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Mixing Rap Vocals: Ideas to Follow

9 times out of 10 in the studio, the most frequent question we get asked on an everyday basis would have to be “what are you doing to the vocals to make them sound so good in the mix?” Sometimes clients word it a little differently, but it all leads back to the same question

Here at Studio 11, we mix a new rap vocal anywhere from four to six times a day — much more if there are multiple rappers on the same track. Over the years recording and mixing rap and hip hop in Chicago, we have developed an approach that genuinely works, and works extremely fast. In fairness, we understand that all songs, their track makeup, vocal styling and performance can be quite different. Truthfully, there can never be one formula to mix all vocals effectively. In the genre of rap and hip hop, there are many approaches to conceptualizing a vocal treatment. Ours is just one of many.

The Approach

It all starts with the approach. We say this time and time again, and every time we say it, it only gets more true: in order to mix anything music related, you need an end game. There has to be some kind of idea of what the song is going to sound like when it is finished, where the vocal is going to go sonically in the song before you start getting it there. More than likely, your initial approach can and probably will change along the way, but there has to be some kind of guiding direction or else why do anything at all.

The biggest issue most people have when mixing rap vocals is that they think of the word “vocals” without considering the word “rap.” Rap is a supremely general term — there are big differences between 1994 LA style rap vocals and 2015 Chicago style rap vocals.

The point being, when it comes to mixing vocals, the ‘what’ and ‘why’ are just as critical as the ‘how’. Important things to consider before the mix are: what is the artist’s style, where is the song being played, who exactly is the artist’s audience, and how can you, the engineer, tie all that together and bring the song to life?

So that you have an overall approach to the song, how exactly do you get it there?

Cleaning Things Up

After all the rap lead’s, overdubs, and adlibs are recorded in the song, many of them are going to need a bit of cleaning before the mix process can begin. There are many related issues that can occur during any given vocal tracking session.

One common issue we hear all the time when clients send us projects to mix is their vocal tracks were recorded in a terrible spot. One such place is the closet (we get that one a lot) or in the crapper. We know its crazy, but a legend has gone around that it’s a good idea to record in a closet or bathroom. Lets be clear, it is never a good idea. However, if a closet receives the proper acoustic treatment, it can work just fine. But only with proper acoustic treatment is it possible.

The other common problem we get all the time from our clients is that the vocal tracks were recorded too hot or are clipping. Again, a myth has persisted that it’s a good idea to record the vocal signal or any signal for that matter as loud as possible. This is completely not true, particularly in the era of 24-bit audio.

Cleaning things up can be a little rough sometimes because the capacity of what can be done to the audio in question can be quite restricted. One useful tool for audio files that are clipped out is iZotope’s distortion removal software called Rx De-Clipper.

Another thing to keep in mind is the distortion on the audio file will create resonances in the center frequencies. This can be corrected with precise parametric equalization.

For vocals recorded in reverberant spaces, subtle gating, expansion and careful equalization can contain the sound of the room — or you can use software like SPL De-Verb. Another trick we incorporate is to mix the track in a way that utilizes the reverb printed with the vocal. A good way to do this is heavy compression

For vocals recorded in closets or corners, the main issue will be comb filtering.

One simple idea we use for reducing comb filtering is if there are doubles of the vocal, pitch shift each one up or down a slight amount. This will slightly alter the frequency bands that are being filtered, so that when stacked with the main vocal, the same bands will not be missing entirely. The doubles or overdubs will “fill in” the missing frequencies. At the end of the day, the comb filtering will still be there, but it won’t be as noticeable.

Another noticeable problem we frequently get when clients send us projects to mix is that the vocals will be poorly edited, containing clicks, pops, noises, jumpy or unnatural cuts. At Studio 11, we always go through all the vocal tracks one by one and delete the dead space and fix all the editing so each performance is as smooth and natural as possible. If the breaths are real loud on the vocal track you might want to gain them down or delete them. If the vocals are stacked and there is no particular lead, the best idea is to just delete the breaths all together.

Lastly, if the artist is in the studio with you for the mix process, it might be a good idea to mention these problems to them if they exist and just rerecord all the vocals or just the ones that are in question.

The Power of Processing

Now that the vocals have been cleaned up (or maybe they came in clean to begin with), it’s time to decide what to do with them in the mix.

Now, its not really our style to tell you how you should or should not process the vocals in your mix, but we can give you a couple of pointers to consider and think about.

B-B-B-Balance

First and foremost, when it comes to mixing Rap and Hip-Hop, especially Chicago Rap and Hip-Hop, it is extremely important to understand and figure out the relationship between the vocals and other instruments that fall in the same frequency range.

Typically, Chicago Rap and Hip-Hop is all about the relationship between the level of the vocals and drums. The number one contender with the voice is usually the snare. Discovering a way to make both the vocals and the snare prominent and pocket without getting in each other’s way will make the rest of the mix fall nicely into place.

Rap and Hip-Hop vocals generally do not have much in the way of reverb.

There are three main reasons for this:

1. Rap vocals tend to hold more of a rhythmic function and generally move faster than sung vocals — long reverb tails can smear the rhythm and articulation and even dull out vocal presence.
2. Typically, the idea in Hip-Hop is that the vocal needs to be “up front and in your face,” whereas reverb tends to push things back into the stereo field.
3. All the dogs and cats are mixing vocals that way. Not necessarily an okay reason, but resonates with truth.

However, Rap and Hip-Hop vocals usually do profit from a slight sense of three dimensional sculpting, or what is known as “air.” This is a sense of space around the vocal that makes it more vivid and exciting. Very small, wide, quiet reverbs can really do the vocal a lot of justice here.

Another thing that we do that helps out a lot is use a small amount of delay (echo), keeping it in the background, with a lot of high-end rolled off. This creates the sense of a very deep three dimensional space, which by contrast makes the vocal seem even more present and forward.

Lastly, if you are recording the vocals in a really nice professionally designed tracking room, carefully bringing out the natural space of the room on the vocal track can be a good way to add a bit of “air” and realism to super dry vocals.

Mid to heavy compression with a very fast attack, relatively quick release, and a boost to the super-treble range can often help accentuate the natural “airiness” in the vocal.

Consistency and Shape

A little compression often works well with vocals, just to tame them, place them into a mix and add a smidge of tone.

On a mix with few tracks, a small amount of compression will usually get the job done, unless you are truly going for that over-compressed sound where there is little dynamics. However, the most common error most people do make when processing Rap and Hip-Hop vocals is over-compression. Extreme levels of compression really only works well within in a mix when there is a lot of stuff fighting for frequency space. When you hear about rapper’s vocals going through three different compressors it’s probably because there are many things already occurring in the mix, and the compression is necessary for the vocals to cut through. Or because it’s a stylistic choice to really crunch the vocals and get that over compressed ‘in your mouth’ kind of sound.

Filter Cats Ho!

What’s happening around the vocals music wise is just as important to the vocals as the vocals themselves. Carefully choosing what frequencies to keep and get rid in the mix is very important in helping the vocals sit or pocket just right. For example, a lot of engineers choose to high-pass filter almost all the tracks in the mix except the kick and bass. That helps create room for the low frequency information. Often though, the importance of low-pass filtering is overlooked. Synthesizers, even bass synths, can contain a lot of upper frequency information that just isn’t needed in the mix, leaving the “air” range around the vocals feeling stuffy.

A couple of well utilized low-pass filters could very well bring your vocals to life.

Also, a little more on high-pass filtering, unless you are going for that thin mid rangy thing, you really don’t need to high pass filter your vocals past 120-130 Hz. Both the male and female human voice has chest resonance that on average goes down to 80 Hz (and sometimes even lower). Try applying a moderate high-pass filter at around 70 or 80 Hz to start with if you’re just trying to clear up the vocals. This will usually remove any microphone boom that might be on the vocal track or tracks. This will definitely your low end instruments push through the mix better too.

Presence not Presents

Deciding where the vocal sits in the frequency spectrum is important. Mid heavy vocals (telephonic sound) can be really cool at times, low-mid “warm” sounding vocals certainly have their place, add charm, and moisten panties. Most of the time, we like to hype the natural presence of the vocals through subtractive equalization of the “throat” tones and proximity buildup which generally occurs around the 230-650 Hz range. As a result, this will over exaggerate the head and chest sound— particularly the consonants that form at the front of the mouth, tongue, and teeth — which is what we use to pronounce our words. These consonant sounds generally live in the upper midrange (2k-5k).

Although these are the methods we use to get vocals to stand out in a Rap or Hip-Hop track, at the end of the day, there really is no correct way. Remember to use your ears, because as long as the client is happy and the mix sounds good and translates, then you, the engineer did his or her job. Then maybe just maybe, someone will throw you a cookie at the end of the session for a job well done.
Studio 11

Parallel Compression on Vocals

Whether you are a recording engineer or in the process of learning to become one, chances are you have probably heard of the drum mix technique called ‘parallel compression.’ If you haven’t, let me quickly explain. This is when the recording engineer sends the drum mix out through a stereo buss to a compressor and mixes that signal back into the original stereo mix of the song. The method of ‘parallel compression’ can either be used in an extremely subtle or overt manner by modifying the extent and character of the compression and how much of that compressed signal is sent through the stereo buss. I have found that by using this technique the drive of the drum track performance really comes alive in the mix, even during quieter passages. It gives the drums that ‘in your face’ kind of sound while still retaining a smooth listenable quality.

The results vary from just compressing the tracks because at a low level you get both retained transients and an extra sense of loudness from the compression. When the song starts to get louder, the effect of the compression applied to the bussed signal will become less prominent due to the uncompressed track’s dynamic swells that can tend to dominate the mix.

However, the technique of ‘parallel compression’ doesn’t have to be used just on drums. I discovered a similar technique for myself many years ago for vocals, only to learn that other recording engineers before me used this technique too. The reason why I decided to use ‘parallel compression’ on the vocal was I wanted the lead vocal track of the song to be articulate at lower levels while still retaining a listenable quality at higher levels. In essence, what I had created was my own form of dynamic equalization.

So, I wanted my lead vocal track to be brighter at low levels to help it slice through the mix. However, I knew adding top end would only cause the vocal to be really harsh at higher levels. Adding compression to the vocal really didn’t create the sound I was looking for, it just sounded like I was sitting in the vocalist’s mouth. A little to intimate for what was needed in the mix of the song. Also, the amalgamation of compression and high frequency boost caused the vocal track to become really sibilant, which is usually not a good thing when it comes to lead vocals. Moving the compressor to the front of the vocal chain helped a little bit, but it still didn’t provide that magical sound I was looking for.


I wanted my vocal to be brighter at low levels to help it cut through a mix, but just EQ’ing it caused it to be too harsh at higher levels. Adding a compressor to the vocal did not create the sound I had in my head. It was still to harsh at high levels and the EQ caused the compressor to react in ways that I felt were inappropriate. The combination of high frequency EQ boost and compression often causes a well recorded voice track to become sibilant. Not a good thing. Placing the compressor in front of the vocal signal chain helped, but still did not deliver the “magic” I was looking for.

The solution to my problem presented itself after a few hours of mad science and experimentation. Since I work primarily on a DAW, I decided to duplicate the lead vocal track to a second track, so in essence, there were now two lead vocal tracks. On the duplicate lead vocal track, I first Eq’d all the bottom end out by running it through a high pass filter. I then boosted the top end of the duplicate lead vocal by about 5 or 6 dbs’s. My goal was to create a vocal track that didn’t have a lot of tone to it or vowel sound, just consonants. I then heavily compressed the duplicate lead vocal track to control and push back any loud passages, allowing for the softer passages to come through. Once this was done, I mixed the duplicate lead vocal track back in with the original lead vocal track. The end result was a lead vocal track that was now easy to understand at low levels because of the extra boost in the highs, while also be pleasant to hear at louder levels because of the reduction of the highs due to the heavy compression.

Now one thing you must pay attention to when using this technique on a DAW is processing delay. It can vary a lot from plug in to plug in. An easy way to correct this problem is by inserting the same plug ins on both the original and duplicate track. You would then set the plug ins on the original track to bypass so they don’t effect the sound of the original track. If your DAW already has delay compensation built into its software, then make sure this feature is engaged.

This technique can also be done using your analog console. Buss your lead vocal to two channels on your console and then assign both of those channels to the stereo buss. Insert a compressor that has both a quick attack and release onto the duplicate or ‘articulation’ vocal track. Insert an EQ or filter on the articulation track that can high pass everything below 3khz. Set your compressor on the articulation channel to an extreme compression setting with the fastest attack and release possible. Listen to how the consonants sound coming from the articulation channel and make sure they are clean and without and tone or vowel sounds. Mix the articulation channel back into the stereo buss mix until you can noticeably hear the articulation come up at lower levels while hearing the tone change to a warmer sound during elevated levels. Mix the articulation signal in to taste.

The Click Pop Factor

Distortion, clicks, and pops can destroy an otherwise good recording session, and these problems 99% of the time are manufactured by something simple and easily avoidable. So here are a few quick things to check if you ever run into these situations.

Update Firmware, Software, and Drivers

The first thing that you must do is make sure your system has been completely updated. Lets say you just updated your OS to OSX Yosemite and you installed the drivers from the disc that came with your audio interface. You should always go to the website of the software you are installing and check for the most current software and drivers. With quick things move in the computer world, it is not always possible to possess the latest driver on the installation disc that comes with your software, even if you just purchased it.

It is also wise to make sure any audio applications, software synths, and plugins you own are up to date as well. Always go check the manufacturer’s website and update according to what they say in their instructions.

Buffer Settings

The next to check after you have updated your software would be your buffer settings. One of the simplest fixes for these types of problems can be changing your buffer settings. Understanding why you might possibly need to change the buffer setting can be a bit more difficult to understand and will be discussed separately.

Fixes

For the simplest answer: If you are getting distortion, pops or clicks in your recording raise the buffer setting in your audio application. In Logic, click on Preferences > Audio. On the Core Audio tab you will see “I/O Buffer Size.” Regardless of what the buffer size is set to, move it to the next highest number. For example, if your buffer size is currently set to 32, change it to 64. If it is set to 64, then move it up to 128, etc. In GarageBand, it is a bit easier: Click on GarageBand & Preferences. Click on the Audio/Midi icon and you will see the following screen:

Change to “Maximum number of simultaneous tracks/Large buffer size.”

Pretty much every other audio application will have very similar settings. If you are not sure where to these settings then contact the software manufacturer or look it up on Google or YouTube. If switching the buffer doesn’t fix the problem, the next step is taking a look at other USB or FireWire devices you may have plugged into your setup.

Other USB or Firewire Devices

Quite often other FireWire or USB devices connected to your computer can cause problems if your audio interface is FireWire or USB. Conflicts with other audio interfaces, cameras, etc can usually cause the biggest problems, but external hard drives can also cause problems as well.

Solution

If you are having problems with distortion, pops, and clicks and you have other devices connected to your computer, try the following:

1. Turn off your computer and unplug all USB and FireWire devices except for your main audio interface.


2. After you turn your computer back on, play something from iTunes and make sure the audio you are hearing sounds clear.


3. If you have an external USB or FireWire device, connect it to your computer and try running your session again.


4. If you are still having problems it might be time to bite the bullet and reach out to the manufacturer’s tech support.

It is best to keep all other devices disconnected from the computer while working on audio. The new Mac’s on the market are amazing and extremely powerful. If your desire is to record professional quality audio then you might not be able to connect every USB and FireWire device that you own because there is a limit to what you can do with your computer and DAW. If that is not your desire, connect all your devices back up and just keep doing what you are doing.

20 Valuable Game Changing Studio Lessons

The understanding of recording, mixing, and mastering hip hop, rap, and other kinds of music is no doubt a talent and an art form. Development of this skill takes time, and requires many mistakes, experiments and life lessons. To truly benefit and prosper in audio engineering, one has to have a hunger to go through and take in the vast amount knowledge out there on recording, mixing, and mastering.

Once you begin sifting through the knowledge and applying it in a real world setting, you will come to find there is a big difference between knowing something and actually getting it. The beautiful thing is, once you finally get something, the ability to master those techniques and others becomes exponentially easier. You will find that recording, mixing, and mastering isn’t really a job anymore, it is just a part of life.

Over the last 16 years, I have had to learn many hard lessons in the world of audio engineering. A lot of times I thought I understood what certain techniques were and how to apply them, but I often was wrong or just partially correct on those techniques. Some of my most memorable times in the studio were when I finally ‘got’ a certain recording or mixing technique. You can say these were my ‘a-ha’ moments.

1. Learning everything there is to possibly know about the hardware and tools I have at my convenience.

2. Compression: Much can be discussed about this subject, but one thing that is so crucially important is getting the attack and release times correct. Compression can really lift up a performance or it can shamefully destroy it.

3. The day I realized that pretty much anything in the studio could be automated in some form or another.

4. Low and High Pass filtering is truly my friend.

5. The first time I turned off my computer screen to listen back to a mix. Blew me away how much easier it was to listen, identify, and make changes to the mix.

6. The first time I recorded and mixed in a professional acoustically treated studio. The amount of detail and separation I could hear in the frequency spectrum almost startled me.

7. How simply cutting out a little 275-375 Hz on most close mic’d tracks can remove boxiness and really bring out detail to things.

8. Getting rid of frequencies, or subtractive equalization, is so much better than additive equalization. Its just easier and more natural to take out what isn’t needed than to artificially add it in.

9. Hearing live drums mic’d through a stereo pair of C12’s and PZM’s. I finally understood where the life and dimension of a recorded drum performance came from.

10. Discovering that the more plugins I use in a mix, the more digital and artificial sounding the mix will become.

11. Distortion is a form of compression and a good way to add harmonics.

12. The first time I threw up a quick mix of raw audio tracks instead of attempting to dial in the perfect sound on every track. It increased the overall quality of the mix while cutting down average mix time.

13. It’s always good to get feedback, even if its from somebody without any musical or audio engineering experience.

14. Getting stuck in a mix, zeroing the faders, trashing all inserts and sends and then pushing the faders back up again. Valuable learning experience and test to the ego.

15. Dynamic Equalization via side chain compression. The bees knees!

16. Realizing that knowing how you want things to sound in your mix is so much more important than just knowing cool mix techniques and tricks. The tricks can sometimes help you get there a little faster though.

17. Musical arrangement is vitally important to the outcome of a mix on a song. It’s where the song can really be made or destroyed.

18. “Fix it in the mix” is a term that doesn’t always apply to every situation. Sometimes it is faster and easier to just re-record something if it is not right.

19. Parallel compression allows for smoother, natural dynamics overall and less aggressive compression individually.

20. When, after what seemed like centuries of recording amateur artists and bands, somebody of superstar status steps up in front of the microphone and shows how it’s really done. Wow!

Good drum samples and where to find them

Are you a beat producer who always has problems finding good drum sounds or patches to use in your productions? Are you tired of using cheap ‘out of the box’ sounds? Well don’t worry. It is a problem that every producer has had some point in their career. There are literally millions of drum samples out there on the market for free and for sale. It can really be quite overwhelming finding those perfect sounds.

The first good thing, if you have realized you have this problem, then you are already on your way to becoming a better producer. So congratulations. What people who claim to be producers forget is there is more to producing then just writing the song, there are the individual tracks that make up the song to consider and how each one sounds not only by itself but in relationship to the song.

Nowadays, it is important for producers to go about their craft with an audio engineer’s ears. This doesn’t mean you have to learn to become a professional engineer to make good beats, though it helps. It means learning to understand and accept when a sound or a track isn’t working in a song and what to do to fix it. At the end of the day, putting care into the way each individual track sounds will make for a better sounding song overall. Your beats will be easier to mix and sound smoother and more musical, plus will probably sell better too.

A good rule of thumb, if a sound is getting in the way or lost in the mix, is to replace it with another sound that doesn’t get lost or in the way of the song. Simple enough, but this can sometimes take time and patience. Remember, just because a synth patch or drum sample might sound cool on its own, doesn’t mean it will work with the rest of your tracks. Choose your sounds by listening to how they interact with the other tracks in your arrangement. Never force a track, that will never work.

Now one of the best places to find good drum samples are on your favorite records. Yes that’s right, your favorite records. Some would say that’s stealing, but we say that’s just sampling. So don’t be scared. Sampling drums off of records has been done since the dinosaurs roamed the earth. Not dinosaurs like T Rex’s, but dinosaurs like Bruce Swedien and Bill Porter. The best thing about sampling drums off a record, is that the drum sounds you are sampling already sound really really good. Using good drum sounds that don’t need much treatment allow you the producer to better add in additional tracks and sounds into your song. All your tracks will pocket better and will make you or your mix engineer’s job much easier when mixing begins.

RECORDING IN MUSIC – CONSIDERATIONS FOR THE MUSICIAN

Depending on where you are at with your music, there will be numerous different considerations when trying to complete your current or next recording project. It is important to understand that your initial recording is the fingerprint upon which your entire recorded sound will be built. In audio there are famous slogans that apply here; two that come to mind are “Fix it in the mix!” and the old classic “You can’t polish a turd”.

“Fix it in the mix!”

As a less experienced engineer I always wanted to believe that you couldn’t fix it in the mix….but, with the modern tools offered it can be done with a great amount of skill and expertise. But here’s the problem with trying to fix a recording in the mix; TIME. While it is possible to salvage an otherwise unusable recording through a perplexing toolbox of studio trickery, one must ask why this needs to happen. Unless the recording encompassed some magical take that could never otherwise be recreated, it makes more sense to get a better recording. This in turn will save on recording expenses in the mixdown and mastering processes. So with that said, trying to save money by recording yourself or recording cheaply may actually cost you more in the end! Invest in your recording from the start and you are on track to success from the starting gate. Which brings us to…

“You can’t polish a turd”

This is why rehearsal and practice prior to recording is so important. The only recording that should be done in the premature stages of rehearsal is to give yourself a recorded reference of what you sound like for the purpose of practicing and improving your performance prior to recording. No amount of studio trickery and repair is going to make something bad sound good. Be patient, work with your craft and prepare for the quality recording that you earn and afford yourself upon maturation of your artistic concepts. Recording is an art as well and that relies upon the rehearsal and time a musician puts into their work.

Recording is something that deserves respect and attention if you plan for a successful career in music. Treat your recordings with respect and they will do the same for you. To discuss recording in Chicago further contact us at Studio 11 312-372-4460 or at studio11chicago@gmail.com.

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