Trap: 5 Production Essentials

Originally posted by Mode Audio

Trap: 5 Production Essentials

1. Tempo Tantrum

First things first – what sort of BPM are we talking here? Older Trap tracks tended to roll along at around either 70 or 140 BPM but those figures have been boosted a little in more recent times to hit closer to the 80 – 85 BPM mark. Trap tunes can either be constructed at their actual, slower tempo of around 70 – 85 BPM, or if you find it easier to work with, you can double the tempo and create your beats in half-time (in these instances you would spread your beat over two bars, as opposed to only a single bar of the halved tempo).

As soon as you dial a tempo up in the range specified above and listen back to your metronome click, you’ll notice one thing – Trap is slooooooow! This is a major part of where that epic, head-nodding rhythmic feel comes from and when combined with the rhythmic elements we’ll discuss below, you’ll really start to whip up some of that low-slung beat magic.

2. The Machine Rising

So, we’ve got our tempo locked in but what type of sounds do we want to use to construct our Trap drum beat? The key here, as with so many electronic genres, is to turn to those two most classic of analogue drum machines, the Roland TR-808 and TR-909.

Trap kicks comes from the legendary TR-808 but with a twist – rather than keeping the decay fairly short, similar to an acoustic kick drum and as featured in countless dance and classic Hip Hop tunes, Trap producers turn the decay all the way up to beyond the 300ms mark. This creates a lazy, heavy bass sound that constitutes probably the single most recognisable element of the genre.

For snares, Trap heavily favours the famous snare sound created with the TR-909. A nice, snappy click, short sine tone and noise burst does the job perfectly and allows you to tune your snares, more of which we’ll talk about below.

Finally, hi hats and cymbals are also typically taken from the classic drum machines, although using acoustic hi hats can really add spice to your beats. So, to really get going with your Trap beats you’re going to need some quality drum machine samples, so either get sampling your favourite machines if you have the means or pick up a nice, juicy selection of top-notch Trap drum samples (such as those to be found in either our Machine Attacks or Hyper Beats releases).

3. Rhythm & Stealth

Example MIDI files demonstrating the techniques in this section can be found at the bottom of the page.*

As we’ve established, Trap is super-slow, which gives us plenty of space within our grooves and drum patterns to work with. This sparse quality, and when you choose to fill things up and then break them back down, is where Trap gets a lot of its power to build and dispel momentum and tension. With a main snare on the typical 2 and 4 beats, you can get a lot more creative with the syncopation of your kick drum. We’re going to cover the kick further below, so for now let’s turn our attention to those skittering hi hats.

With the snares and kicks being generally fairly sparsely applied, with lots of delicious space in between the hits, the hi hats step in to create some rhythmic counterpoint in the typical Trap beat. The rushing quality achieved with hi hats by many Trap producers is one of the genres most defining features, so we need to get it right in our own experiments.

Firstly, let’s just lay down a simple, straight 1/16th note hi hat pattern – a hat on every semi-quaver, in other words. Now, choose a few sections to switch up to 1/32nd notes, plus even faster sections of 1/64th notes – notice how this really starts to give the groove some accentuation and momentum?

Next, pick out a few other parts of the hi hat pattern to switch to 1/24th and 1/48th note triplets – now your beat is really cooking! The interaction been straight and triplet hi hats lies at the heart of many an epic Trap beat, so play around with the positions of where you switch between the two till you feel your drum pattern really starting to strut along nicely.

Aside from the main snare, Trap beats are often peppered with short, heavily-syncopated snare rhythms or ‘snare rolls’, that have become utterly synonymous with the genre. These can be created in much the same way as your hi hats, mixing up straight and triplet patterns played very quickly but with an added ingredient – you’ll want to tune your snare hits to create pitch sweeps and falls that flow throughout your beat.

To do this, either work with a drum synth that you can automate the pitch of, or load your drum machine sample into a sampler that will allow you to alter and automate the playback pitch – aim for smooth lines and curves that heighten then flatten the tension as you see fit throughout your groove. Think of these snare rolls as fills that will lead the listener through your music, so placing them towards the end of your beat and into new sections of your song is always an effective use.

4. The Biggest Bass

Now, onto the bass at last. To love Trap music is nothing short of bass-addiction, such is the genre’s focus on the lower end of the frequency spectrum. How do we go about achieving this quality? With nothing other than a good TR-808-style kick drum sample of course!

Trap is very unusual in that the kick drum also serves as the bassline, so tuning each kick sample is vital to your track. Similar to how we created the snare rolls above, load your nice, long kick sample into a sampler and automate the playback pitch – rather than smooth lines and curves however, you’ll want to be more precise and change the pitch only at the very beginning of each kick drum hit.

Alternatively, you can create or find yourselves some kick drum sampler instruments (such as those available in our Power Tools release), allowing you to literally play your kick drum/bassline pattern in like you would a synth line. In my opinion, this is by far the easiest and most enjoyable way to programme in your Trap kick drum beats and basslines.

In terms of bassline melody, older Trap music tended to focus on the semi-tone to achieve that sinister quality, so you could always try starting there. You’ll of course want to tailor your kick melody to the type of track you want to create, so play around with different pitches and progressions until you’re happy.

A third method you can use to create big Trap kick and basslines is to use a bass synth, such as NI Massive. Whilst these might not sound quite as thumping as the kick sample method (you can always layer a snappier kick on top of your bassline to rectify this however), you can certainly push the low end to super deep territory with a synth – experiment with your favourite synth or check out our Future Trap release to find some expertly-crafted, ready-to-go kick drum/bassline presets.

5. Synth Zone: Plucks, Arps & Sirens

We’ve got our drums grooving along and the kick drum is bellowing out that deep bassline – so what’s next? Well, synths, leads and melodies!

In the early days of Trap, sinister synth plucks laced with reverb were often favoured, creating plinky plonky sequences that wouldn’t have sounded out of place in a Horror film soundtrack. Then a certain viral video came around and ushered in the era of the ‘siren’ synth lead. The creation of such an effect is all in the pitch envelope, so find yourself a synth that allows you to assign these (such as NI Massive), dial up a thick sawtooth wave and apply a fairly slow, smooth curve from -12 semi-tones up to the desired pitch. Getting the timing right is everything here, so listen carefully to your tune and play about with the length of the pitch envelope. You can pick up a free NI Massive synth lead preset at the bottom of the page to get started with your Trap siren sounds.*

Arpeggiated and gated synth leads are also very common in Trap, so dial in your minor triads (that’s a semi-tone shift of 3 and 7) and 1/16th note LFOs to create ballpark arps and gates. As with the siren lead, sharp, buzzy sawtooth waves and lots of reverb work wonders here, so don’t hold back on the FX!