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How to Mix Hip Hop Vocals

When mixing Hip Hop vocals, you’ll usually start with editing and tuning - then move to processing such as subtractive EQ, compression, additive EQ, saturation, and parallel high-frequency processing. Temporal effects like reverb and delay are usually used sparingly, but short reverb will help thicken the vocal.

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Tuning the Vocal

The chapters in this video will be shown as a chain.

Tuning vocals is pretty common in rap and hip-hop and you can usually get away with using more aggressive settings. For this vocal, the pitch was a bit rough so I had to tune it first with Melodyne, but I also decided to run it through auto-tune and meta tune.

The key was Db Minor so I selected that and then varied the tuning speed to taste.

Let’s take a listen first to the unprocessed vocal and then to the fully processed vocal so that we get a better understanding of how the next 10 chapters will play out, and work together.

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Use Subtractive EQ

Next, I want to clarify the vocal a bit and set it up well for subsequent processing - with this Shade EQ I attenuated the lows and some of the boxiness around 300Hz that the tuners added. Then I dipped a little of the nasal tones around 1kHz.

Let’s listen and keep in mindthe effect may be subtle since it’s more preventive than anything else.

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Introduce Upfront Compression

Having an upfront vocal is really important for hip-hop, and compression with a quick attack, quick release, softer knee, and make-up gain is a great way to achieve this. Additionally, using a little lookahead helps the compressor capture more of the vocal’s details and transients.

Let’s listen and notice how this step in particular makes a big difference.

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Use Additive EQ

After the vocal has been pushed to the front by compression, I’m going to amplify aspects I want more of. With an EQ I boosted a little of 500Hz to improve vowel pronunciation, and some of 3.5kHz to increase vocal clarity and help it cut through the beat.

You’ll also notice that I had to cut some frequencies again, like the lows, and sibilance, which were made a little unpleasant by the previous compressor.

Let’s take a listen to how this EQ balances the vocal and adds clarity. Keep in mind that I’ll add more to the high-frequency range in a later chapter.

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Utilize Clarifying Saturation

Having crisp vocals is important in hip-hop and one processor that helps achieve this is a good saturator. With it I’ll introduce tube saturation which will help fill the vocal as well as amplify its transients, helping it cut through the mix and accentuate pronunciation.

Also, this saturator in particular has a presence filter which helps emphasize high frequencies, adding more clarity to the vocal.

Let’s listen to how this creates a desirable crisp sound.

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If Available, Use Soothe 2

At this point, our vocal has improved, but it’s still lacking polish and isn’t sitting it with the beat right. With soothe 2 I’ll attenuate excessive resonances that are still making the vocal sound unbalanced for one reason or another - but I’ll keep the effect mild.

This processor sets us up nicely for temporal effects like reverb or delay if needed , but will take the aggressive nature of the vocal away if used too much.

Let’s take a listen to how at this stage our vocal sounds upfront, crisp, and now, pretty balanced with the beat.

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Achieve Parallel Compressed High Hz.

This is a really important step for modern rap and hip-hop vocals - you may have noticed that despite our previous processing, the highs are still lacking. With a send and on a parallel track I’ll first use a linear phase EQ to isolate the highest frequencies of the vocal.

I’ll also use a shelf to amplify them. Next, I’ll use this MV2 upward compressor to squeeze as much detail out as possible from the noise floor up, creating a dense sound.

Lastly, I’ll introduce this PSP compressor since it can introduce both lookahead and RMS compression, which when combined help control both the transients and lower level info.

With make-up gain enabled, and oversampling turned on the avoid aliasing, the highs have now been significantly controlled and can be blended in with the original signal via the channel fader.

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Generate and Blend Harmonies

Vocal harmonies help fill the vocal and make the performance feel more complex. Unfortunately, the harmonies for this track were too out of key to be used, but, we can use a harmony engine to generate new ones using the lead as the processor’s reference.

I’ll set up another parallel send with the harmony generator, and set the scale to Db Minor. I’ll mute the original and introduce harmonies 1 octave up and down, as well as a 5th.

To help the new harmonies blend in, I introduce an EQ after the harmony generator and isolated the response to the mids. Then I saturated them to create in-key harmonics and fill the sound even more.

Lastly, I blended in the effect with the parallel track’s channel fader. Let’s take a listen.

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Introduce Short Reverb Reflections

Last up for my sends, I introduced subtle and short reverb to thicken the vocal slightly. It may not have been needed, but I enjoyed the sound of it and it gave the vocal a unique characteristic that got rid of some of the unpleasant room reflections in the original recording.

I blended this in at a low level, but let’s check out the subtle difference it makes.

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Route All Vocals to Bus & EQ

With my original vocal track and the parallel sends, I changed their outputs from the stereo output to a collective bus - this way I can control the level of everything with one fader. Additionally, I added an EQ to this bus and very subtly shaped all of the vocal signals.

Let’s check out how this EQ subtly balances the vocal and puts a final touch on it.

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Bring Bus Down and Blend In

This last chapter is more or less a little trick I like to use when I’ve finished all my processing and like the sound. I’ll bring the vocal bus down entirely so that only the instrumentation is playing, and then subtly increase the level until it feels right in the mix.

Let’s do this and find the right overall level for the vocal.

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