It’s easy to underestimate the trickiness of mixing rap vocals. Some engineers will write the genre off thinking that it’s just a 2-track and a vocal, so it must be simple. But the intricacy lies in having leads, stacks of doubles, background vocals, ad libs, and whatever other layers the artist adds.
On top of that, what’s fun about mixing rap vocals is the same thing that makes it difficult. You can be really creative processing those stacked vocals, and you can get away with effects that just don’t work in other genres. The difficulty is tapping into that creativity and doing something interesting that serves the song.
Here are some tips that should guide you in pursuit of mixing a balanced, interesting rap vocal.
How to Mix Rap Vocals
Like any vocal, there’s a lot that goes into it — things like editing, tasteful EQ, and compression are all standard features of a good vocal mix. Then comes the fun stuff like using certain effects to add interest to the track. We’ll explore some starting points for all of these, which should generate some ideas the next time you’re mixing rap.
Time-Align Vocal Layers
Having multiple layers of the same vocal line means they usually need some time-alignment. They can be out of sync by as little as 20 ms, and they’ll start to sound phase-y or like a slapback echo. Usually the power in doubling or even tripling a vocal comes from having it as tight as possible.
Before plugins like Synchro Arts’s VocAlign, engineers manually lined their vocals up. These days we can let technology do the dirty work.
Let’s say you have a top lead line and two doubles underneath it. You’d want to align the doubles using the lead as a guide. I recommend using something like VocAlign to get this done, but it’s possible to do it manually with a bit of time and patience.
Once all three layers are time-aligned, you can pan the doubles left and right for a tight, wide vocal.
EQ-ing Rap Vocals
I tend to find the major points of interest in vocals to be between 100 and 1000 Hz, and somewhere around 6k and beyond. Every voice is different and some demand more surgical attention depending on how they were recorded, etc. But I do have a Pultec plugin that lives on my lead vocal bus as my main EQ. And I find myself making similar moves on lots of different voices.
Before the Pultec, though, I’ll have a channel strip or even just FabFilter and I’ll start with a high-pass filter. We’re trying to get the vocal out of the kick and sub’s way, so we’re carving out the low-end we just don’t need. Even with just that you’ll feel a rap vocal start to open up and find its own space.
Musical EQ is what I find to be most effective, so I normally don’t spend much time, if any, sweeping around to find ugly frequencies unless they’re painfully obvious. That’s where UAD’s Pultec Pro comes in for me; it’s simple, it sounds great, and it’s designed for broad moves.
The UAD Pultec Pro is awesome because it combines the MEQ-5 and EQP-1A in a single plugin. On the MEQ-5 I like to find a balance between clarity and body using 200 and 300 as my frequencies of interest. Then on the EQP-1A I’ll usually select 100 on the low-band, again for clarity and removing mud, and 8 or 10k on the high-band to add some air.
This is an excellent starting point to begin shaping the overall tonality of rap vocals.
Compressing Rap Vocals
First and foremost, you can be thoughtful with your compression when mixing rap vocals. Lots of people will tell you to smash the heck out of them for the sake of it, but you don’t have to do that. Keeping the vocal at a stable level and upfront in the mix is usually the goal.
One way to avoid smashing a rap vocal is by using serial compression. This means having more than one compressor in the chain, each just doing a few dB of gain reduction.
Normally you’ll want to have one compressor early in the chain for catching peaks, and one down the line for glue. A fast compressor like an 1176 is perfect for rap. Rappers move faster than singers, so it’s nice to have an ultra-fast compressor that can clamp down quickly on the big peaks and release quickly so you’re not sucking the life out of the vocals.
At the end of your vocal chain you might want a slower compressor for glue — the LA-2A works very well for that. 1-2 dB of gain reduction is probably all you need.
Using Delay Over Reverb
The best way to mix rap vocals is to keep them relatively dry. We’re talking about mixing rap vocals that are aggressive and upfront in the mix. Traditionally, engineers will opt for delay instead of reverb to keep that vocal forward and present — not washed away in a sea of reverb.
1/16th note delay on the lead vocal, mixed in pretty low, adds some slap and space around it without drowning it out. You can also create a different type of slapback, where you set each side of a stereo delay to a different time. Somewhere between 50 and 70 ms is a good place to start.
Certain sub-genres of rap, like the more melodic stuff we hear these days, actually make use of a ton of reverb. You can get away with it there, and it’s super fun designing a big, washy space for that style.
- RELATED: Best Mics for Rap Vocals
One thing I’d recommend is putting a compressor on your reverb return and sidechaining the lead vocal to it. The reverb ducks out when the vocals come in, then swells back up in the gaps between phrases. Awesome effect for melodic rap!
It’s even better when you’ve timed the reverb to the beat; at the end of a verse where there’s a pause before the hook drops, that reverb can swell in and emphasize the drop.
Effects for Doubles and Ad Libs
You can have a ton of fun messing around with different effects on your ad libs and layers. For one, just because the lead vocals are somewhat dry doesn’t mean the background have to be! It’s great to have a big space around your doubles or ad libs that’s totally separate from the leads.
Simply using EQ as an effect works for ad libs. We hear the telephone effect all the time — it’s probably the most popular way to mix ad libs. That’s a good place to start, but if you want to get clever with it, start throwing modulation into the mix. Flanger works well, for example.
Pitch-shifting is another way to get creative mixing rap vocals. Try subtly pitching one background layer down, and another one up for some added flavor.
- RELATED: Mixing Vocals – The PLAP Master List
- RELATED: Flanger VS Phaser
- RELATED: How To Get Rid of Vocal Semblance
Conclusion: Mixing Rap Vocals
These are some of the basic steps to mixing rap vocals. It’s one of the few genres we get to spend lots of extra time on vocals, experimenting with different techniques and effects to achieve something really fun and unique. Play around with it and don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty!