How to Mix a Rap Vocal for Consistency (Inspired by Drake)
This is going to be a tutorial on how to get Drake-like vocals. So this is something that’s come up a number of times, but I’ve sort of refrained from trying to answer it for a number of reasons.
The first being that I’m not Drake’s engineer, so the only way I can answer this is by attempting to reverse engineer it. Second thing is that in order to have vocals that sound like Drake, you kind of have to sound like Drake. That’s part of the equation.
He has a very consistent voice. His natural delivery fits the way his vocals sound on record, and if you don’t believe me, just check out any of the stuff he’s done where he’s hosted Saturday night live, and just listen to his speaking voice, and you’ll hear that there’s a lot of similarities in how he speaks versus just how he shows up on record.
All of that said, I’ve decided that I do think that there’s value in explaining a few of the things that I associate with the sound of Drake’s vocal processing, and the main one is the word, “consistency.” If I could say that there’s anything that’s really unique about Drake, it’s that he is super, super consistent sounding.
Tonally speaking, he’s exactly in the same place when he wants to be, dynamically speaking, he’s exactly in the same place. It’s like a line of vocal where it’s just locked right in, and I think there’s a lot of value and exploring how one might want to do that if you’re going for that result.
So here, I have a vocal that is extremely dynamic, both tonally and in terms of amplitude, so let’s give that a listen, and then I’m going to put on my processing, and I’m going to try and walk through it.
This is going to be a little bit abridged, because the concepts are going to be more important than the exact settings that I used, but I think you’re going to get a lot from it.
Alright, here we go.
Now, the first thing I’d like to point out is that this vocalist is definitely not Drake, the style is not necessarily Drake, but I’d also like to add that very frequently, I’m getting requests to make that vocal sound on records with people who sound nothing like Drake, on records that sound nothing like a Drake record. So I still think it’s pretty applicable.
Alright, so let’s breakdown what’s going on here.
So the goal here is going to be to get a super consistent vocal without getting all of the crazy artifacts that come from just slamming a limiter, or slamming a compressor, because that’s going to sound really pumpy, and there’s going to be distortion and things like that.
So what I find is the key to doing this is to sort of let multiple compressors and multiple processors bear the weight of what’s required in order to lock things down that tightly.
So my first step is going to be sort of a maintenance kind of thing. I’m going to be doing some EQ to kind of correct the vocal tone, as well as some light limiting to just keep the peaks down, because if those peaks are spiking and I do compression down the line, the compressor is going to be reacting very differently to different parts of the signal, whereas if I sort of start with some compression to kind of pull things together and then apply more compression to get the compression that I want, I get a very even compression action, and I can really tweak the settings in a way where it’s going to be very consistent throughout.
So first step, taking out a lot of that 900Hz range in his vocal.
[vocals, adjusting EQ]
I think that difference is pretty apparent right there.
Next thing, a little bit of limiting to just kind of ease those peaks up.
[vocals with limiter]
And even just in that one move here, you can start to see where this is really going, because now we have something that’s already much more consistent.
Alright, a little extra corrective EQ.
[vocals with EQ]
And now, the next step, and this is something where I feel like if I was mixing Drake, I wouldn’t have to do this, but because the rapper is a very naturally dynamic performer and tonally very dynamic, I need to use a little bit of multi-band compression here to kind of lock things together.
[vocals with multi-band compression]
So what I’m doing here is I have my mid-range band, which is just making sure that the body of his voice stays consistent, which is around that 400-500Hz range. Sometimes it gets a little bit too much, so I just want to hone it in and lock it in, but I don’t want to permanently remove it, because sometimes, it’s going to — it needs to be there in order to feel full.
Then I’m also using this low range band to pump as much low end into his voice so that there’s body and weight to it, without it starting to sound woofy and weird, so if the proximity to the microphone starts building up too much, this is going to lock it back down, but overall, I’m actually making the low end of his voice more consistent so the vocal feels thicker.
The last part is taking off some of that brightness, because I want his voice to be bright — it’s naturally bright — but I don’t want it to step out of the track. So I’m basically taking the different tone ranges and just kind of locking them in.
One more time.
[vocals with multi-band compression]
So it just feels a little bit more solid in the record. A little de-essing, nothing magical there.
[vocals with de-esser]
And here’s where things start to get interesting.
So in attempting to reverse engineer Drake’s vocal sound, which by the way, one of the other reasons I haven’t answered this question is because he doesn’t really have one vocal sound. His vocals sound different from record to record, but just listening to some of the consistent things, a little bit of the stock Pro Tools Lo-Fi plug-in, it sounds like that’s in there.
So I’m going to put that on. In addition to that, I’m also going to use a trim plug-in to back off some level, because of my next step. So here’s the before and after of that.
[vocals, with and without Lo-Fi]
And it’s not a lot, it’s just the distortion on 0.1 and the saturation on 0.2, and the saturation adds a deeper tone distortion, the distortion one adds an upper-mid kind of distortion, and both of them will make the vocal appear louder.
So I found that setting just worked for this vocal. I think that the Drake vocals are slightly more indulgent, but not much. I’d put it at like 0.3 and 0.3, something like that, but it’s just a touch of it, and that’s really it.
Now here comes the next step. These are the compressors that lock everything down. The first thing that I’m using here is my outboard compressor, and the way that it’s set is it’s got a knee control that starts very soft knee. I’ve made it not hard knee, but harder than a soft knee setting, if that makes sense. So it’s like a medium knee. The attack and release are pretty quick, but not like, lightning fast.
When I’m setting them, I want to make sure that it’s acting as fast as possible without causing any kind of weird artifacts, so I’m going to bring that in real quick. Before, then after.
[vocals, before and after compressor]
The real key here is actually the attack and release settings, and it’s going to vary depending on what compressor you use. You can certainly use a lot of different compressors to do it.
I like this one, because the customizing of the knee almost works like a tension control. I can make it either a very tense sound, or a very untense sound. So I’m going to experiment with a few controls here, and then explain what they’re doing.
So the first thing I’m going to do here is adjust the attack and release.
[vocals, adjusting attack and release]
You can hear how the vocal actually starts to get distorted. A sort of hairy, hashiness starts to show up. That’s because it’s just acting way too fast.
So I’m going to slow it down to the point where that distortion starts to go away. A little of that distortion actually works like excitement, so I want to keep a tiny bit of it, I just don’t want it to feel like it’s getting too fuzzy.
[vocals, adjusting attack]
Alright, now I’m going to use the knee control to adjust the tension, basically. Alright, here we go.
[vocals, adjusting compressor knee]
So what I was doing is as I was turning it to the left, what that was was making the knee softer, and that’s where you felt the tension really tighten up on the vocal, so as the knee becomes softer, the vocal becomes more tense, because the compressor is acting on more of the signal, whereas when I start making the knee harder, then it’s only acting on the peaks more, and so the tension starts to let up on the vocal.
So I sort of have it right in between, because I want a certain degree of tension, but I don’t want it to feel like it’s being choked or strangled.
Then the last step is going to be one last compressor. Now what I’m doing here is I’m basically trying to use Rcomp to work like a limiter. I don’t actually want the sound of a hard limiter, but I want something that’s pretty close.
So what I’ve done is I’ve set the attack very, very fast, and the release very, very fast, and the ratio is at 26 to one. Then I’ve just set the threshold so that I’m really kind of nailing just the peaks, and it sounds like this.
[vocals with Rcomp]
One more time.
[vocals with Rcomp]
You can listen to the front of his words.
[vocals with Rcomp]
So it kind of just helps glue it together, so one more time, I’m going to take off all of the settings, and then I’m going to put them all back on, and then bring in a little bit of reverb, just to tie it all together.
[vocals, everything off, then everything on]
Last step is going to be a little bit of reverb. Drake is kind of unique in the sense that a lot of his vocals do have reverb on them. A lot of rap vocals are very, very dry, but I find that through Drake records, even the ones where he’s not singing, but is more rapping, there still tends to be some kind of an ambience, and it totally changes from record to record, but I felt that it would be interesting to bring one in, just so you could hear how it sounds.
[vocals with reverb]
Now let’s hear it in the entire mix.
Okay, last time before and after, and then I’m going to sign on out here.
[mix, before processing]
And by the way, you can check my peak meter here. These are basically level matched.
[mix, after processing]
So that’s my take on getting Drake-like vocals, or at least getting vocals in the direction of what I associate with his vocal sound.
Will it sound exactly like Drake? No, not unless the rapper happens to sound a lot like Drake. That’s just how voices and humanity works, but if you’re going for something that’s very consistent, you just think about it in terms of tonality, making sure that it’s very balanced and clean, and also even, and then think of consistency in terms of dynamics, where it really locks down so that you hear everything at the same level, and that’s best achieved, in my opinion, by putting the compression over multiple compressors, rather than relying on just one and smashing right into it.
Alright guys, hope that you learned something. Until next time.