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How to Record Trap Music (A Beginner's Guide)
Last Saturday my grandparents celebrated their 75th and 80th birthdays, respectively. At this point I had barely slept for a week, which my sister & cousins got a hold off when they received a manic phone call from me Wednesday evening, talking their head off about how we had to, had to, make a parody of this particular trap song, and how this would be the greatest gift of all time. I assured them, that I, being a superstar genius recording engineer & rapper, would make them sound absolutely amazing on tape. Somehow I convinced them all to come, and the very next night we were sitting around the dinner table recording, and I held my promise. They all sounded like popstars in the end.
This article is for you who:
- is blasting trap for 10 hours / day, every day
- has been secretly playing around with GarageBand
- actually has some bars... somewhere in the notes app on your phone
If that's you, we can uplift you from that pathetic state of affairs and into natural stardom, letting you make beautiful
mp3 files whenever you desire.
How? By teaching you to record! Why? Because the trap sound is all about utilizing modern recording equipment to make music directly from the heart. See, if you have great taste & great tooling, you don't actually need that much craftsmanship. And modern audio tools are great.
That's why my family members (none of whom had recorded a song in their life) could sound almost as good as I did after like ~three years of rapping. All the painful recording mistakes I had to make, I could simply show them how not to make. Every "trick" for making your vocals sound better, we could use.
I'm not gonna teach you how to rap, or write songs, or produce beats, or anything like that. I'm gonna teach you how to record vocals, and how to get out of your own way. That's it. I'm confident that's where you'll get the biggest bang for your buck.
So without further ado, here is everything I've learned about recording music in the last 4 years:
You don't need one great take. The vast majority of trap music is recorded through “punching”. Punching just means you do a lot of short, sequential takes. For example, instead of doing 10 takes of your 16-bar verse (trying to get it just right), you might just record the first two bars. And when you’re happy with those two, you can record two more, and if you make an effort, you can match the first ones so perfectly that nobody can tell.
Here's me punching 2 bars at a time:
Here’s a clip of Lil Baby punching one bar at a time:
And a great tutorial on how to punch in Logic Pro: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aesmY4hlIFE&t=328s
Don't write, record. If you don't have training in reproducing written music (like notes or lyrics), writing is the premiere way to suck the soul out of what you're trying to record. Memorize what you wanna say, and record it. If you can't work out an entire song in your head (hint: most people can't), work out parts of it, and record the parts as you finish them. You can always write them down later, if you really want to.
Here's a clip of Lil Wayne recording a verse he wrote entirely in his head (as per usual):
The reason this works so well is because you're already doing a thousand musical things without any awareness of it. When you write it down, you let go of the details (rhythm, melody, strain, intonation, how much saliva your mouth was producing, how big your overbite was at that point, your mood, vocal projection, etc.) that were doing all the heavy lifting. The words are really only 10% of it, and you forget this when trying to reproduce them.
Don't believe me? Listen to some popular trap songs and notice how many production mistakes are left in. You'd think that the artist asks for a re-record when the engineer accidentally cuts off half a syllable?! But no, they leave it in. Why? Because the (albeit broken) takes also had magic, and the artist forgot what they did to get that magic. So capture that magic while it's there, and accept the mistakes that may come with it.
Finish faster. Another great way to kill a track is to spend too long on it. You don't have to stay until it's perfect. It's worse to be boring than to be flawed.
Mumble freestyles. If you can throw moves on the dance floor, yes, even the dumb ones, you can catch a groove in real time. Use this magical ability, and record a mumble take the very first time you hear the beat. The words should be inaudible nonsense. Just focus on riding the rhythms, melodies, and vibes that come to you.
Here's Lil Baby doing a mumble take:
Don't cover your fucking ears. Seriously, if something sounds off, try removing your over-ears. Use wired Apple EarPods (that's how I do it), or take one of your over-ears off. You need to hear your own voice how you're used to hearing it. Otherwise you'll fuck up pitch, intonation, projection, volume, clarity, and so much more.
(Obviously, some people do like over-ears; see Wayne & Baby in the above videos for example. But for some people they cause a lot of trouble, so be wary!)
Use auto-tune. It's the greatest thing since equal temperament. It's free lunch. People who like trap and pop don't mind the sound of it, and it allows you to make authentic melodies even if you can't sing. It takes 16 seconds (and it's free!) to add Pitch Correction in Logic Pro:
Make sure the key is set to the key of the beat. You can find the key of your beat by dragging and dropping it into Tunebat Analyzer. If it says "minor", it could be "pentatonic minor", "natural minor", "melodic minor", or "harmonic minor". Try every one of them and choose the one that sounds best. If it says "major", just choose "major scale".
Vocal chains. There's so much you can do here, and I'm absolutely no mixing expert, but the basics are:
- Auto-tune: see the above section.
- EQ: can make your vocals sound less muddy. Highlight the frequencies with the most clarity (often 1k-4k), and cut the frequencies that overlap too much with the instrumental (overlap muddies both the vocals and the instruments). But please - do this gently!
- Compressor: the compressor brings down the loudest peaks in your track, after an "attack" delay (that you can set). This levels out the volume in your track + it creates a subtle "punching" effect in the first X miliseconds of a loud peak, before the attack delay is over and the compressor kicks in.
- Reverb: that's pretty obvious, no?
Mixing is a super deep topic, but there's a million great YouTube channels that you can easily rabbit hole into. I've enjoyed Wayne.wav for specifics and pragmatism, and The House of Kush for a healthy dose of idealism and philosophy.
Source separate your favorite beats. It can be easier to make great songs when they're a remix/parody of something that's already great. Making a parody song for someone you care about can be a great gift. You can use lalal.ai or a similar service to remove the vocals from any song you like. You couldn't do this 5 years ago. Be grateful and shut up about the "state of the world".
Project, don't strain. Your vocals should be energetic, but not strained. Relax your voice, sit directly in front of the microphone, and aim your words at a ghost sitting 3 feet behind it.
Think back to when you've spoken to a friend sitting across the room, while still sounding perfectly relaxed. This is projection without strain. Aim for this feeling.
The central thesis is this: You are human. Humans have natural musical talent. Removing all obstacles in the process will help you create beautiful music, by utilizing that same muscle you use to enjoy beautiful music.
If you have good taste in music then you can make tasteful music, given lots of practice or great tooling. Luckily it's 2022, and we have great tooling.
Should I write a post on how to actually rap?