mixing hip hop vocals

Producing great hip hop vocals

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If you produce hip hop music and hip hop vocals, these production tips from Ken Lewis can help make your experience and final product a whole lot better

Ken Lewis talks hip hop vocals
2013 Juan Patino Photography, courtesy Universal Audio

Whether your tastes favor Jay-Z or Kendrick Lamar, Drake or Eminem, there’s no doubt about the power that well-performed and well-produced hip hop vocals can communicate. But for independent artists recording and mixing hip hop vocals and tracks of their own, capturing that same vocal fire can be an intimidating challenge. Regardless of whether you’re the one rhyming behind the mic, hitting “record” on the laptop, or both, where do you begin?

Multi-Grammy-nominated producer, songwriter, and mixer Ken Lewis has crafted hits with all four of the artists mentioned above, not to mention Kanye West, Fabolous, The Game, 50 Cent, and tons more. He is also the creator of Audio School Online, where he gives detailed video lessons on topics ranging from mixing lead vocals to adding professional polish to EDM tracks. Here are some tips on recording hip hop vocals from the master.

Set the scene

If you’re working in a professional recording studio, this most likely will already be taken care of, but if you’re recording hip hop vocals in a bedroom, hotel room, home studio, or elsewhere, Lewis recommends making your tracking space as sonically “dead” as possible.

“Hang blankets, throw down carpets, hang tapestries across the ceiling,” he advises. “These are all things I’ve done at various points to cut down on unwanted reflections and frequencies.” Your recording space might look a little odd when you’re through with such prep, but just remember that the cleaner and drier your vocal tracks are when you’re recording, the more flexibility you’ll have when it comes time for the mix.

As with tracking for any sort of artist, remember that vibe is also vital in creating the right environment for you, your rapper, or your singer to deliver the performance of a lifetime. If velvet blankets and candlelight will help create the right mood, set the scene appropriately, or if the artist does his or her best work with a strobe light on and posters of musical heroes all over the walls, hit up Craigslist and see what you can make happen.

Compress with caution

If you’ve never heard of compression, this beginner’s guide and this Echoes’ post are a good place to start. If you’ve dabbled, you already know that it can be a potent tool when producing vocals — and hip hop vocals are no exception.

“Usually, I use a compressor to help even things out when I’m recording,” says Lewis. “The key is to set a fast-release limiter so the vocals always sit in the same place in the headphone mix. If a rap turns into a whisper for a second, the artist can still hear what’s going on, but if he or she digs in and is super loud, the compressor will keep you from blowing anybody’s ears out.”

Be very careful when applying compression, though, as using it incorrectly can destroy vocal takes that could otherwise be outstanding. If you don’t have significant experience handling compressors, and/or don’t have access to a high-quality outboard compressor, Lewis recommends putting a compressor on your monitor playback only.

“Setting things up that way means you can listen through a compressor without permanently changing the audio you’re recording,” he says. “You have a safety valve if you’re over-compressing or under-compressing, and you’re not going to ruin the recording itself and have to fix it later on.”

hip hop vocals compressor settingsOne specific setting that Lewis has used with hip hop vocals is to put the Output Gain at -2.0 decibels and the Attenuation at -15.0 decibels; check out the screen grab from one of his Pro Tools sessions, courtesy of Audio School Online.

You don’t need expensive analog gear to accomplish the technique Lewis is talking about. In fact, nearly any piece of recording software from GarageBand on up will have digital compressors included; for higher-end software compressors, Lewis recommends plug-ins from companies like Universal Audio and Waves.

Finally — to learn more about the practical use of compression from Lewis himself, check out his vocal production lessons on Audio School Online. This short video is a good place to start.

Don’t distort

“When they come in to record, rappers can sometimes get hyped and their first gut instinct is to bury their mouths into the microphone and spit,” says Lewis. “That can easily lead to distortion and is usually not a recipe for the best recordings.”

Is coming in too hot really that big a deal? “If you get a recording where the sound is clipping, you can’t undo distortion once it’s there,” Lewis affirms. “You can hope to minimize it or mask it when you’re mixing the track, but there’s really no good way to get rid of it.” Unintentionally distorted vocals are a problem that Lewis faces all too often when he works as a mixing engineer — even on some projects for major labels.

To minimize the risks of distorting, make sure that you have a pop screen set up that keeps the vocalist six inches from the microphone. Beyond that, Lewis recommends taking an educated guess at how loud the rhyming will be and setting your levels accordingly, so you never see your meters spike. “If you’re recording another artist, yell and spit into the mic at the volumes that you’ll guess that they’ll use,” he says, “and make sure that nothing you’re doing goes into the red.”

As a side note — just because distortion is a thing to avoid when tracking, it can have its place when you’re producing hip hop vocals. In fact, Lewis says, sprinkling on tasteful amounts of distortion to a song you’re mixing can add just the grit and intensity a track might need. “I just like to be able to add whatever distortion I want and have control over it, as opposed to being stuck with it. The bottom line is that, if you distort your hip hop vocal tracks while you’re recording them, it’s going to seriously limit your options during mixing.”

Get the headphone mix as polished as possible

Take the time to dial in a killer headphone mix for the vocalist, whether it’s you or someone else, Lewis advises, and your efforts will pay you back in dividends.

“Before you start cutting vocals, check your headphones to make sure you can hear both the music and the vocals clearly,” he says. “A big mistake that people often make is to have the track be too loud in the reference mix, and that doesn’t leave much headroom for the artist. If the music is twenty decibels louder than the vocals, the artist feels like he or she has to compete to be heard, and that gets in the way of a good performance.”

To get the best performances possible out of his artists, Lewis likes to go a big step further. “I try to make the vocalist’s headphone mix sound as much like a finished record as possible, from how the voice sounds to how the music sounds,” he says. “I want them to put on headphones and feel like they’re listening to a finished record that they just happen to be recording live, at that moment.” Among other things, that sometimes means adding effects like reverb and delay, measured to the artist’s taste, to the mix that he or she hears while recording.

“You can see it on an artist’s face when you do that,” he continues. “There have probably been two dozen times when I’ve had a vocalist I’ve never worked with before start laughing after the first take and say, ‘I can’t believe how good this sounds.’ That’s all because I’ve taken the time to make sure that they feel like they’re recording a record and not a demo.”

Hear what the artist hears

This one is simple but important: Make sure the headphone mix you’re hearing is identical to the one that your vocalist is working from.

“If there’s a problem, if something is too loud or soft, I can adjust it before the artist says a word, and probably before he or she even notices it,” says Lewis. “The entire goal is to keep the artist in the comfort zone the entire time.”

Get your tech set ahead of time

Headphone mixes aren’t the only things that should be thoroughly prepped before tracking begins, Lewis advises. “One of the most important things is getting all of the technical stuff taken care of and making sure it’s right, so whoever’s behind the mic can focus on getting great takes.” For Lewis, such prep includes everything from setting up a music stand with a pencil for lyrics to making sure that the vocalist’s eardrums won’t get blown out by overly-amped headphones – to having room-temperature water on hand for the artist.

“If you’re recording yourself, the same advice applies,” he says. “You don’t want to have to juggle the roles of engineer, producer, and artist, all at the same time. Get the engineering done, get your headphone and rough mixes right, get everything sounding good, and once you’re ready, all you have to do is hit ‘record’ and ‘stop.’”

The next step? Focus on getting great takes. “You won’t have to think about if your levels are too high, if you can hear yourself well, or anything like that,” Lewis continues. “No technical concerns should be on the artist’s mind when he or she is performing, so do everything you can to put the artist in that position.”

Avoid unnecessary distractions

Don’t overly complicate the recording experience by making the artist (or yourself) jump through unnecessary hoops.

One of the biggest such mistakes Lewis sees in the studio? “Checking the mic with the artist behind it,” he says. “It takes them out of the zone. I’ve seen other engineers do it dozens of times and I see the look on the artist’s face when it’s happening. When the artist sets up behind the mic, he or she either has the mindset of being ready to give a great performance – or is scared to death and doesn’t need anything else throwing him or her off.”

Nothing takes the artist out of the zone faster, Lewis continues, than having the voice in the headphones vanish for a second, come back loud, bounce from left ear to right, and so on. “That’s it – your session is done,” Lewis says. “The artist is thinking, ‘Why the hell did this producer not know what he’s doing?’”

When it comes to capturing rap vocals, some producers like having a microphone not only on the vocalist’s mouth, but another positioned at the artist’s throat or chest to capture more resonance or frequencies. While this sort of technique can provide interesting sounds to work with, Lewis cautions against it. “Multiple mics distract rappers,” he says. “You’re giving them two things to think about rather than no things to think about. Don’t make them think about anything other than the performance, just so you as an engineer can feel better about your own sonics. Your job is to be as transparent as possible to the process — and adding multiple mics to the equation does not help get that done.”

For the goal of keeping the artist focused, Lewis also eschews the common practice of the mic shootout. “I don’t do the ‘let’s try out three or four mics before we pick one’ process unless the artist specifically wants to,” he says. “By the time the artist has performed on that many mics, the reaction can be, ‘Why am I here again?’ Often, the first take a rapper does is the most powerful, and you don’t want that lost because you were busy choosing the right equipment. I have my vocal chain, I know it works, and I use it with everybody.”

Nail the lead first, and give everything the time it needs

Ad-lib vocal parts can give a rap track extra levels of energy and nuance — but don’t get too excited about throwing in vocal ornamentation until a strong foundation is laid.

A common mistake that Lewis sees amongst up-and-coming rappers is the tendency to move on from the central vocal performance before it’s the most charismatic, confident, and rhythmically sound it can be. In contrast, artists like 50 Cent and Kanye West will often take a lead ten or fifteen times until they hit that “magic flow,” Lewis says. That time spent not only makes sure that a track’s central performance is up to snuff; it also creates a strong rhythmic framework on which to build ad-lib tracks.

Again, it can take ten or fifteen takes to get ad-libs right, says Lewis, since the rapper needs to learn all of the rhythmic and melodic intricacies of the original vocal take and match them — or play off of them — perfectly. Don’t rush this process either, Lewis advises. Even if your takes get well into the double digits, it’s worth it in the end, when you hit “save” having laid down a powerful lead track, and equally powerful ad-libs, all locked in and grooving.

Disc Makers’ regular contributor Michael Gallant’s debut trio album Completely received a four-star review from DownBeat magazine and a five-star review from Critical Jazz, which stated: “This, my friends, is the future of jazz. Fresh, invigorating, progressive — there are simply not enough positive adjectives to list here.” Learn more, download now through iTunes, jam along with the new JamBandit app, or purchase through CD Baby. Follow him on Twitter at @Michael_Gallant or on Facebook.

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