Tips for Mixing Rap Vocals [Mixthru Excerpt]

For lead vocals, I usually like to start with the verse, and the reason that I like to do that, particularly in this style, is because once I get the verse right, the chorus is probably going to be fairly similar, and on top of that, I find that it takes a little less work to get the verses right, and so that gets me motivated to start going.

So let’s take a look at what we have here. We have a traditional lead, which is a single lead, and then we have several stacks of adlibs.

Now, if we were doing a more modern Hip Hop type of style, or if we were doing a pop style or something like that, we would probably want to be panning those adlibs out, but if you listen to a lot of those records that are pre-2000, you’ll notice that the adlibs actually stack up, generally lead center and almost like another lead vocal, and that I think is a particularly cool element of this style, and I’m going to do that in this mix.


So I’m going to turn these adlibs up a little bit more to kind of match the level.


And now we’re going to start working things out tonally.

So in the style of Hip Hop, and this actually extends well before going into the early 90’s and a decent amount afterwards, going into the early 2000’s, it’s really important that the vocals sound present and consistent, even if they’re very quiet, because we’re going to have a very loud kick, and we’re going to have a very loud snare.

Both of those things are going to mask the vocals a little bit. They’re supposed to. Listen to those early records. You’ll hear that the vocals are actually fairly far back relative to the snare drum, which is taking up the entire mix, more-or-less. That’s a very common thing.

So the way that we achieve that isn’t through one specific technique, rather, it’s by setting our goal, and our goal here is that if we have the vocal turned way down, it still sounds very present.

Best way to do that is to turn the vocal down and mix it with it very quietly.


So tonally speaking, there’s a lot of front of face tone. Like, you hear a lot of that 2kHz range in Geddy’s voice.

Normally, we would be easing that off and kind of balancing things. I don’t want to do that here. I actually want to keep it the way it is, because that cutting tone is going to allow his vocal to be further back if need be, and cut through, even if our snare drum is really loud.

So the first thing I’m actually going to do is some compression, and there’s a couple of choices we can make. We can use a more transparent compressor, which is fairly common. A lot of times people were using Distressors to do rap vocals, because you could customize the exact settings very well, or using something like a FET style compressor, like an 1176, and the commonality here is that both kinds of compression can get very, very fast, and that’s one of the big differences between rap vocals and vocals from any other genre. The speed at which the lyrics occur, and the transients of the vocal occur.

So we need a faster compressor if we want to really reign things in and get very focused.

So I’m going to use this PG FET compressor. I’m using it not just for the speed, but also for the tone of it, and it defaults to a weird position, so I’m going to set it to zero, zero to begin with. Set the attack time right at twelve o’clock, which is basically one millisecond, and the release time at twelve o’clock, which is like, 350 milliseconds, and ratio defaults to four to one I believe.

No it doesn’t. We’re going to go to four to one, and we’re going to turn the threshold back up.



So I’m not a big fan of using meters to determine what’s going to be the best way to set something, but when I’m first starting to set my compressor on the vocals, I do use the meter, because I want to see where I set the threshold, and the compression action is just barely beginning.

It’s going to be subtle to the point I’m not going to really hear the compression, because the needle is just going to be flicking, but that’s going to tell me the threshold that I can then mix into.


So right there. Now what I’m going to do is start adjusting the input until I start getting the amount of compression I want. Here, I no longer need the meter to determine what I want to hear.


So you hear, right around here what ends up happening is the vocal starts to choke off, and that’s what I’m listening for, because once I’ve heard that, that’s when I know I’ve gone too far, and I’ll play it one more time, I’ll turn it down. It looks like I was at about five dB of gain, so I’m going to turn it back to zero and then turn it up to five and you’ll hear what I mean.

[vocals, adjusting gain on compressor]

It sounds like the vocal is kind of being put under a pillow at this point, so what I’m going to do is I’m going to back it off to just before there.

[vocals, adjusting compressor]

Now I’m going to make the compression artifacts subtler using the attack and the release, so what I’m going to do is I’m going to slow down the attack first.

[vocals, adjusting attack]

Then speed up the release as much as I can get away with.

[vocals, adjusting release]

Cool. Alright.


So now what I’m going to do is I’m going to create a tone curve that’s going to really cut.

I’m going to grab another analog style EQ, and what I’m hearing is that there’s a little bit too much in the way of the lower mids, and not quite enough in terms of the presence.


Let’s mute these.

So, we’re almost where we want. We can kind of faintly hear the vocal, but we can’t totally hear it, so what we need to do now is some parallel compression. This is the style that Bob Power really made popular working on Tribe Called Quest kind of records where he would duplicate the lead vocal and then compress that vocal until it was like, absolutely squashed, and then mix the squashed version underneath the main version.

So what I’m going to do here is pull up a clone of a Distressor and I’m going to use this to create my parallel compression channel.

[vocals, parallel compression adjustments]

And the idea here is that this is going to be a brick-walled version of the vocal.


Then where I like to set it in terms of level is I push it up until I can hear the vocal and it’s present amidst everything else.


So now when I set this lead vocal, no matter where I set the level of the lead vocal, it will always feel like it’s cutting.


Now I can choose how much of the compression version I want, how much of the lead version I want, and play around with it and find a nice balance.


Cool. I like that.

The other benefit to doing this is that the parallel channel will start to bring up whatever natural room ambience happened to exist in the original recording, and a lot of the times we don’t want to add reverb to these kinds of vocals, but we still do want a sense of depth and thickness and three-dimensional sound, so the parallel compression actually ends up bringing up the natural room tone of wherever we capture the vocal from.

So that’s a cool little technique for getting a little sense of three-demensionality into the vocal as well.


Okay, so the next thing that I want to work on is the low end, because I think in terms of what is going to define this genre, it’s really going to be between the vocal, the kick, and the snare, and so, getting the relationship between the kick and the bass to be just right is going to be a huge part of that equation.


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:
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