Assuming you’re a hip-hop producer, have you always wondered how to mix hip hop vocals if you don’t have the time or desire to properly learn the ins and outs of mixing hip hop vocals? Like most of your fellow producers, you may ask yourself what expensive plugins or hardware you need to achieve this process in the most professional way possible. The reality is, that your DAW of choice, be it Logic Pro x, Pro Tools (ugh, iLok), REAPER etc… comes with a considerable amount of built-in plugins which can help you produce great results without having to buy any additional tools.
In this article, I will suggest 5 rules that can be helpful starting points when mixing hip hop vocals. Before giving you the keys to success, just remember to use your ears. If it sounds good, chances are it is good. Another recommendation is to switch back and forth between monitors and headphones so you can be sure it sounds good no matter through which medium you listen to your track.
Step 1: Subtractive EQ
The basic technique is to take a single EQ band and increase the resonance so that the EQ is giving you a sharp spike at a particular frequency. After having done so, the next step is to sweep that frequency band around in order to really hear what frequencies are creating problems. While these may change depending on the particularities of your voice, here are some areas where I think trouble usually arises:
- 250-350Hz: Muddiness
- 450-650Hz: Honky
- 1kHz-2kHz: Nasal
- 2.5kHz: Harshness
Generally, you want to be pretty light with your EQ, with a fairly wide Q value and usually not cutting much more than around 3-4dB from any one particular area.
Recommended free plugin: TDR Nova
Step 2: De-essing (if necessary)
Not every vocal will need de-essing, but its main goal is to use when some sibilant “ess” sounds have to be made less piercing for the listener to enjoy the track. I find that in my experience, almost every vocal that I work with needs a de-esser unless it’s been recorded under extremely optimal conditions. There’s really not too much to it, simply find the frequency that is really present in your voice (usually somewhere between 5kHz and 8kHz) when you say a word with an “ess” sound in it and then adjust the amount of de-essing to your liking. Note that excessive de-essing can actually have the opposite effect and make your vocal sound harsh and bright. A rule here is to not overdo it.
Recommended plugin: Whatever your DAW has is fine, but I’d recommend paying for one. Fabfilter Pro-DS is a great option.
Step 3: Compression
The main purpose of compression is simply to even out the dynamics of the vocal so that if you accidentally got closer to the microphone for a phrase or two, it won’t sound noticeably louder because it will bring the volume down to compensate. It can also help to even out the volume over the course of a phrase, and to make the vocal feel “thicker”. A lot of beginners make the mistake to heavily apply compression when the actual solution would just be to rap at a more consistent volume into the microphone. Generally, a good number to aim for is around 3-4db of gain reduction, max. This can be accomplished by bringing the ratio between 2:1 and 4:1 and adjusting the threshold of the compressor until you achieve the desired amount of gain reduction. You can feel free to leave the dynamics processing or additionally adjust the attack and release settings if required.
*Side note: Attack + Release*
Starting with both at a sort of medium setting, start to lower the release until you can see the “Gain Reduction” meter returning to 0 every so often, for instance, at the end of a phrase. Basically, you want to make sure that the compressor isn’t working 100% of the time. Don’t go too low with the release time because it can add some nasty artifacts (just low enough). Once the release time is set, the attack can then be adjusted depending on how you want your vocal to sit in the mix. If you want the vocals to come to the front of the mix a bit more, use a slower attack, say 15ms. If you want them to sit more flush with the rest of the instrumental, try a faster attack like 3-5ms. Make sure to adjust this parameter while listening to the mix as a whole, not while the vocal is soloed. Above all else, use your ears!
Recommended free plugin: Whatever your DAW has. You don’t need some fancy analog emulation, your DAW’s compressor is more than fine.
Step 4: Additive EQ
Now that we’ve taken away some of the harsh resonances with the subtractive EQ, we can boost some of the frequencies that will help the vocal cut through the mix of your track and give it more clarity and presence. While these numbers will vary according to one’s voice, you can use these as a good starting point:
- 150-250Hz: Body, Fullness
- 650-900Hz: Lyrical Presence, Punchiness
- 1k-2kHz: Clarity
- 10kHz+: Sizzle, Bite
If you’ve found that you’re having to boost a particular band quite a bit, it might be helpful to cut that same frequency with some subtractive EQ on a competing instrument, such as the main sample or synthesizer.
Recommended free plugin: TDR VOS SlickEQ (seriously this guy makes amazing free plugins)
For delay, you’re almost always going to want it to be tempo-synced with the rest of the beat and like the reverb, cutting out some of the lows and highs will help to make sure that the delayed vocal doesn’t interfere too much with the main vocal line. Using the delay as an insert effect is fine, and I usually set it as less than 3.5% wet unless I’m really trying to heavily feature the delay as an effect. Like the reverb, delay is best felt and not heard.
Recommended free plugin: Ambience has a nice sound but not the best interface. I’d recommend springing $50 for one of the Valhalla reverbs, great value.
Now, there are many more techniques that you can use if you’re still not satisfied with the way your vocal sits in the mix, such as parallel compression, saturation, sidechaining, etc., but these basic steps should be all you need to make a solid mix. If “solid” isn’t good enough for you, then maybe it’s time to think about sending it to a professional. The last thing that is worth mentioning is that it’s really important to get the vocal recording as clean as possible because there’s a saying in audio that you can’t polish a turd! Meaning that no matter how well you mix it, a bad recording is always going to sound bad.
I’m an all-around music lover with 3+ years of experience running my own audio engineering business, DawnSound.com. Primarily focusing on mixing and mastering, I work with artists from around the world across many different genres, but mainly focusing on hip-hop.