Stepping out of our comfort zone is always daunting. If you are accustomed to mixing one genre, say Rock, or Jazz, or Dance-Pop, but suddenly find yourself taking on Hip Hop clients – this article is for you.
Understand that whatever reservations you may be feeling are coming from “imposter syndrome.” Imposter syndrome is the feeling of not being qualified for the job you are doing. Understand that imposter syndrome is most frequently felt by high performing individuals. All it means is that you are good enough at your job to understand the places you need to improve to get better. It’s almost universally an indication that you actually are qualified overall, counterintuitively.
The reality is that if you can mix one genre then you possess the capability to mix any other genre. The signal processing is the same, the tools are the same, the job of a mixer is the same. You just have to filter your lens through the perspective of your client.
What makes Hip Hop unique? First we have to recognize that Hip Hop isn’t a box. It’s an ever expanding genre that borrows ideas from other genres all the time. And there are many aesthetics within Hip Hop. I am about to give you some general ideas that will apply to most situations. Consider this a starting point. After you’ve read this article, take these ideas to your client and get their opinion. Your client is the best resource for understanding what they want.
Let’s talk balances. I think most genres are foremost defined by how the elements of the music are balanced. In Rock, for example, it’s pretty typical to hear the guitars and snare very loud, with the vocals equal level or a little below, and the bass driving the low end with the kick on par or a hair behind. Not always, obviously, but that’s not a rare balance. Hip Hop is a little different. Basically the rule of thumb for Hip Hop is this:
1. Vocals, Snare, Kick, Everything else. Get the vocals as big and forward as you can, mix in the snare enough to make you blink, and get the kick/808 to hit just shy of blowing your speakers out. That’s your record. Why? Because for the most part, Hip Hop is a groove and a story. Rappers are basically just explaining who they are to a rhythm. Everything else in the record is just giving that story and that rhythm a sense of personality.
2. Processing. One key difference I find with rap vocals is that they don’t take as nicely to big reverbs as sung vocals. From an artistic aspect you usually want the rapper to be in-your-face, and from a technical aspect the words are usually just coming too quickly for big reverbs. For ambience, delays tend to work better, and many times even bone dry is best. Now, some rappers, particularly the ones that use heavy autotune and do sing-song rap, do like heavy reverb. So there are exceptions here. Just ask the client.
Another big different with Hip Hop is that a lot of the musical elements are programmed samples. Especially the drums. Unlike acoustic recordings, samples have been treated to sound a specific way. With Rock drums I find I tend to do some pretty heavy processing. With Hip Hop drums I deliberately try to do as little processing as I can get away with. The person who made the beat probably went to great lengths to find drums that already sounded perfect – so anything too transformative is usually not going to go over well.
3. Arrangement. Hip Hop records are not made like other genres. In Rock, Pop, Jazz, etc., the song and the production are sculpted within the same framework. In Hip Hop the production is often made well before the song is ever imagined. Producers usually put up a catalogue of production on a market place, and an artist will license the production, and then create the song. This means the production hasn’t been structurally arranged for a song. That means: you do it!
It’s common that I end up inventing intros, transitions, beat drops, and doing minor re-sequencing of elements when I mix a Hip Hop record. Is that the literal definition of mixing? Hell no. But it makes the clients really happy because suddenly the production now sounds like it was based on the song concept, instead of vice versa. So don’t be afraid to add elements, create moments, and get a little creative with things arrangement wise. Within reason.
4. Clean Version. Additionally, you’re going to be expected to create the clean version of the record. This means you’re going to have to mute out all the expletives. There’s a few ways to do this but I’m going to recommend “echo overs.” Echo overs are when you mute the curse word. Then you trigger a delay throw from the preceding word so that it fills the silent gap you just created. I find this adds a bit of flavor, helps from keeping the song sound choppy, but doesn’t sound goofy like inserting sound effects.
5. Can’t Be Too Perfect. The one thing I can’t stand in a Hip Hop mix is when it’s too inviting. If something doesn’t feel out of wack, or dirty, or a little mean, it doesn’t feel like it has attitude. Hip Hop is very similar to Punk Rock. It needs to sound a little wrong to sound right. Basically, if your’e doing your job right, mixers from other genres should say “the kick is masking the other elements” or “the hi hat is too stingy” or have some other vapid criticism that ignores the attitude of the record. Grain is good. Distortion is good.
Again, talk to your client. Because this little list is just some basic guidelines. There are some artists who provide a second take of radio-friendly lyrics. There are times where the client may not want you to make any arrangement changes whatsoever. Sometimes you’ll run into Hip Hop records that are guitar driven (it’s rare, but it happens). So get their take.
Otherwise, do your thing. YOU are being hired for a reason.
Watch the video below to learn more about mixing hip hop low end!