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Recording and Mixing Hip-Hop in Spire Studio

by Charley Ruddell, iZotope Contributor February 20, 2020
Latrell James recording with Spire Studio
Latrell James recording with Spire Studio

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Download this article’s session file to dive into a hip hop session in the Spire app.

Whether you’re Busta Rhymes or Migos, the key elements of hip-hop songs are a beat and topline vocals—sung, rapped, or both. Early in its existence, hip-hop beats were made up of instrumental breaks in funk and soul records, but as it exists in its current form, hip-hop beats can be made from anything, whether they be samples or original compositions. Hip-hop beats tend to have a signature boomy low end and crisp highs, with a well-balanced mid range vocal performance that is usually supported by multiple background vocal tracks. As far as recording hip-hop live in Spire Studio, Bass Amp, Big Air, and Classic Stack are all your production allies. 

From vocal tracks to beat production, Spire Studio’s recording features make for a stacked hip-hop track. Want to try some of these mixing techniques on your own? Download the session file at the beginning of this article and hear award-winning hip-hop artist Latrell James on his hip-hop track “Shark Tooth Necklace,” recorded on Spire Studio. 

Shark Tooth Necklace

Hip-hop rhythm section

A great hip-hop track cannot survive without a rhythm section. Even if your song doesn’t use a traditional drum or sample track, you’ll want to choose Spire features that best accentuate the EQ you’re looking for in your tracks. 

If you’re looking to really boost the low end in your sampler or your live drums recording, try using the Bass Amp to get some extra kick in the lows. Keep the Drive to a minimum (unless you’re looking for grit), and turn up the presence if you need more definition.

To go the extra mile, consider layering in some drum tracks using effects like Classic Stack or Tube 30. These amp simulators will give your drums an AM radio sound and could be a great way of adding some dynamism and drama to your song. 

You could also consider recording the same drum track using different effects on each track. Try recording one of your rhythm tracks without any effects, then record the same track using the Bass Amp or Big Air for added depth and weight. 

For recording bass guitar or key bass, stick with either the Bass Amp or recording clean without effects. Depending on how much low end you want to add, play with the Drive and Blend on the Bass Amp—more drive will fill up more space on the low end. 

Jaycen Joshua, Mix Engineer (Lil Wayne, Jay-Z, Nas)

Mid range hip-hop instruments

Until the late 1980s, live guitars and synths weren’t an initial go-to in hip-hop production, but the rise of West Coast hip-hop in the early 1990s changed the game. Now, synths and guitars are used everywhere in hip-hop production. However, the key to these mid-ranged instruments is to be sparse and mix cautiously—the rhythm section should always come first. 

Guitar tracks in hip-hop lean towards a few signature styles, like the signature Dr. Dre staccato arpeggios, like in “The Next Episode,” or the clean, flourished strums in songs like Kendrick Lamar’s “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe”. Whether your guitar is a rhythmic or a harmonic device, the goal should be to keep it tame in the mix and to use it for enhancing your beat instead of being the central focus. 

With this in mind, there are many ways to approach tracking your guitar in Spire Studio. It all depends on what kind of sonic palette you’re searching for in your song. 

If you’re going for the more rhythmic, strumming hand approach, options like Classic Stack and Tube 30 are ideal (keep the Drive down for both). For those more expansive, harmonic guitar parts, try Capratone, Big Air, or Acoustic Shaper—all three have ample reverb and delay, but with a clean input tone. When recording leads, use the Classic Stack with the Drive turned up around midway. 

Certain keyboard tones, like the one in our track “Shark Tooth Necklace”, lend themselves to a soft reverb sound. If reverb is what you’re looking for, use Acoustic Shaper. 

Noname performing

Recording hip-hop vocals

Hip-hop is one of the more complicated genres as far as vocal production is concerned. Hip-hop vocal tracks need to be clean, clear, dry, and distinct, with every single syllable cutting through the mix. When recording your vocal tracks, it’s extremely important to soundproof your space as thoroughly as possible so you can get as clean a take as possible each time. 

Hip-hop vocal tracks are notoriously dry. Adding too many effects can muddle the flow and make the annunciation too muddy. In Spire Studio, it’s best to either record direct-in with no effects or to use effects that can be easily controlled. Big Air would be a great effect to substitute for dryness; it’s chorus qualities fill up stereo space and the delay can be turned off. Capratone would also be a solid choice. Avoid Spaces and amps here if a dry vocal sound is what you’re after. 

If you have at least two tracks left when recording your song, try using one for your lead vocal take, and the other for backgrounds (backgrounds are used to emphasize certain phrases or words in the rap, or to provide a dialogue between the narrator and a supporting character). 

If you have a pop filter, here would be a good place to use one. The cleaner the mic sound, the better. Oh, and it goes without saying: use Soundcheck to get your levels set and to avoid clipping during recording.

Mixing hip-hop

The best hip-hop mixes are all about the rhythm section and the lead vocal. When mixing your track in Spire’s Visual Mixer, keep the drum tracks and the vocal tracks perfectly centered and at the same volume. 

Next, filter in bass by pulling it just under the volume level as your drum tracks. If you used more Drive on your bass track while recording, you might need to pull your track further below the volume level of the vocals and drums. Use your ears and your best judgment here.

You’ll want to pan your guitar tracks liberally and keep your keys tracks between center and the left and right walls of the mixer. These mid range instruments should also be considerably lower than your rhythm section and lead vocal tracks. 

After you’ve got a general mix of the whole project, check back in with your lead vocal track. If you feel it’s being swallowed up by the rhythm section, try either lowering the volume of the bass track, or boosting the volume of the lead vocal. 

Our final hip-hop mix in Spire’s Visual Mixer

Conclusion

And there you have it, a fresh hip-hop song recorded in Spire Studio. By using the recording features to your advantage, producing your own original hip-hop track is easier than ever. Use amp simulators like Bass Amp to draw out your low end frequencies, effects like Big Air for your mid range textures, and a simple, dry tone for your lead vocal. Spire can help you create your hip-hop production efficiently and with the highest quality. 

Learn more about recording with Spire Studio:

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