If you’re an engineer in 2020, chances are you’re mixing hip-hop. It’s the most popular genre in the world, and there are countless up-and-coming artists getting in the studio and creating.
Recording and mixing hip-hop seems pretty straight forward, especially if you’re accustomed to working with full bands. You set up a mic, the artist gets in front of it, and off you go. Realistically, the genre presents some unique challenges of its own, from the rapid pace at which many artists like to record, to getting a vocal mix to sit right on a 2-track beat.
We’ll take a look at some general guidelines to mixing rap so you can be prepared to handle any client.
Keep the vocals up front and personal
People love hip-hop because of three very simple reasons: the beat, the lyrics, and the way those lyrics are performed. Needless to say, vocals account for more than half of what people enjoy.
If you have a tendency to tuck rap vocals into a beat, you might want to re-think that. Even in heavily effected Travis Scott-style vocal productions, they’re still an in-your-face instrument leading the way. Listen to any of your favorite hip-hop tracks, and vocals are more than likely one of, if not the loudest, elements in the mix.
The hip-hop mixing hierarchy tends to look like this:
- Samples, synths, and other textures
Vocals should almost always be at the top. Artists rap to show off their stuff — not to be overshadowed by a producer’s beat. If you’re lucky enough to actually get the multitrack to work with, kick should sit right underneath the vocals, with the snare just underneath that. From there, it’s a matter of leveling everything else around those three most important elements.
You won’t always have access to the multitrack instrumental when mixing hip-hop…
Mixing hip-hop vocals to a 2-track instrumental is something every engineer will encounter at some point. It’s especially common in hip-hop/pop, where artists routinely download pre-mixed instrumentals online and bring them to a studio to record. The challenge with learning how to mix to a 2-track beat is getting the vocals to sit in a space that feels right.
Without fail, a pre-mixed instrumental has been compressed and limited for loudness. In fact, many hip-hop producers are mixing their instrumentals specifically with loudness in mind. At a certain point loudness becomes more complex than simply increasing the volume, which is where density comes into play. A producer who’s familiar with this concept will make their instrumentals denser to give the record more perceived level. Of course, a dense mix leaves little room for a vocal.
The very first thing you’ll want to do is pull the 2-track’s level down to give yourself some headroom. I usually find 6 dB to be enough, but there are some particularly loud mixes that have required more. The funny thing is, the louder the instrumental, the quieter the end mix will be.
Here’re some tips for mixing hip-hop vocals to a 2-track:
Vocal Compression for Density
You can run into a lot of problems with a heavily compressed 2-track and a very dynamic vocal performance. In this case (which is quite often) the vocal will either be buried by the beat or hover above the mix.
This is inevitable. Rather than burying the vocal underneath a dense instrumental, you should opt to work around having the vocals hang above the beat. You can get them to mesh better with the 2-track by compressing in small increments so their density starts to match that of the instrumental.
You’ll want to avoid letting one compressor do all the work. If you do, you’ll hear it working way too hard—it won’t sound good. Instead, use a few compressors all doing a conservative amount of gain reduction.
Figuring out what works for you is all part of learning how to mix, but an 1176 into an LA-2A is a famous vocal chain worth trying!
Pay close attention to the overall tonality of the instrumental. It might be very bright, very dark, or somewhere in the middle. Complimenting the instrumental’s quality with your vocal EQ will do wonders for gluing everything together. For example, a dark vocal on a bright track might sound a little buried, or a bright vocal on a dark track won’t sound cohesive. Get the blend right!
This goes for other instrumental qualities too—not just EQ. Consider things like this: a popular trend in trap has been heavily distorted 808s. It might be worth adding a little saturation to your vocals to compliment a 2-track with distorted 808s. This is all an exercise in creative mixing which can help get you where you need to go.
Match the instrumental’s space on vocals. This isn’t always an easy thing to do, but again, listen carefully to the overall “vibe” of the 2-track. Doing so will help you put the vocals in a logical space that makes sense for the song’s context. Be sure not to bury the vocals, though, and remember the #1 rule of mixing hip-hop.
When you’re confident in your vocal sound for the given instrumental, you may need to open the 2-track up a bit to give them a bit more space.
“Open up” the beat
Try not to overdo it if you decide to EQ the pre-mixed beat. You’ll typically want to avoid broad Qs and heavy cuts lest you want to totally change the quality of the instrumental. Sometimes a gentle high-pass filter around 20-30 Hz can remove some of the sub frequencies that eat up a huge amount of mix space, buying you a bit more headroom.
If you can hear a specific frequency in the beat that really isn’t gelling with the vocals, notch it out. But again, be subtle — unless you want to risk changing the vibe.
This is actually incredibly handy. With M-S processing, you can separate the sonic information living in the center from the info living on the sides. By pulling the center down a tad, you can effectively create space for the vocals to sit!
These are some of the basics of mixing hip-hop. Hopefully it gives you some insight as to what to look for, and characteristics of the genre you should be aware of!