It’s an art to mix rap & hip-hop vocals. These vocals are usually minimally-treated, way up in the mix, and clarity matters. When your mix has problems, you can’t just bury the vocal or layer them 15 deep like a pop track. It takes attention to detail, subtlety, and an artistic hand to mix rap vocals well.
Fortunately, we asked for advice direct from two of Airbit’s top producers, DopeBoyzMuzic (IG: dopeboyzmuzic ) and ToneJonez . Supported by their advice, we’ve pulled together plenty of tips and advice to make sure your hip hop vocals punch through the mix.
In Mixing Vocals with Instrumentals, we wrote about how a great mix is built in layers, where each layer sets the bar for the fullest potential of the final mix. A great mix starts with a great song, and then the performance, the recording, and finally the mix.
When you mix rap vocals, you’re often coming in at just the final stage. But if you have the chance to be involved in the recording process, it’s worth doing everything you can to get the highest quality source material for your mix. It’ll pay off come mix time. These tips will help you maximize your recording potential and help your vocalist get their greatest performance:
- At minimum, you’ll need a decent microphone connected to a high-quality audio interface. If you can manage a great preamp and a treated room, even better, but the first two cover your absolute minimum bases.
- Invest in decent over-ear headphones so the artist can hear themselves without the sound bleeding out to the microphone. If they prefer to be able to hear themselves directly, you can either pipe the mic signal into the headphones, or pan the backing track hard to one direction and they can leave the other ear open.
- Most vocalists sound better when they slightly tilt their head back — this opens up the throat. But many recording engineers put the microphone at mouth level, which causes the vocalist to close their throat instead. The best practice vocal mic position is slightly higher than the vocalist’s mouth, angled down.
- Microphone position matters. By default, you can leave the mic directly in front of your rapper, but if you’re getting a ton of plosives, you can try angling from the left or right. If their voice sounds too thin, you can take advantage of the proximity effect in your microphone and boost the bass by the mic closer to the vocalist.
- Keep recording, even when your vocalist is warming up or between takes. Magic moments that you can’t replicate happen all the time — be prepared to capture them! It’s helpful to keep a piece of paper to mark times that something interesting happened so you can return to them later.
- Get more takes than you need. A common rule of thumb is to ensure you have three great takes per section of the song. You never know when a subtle problem will emerge in the mix, or when you’ll want to do some layering or call and response. You might even end up comping these great takes into a final super-take! This is another time to hold on to a piece of paper and keep recording until you’ve marked three tallies per section.
- Take the time to get your gain staging in order. A good rule of thumb is to keep your levels between -12db and -18db during the recording process. This leaves you plenty of headroom to push up takes when you need to, without clipping during recording, but isn’t so quiet that recording artifacts (like line noise) creep into the take.
- If you’ve reached the mixing stage, and you realize your recorded material just won’t cut it, tactfully ask for another take. The alternative is a compromised mix.
Now that you have the best possible source material to work with, it’s time to mix.
Mixing Rap Vocals
In Mixing Vocals With Instrumentals, we shared a lot of advice for mixing vocals as well as mixing an entire track. Some of the mot fundamental tips include:
- Compression is great to even out the dynamic range, but it can kill the emotion of the vocal. If compression isn’t working, go to the fader and put in vocal rides. Most DAWs let you record automation, so you can actually listen through the track moving the fader to control dynamics.
- If possible, manually removing problems with your vocal rather than apply a de-esser, de-breather, or sibilance EQ cut across the whole track. Keep in mind that removing noise completely (especially the breath) can make a vocal sound artificial.
- Be gentle with the EQ on vocals. If you have a great recording, you shouldn’t have to do much. Cut before you boost. One of the first things to cut in most vocals is the low end — most of it will be masked in the mix. Listen to the vocal in the mix and run the cut up until you notice any change in the vocal, and then back it off.
Of course, we’ve got a lot more to share! As mentioned above, we asked two of the top producers on Airbit for their advice on mixing rap vocals. Below, you’ll find tips from DopeBoyzMuzic (IG: dopeboyzmuzic ) and ToneJonez , along with other collected advice.
- Mix your vocal in the context of the mix, not on its own (in fact, don’t mix anything for too long in solo).
No [listener] ever hears anything in solo. Period. So the only way to get a great vocal sound is when it’s competing with everything else in the mix.
- The lion’s share of mixing is in arrangement. In most cases, you can easily create space for competing parts with panning, but in hip hop, the two foundational elements of the track are fighting for the center. Focus the majority of your time on the relationship between the kick and bass and between the vocal and snare. The best case is to try and separate their frequencies — a high-pitched rapper can be better served with a midrange snare that competes less with their voice.
- Take it easy with effects.
Try not to overdo things with plugins. Generally, less is more. The goal is to enhance the vocal performance. Being too aggressive with eq, compression, reverb, etc can cause the finished product to sound amateur.
- Clean and EQ before you compress. Compressors act by reducing peaks in volume in your track, after which you can apply gain to raise the level to sound louder than before. Because of this, compressors homogenize levels while emphasizing issues with imbalanced frequencies and noise. If you remove unwanted noise and equalize first, you can reduce this emphasis; if you compress first, you generally create even bigger problems you’ve got to address.
- If you need more space on your vocal, consider a delay instead of a reverb. Reverbs can smear the sound, which is a problem when you need as much clarity on a hip hop vocal as you can get. A delay with its high end rolled off, on the other hand, can give the sense of space without affecting your ability to understand the lyrics. If you’re sold on the reverb sound but it’s getting in the way, try pushing the pre-delay up. This separates the start of the reverb from the sound source by a short delay, which helps your brain separate the sounds.
- For best results, avoid relying on presets and curate your processing to each unique performance.
Every voice is different and needs different processing, same goes for beats, so there is no perfect formula that will work for every song, which is why you have to learn how to analyze a recording before you even get started. As a beginner, working with presets is good to give you a starting point, but at some point you need to develop an ear for how vocals need to sound in a rap song, so that you can make every recording sound great.
Most modern mixing happens in the DAW, and that means using plugins. To wrap up, we asked ToneJonez and DopeBoyzMuzic for their favorite plugins and a favorite technique for mixing rap vocals.
- What is your favorite plugin for mixing rap vocals?
The 1176 and LA2A compressors are a classic combo for vocals. Both Waves and Universal Audio make great plugin versions of these hardware units. The 1176 does the initial compression and LA2A is thrown on afterwards in the chain to smooth things out. This combo does a great job at keeping the vocal present in the mix.
I love working with the Oxford Inflator! It’s one of those one knob type of plugins where there’s a lot of “magic” going on in the background and you can only adjust how much of the actual effect you want, but it works great when you want to change the way the vocals sit in the mix. It’s really easy to “inflate” the vocals and bring them upfront without affecting the dynamics of the vocals at all.
- What is your favorite advice for mixing punchy rap vocals?
Punchy rap vocals start with getting a clean vocal take. Make sure to record around 6 inches away from the mic and utilize a pop filter to avoid unwanted artifacts. Once your vocal take is recorded, you can use a high pass filter eq to cut out low frequencies around 80-100hz. To make things punchy, throw on a compressor at a 4:1 ratio with a slow attack and fast release. Play around with the attack/release and threshold settings until you find your ideal sound.
EQ, parallel compression and distortion. You will always find those 3 in our mixes when it comes to treating rap vocals. EQ to make the vocals sound clear and crisp and to get rid of unwanted things, parallel compression to bring the vocals upfront and make them sit in the mix just right and distortion to add some character.