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.
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.
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.