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How to Mix Hip Hop

When mixing hip-hop music, some of your instruments will already have some processing - for example, your 808, snare, and any sample-based instrument. That said when mixing hip-hop it’s best not to over-compress, but instead, find ways to augment the timbre and presence of instruments.

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808 Signal Chain

For this video, I’m going to go instrument by instrument and show you how I mixed it. Things will start off a little dull but become more complete sounding with each demonstration so stick around to hear the end result.

An 808 typically consists of a percussive sample, subharmonics, and harmonics - usually, a generator will include some processing like distortion and maybe compression. With that in mind, I don’t need to over-process my 808, and will introduce saturation to change its timbre and add a very subtle reverb.

The reverb is super short and only mixed in about 5%. Let’s listen and notice how the 808 subtly improves.

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Hip-Hop Drum Loop Chain

A drum loop with higher frequency percussion can help quickly round out a drum track - to make it sound more impressive, let’s add some quick attack and release hard knee compression to distort and amplify transients. I’ll make this effect more aggressive with a transient shaper.

Then expand its image with a left/right EQ, and amplify the highs of the side image, before adding quick and subtle room reverb to make it 3D.

Lastly, and this is optional, I’ll utilize binaural panning to make its placement in the mix more unique.

Let’s listen to this instrument and the 808 together.

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Mixing Hip Hop Snare

Artificial snare will like already have some processing, but I’ll thicken the snare with a unique combo of optical compression with a hard knee, fast attack, and auto makeup gain. Then I’ll shape the frequency response and amplify some of C# since that’s the key of this track.

So added highs helped the snare cut through as well. Like the other drum tracks, I added some subtle reverb but utilized different settings so that each percussive element had a unique space.

Let’s listen and notice how the snare becomes more stylized and distinct.

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Auxiliary Percussion Mixing

Last up for individual drum tracks, let’s mix in a clap that’s a bit boring at first. Like the snare and loop, I’ll augment transients with quick, auto makeup gain compression. With a sample delay, I’ll cause image widening phase cancellation to place the clap far left and right.

Since the clap isn’t integral to the mix, I can use creative imaging without worrying about mono compatibility. With an EQ, I’ll amplify in-key elements to make it fuller, stick out more, and sound more musical. Like before, I’ll also add a quick reverb to give it a 3D nature.

Let’s listen and notice how its placement adds a unique quality to the drum track.

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Mixing Bass in Hip-Hop

Adding bass can be a challenge due to potential excessive overlap with the 808, so the first thing I want to do is EQ aspects of the bass that overlap. Additionally, I’ll also introduce side-chained compression to the bass, which dips it whenever the kick is present.

Now that the bass is out of the 808’s way, I’ll saturate to create a full sound, using a warm tube setting to emphasize transients and a 2nd order harmonic.

To thicken it more, I’ll add a short and subtle room reverb emulation. Let’s listen and notice how the bass and 808 work together when the processing is enabled.

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Melody Hip Hop Signal Chain

If anything, the melody in a hip-hop track can’t have a boring timbre - so I’m going to take these bell sounds and try to make them more unique starting with heavy transformer distortion. Like the clap, I’ll use sample delay to drastically widen its image.

I’ll also use left/right and mid/side EQ to pinpoint which frequencies are widened even more. Lastly, I’ll utilize medium-length reverb with moderate modulation and wide reflections to keep it interesting but avoid a washed-out sound.

Let’s listen and notice how the processing makes the instrument more interesting.

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Hip Hop Vocal Signal Chain

The vocal is arguable the most important part so let’s spend the most time on it - I’ll start with a high pass and then dip the fundamental and second-order harmonic. Using compression, I’ll bring it forward with a fast attack, fast release, soft-knee, lookahead, and auto-make-up gain.

I’ll follow this with the MV2 upward compressor to amplify even more nuance and detail.

With a short but in-time modulated delay, and medium Lenten reverb isolated to the mids, I’ll thicken and blend the vocal in with the instrumentation.

A final EQ helps me shape the vocal, mainly by boosting the now processed fundamental, amplifying in-key presence, and drastically amplifying air frequencies.

I end the chain with an Oxford inflator to make the vocal more aggressive and to boost quieter parts of my temporal processing. Let’s listen and notice how the vocal goes from weak and behind the mix to at the forefront of it.

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How to Process Hip-Hop Drum Bus

A drum bus is an opportunity to get a cohesive sound from your percussion tracks - I’ll change the outputs of my drum tracks to a bus, and then process them collectively on this bus. The Oxford inflator will bring quieter details forward and make a full sound.

MB saturation helps shape the timbre by distorting each range a little differently. I usually stick with Tube saturation on drums since it emphasizes transient detail.

Lastly, I subtly shaped the frequency response by emphasizing particular low, mid and high frequencies that I thought should be amplified.

Let’s listen to only the drum tracks and notice how the processing makes them more cohesive.

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How to Process Hip-Hop Inst. Bus

Next, let’s do the same thing but with our instruments - I’ll compress the instrument bus to create cohesive timing, and use auto-make-up gain to increase the perceived loudness and low-level detail. If you couldn’t tell already, I’m a fan of the Oxford inflator, so I’ll use this next to bring more detail forward.

Let’s listen to the full mix after I’ve adjusted some levels via the faders to compensate for perceived loudness differences caused by this new processing.

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Demo Hip-Hop Master on Output

Although I’d recommend getting your track mastered, you may need to create a demo master to show a client or friends. A real simple demo chain is a mid-side EQ with which I’ll cut some of the lows from the sides to keep it focused.

Then I’ll use a limiter - I’ve become a fan of the Oxford limiter’s enhance function since I don’t need to destroy my peaks to get a loud sound.

Let’s listen and note that although it’s not a finished master, it’ll be loud and impressive enough to demo.

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