Mixing Rap Vocals – Part 2: EQ

➥ Take your hip-hop beats and rap vocal mixes to the next level

In my previous article, Mixing Rap Vocals: Part 1, we discussed the importance of having an end game in mind for your vocal sound. In this article I’m going to give you techniques for actually getting there.

I’ve read (too) many articles about mixing vocals. Cut 300 Hz, boost 2 kHz, compress 4:1, yada yada. Unfortunately these articles don’t actually give you any real resource — they simply speculate on generalities. What I’m going to give you is specific things to listen for and how to address them. This article will focus on equalization.

Microphones

A vocal recording is an interaction between the vocalist and the microphone. In order to treat the vocal we’re going to have to address both the character of the voice, as well as the character of the microphone interacting with the voice.

Two common issues that arise from the microphone are low-end proximity build-up and mid-range resonance.

Proximity Effect

When a vocalist gets too close to a microphone, the low end will build up. If you have control of the tracking scenario, the optimal solution is to get the vocalist at the right distance from the microphone.

In the mix, the best way to eliminate this is to use a high-pass filter. I recommend not doing this haphazardly, as the weight of the voice is caught in that proximity mud.

Try using a gradual slope where the build up begins, or a medium slope to knock out the heavy build up in conjunction with a low shelf or bell to ease off any residual build up in the higher bass range.

Mid-range

Microphones also tend to be sensitive to the mid-range. It’s not uncommon for an airy resonance to perk up somewhere in the 300-600Hz range. Usually a few 2 dB cuts at a narrow Q will suck that right out. However, don’t make any cuts if there’s nothing there you want to get rid of!

In fact, be very wary of this range. This is sort of the area where everyone wants to constantly cut, but it’s also the body and “thickness” of the voice. You want enough content here that the vocal feels “full,” but not so much that it feels “unmixed” or “sloppy.”

The Voice

Now we can start listening to the character of the voice. For most rap vocals we want a sound that’s both bright and forward, but has body and character. Attaining forwardness and brightness tend to go hand in hand.

An easy place to start is in the treble range. Obviously if you already have a bright vocal, don’t boost the high end. However, many vocals benefit from some kind of high shelf boost.

The high end boost does not need to be supremely focused. In fact, a broad boost is generally more effective. I like shelves that have very gradual slopes: Pultecs, UBK Clariphonic, Waves HLS or LinEQ (using the non-resonant shelf) are all great choices. Of course, they’re also expensive choices. Most stock DAW EQs are pretty good these days, so don’t feel like you need the most expensive equipment or plug-ins to get good results.

Sibilance

Now, I’m not a “mix by numbers” guy by any means. In fact, I think this ideology is just setting you up for failure. That said, I find a +4 dB shelf at 10k on a vocal is a good starting place. That setting usually works immediately or gets me pretty close to where I want to be (for most recordings).

A well recorded vocal won’t sound too sibilant as a result, but many recordings (especially if the vocalist is naturally sibilant) will get a bit essy. This is where de-essing comes in. I used to really struggle with de-essing, I didn’t like it. My issue was that I was putting the de-esser at the end of my chain. If you feed an EQ’d high end into a de-esser, you just end up pushing the de-esser harder to get that sibilance down. If you de-ess before you EQ, you even out your high end before hand, so the compression artifacts are less substantial.

Presence

The presence range is usually next on my check list. Somewhere in the upper-mids is the “excitement” and forwardness of the voice. It’s where all the mouth noise and articulations show up. Usually the tone isn’t too hard to find. Once you get it, it literally jumps out at you. What’s tricky is getting the voice to be very forward without it becoming piercing and too mid-rangy.

The key to getting maximum forwardness with minimum annoyance is the Q, or the width of the EQ band’s boost. Remember you’re not just boosting a single frequency but a range of frequencies. If you’re getting an annoying vocal tone from your upper-midrange boost, tighten up the Q until it goes away. Or, conversely, if you have a good boost going but the vocal is still smooth, see if you can stretch the Q, and when it gets to be too much, back it off a bit. Also, remember that a vocal in solo will appear more mid-rangy than a vocal in a full mix.

Mid-range

The mid-range — or everything above the bass and below the treble — is the character of the voice. The tones, the texture, it’s all in that mid-range. I encourage experimentation with a new voice. Do little boosts and cuts to just to hear what’s coming from the voice. You may find little “personality” tweaks that can help make the voice identifiable. Perhaps it’s a raspy overtone like DMX or Xzibit, or a nasal quality like Snoop Dogg or Q-Tip.

Finding unique tones helps give the vocal character. Of course, optimally, the character is already there — and if it is — don’t force anything. Doing something to put your own “engineer’” stamp on it is a common mistake and often results in a poor mix.

Hi-Pass Filters

Lastly, there’s the bass. DO NOT HI-PASS JUST BECAUSE PEOPLE DO IT. When I record vocals, I will hi-pass at the preamp if I feel I need to attenuate the bass of a voice. That means if you get a vocal that I tracked to mix, it either doesn’t need a hi-pass, or it was already hi-passed. Hi-passing would be needless and detrimental. That being said, if it does benefit from a hi-pass, go for it.

Now, here’s a little tidbit: just because you hi-passed a signal doesn’t mean you can’t also boost the low end to get more body. One of my favorite mixing techniques which I’ve used on everyone from Speech of Arrested Development, to Gift of Gab, to Gorilla Zoe, is to hi-pass out the mud, then use a broad slope EQ to boost bass back in. That’s right, I’m cutting, and I’m boosting the low end. A dB or two goes a long way with your low-shelf boost.

Conclusion

I’m giving you certain things to listen for and not necessarily specific things to do. If a vocal sounds great, don’t mess with it. You have to rely on what you are aiming to hear, not the processing. The key isn’t to do a lot of processing, but to do just the right amount of the right moves. Also, these ideas apply to the vocal on it’s own merits. Once we start bringing in the rest of the mix we may have to reassess our tone settings.

Anyway, if you haven’t already, check out my previous post on mixing rap vocals, or continue reading with Mixing Rap Vocals – Part 3: Compression.

We just released Mixing Rap Vocals 2: Advanced Techniques featuring Snoop, Murs, Juicy J, Arrested Development and more. Watch the video to learn more.

Matthew Weiss

Matthew Weiss

Matthew Weiss engineers from his private facility in Philadelphia, PA. Credits include Snoop Dogg, Gorilla Zoe, Arrested Development, Dizzee Rascal, Gift of Gab, J-Son and many others. Get in touch at Weiss-Sound.com.
  • http://Bluntbeats314.net Bluntbeats314

    Makes much more sense then some of the “cookbook” frequency methods I’ve been trying to wrap my head around over time. Definitely appreciate the simple, yet, comprehensive view & explanations.

  • http://www.krazyjaymusic.net Jason Spencer

    This is by far one of the best posts that i’ve seen pertaining to this issue. i’m a music producer, and one of my biggest issues has always been recording vocals…Rap in particularly. Like Blunt beats said…this breaks it down rather nicely!

  • Matthew Paz

    I appreciate the time you took to make this article it has been extremely helpful being a new mixer in the game. Please keep them coming!

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  • Tommy Ca$h

    Once again, very well written. Exactly what a lot of us needed

  • http://www.masteringmastering.co.uk/onlinemastering.html online mastering studio

    The most important 3 things are choosing the correct microphone, ensuring there is zero distortion and ensuring adequate pop filtering is in place. Otherwise you are immediately on the back foot to getting a good vocal take for any genre.

    • http://www.weiss-sound.com Matt Weiss

      ABSOLUTELY!! The mix is the #2 place where vocals happen. The recording itself is #1. Now – mixing can take a less than great recording very far – but nothing beats great tracking. The right tracking allows for options in the mix stage – it’s no longer about getting it to sound good, because it already sounds good – it’s about getting it to sound great.

  • http://www.weiss-sound.com Matt Weiss

    So, Mixing Rap Vocals 3: Compression will be ready soon. I apologize on the wait, been busy walking the walk, but I’ll be talking the talk again soon enough!

  • Antonio Withersppon

    how do you take the air out from ya vocals

  • Pingback: Mixing Rap Vocals – Part 3: Compression

  • http://www.kreative-juicez.com skar one

    love this post , really helpfull and well written ,
    people always seem to depend on presets but if you look at frequency charts there is (almost) not an instrument out there covering as much frequencies as a vocal-recording , so a preset is not going to work , every voice is different and needs to be looked at over and over , there is no right preset ever .. these are just guidelines , but tweaking it yourself is still the best way to do it.every voice on every recording is going to need a dfferent approach.

  • http://twitter.com/JaySuppa Suppa Jay Da Savage

    I Think Wat People Dont Realize When Reading Articles Like This, Is That On A Vocal Track More Then One EQ Is Used. I Just Realized That While Reading Your Article, Thanks Man Major Breakthrew.

    http://www.reverbnation.com/suppajay

  • Shonn Frank

    Thanks. Your articles are among the best out there. Quick question(s). With compression and saturation: What are the pros/cons of using each in parallel versus serial? is there a preferred (or popular) way to do each? In your opinion.

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  • Crankcase08

    I don’t understand why this is addressed purely at rap vocals. Much of this is good advice for any genre.

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