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How to Mix Reggaeton

I have had an interesting six months. I flew to Miami to record some new records. We cut some incredible Island records. We cut a few Pop songs. And we cut four Reggaeton songs.

The Reggaeton records came out great … so great that we got the bug to do an entire Reggaeton album! Working on this album made a few things happen which allowed me to work on two other albums, and I plan to do more.

Reggaeton is a re-emerging genre that also never went away — I’ll explain.

Popular in the Latin world for a long time, but not as popular outside of that market — that is until the early 2000s — Dancehall was becoming popular, and the Latin-Pop equivalent wasn’t far behind. Artists like Daddy Yankee and Don Omar cracked the American market and made Reggaeton boom. By the late 2000s, Reggaeton receded to back to the Latin market, but trends move in cycles. Now in the late 2010s, Reggaeton has resurfaced on the world stage and crossed over into the Pop market.

Of course, this description is a bit of a disservice. In reality, Reggaeton is Pop music in dozens of countries and never disappeared. The American-Euro market just isn’t great at keeping its finger on the pulse of the rest of the world. The rest of the world, however, is very good at keeping its fingers on the pulse of … well, everything.

This is why Reggaeton is able to take in the influences of Hip-Hop, Trap, Dancehall and European EDM. However, the aesthetic is ultimately something unique and true to its Latin roots.

1. Rhythm

Rhythm is everything. Latin music (in general) relies on inside groove, while Rock and Dance music rely on the big pulses (quarter notes) and what drives to those pulses … it’s about the destination.

Latin music is more about the journey — the rhythms happening between the pulses. Reggaeton kind of combines both ideas. The dominant rhythm needs to be exceptionally pronounced. Mix the kick and snare very forward. Drums are to Reggaeton as guitars are to Metal and piano are to Ballads. They should be as loud or louder than the vocals most of the time, and usually the most dominant element in the mix. In addition to the main kick and snare, there are often percussion elements: hand drums, shakers, etc. These elements should also be way up, treated with the same importance as primary drums, or perhaps just slightly lower — even if it makes the mix a little harsh or busy.

The kicks and snares tend to take up a lot of frequency range. In Dance music, we would normally be opening the drums up a bit to put in space for the bass, vocals and lead synth. In Reggaeton, I find it works better to keep the extra tones. Having a full drum sound is the most important consideration.

A lot of the drum loops and samples producers are using these days sound very good. I usually think of the drums as the centerpiece and mix around them. With this approach, there really isn’t much need for processing and it’s pretty common that I don’t have any treatment on the drums at all. The only exception is that Reggaeton drums have a quintessentially “thwappy” sound that comes from an extended transient. If the drums don’t have this quality I find that (sometimes) drums will benefit from a bit of soft clipping.

After all that we have to remember that almost every other element will have a rhythmic component. Pluck synths, acoustic guitars, keys, etc are in the arrangement to assist the rhythm as much as they are there to support a melodic structure. Pay extra close attention to your transients!

2. Vocals

Vocals in Reggaeton are very interesting to me. Some vocalists have a remarkably polished tone in their production — J Balvin and Becky G come to mind. Other vocalists have a gritty, almost lo-fi sound in many of their hits like Ozuna and Farruko. In regards to Ozuna, specifically, I know that a lot of his hit records were produced before he became exceptionally popular and were done in home studios on less expensive gear. Balvin and Becky G have been a part of the major label world a bit longer, with Balvin arriving in the mainstream eye on a Diplo/Major Lazer record “Mi Gente” and Becky beginning her career as an actress before segueing into the music world.

It could also be a reflection of their roots. Puerto Rico is all about color and swag while Colombia is more about finesse and style, and the Los Angeles aesthetic is more rooted in trendsetting. I personally believe that some of the fashion aesthetics, in particular, are reflected in the sonics of the music. Of course, this is a generalization and speculation but I find that a lot of these artists sound how they look.

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Auto-Tune is a heavy part of the Reggaeton sound across the board. The tuning is generally pretty obvious in the sound, much like Dancehall vocals in the mid-2000s and Hip Hop music now. Every artist will have their own degree of tuning with some artists preferring very fast retune speeds (under 10 ms) and some artists preferring a touch slower (10 to 20 ms) but almost all artists preferring something in that <20 ms range. There are also artists who compound pitch correction using Melodyne to shift the notes generally into place and using Autotune more for the tone than anything else.

For ambience, I’m a bit more of a fan of reverb than delay — though both are in the mix when I’m on the board. Reverb is a great coloring tool and I can use the sound of the reverb to help customize the vibe of the song. I usually like heavily modulated/chorused reverbs, or even adding a touch of chorus or phaser to the back end of the reverb send. Long plate reverbs (+2 sec) are pretty fail-safe.

If we’re going for a Caribbean aesthetic, I may reach for a spring reverb. With delay, I usually stick to straight ahead quarter notes and roll off a lot of the top and bottom end. This might sound a bit boring but I find that because there’s already so much groove-driven sound (drums, percussion, pluck synths, acoustic guitars, stabby keys, etc.) I rarely need to compound the rhythm any deeper — and having a bunch of extra complex rhythms bumping around muddies things up pretty quick.

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I’m also a fan of riding the delays in and out so that they’re well under the vocal and only poke their heads out when the vocalist rests between phrases. I like delays on vocals to add a sense of bigness but not necessarily to drive the groove. I have to mention that every song, artist and scenario is unique — so these are ballpark ideas and not hard and fast rules.

I find that vocals need a more Hip-Hop approach in terms of compression — erring on the side of being heavy-handed. It’s too easy for vocals to be drowned out by the drums and percussion without aggressive compression. In solo, the vocals might end up a touch pumpy, especially if you use faster release times (which I often do for vocals) but in the context of the mix, it’ll usually sound right.

3. Low End

The low end in Reggaeton should really not be too tricky. Most Reggaeton kick drums are not super subby, and most basses are primarily sub. I find that the bass works best when it’s supporting the kick and unlike Dance music, I find that too much clarity and separation doesn’t do the music any favors. I’ll sometimes find myself adding a bit of distortion to the bass to help it tonally blend with the kick.

However, like Dance music, I do like a bit of dynamic separation that can be achieved by feeding the kick into the sidechain of the bass compressor. Getting that release time just right so that the kick is almost handing the low end off to the bass, like the passing of a baton, creates a really nice sense of clarity while creating a sense of glue.

In terms of the how subby the bass should be — I find it depends on the music. If there’s already a dense music bed then the bass can function just fine as sub tone. However, if the bass is really moving the music or the low midrange doesn’t have much other stuff there, EQ’ing up the bass overtones can be very helpful. Sometimes this EQ needs to be pretty dramatic. I’ve pumped 15db+ above 200 cycles into an 808 to get those tones to pop. Don’t be afraid to turn that dial!

4. Plucks, Synth Leads & Melodic Instrumentation

As I stated before, it’s very important to recognize the rhythmic component of every piece of the arrangement. This is particularly true of plucks, stabs and guitars. This is a key difference between Reggaeton and many other genres!

In Rock, Pop, and Hip-Hop we are often compressing these kinds of elements to suppress the transients and bring up the tonal part housed in the sustain. This allows the element to step out of the way of the drums and vocals while retaining its musical function. In Reggaeton, literally every element is a rhythm driver.

It is very rare that I’m doing any kind of fast compression. In fact, I am frequently using a transient designer like Slate Digital’s FG-Bomber to enhance the attack and make synths and plucks more percussive. Even if this incurs a bit of distortion (actually, the distortion is an added bonus in my book).

The other thing to keep in mind is that the melodic elements are going to be necessary for defining our side-to-side and front-to-back space. The most powerful rhythmic point is the dead center. Sometimes we get lucky and there is enough non-primary percussion to help with some side to side imaging, but most of our main sources (drums, bass, vocal) are going to be dead center and absolutely front-of-the-speakers in placement. This means that we really need to rely on the reverb and width in our synths to create our image. A lot of soft synths print with reverb and create a sound that in isolation is great, because it will have width and depth. However, we may want these synths to be even wider. Counterintuitively, it’s sometimes worth deleting one side of the synth and hard panning the remaining side out, and adding a touch of mono reverb to restore the sense of space that we may lose. This doesn’t always work, but works often enough where if we’re struggling for space it’s worth doing.

5. Adlibs and Background Vocals

In general, I used to kind of dread adlib and background vocals. I already mixed the vocals, why do I need to do it five more times? But now that it’s in fashion to get creative with background vocal effects I’m starting to really like it. For me, I use adlibs to help create a sense of depth by over-embellishing with reverbs and delays. I also like to incorporate distortion, filtering, modulation, formant shifting and really any other creative effects that I feel compelled to experiment with.

On the fly, I usually simply go to the equation: slight distortion, telephonic filtering, lots of reverb. I know this always works and sounds cool. However — it is done a lot. On my own time, I’ll play around with things a bit more and see if I can come up with something a bit more unique.

6. Finishing It Out

When it comes to finalizing the mix, I will turn my playback volume down and listen for anything needs to feel more full. If so, I may address it with EQ on the mix bus, or go to an individual element to fix things up. It’s not uncommon for me to add some top-end and midrange on the mix buss.

Reggaeton usually likes to be pretty bright (much like EDM). I find that I can get away with a bit more top-end than Hip-Hop or Pop will allow for. I’m pretty modest with compression on the mix buss. I usually like the sound to be as punchy and dynamic as possible, and compression can work against that. A little can give the record a bit of body, so that’s cool, but it’s hardly more than a dB or two. After that, I run my mix print, and create a reference master using Aria automated mastering.

And that’s how I get it done.

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Matthew Weiss

Matthew Weiss

Matthew Weiss is the recordist and mixer for multi-platinum artist Akon, and boasts a Grammy nomination for Jazz & Spellemann Award for Best Rock album. Matthew has mixed for a host of star musicians including Akon, SisQo, Ozuna, Sonny Digital, Uri Caine, Dizzee Rascal, Arrested Development and 9th Wonder. Get in touch: Weiss-Sound.com

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