RECORDING HIP HOP & RAP IN CHICAGO
When it comes to Hip Hop & Rap music, many music aficionados like to think of them in a negative context. Their argument, that these genres really aren’t music because they’re absent of any melodic structure and theory, could hold true if you were alive during the Baroque Period. But what they forget is rhythm is just as important as melody. Rhythm is what drives melody and harmony. It is its’ foundation or backbone.
Hip Hop & Rap music, driven largely by drumbeats and rhythmically spoken word vocals called “raps”, is an exploration into the sound and syncopation of rhythm. The drumbeat in rap music usually provides the basic rhythm of the song, while the “spoken rap” provides the intricately syncopated rhythms to the beat. Understanding & appreciating that these two core elements are central to the hip hop and rap genres are vitally important to the correct approach and methods of recording these styles of music.
While it’s true that recording Hip Hop & Rap may not be as complicated as recording a live Jazz Ensemble or Rock Band per se, the process of recording a good rap vocal is equally as complicated. It is not just about setting up a microphone or headphones and then pressing record. First, the room in which the rapper is recorded in must be taken into consideration. The sound or ambience of a room can have a major effect on a recorded vocal. When a rapper is performing, the waveforms coming from his or her voice bounce and reflect in many different directions around the room they are recording in. Depending on the size of the room and the materials it is built out of, will determine the length of time the waveform will reflect or reverberate around the room. This effects the overall tone of the vocal recorded, sometimes pretty dramatically. A room with a lot of reverb, or a wet room, isn’t preferable when recording good sounding rap vocals. A wet room can tend to smear the sound of the voice or rap, dulling out the rhythmical excitement and clarity of the performance. Recording rap vocals in rooms that do not possess reflective or reverberate qualities, also known as a dry or dead room, is most optimal when attempting to capture a good rap performance.
The next thing to consider when attempting to record a good “rap” performance is the microphone that will be used to capture the recording. The microphone, which is a transducer, is the most important piece of the recording process. It is the conduit that allows the rapper’s voice and message to be heard anywhere, anytime. Imagine if you could buy yourself a pair of ears, would you buy yourself a cheap or average pair of ears? No, you would get the best ears you could afford so you could have the best hearing possible. The same can be said for microphones, you want the best possible so the listener can really hear you. Good vocalist microphones should provide a crisp and smooth high frequency response, along with a warm and present midrange, and a warm but gentle low frequency response. Condenser microphones such as Neuman U47, AKG C12, Telefunken Ela M 251, or the Audio Technica 4060 (which is what we use) are great not only for Hip Hop and Rap, but Pop, Rock, and Jazz among many other styles of music.
The third thing to consider when recording a rap performance is the power and pre amplification source for the microphone. Good condenser microphones like the U47 Microphone or AT 4060 require either a direct power source like a power supply or phantom power, which is a power source built into your pre amplifier device. However, the best way to power your microphone is from a power supply. Good power supplies are built from high quality parts and electronics, which will in turn relay a clean and steady direct source of power to your microphone. Power supplies are the better option because their job is to solely provide power to the microphone and nothing else. With a pre amplifier, phantom power relays electricity to your microphone from the same circuitry that powers the amplifier. The power source is just not as clean and reliable because it is divided amongst the different circuitry within the pre amp. It’s kind of like moving water through one hose and then splitting the flow off into four hoses. Water will flow out of the four hoses, but the water pressure will be less reliable and steady than if it flowed out of just the one hose.
Now that we understand the importance of powering your condenser microphone with a power supply, it is now time to discuss the pre amplification of the microphone signal into your recorder. Microphone signals are often too weak to be transmitted to units such as mixing consoles and recording devices with adequate quality. Preamplifiers increase the microphone signal to line level (the level of signal strength required by such devices) by providing stable gain while preventing induced noise that would otherwise distort the signal.
Even though the microphone is the source to most of the coloration of the recorded vocal tracks, the microphone preamplifier also affects the sound quality of the signal. A preamplifier might load the microphone with low impedance, forcing the microphone to work harder and thus change its tone quality. It also might add coloration by adding other built in characteristics, or features such as vacuum tubes, equalization, and dynamics control. The preamplifier we use here at Studio 11 is the Manley Voxbox, which is a vacuum tube amplifier with both equalization and dynamics control. Out of the 18 years or so of recording both Rap and Hip Hop, we haven’t come across a better preamplifier for recording ‘rap’ vocals. The preamp delivers a warm sound, with good midrange at around 1k. The limiter is great for controlling rappers whose performances are rather dynamic.
The last step in the process of recording Rap & Hip Hop vocals is the consideration of the recorder that will be used to capture the performance. Back at the start when Hip Hop & Rap first found its way into the music scene across Chicago, the rapper’s performances, beat, and music were all recorded to analog tape in a professional music studio. This helped provide that rich warm dirty sound that characterized such early Chicago Hip Hop artists like Common, Crucial Conflict, Ten Tray, and Twista to name a few. As time progressed, digital media like the Alesis ADAT and the Tascam DA Series began to take over the recording market because of their affordability over analog tape machines. Smaller localized studios began to open up offering cheaper rates over larger professional studios, which in turn offered more artists the chance to get into a studio and record their projects.
By the early 90’s, companies like Digidesign, Synclavier, and Sonic Solutions began to develop software & hardware for the purpose of recording and editing audio on a computer based system. At first, these DAW systems were expensive and could only record and edit. But by the late 90’s, Digidesign’s flagship software & hardware system Pro Tools started to become the industry wide standard by allowing engineers to not only record and edit multi-track audio in real time, but mix, master, compose, and arrange it as well. No system could offer all these options to the degree of reliability and stability that Pro Tools could offer at the time. Also, projects and sessions became completely recallable which was always a tedious chore when using analog tape.
Now in 2014, the market for quality DAW’s has expanded due to the affordability of powerful computers. Virtually any audio software out there has the ability to record audio from a microphone source. However, Pro Tools is still the only software that allows the engineer to record multiple tracks at once with zero latency while using plug ins and other real time features. No matter what professional studio you go to, it will feature a Pro Tools system 99 times out of 100. It is the industry standard when it comes to recording & editing Hip Hop & Rap.
Another small thing to be concerned about when recording a rapper is the headphone mix that the performer or rapper will reference while recording their performance. Remember, microphones pick up all sound no matter how loud or subtle. You must be careful with how loud the level of the headphones are when recording, as the microphone will pick up the residual sound or bleed through of the headphones. This bleed through can add up in volume when recording multiple tracks of vocals and can alter the sound of the vocal over the track by creating issues with phase in the midrange, not only in the vocal but with the track itself. It is quite common for rappers to prefer a louder headphone mix so they can ‘get into’ their performance. A good way to achieve a loud headphone mix while reducing phasey headphone bleed through is to have the rapper or performer wear a stocking cap over their headphones when performing. This will keep the seal of the headphones tight to the ears and dull out any bleed through that is emitted. The recorded rap performances will be much cleaner and thus easier to work into your mix.
The last thing to be discussed when recording Hip Hop and Rap is the beat in which the rapper will be performing on top of. For the past decade or so, most rappers have been recording their performances on top of an instrumental 2-track that they either purchased or licensed from an online beat store or a producer. Every now and then, you get lucky and a client will bring in the individual stems or track outs to the song they are performing on top of. These individual tracks are usually produced and rendered down in production software like Ableton, FL Studio or Logic. The problem with these rendered tracks is that because there is the possibility they may have been created inside cheap production software, they can tend to take on a cold lifeless digital sound. Programs like Reason, Garageband, and Acid are notorious for rendering files that do not sound as good as they originally did in the session. If there is extra time in our clients session’s here at Studio 11, we like to take these digital track outs and transfer them over to analog tape, which in turn brings the digital files back to life by adding new characteristics such as warmth, saturation and even harmonics. Yes, transferring to tape might add a little noise, but noise isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes, it can be the difference maker.