I’ve had mildly-spirited conversations with snooty audio engineers who believe that rap is beneath them, as they claim “Pfft, it’s just a two-track and a vocal. Anyone could do that.” What they ignore are the realities presented by the genre.
Although there are scenarios in which the music is just a two-track stereo mix, the music is often set up as separate multitrack files to include tons of tracks. Plus, “a vocal”? No, no, no. A cornucopia of vocals is more like it.
Aside from the truth about track count, there’s a certain creative freedom that comes with mixing rap and hip-hop; it’s both liberating and challenging. What’s liberating is the opportunity to do creative things that would be laughably inappropriate for many other genres. For example, pitch-dropped vocals can work great in rap, but if you did that in folk rock, the artist would rightly question your sanity.
What’s especially challenging is successfully tapping into your creativity to make a mix that isn’t just balanced, but also interesting. To help with your pursuit of both, I’d like to share eight tips that you can toss in your grab bag of sonic treats for mixing rap and hip-hop.
1. Danger! Beware of Clipping
The most common problem I’ve encountered in rap and hip-hop recordings and mixes is clipping. If you aren’t already aware of clipping, it is distortion that occurs when signal levels are beyond the limit of a device. It seems that in pursuit of ridiculous bragging rights for the title of “Lord of Loudness,” people routinely record and mix way too hot.
What is “too hot?” I generally categorize it as any level that is so high that it causes undesired distortion. If the files you’re about to mix are already clipped, you can kiss your hopes of a clean mix goodbye. Any chance at success in significant reduction of distortion requires specialized tools such as the De-clip module in iZotope RX, which can repair clipping artifacts. Though it’s seriously amazing what can be accomplished with RX, there are limits; the core algorithms utilize technology, not miracles!
Even if your files aren’t clipping, they can still be so hot that clipping can easily occur later in the signal chain. For example, let’s say that the lead vocal peaks at -1 dBFS, and you do a 3 dB boost when EQing it. Put your math hat on: -1 dB plus 3 dB equals +2 dB. In digital audio systems, exceeding 0 dBFS will cause clipping.
There are exceptions in DAWs that have floating-point bit depth mix engines, but floating-point bit depth is outside of the scope of this article. Plus, levels over 0 dBFS in them will still cause clipping at the D/A (digital to analog) converter. So, what’s the solution?
Turn it down! Easy, right? You’ve got a shiny fader on every track precisely that purpose. Not so fast, Handsy McFaderfingers! A track’s fader typically comes after its inserts (where you insert plug-ins) in DAW signal flow. So, if clipping has occurred in a vocal track’s EQ plug-in, lowering the fader after it will only attenuate the clipped signal, not reduce the amount of distortion in the signal.
What’s better is to turn down the signal before the clipping occurs. Some DAWs such as Avid Pro Tools and Steinberg Nuendo allow you to adjust the gain of each region/clip, which occurs before the inserts. Great! If your DAW doesn’t offer such a function, you can insert a gain, trim, or EQ plug-in in the first insert slot, then lower the level in that plug-in.
Whether you lower the level at the region/clip or in the first insert slot, you’ll be giving yourself more headroom later in the signal flow, allowing you to boost levels later with a reduced threat of clipping.
2. Keep Vocals Tight
The most frequently-made mix mistake on rap vocals is applying too much reverb. Yeah, vocals drenched in reverb sound cool for ballads and ‘60s retro rock, but it’s a crying shame when rap vocals need a Coast Guard rescue to escape massive swells of reverberation. If you do use reverb on rappers, keep it subtle. Shy away from long decay times of two seconds or more and large spaces such as concert halls and cathedrals. Also, for the love of all that is remotely righteous, keep your reverb level low. Since the goal for rap vocals is typically a tight and up-front sound, use reverb sparingly.
Another factor contributing to a tight vocal sound is how layers of vocals relate to each other. It’s standard practice for rappers to record a lead vocal, a double of it, and highlights (a track in which only certain words of the original vocal are performed to highlight or emphasize them). The vocal production can get much more complex; I’ve encountered rap songs with far more vocal tracks than that.
If layered vocals are panned in the same position and have timing discrepancies beyond about 20 milliseconds of each other, the result can sound like stutters, slapback, or echo, which is distracting when the goal is clarity.
When dealing with layered vocals, a huge part of achieving a tight sound involves aligning their timing so that identical words across the layers end up in identical places. This can be done with a variety of manual editing techniques, including cut and paste, nudging, and more; however, it’s a laborious task that breeds bitterness and vaporizes your creative energy.
Time-alignment plug-ins such as Synchro Arts VocALign and Revoice Pro were designed to handle such madness and do so with time-saving ease. They can shift, stretch, and time-compress one track to match another, making them capable of manipulating the timing of a doubled vocal to match the lead vocal.
Maybe you’re thinking, “Hey dudeman, that sounds like editing, not mixing.” Yeah, you’re right! However, it is far from strange for mixing to involve some fixing, and if fixing makes the mixing better, you do the fixing!
3. Pitch, Please!
A cool way to draw attention to certain words and phrases, or to create variation where it previously didn’t exist, is to pitch-shift them. For example, if the vocals in the second verse rap the same line back to back three times, adding a pitch-drop to one of them might prevent it from seeming too repetitive.
Static pitch shift and “tape stop” are a couple common methods used for vocal pitch-drop effects. A static pitch shift results in an amount of pitch change that remains constant over time. A “tape stop” produces the effect of an analog tape machine being slowed to a stop, which gradually decreases both the speed and pitch. Some people say it’s as if the sound is winding down in slow motion.
Static pitch shift: Duplicate the vocal track or copy and paste the desired vocal part(s) to a new track. If your DAW has a per-track transpose or pitch function, try it! If not, use a pitch plug-in such as Serato Pitch ‘n Time, zplane Elastique Pitch 2, or a stock model to lower the pitch on the duplicate/new track. Considering that there is one semitone between each note in the chromatic scale, start somewhere between three semitones and an octave (12 semitones). Feel free to use EQ, panning, and level adjustments to give the pitched track a different tone and stereo position than the original vocal.
Tape stop: This will more often be done on the original track rather than on a duplicate. Select the original vocal part that you want to pitch-shift. If your DAW offers selection-based processing (effects that can be applied to sections of tracks), you can use plug-ins like iZotope Vinyl (free), kHs Tape Stop, or Avid Vari-Fi to apply the “tape stop” to just the selected part. The magic happens at the push of the Spin Down button in iZotope Vinyl, the Play button in kHs Tape Stop, or the Render button in Avid Vari-Fi. Some DAWs such as Ableton Live and Apple Logic Pro have per-region functions that allow you to “pencil in” the desired pitch curve, giving you another way to achieve the greatness. By the way, “tape stop” effects are also awesome on instruments like drums, bass, and synths!
4. Chop It Up
There is another rad special effect and it can be done with or without special plug-ins. On the streets, it’s known as the “stutter edit.” It involves editing the vocal to make it sound like an obvious stutter or stammer. If this is done in rhythm with the song, it can sound very cool. As with all cool things, don’t overuse it. You don’t want to get a reputation as Ol’ Stevie Stutter-Edit.
Stutter edit without plug-Ins: Imagine that you are working on a vocal phrase that starts with the word “Get.” You’d select a small portion of the word, just the “G,” for example. When possible, select a musical amount of time like a 16th note or 32nd note; it’s easier to keep it in time with the music. Copy and paste the small section before the original word. By pasting it multiple times before the original word, you can create rhythmic patterns. You could easily end up with “G-G-Get,” “G-GG-Get,” or any number of other iterations. Stutter edits don’t have to be at the beginning of words; they can be used to slice up the middle and end of words, too.
Before stutter edit:
After stutter edit:
Stutter edit with plug-ins: Proud owners of iZotope’s Stutter Edit plug-in will find a mind-warping number of ways to create stutter effects at the push of a button. The plug-in allows you to choose the timing value and rhythmic pattern or create your own custom stutter sequence. It’s so gratifying that I’m surprised it’s legal.
For an extra level of “Whaaaaat?!” try using one of the pitch-shifting methods on stuttered vocals.
5. Flip It and Reverse It
No surprises here! The reverse effect achieves the sorcerous result of playing audio backwards. I personally find this is best applied to a low-volume layered vocal, reverb, or drum hits in intros, breakdowns, bridges, and outros.
Select a word, phrase, or instrument part via a plug-in such as Avid Reverse (Pro Tools only) or built-in sample editor “Reverse” functions (as with Ableton Live and Apple Logic Pro), and reverse it! Yep, it’s really that easy and immediately rewarding. When applied to drum and cymbal hits or reverb, the reverse effect gives you a dramatic swell—it starts quiet, then fades into a loud and abrupt end. In many cases, I’ll reposition the reversed sound so its peak is near the original peak, in order to create a similar point of impact.
6. Delay, Delay, Delay
A nearly unavoidable effect that you’ll hear in rap and many other genres is called “vocal delay throws.” It’s a fancy phrase used to describe the process of repeating very specific words via echo or delay. It’s a go-to hit because it’s a fairly easy way to fill in gaps between vocal phrases. It is most often applied to the last word in a particular phrase. For example, if a certain vocal phrase is “Nah brah, ya got to go,” a vocal delay throw could turn it into “Nah brah, ya got to go, go, go.”
There are two preferred ways to execute this common ear-pleaser—automate a vocal aux send to a spare track or copy and paste vocals to a spare track. In both cases, a delay plug-in will be inserted on the spare track and certain parts of the vocal performance will be “thrown” or sent to it.
Automate a send: Make an aux send through a bus to a delay plug-in on a spare track. Start with the aux send level all the way down. Turn on the track’s automation, play the song, then turn up the aux send level for the last word in a phrase. Only that word will be sent to the delay plug-in.
Copy and paste: Create a new audio track below the original vocal. Insert a delay plug-in on the new track. When you find a word that you’d like to “throw,” copy and paste it to the new track. Make sure that you paste it in the same exact time position as the original. Otherwise, you’ll mess up the timing of the effect.
Before delay setup:
After delay setup:
Regardless of which method you use, set the delay plug-in’s mix control to 100 percent wet since it is on its own track. You’ll want the delay to be in time with your music and have a moderate pace. Assuming that your session tempo is set correctly, start with a delay time of a ½ note or ¼ note; don’t just spin the wheel and hope you get something good!
If your session tempo is not set to match the music, the next best option is tap tempo, assuming that your delay plug-in has a tap function and you have rhythm. If not, well, moving on... Set the plug-in’s feedback or regeneration somewhere between 10 percent and 30 percent. This will allow it to repeat more than once, but not forever. The higher the feedback percentage, the more the delayed signal will repeat.
When you play back your tracks, you should hear a repeating echo only for the words that were thrown to the delay plug-in. Since you don’t want the echo to jump out and smack you in the face, lower the echo track’s fader a bit.
Check out iZotope’s DDLY plug-in.
7. Parallel Processing
Parallel processing is essentially just applying processing to a copy of an original signal and mixing the copy and the original together. For the meat ‘n ‘taters of parallel processing, refer your good self to the “5 Ways to Use Parallel Processing in Music Production” article. For rap and hip-hop, I recommend trying parallel compression on vocals, and parallel saturation on bass, kick, and snare. It’s a fun and effective way of controlling dynamics and adding harmonics.
Making submixes is all about blessing you with easy control over level and tone for different instruments in the session. Submixes give you the advantageous ability to grab a single fader to turn up all vocals or use one plug-in to apply harmonic saturation to all drums. To bestow such powers upon yourself, it just takes a little routing. Although there are variations on this theme, the essential goal is to route certain sets of tracks to dedicated stereo aux tracks (e.g. all drum tracks to a stereo aux track, all other instruments to a stereo aux track, and all vocals to a stereo aux track).
Setting up submixes: To create a drum submix, you would change the outputs of all drum tracks to an unused stereo pair of buses such as Bus 9-10. Use stereo buses to avoid summing your drum mix to mono. You’d then accept those buses as the input to a new stereo aux track. Make sure that the pans on the stereo aux track are set hard left and hard right. If they were center-panned, your drum mix would be summed to mono!
After completing the routing, 100% of the drum signals will pass through the stereo aux, making the aux track’s fader the level control for the drum mix. Then, you’d repeat the process for the other instruments and yet again for the vocals. Not only will this give you level controls for each set of tracks, it will also allow for easy plug-in processing for each set of tracks.
Pop a saturation plug-in on the aux track for the drums; the saturation will affect all the drum signals because all the drum signals are going through the aux track. Compare that to putting the same saturation plug-in on twelve drum tracks. It would take more time and CPU resources to use twelve plug-ins than it would to use just one.
Sometimes I go to my crazy place and set up submixes for drums, percussion, bass, synths, strings, verse vocals, hook (chorus) vocals, bridge vocals, and more. Don’t judge me!
Try ‘Em Out
As I’m sure you’ve already concluded, you can’t use every trick on every mix. That’s not how life works. You might have to treat two songs from the same artist very differently. To figure out what does work, you’ve got to get a feel for your techniques through trial and error. Once you have a solid understanding of what they sound like, try imagining them in your head before you spend loads of time executing them. If a pitch-dropped stutter edit in the intro sounds head-shakingly stupid in your head, then maybe don’t waste time setting it up just to confirm that suspicion. However, if you can’t imagine the effect in your brain-based playback system, trying it in the session may be necessary to find which “Hot or Not” classification it falls in.
So, get to trying!