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

7 Commandments of Audio Engineering

If you are wondering what you have to do to break into the music industry as an audio engineer in Chicago, have no fear. Recording in Chicago is no different than pretty much anywhere else on the planet, except for language. Here is a comprehensive list of skills that you can aim to develop to position yourself as a top engineer in the future. Notice that four of these skills are what can be defined as “base skills,” meaning they are imperative for any job in the music industry or elsewhere. The other set of skills are known as “job specific skills” and relate categorically to your work in the studio.

BASE SKILLS

1. Ability to read, write, and follow directions. So why is it so critical to follow instructions in a recording studio? For starters, you could fuck up the gear in the studio. You are also working with client’s master recordings that are the result of perhaps thousands of hours in time and financial investment. In Chicago, some of those clients might not be to happy if their masters get messed up, so it could potentially mean your life. More over, following instructions also means that you are reliable and dependable, which in turn brings confidence to the head engineer or manager that you can be developed and mentored to integrate and properly accomplish client requests. Following directions is crucial to discovering how to work successfully in any recording or production studio, let alone life.

2. Communication. There have been many times when I was engineering a session when the artist or producer turned to me and said, “It just doesn’t sound right. I’m not sure really what it is about it, but it is not grabbing me.” We often spend long hours trying to figure out how to understand our clients. In a way, one could say we are quasi-pyschologists. The ability to communicate clearly is crucial in order to be as productive as possible in the studio. Many delays and fuck ups in the studio are a result of a lack or breakdown in communication. Knowing when to and not to speak out comes over time through patience and practice, and understanding.

3. Ability to stay cool and calm. Musicians can get pretty emotional in the studio. In essence, they are dumping their emotional well being into their performance for all to hear. So they get very emotional. A good engineer must know how to stay calm and reserved when a musician voices their frustrations. I have seen many sessions where fights break out in the control room between band members or band members and management. These people have actually swung at each other, which generally is not helpful to the whole creative process. Remember, your job is to keep the project on track at all times, so it is important for you to always remain calm and relaxed, especially in Chicago. May the force be with you.

4. Basic computer knowledge. So, how much do you really need to know about computers to become a good recording engineer? Well, many ambitious producers and sound engineers have a good deal of experience and knowledge operating sound recording and editing software on a computer. It’s certainly a bonus. The more you know about computers, the more valuable your service will be in the studio. It is important to master the basics, such as word processing and data entry, as well as understanding spreadsheet functions so you can use the computer to do simple math. It is important to be comfortable with these basic three applications as well as the computers recording and production software. A basic computer course at your local community college can teach you these fundamentals. It’s also important to know both the Macintosh and PC platforms. Macintosh more so for composing, recording, and mixing. PC’s for business management and data entry. Initally, all the best computer editing software for sound and music was found on a Mac, but over the last couple years, the PC has been making strides in the audio department. Many programs that were once exclusive to Mac are now available on PC as well.

JOB-SPECIFIC SKILLS

5. Critical auditory skills. If you haven’t heard or experienced sound in an acoustic setting, you might not know what you are listening for which can bring you problems as an engineer. You’ve got to use your ears and really listen to the sound or music. As an engineer, it is important to get out there in the real world and experience every type of music that there is in a concert setting, from country to jazz, rock to big band, and opera to blues, etc. Remember, musical recordings are really just sonic paintings. In order to be a competent recording engineer, you have to come to really understand what instruments sound like naturally, by themselves or together in ensembles. Look at your time spent developing these skills just as you would if you were doing homework. Go out as much as possible because it is important to hear it all. You never know when that time is going to come when a client steps into the studio with a certain kind of instrument, sound or musical skill that you might not be familiar with. This unfamiliarity can lead to poor engineering decisions’ which in turn lead to poor or undesirable recordings. That is why it is important to know how each instrument sounds naturally.

6. Audio aptitude. It is important to develop a comprehensive knowledge of audio, such as level, signal flow, phase, frequency spectrum, microphone selection/placement, and acoustics. Whether you went to a reputable audio school or learned on your own, it is important learn and understand the basic concepts of how to make a recording, do overdubs, correctly edit, manage a mix-down properly, and master. Even the knowing the process of duplication and distribution to stores and online retail outlets sure doesn’t hurt either.

7. Studio Chi. The overall tone or vibe that an engineer brings into a session with a client is vitally important to the overall energy and creative workflow in the studio. Some of the best engineers out there are the ones who create a climate that is conducive to positive and creative workflow. The equipment doesn’t really mean much if the vibe of the session is no good. Even with a half million dollar recording console, is it really doing any good if a client walks in and doesn’t feel right. When artists are babied or pampered in the studio, they tend to lose their inhibitions, open up, and perform much better overall. A good engineer will be able to help generate that vibe in the studio in order to capture and bring it out in the song.

Now you know the basic skill set needed to a good career in field of audio engineering. The first six you can learn in school, whereas, the seventh takes time and experience. It’s important, not only as an aspiring engineer/producer but also as a musician, to sit in sessions and watch how other engineers do their thing. Internships at major recording facilities are a great opportunity to see how things really work in a professional studio. After awhile, you will find that every session and client is different as well as what is specifically needed to create the right mood and vibe for each session. At the end of the day, you’ll probably find yourself playing psychologist as much as you are being an engineer, producer, songwriter, mentor, friend, fan. The list can go on and on.

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.

CHEAP RECORDING STUDIOS IN CHICAGO – THE TRUTH

We all know the classic adage “You get what you pay for”, well nothing could be more true when it comes to studio time – especially cheap studio time. While searching for cheap recording studios in Chicago there are 3 things you should consider.

First off, we must address the fact that we are in Chicago, the nations third largest city. For those of you that live in Chicago, you know that it is not a “cheap” city by any means. So factor this in to what you consider to be cheap studio time. Recording studios must pay rent in accordance with their location. So it is fair to assume that a cheap recording studio downtown may be pricier than a cheap recording studio in a low profile part of Chicago. Location, location, location as they say…

Secondly, mind the quality of equipment or “gear” the recording studio offers. A studio with high end mics, pre amps, digital systems, and post production equipment offers an amazing improvement in sound quality over the budget based studio with cheap low cost recording gear. For just 10-20 dollars more per hour you can access the same quality gear that major label records are recording on. Your music isn’t cheap is it? Why cheap out when it comes to sound quality? You will regret it.

Lastly, engineering skills are everything in audio. It’s great that young budding recording students set out to build cheap start up studios with cheap equipment, but these engineers cannot match the artistry and sound that is offered by seasoned professional engineers who have earned major recording credits. For a small amount more money you can offer your music an enormous improvement by hiring world class engineering talent. Fact is that a professional engineer will work much faster than a novice. This affects the bottom line of your recording costs. You may be paying for 3 hours of recording time at a “cheap” studio for a job that should only take 1 hour in the hands of a professional engineer.

Here at Studio 11 we offer the highest quality equipment, best engineering talent, and the fastest turnaround. You can’t beat that. Call us at 312.372.4460 or email studio11chicago@gmail.com for free consultation. Or use the contact form found HERE. Our rates start at 65/HR.

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