a surefire way to get your track loud without destroying all of your hard work.
There are also a number of excellent resources to check out when learning how to approach this stage of production.
For starters, we offer a number of courses and tutorials on Academy.fm. Check out our website under the mixing and mastering section to go through step-by-step guides on how to mix and master.
There are some great videos there, specifically dealing with the trap genre.
Check out this article to get some tips for when you’re mixing your song. Your mixdown needs to be on point in order for your master to come out well – they go hand in hand.
Listen, we know that mixing and mastering is not an easy thing to do. Always chase the learning curve and absorb as much information as you can. The more you practice you get, the better you will be as you develop your sound!
Trap music in the EDM scene has evolved significantly over the last few years. With its heavy-hitting bases and punchy drums, this genre of dance music isn’t going anywhere.
We hope you found our guide of tips and tricks helpful as you start to create this style of music, as well as apply these to any other style you may be interested in.
We’ve gone over everything from song arrangement, to creating your 808’s, to how to make a better, more dynamic, drop.
Put any of these tips into practice and your tracks are surely to go up in production value!
What were some of your favorite tips?
Did we miss anything that you’d like to see covered in the future?
Let us know below!