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

The Rough Mix: The Art and the Risk

As an audio engineer, the start of a recording/production project is usually one of the best parts of the project; the teamwork is all there, everyone involved is optimistic, and the overall focus of the big picture is challenging, invigorating, and most of all fun.

However, when it comes to the end of the project, it usually is one of the most taxing and least gratifying parts of the project. This is intensified by shifting focus to each individual involved in the project; all the endless detail and waffling of editing; the infinite possibilities of mix tweaks allowed by our computer systems; etc.

Strangely enough, that pivotal moment in the project where things change between collective ideology and individual artistic vision is usually during the time of rough mixing.


THE LOVE AND NEED OF ROUGH MIXES

In an ideal audio engineers world, daily rough mixes would be an essential step in moving a project forward. However, this isn’t always the case due to things like session time constraints, client financial issues, release dates, etc. Therefore, the limited number of rough mixes made during the project become even more important to the overall scope of the project. Each rough mix must represent a significant advancement in the overall vision of the project; inspire future creativity within the project; and help determine how much more time is needed before final mixing begins. Here are a few guidelines to think of when you are at the rough mix stage in your project.

The first rough mix of a project is sometimes referred to as the ‘raw mix’ or ‘organic rough.’ This is because it allows a unique opportunity to hear what the recorded tracks really sound like together with natural dynamics and unused space. When it comes time to begin the first rough mixes, keep in mind these mixes should be nothing but a representation of the initial recorded performance. This means that the first rough mix should only focus on the balance of all the recorded tracks together with very few edits, EQ, and processing. No overdubs either. The rough mix is actually raw and unproduced, but if recorded properly, still hi-fi. Allowing the imagination to open up, the rough mix helps the engineer, producer, and especially the artist contemplate what to do next in the song and how to fill any open space.

As the process of overdubbing begins, the next batch of rough mixes will understandably increase in complexity. It is this second round of rough mixes where you can and really should try things out. Take some f’n chances. You never know when you might discover something new and useful that will help take what you are working on to the next level. Experiment with different outboard combinations, try a new plug-in, create an over the top effect or two. And the good thing is, if it doesn’t work out, you can just get rid of it. Knowledge is power!

After all the experimental foray’s have been successfully/unsuccessfully attempted, it is time to do some rough mixes that one could say are dressed up rehearsals of what the final mix will become. Using the collective knowledge from all the experimentation as well as the overdubs and initial recording, I’d fashion together my most glorified mix of the project all while attempting to locate and resolve any problems from poor recording to bad performances, bad editing, etc. These mixes are then aided by having the artist or band go and listen to them on their own preferred sound system in hopes of providing meaningful feedback.

One thing to keep in mind, the rough mix process doesn’t always work out so well for every client. It’s always best when making that first rough mix to verify if the artist or band would like to hear it raw and organic or if they prefer it polished up a bit. Some current musicians and artists wouldn’t even think of listening to their part or song without at least some kind of tuning, quantizing, Eq-ing, or manipulation. They would likely find the organic rough mix to be faulty to a point of questioning the engineer’s proficiency and qualifications. They would never question their own. If some of your recording methods rely on drum replacement, comping and editing, virtual amplification then you might have to do a fair amount of work before presenting the first rough mix to your client.

In the second stage of rough mixing, where it’s good to experiment and create options, the liabilities can sometimes be quite overwhelming. Remember, even though experimenting and over effecting is fun for us because we’re engineers, to an artist who fears hokey exuberance and manipulation of their sound, it can be an all out declaration of war. Once again, it is always good to check with the artist or band member before experimenting or radically changing their sound, especially a vocalist. For some vocalist’s, having their voice washed in effects can really chap their ass, driving them to question your judgement, which in turn prevents you from making simple recording suggestions like ‘you should double this or stack that.’

By the time the third stage rough mixes are complete, they better be almost as good as what one would hear on the radio. Having a near perfect rough is just the beginning, it is now also all about ‘temp mastering’ (EQ, compression, expansion, limiting) on rough mixes so artists don’t throw a fit over low levels in comparison to final mastered albums.

So what exactly is the flip side to all of this? If the rough mixes are too good, they might get prematurely distributed. This is either because of an anxious artist posting their rough mixes on the web, unintended airplay or unintended leaks via insider moles. If people think a rough mix sounds finished, then it might get overexposed and diminish any chances of success the final mix could have.

As important and fun as rough mixing can be, the modern audio engineer should always make sure his or her approach and overall intentions are acceptable to everyone involved in the project. A rough mix is sometimes going to create disharmony and strong opinions amongst everyone involved in the project, but that dialogue and concession is exactly what is required to bring about the best in our art. As time passes and you begin to build a stronger reputation as an audio engineer through success, people will begin to hold more merit to your opinions and experimentation, which at the end of the day means your job as an engineer is just going to keep getting better, and better, and better, and better………

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!

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