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4 Essential Tips for Mixing Hip-Hop

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Mixing Hip-Hop is something I write about/teach/do pretty often.

This article is going to be a centerpiece for everything else. It’s intended for folks who have engineered other styles of music but are new to Hip-Hop, as well as producers who are new to mixing.

One of the greatest challenges in mixing is simply knowing where to start. The process would be much easier having a blueprint of goals for the mix. So, here’s a blueprint of some goals.

Now, disclaimer: music is subjective, living, breathing, birthed from nothing short of pure creativity. In other words, these aren’t hard and fast rules. Rather, generalities I’ve gathered over the years of mixing a lot of Hip-Hop records.

1. Keep The Vocals Forward

I divide the success of a Hip-Hop song into three components: The beat, lyrics, and delivery of those lyrics. Which means two of the three components are about the vocals.

I think that tucking the vocals is a big misstep in Hip-Hop.

If you go to a live show, it’s not uncommon to hear someone do an a cappella rap at some point during the set. This is a make-or-break moment. If the lyrics and delivery are good — the crowd is sold — no beat necessary. If the lyrics or delivery fall short, the crowd is walking out the door.

In all honesty, some of the most classic Hip-Hop tunes of all time have so-so production. Vocals are that important. The beat can be “meh” or even non-existent, and people can still like the record.

So get the vocals to the front. Keep ’em loud, keep ’em fairly dry, keep ’em bright and punchy. If you’re going to lean in one direction, go loud.

2. Next Comes Kick, Then Snare.

In terms of the overall production, most of the record really comes down to three things: vocals, kick and snare.

Everything else is basically decoration (not always, but often enough).

When the kick hits, it should be loud, and should cause speaker excursion — meaning not just the tone of the kick but the actual physical hit of it should come forward.

Make sure the kick has a sub-tone impact to get that push. The snare should similarly “make you blink.”

It’s ok if the snare and vocals compete a bit — negotiate that and make it work!

In addition to the physicality of the kick and snare, it’s also important to recognize the character of the kick and snare.

While great Hip-Hop records are usually recognized first and foremost by the vocals, it’s common enough for people to remark “I love the snare on that record!” Meaning people actually listen to the quality of the drums, not just the impact of them. So bring out the character and texture of the drums as well (or make sure it stands out in the full mix).

3. Everything Else Is Groove Or Texture

Whatever samples, synths, or sound effects are remaining in the production have to assist the groove of the record, with the exception of textural sounds. And even then, some of those can get a groove going through volume automation.

It’s not to say that melody and tone aren’t important — they are — but they are secondary concepts to rhythm.

Focusing on the attack, sustain, timing, and dynamics of elements in the mix takes a bit of getting used to, but these are the cornerstones of groove.

Practice and focused listening are the only way to master the relationship of these ideas between elements in a mix, but here’s a tip that’ll help: Mute the vocals and mute the drums. With just what’s playing in the mix now, do you feel the groove of the track? Yes? You’re there. No? It should be a bit more apparent what’s lacking.

This concept is so important that ideas such as tone take a back seat. A Hip-Hop record can be muddy as hell, and still be a huge success if the groove is there.

4. Find Something Unique

Once upon a time, Hip-Hop was not an “industry” genre.

Even when major labels were picking up Hip-Hop acts, they had very little control over the music itself. There was very little template for what made a successful song and what didn’t, at least until some guy named Puff Daddy showed the major labels how to do it.

The suits had to default to the artists and producers and hope they’d get it right. Which means that Hip-Hop values dictated the success of the project.

Chief amongst those values was Style. Style was everything. In fact, it’s no surprise that Hip-Hoppers from the 90s became such successful entrepreneurs in the 2000s — branding has been a key part of Hip-Hop since the beginning.

So pay attention to the unique qualities of a record.

There’s millions of aspiring/wannabe Hip-Hop artists out there, and most of them aren’t making it simply because they don’t stand out. The ones who are making a name for themselves have a unique brand, and as an engineer you should always be looking to bring that out!

Sometimes this can require some encouragement on your part as the temptation is to “play it safe” and go with the status quo, make things “industry standard” or “radio ready.” But in reality, the industry and radio bend to the artists that make waves, not the other way around.

Conclusion

With these four guidelines you’ll know where you’re starting the majority of the time.

And no, these aren’t really rules, more like useful suggestions.

Sometimes you’ll come across a record where the bass actually drives the low end more than the kick, or the snare works down in the mix or even off to the side. And why not? But more often than not these four principals will get you where you need to go.

More

For more, check out our in-depth Mixing Hip-Hop course and the articles and videos below.

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Matthew Weiss

Matthew Weiss

Matthew Weiss is a Grammy nominated and Spellemann Award winning audio engineer from Philadelphia. Matthew has mixed songs for Snoop, Sonny Digital, Gorilla Zoe, Uri Caine, Dizzee Rascal, Arrested Development, 9th Wonder, !llmind & more. Get in touch: Weiss-Sound.com.


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