When mixing rap vocals, the main way to make it indicative of professional tracks is to have it sound separate from the instrumental, and create a crisp sound in the high end. You can accomplish this with inverse equalization, parallel high-frequency compression, and more.
Although this isn’t always the case, I’ve noticed that rap sessions typically include a full stereo instrumental, and then the vocals are layered on top. Granted some sessions will track vocals during the beat’s mixing process; however, the instrumental is usually already finished by the time vocals are recorded.
This gives us some opportunities to more easily separate our vocal from the rest of the instrumental - but first let’s take a listen to the track and vocals we’re working on today.
Inverse EQ is a great way to separate the rap vocal from the instrumental. Use the FabFilter Pro-Q 3 and match the vocal’s response to the instrumental’s - then edit the bands created, and invert them using the gain function making everything that was matched have the opposite effect.
Now the rap vocal’s response will be further separated from the instrumental, making the vocal stick out.
Another way to separate your rap vocal from the instrumental is to use a mild ducking effect, in which you place a compressor on your instrumental and use the vocal as the external side-chain. This way, the instrumental is slightly compressed whenever the vocal is present.
This carves out room for the vocal and is especially helpful in the instrumental is already very full or loud - making it easier for the vocal to compete with it.
When you’re equalizing your rap vocal, here are some quick steps you can take to make it sound better. Use a high pass up to 150Hz, attenuate 300Hz with a bell, boost 500Hz with a bell, attenuate 700Hz, boost 2.5 to 3kHz, and then use an air shelf.
This controls a lot of problem frequencies while boosting what makes the vocal more intelligible. Use this as a rough guide or starting point for your vocal.
When saturating rap vocals, clear vocals often win out over warm or full vocals - for this reason, it’s a good idea to use frequency-specific saturation and tape saturation types. I’ll use Saturn 2 to distort the high frequencies, then select tape to create higher-order harmonics.
Since I’m distorting the high frequencies, let’s turn on oversampling to avoid unwanted aliasing distortion.
My favorite way to create crisp rap vocals is to use a parallel send or aux track for the vocals - on this track I’ll use an EQ to cut out to about 4kHz or higher. Then I’ll insert a compressor or saturator and compress or saturate the signal heavily.
Lastly, I’ll blend the parallel signal back in via the channel fader to include just the right amount of compressed high frequencies for my vocal.
If parallel compression is too time-consuming, another way you can create crisp vocals is by using a free plugin from Slate Digital called Fresh Air. It amplifies some of the highest frequencies of the signal causing a clear and crisp sound, indicative of rap vocals.
Just increase the 2 dials until you find the right level, and use the output trim to compensate for gain changes.
Most rap vocals don’t use excessively long reverb times, but they often take advantage of short reverb times to thicken the sound of a vocal. I’ll use both an ambient and a room reverb to make my rap vocal sound thicker - then a subtle long one with boosted high frequencies.
This second reverb will give the vocal a nice airy sound to complement its crisp sound.
Similar to reverb, short delays are used to make the vocal sound thick - I’ll use a delay that syncs to my host bpm to ensure that the delay is in time with my instrumental. Then I’ll set the note to 1/64th note, making my vocal more present.
Although all tracks are unique, a long delay, if used, is typically more subtle.