There are many production techniques that work across genres – good sound is good sound. But every style has its own demands for vocals, and that goes for hip-hop, too.
Hip-hop covers a lot of ground, from ’90s West Coast rappers like Tupac to their boom bap counterparts on the East Coast like Biggie all the way to contemporary artists such as Drake and Future. Rap isn’t like regular ‘singing’ when it comes to mixing, although it sometimes appears alongside more traditional vocal styles, with sung parts and choruses.
When most people think of hip-hop, they think of rappers with lyrics to convey. This means the voice needs to be center-stage and is often mixed louder against the backing than it might be in rock music.
So we need to ensure the bars are clear at all times while protecting the style and intention of the artist, whether that means being laid-back or upfront. If the rapper has a style that works for them, your job as a producer isn’t to change that. Your job is to make it work as well as possible.
Essential mixing software and hardware
If you’re using BandLab, you have what you need on the software front, with effects, editing and automation. We all love nice gear, but you can get great results with affordable equipment.
For headphones, you could use something like the classic Sony MDR-7506, while KRK Rokits are a good example of ‘budget’ monitors. The most important thing is to get familiar with how your setup sounds.
If you’ve got a studio or acoustically treated room, all the better, but that’s not so critical if you’re working on your own material exclusively. It’s more important if you’re a professional mixer, working daily on a variety of other people’s music.
Practicing good recording techniques will save you stress during mixing. Here are a few good places to start:
- Keep an ear out for background noise
- Get a healthy input level with no red peaks at all
- Manage the artist’s distance from the microphone; they can move around and work the mic, but that should be intentional
- Bounce your tracks without effects; save that for later
- Watch out for ‘headphone bleed’, where the singer’s headphones are so loud that the mic is picking up the sound from them
- Turn off notifications on all your devices
Read more: Tips and tricks for recording vocals at home
Mixing vocals is about placing the voice at the correct level through a song, but it’s not simply a matter of moving a fader up and down. There are definite ‘go-to’ effects to be aware of – EQ is where we cut or boost certain frequencies in the track. Sometimes this is done across a wide range, other times it is very precise and nitpicky.
The first stage is to use the EQ to roll off the very low end of the vocal track. Sure, we want our overall project to go deep, but retaining all the lows on every track in a project makes things muddy.
With BandLab’s Graphic EQ, you can start cutting at 100Hz or higher – sometimes even higher frequencies can be cut without affecting the quality of the voice. In more extreme cases, you can roll off anything below 200Hz or even 400Hz for a deliberately thin sound. The sparser a track is, the more lows you can retain in the vocals. In comparison, on a busier piece of music, it helps to thin them out more.
With EQ, it’s the mids that make the bass and highs work. The mid-range is the most important area to cut and boost. If you’re using the BandLab Graphic EQ, try boosting the middle ranges until you isolate any problem areas, then cut that band. Boosting is simply an easier way to hear what’s going on and identify any issues with specific frequency bands.
There are certainly situations where we want to boost, especially near the higher end of the frequency range. It depends on the track and the voice, but boosting the high end from 3.2kHz and upwards can clean up a slightly dull recording. Beware, however, that if your source vocal is too sibilant, you might need to add the DeEsser after the EQ.
Compression works by reducing the distance between the low and high extremes of your track volume. This has the effect of making the track level sound more consistent and, perhaps, louder overall. It’s a great effect, and you can be discreet and use just a little to tame the peaks, or you can smash it hard to really squeeze everything.
It’s not unusual to end up with compression on every track in your project, as well as on the master track. Most compressors also have an output volume control, sometimes called ‘makeup’, that lets you make final adjustments to the overall level.
And remember the point about good recording technique? Well, a downside of compression is that it can boost background noise – so the cleaner your vocal track is, the better.
Read more: Learn about effects: compression
Compression is defined by ‘ratios’. A ratio of 1:1 means nothing is being compressed. For most voice situations, ratios between 2:1 and 4:1 should be enough.
If your compressor has a dry/wet mix, you can set the ratio to a more extreme value but then dial back some of the dry signals. In a denser mix, again, you might need to compress more. But on a more sparse and spacey track, you can keep things sounding more natural. BandLab has four compressors, each with their own sonic character, which shows what an important tool it is.
Pitch correction effects, popularized by AutoTune, can be controversial. Some love them, and some think it’s ‘cheating’. Like any effect, a touch can be a useful repair tool, while at the other extreme, you can really pile it on to create those classic sounds we all know from T-Pain, Kanye West and Young Thug. BandLab iOS has an AutoPitch effect that you can try on vocals.
Delay is a time-based effect that repeats your vocals, with the repeats defined by note values. These note values are usually synced to the track’s tempo so the delay always sounds tight.
Delay should only be used when you want it heard directly as an extra effect, like for an intro or a break. Having delay on all the time can muddy up the mix and detract from the directness of the voice, especially with faster sections.
Read more: Learn about effects: delay
Which brings us to our next time-based effect that’s more commonly used than delays: reverb.
Studio reverb gives dry recordings a real room presence that makes recorded or programmed parts sound more natural or, at a further extreme, lush. It’s all about using the mix control to get the level you want, and it doesn’t have to be the same on every track. Often, with basses and other low sounds, it’s advisable to use little (if any) reverb, while it’s common to use a lot more reverb on backing vocals than on the lead vocal track.
Read more: Learn about effects: reverb
Tape simulation and saturation
Our final effect is harder to define: tape simulation and saturation. So many digital recordings sound sterile – there’s a reason why high-end studios still have racks of analog gear. You can argue all day about whether tape plugins sound like the real thing, but you should only be concerned with one thing: if it sounds good.
In BandLab, you can achieve that warm tape feel by pairing a compressor with a little bit of distortion from, say, the Valve Screamer. Set the “Screamer Overdrive” control pretty high, then use the “Level” control to mix in just a bit of that craziness to give an edge to the track.
Don’t be shy about experimenting with non-standard effects. Yes, they can be gimmicky, but they can also be that special something that propels a song to success.
You can also put vocals through a guitar cabinet simulator – BandLab has one called Guitar Cab. Just go through the cabinet types in the list, and see if there’s one you like.
Read more: Get creative with vocal effects
While you’re mixing, always remember when you’re working on an individual track and to check it in relation to the whole mix. You need to keep that overall picture as your goal.
Listen to your reference tracks from your favorite productions, and make sure you review them on as many different speakers as possible. Studio monitors, laptops, phones, headphones… even your car speakers. That’ll help you get a good averaging-out of your mix so it sounds at its best in different situations.
We all have access to great free software these days. And with these basics, you can make a killer record that’s really raw if that’s what you’re gunning for, or you can polish it up for a glossier vibe.
Read more: How to produce hip-hop in minutes