Mixing Rap Vocals with Free Plugins

So do you mix the rap vocals or the beat first? To be completely honest, it doesn’t really make a difference in the end product. But for the sake of this tutorial on mixing hip hop, let’s start with the vocals first!

Recording Rap Vocals


Start with a beat. Download a beat you like and upload it into your DAW (digital audio workstation). Audacity and Reaper are free to download.

The recording portion is make or break on how well you can mix your rap vocals.

The most important rule of recording, is not clipping. Don’t record your raps with the gain too high. Gain is the volume of your recording, and you can usually see the volume fluctuate in the form of decibels (db).

Turn the gain knob down. Record so your vocals are averaging -18db.

Our goal is to.get rid of background noise. And if you’re looking for a soundproof solution for free then this article is real good. By someone much more knowledgeable than me.

Quick tip: If you want the hook to sound different than the verses, record it on another track.

The best value mic right now with an all-in-one setup is the Rode NT1A microphone kit. That’s what I use, and it works like a charm.


Mixing Rap Vocals


  • Solo the vocal track and keep it.solo until we start mixing the beat. Listen. Through it a few times.

  • Reductive EQ. Add an EQ. They all pretty much do the same thing.

  • Refer to this chart of frequencies in a vocal range

  • Do the high pass filter first.

  • If your rap vocals are loud and yelling style rkinda far from the mix then keep it between 80-120hertz

  • If you are more of a talking style rapper right up close to the mic, then keep it between 120-150hrz

  • Cut out muddy mid range frequencies next.

  • Pull up a graphic EQ.

  • Slide a very narrow 10db boost in between 200Hrz and 1Khrz. When you find annoying muddy frequencies cut them by about -2,-3,-4db either narrow or wide cuts. Make sure you spend a lot of time here.

  • Do a wide -3db cut at about 450Hrz

  • Add an additional 2-4db very narrow cuts in between 300Hrz  and 900Hrz

  • 900Hrz-1.1Khrz make a -6-7db cut there for rap vocals.

  • Nasal frequencies at 2-5Khrz.


Compression #1


Understanding compressors.


Threshold - How much compression is being done

Ratio - How strong is the compression being done

Attack - How fast will the compression jump in and release - how long will it last


  • Here is a quick go-to for first vocal compression A 3:1 - 4:1 ratio, a fast attack, a semi fast to slow release and a threshold that results with a 3 - 6db gain reduction.

  • A lot of compressors have presets for vocals. You can try this if you’re having a difficult time with the compressor at first.


Additive EQ


  • This step is to brighten the vocals and bring presence

  • Above 5Khrz we have presence and that’s what we want

  • A boost at 9Khrz will usually do the trick -


De-esser


  • After adding high frequencies you will need to use a ‘de-esser’ plugin to tame those ssss sounds.

  • Don’t overcomplicate this step. Use the preset in the plugin to make it simple.







Reverb


  • This is going to be used to blend the vocal into the environment - which is the beat

  • Use a BUS track for the Reverb. A BUS track is basically a support track that supports the main track.

  • Find a preset for your plugin for vocals - Put that reverb plugin on the BUS track - Use the preset for vocals on your plugin - Then make sure you set the decay to between 1.5-2 seconds.

  • On the main track make sure the signal from the BUS track is coming through on the main vocal track.

  • Set the signal to 0db and go down from there until the reverb barely sits behind the vocal. Usually around -15 - -20 db will do the trick.

  • This way it doesn’t give that crazy echo sound and it just fills in the space. You should barely be able to hear it.


Mix The Beat


  • Solo The beat

  • Put the first plug-in on the beat track. An EQ.

  • do a wide -3db cut at around 350Hrz and set the cut to affect the middle, I add an identical cut at around 600Hrz and that usually opens up a nice space for my vocals, but did I silence the snare now or the kick? Well that's when I add some edges to the pocket I just created and usually add a slight boost at around 100Hrz for the kick and the bass and then I find the frequency where the snare is located and add a narrow 3db boost there usually I set it to affect the sides, sometimes not, that's where I play around a little to see what can be done to make the beat alive but still make sure its build around the vocals, you should do the same, play with it!


Multi-Band Compression


A multi-band compressor will compress but you can choose which frequencies it compresses.


  • First unsolo the beat so you can see how the vocals work with the beat

  • Set your compressor to the frequency range of about 250Hrz - 1Khrz, and compress until you get something in between 5 - 20db gain reduction

 


Final touches to the mix


  • If the vocals lack a bit in lower frequencies. Change the high-pass from 140Hrz to 130Hrz.

  • If the vocals sound confined? Add some more compression on the multi band compressor to the beat or ease the compression on my vocals a little bit.

  • If some frequencies seem to be in each other's way. Find it and cut the frequencies out, either out of the vocal or out of the beat.

  • Vocals aren't present enough in the high range? Okay boost the 5Khrz+ area.


I’ll be completely honest and tell you that I am not an expert on mixing and mastering. And to learn there are a couple awesome resources available to you. My recommendation is to learn yourself from scratch. So you can understand the “why” behind mixing rap vocals. These guys are awesome here. Mathew Weiss has a full course on mixing hip-hop and it’s real good.

MASTERING

 

Now it’s time to master the song. There are services that do this for you, however it is worth it to learn to do on your own.

 

First step is to make a master track.

 

MASTER EQ

 

  • Add a linear phase EQ and cut everything below 20-30hrz.

  • A -0.5db cut at around 350 and a 0.5 - 1db boost at around 9Khrz works fairly well in most situations.

 

MASTER COMPRESSION

There are a ton of compressors which are made specifically for mastering and have presets built-in. Just use one of those. Make it simple.

 

MASTER MULTI-BAND COMPRESSION

Here we can compress the track a little more, it's gonna be the final compression and after this the track should sound finished.

So again, I recommend a Linear Phase multi-band compressor and the trick again is you can compress which ever frequency range you feel it needs to compress. I compress the whole thing together for about 5 to 10db gain reduction and then I play with it, try to find the perfect balance with trial and error. Usually I end up compressing the 0 - 100Hrz range for an extra of 3db gain reduction and I end up easing the compression on the 5 - 10Khrz range for around 1db of gain reduction just so the presence of the vocals comes thru some more..

 

 

MASTER LIMITER

And now finally the last step! The master limiter! There are some really complicated limiters out there but we don't really need those right now all we need is the 'Out Ceiling' and the 'Threshold'!So what is a limiter? It's primary job is to make the whole song louder and up to the limits, remember how you recorded at -18db and how you had to lower the gain levels of the beat way down? Well now the limiter is going to bring all of that up to -0.5db (the 0.5 is the safe range so it doesn't start clipping)

All you need to do is drag down the Threshold and the Out Ceiling together until you get about 3 - 4db gain reduction, you can listen when the song starts choking and just set the threshold 1 - 2db before that and now simply LOWER YOUR MONITORS OR HEADPHONES and bring the Out Ceiling to -0.5db and you're done!

You have recorded, mixed and mastered your own song!!