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April 20, 2012

Mixing Rap Vocals – Part 3: Compression

Filed under: Compressors, Mixing reviews — Tags: , , , , , — audiofanzine @ 8:54 am

To read the full detailed article see:  Tips for Mixing Rap Vocals: Compression

Time for the third installment of the Mixing Rap Vocals series: Compression.

I highly recommend you check out part 1 & part 2 before reading this article.

Compression is a difficult subject because there is a lot you can do with it. So let’s look at the main reasons to grab a compressor before getting into some of the more intricate uses.

Quick Macro-Dynamic Control

Macro dynamics refer to words and phrases. These are the clear dynamics you can hear as “this part is louder, that part is softer.” The most transparent way to get things sounding even is to actually automate the vocals manually. But sometimes time doesn’t allow for this approach. So if you aren’t automating, a light ratio, slow attack, slow release, just catching the louder moments with the threshold is a good way to even things out.

Micro-Dynamic Control

What volume automation might not catch is the very quick dynamic changes – loose spikes at the fronts of words. These spikes aren’t heard so much as “volume” but more as an overall quality to the vocal.

The issue with these spikes is two fold – first, they eat away at your headroom pretty quickly– second, they will trigger any compressors you are trying to use for purposes besides micro-dynamic control.

It can be useful to dedicate a compression stage toward pulling back these vocal spikes. Generally a fast attack and release, and a light ratio does the job. The light ratio is to retain the articulation of the word and minimize frequency skewing. The key is to set the threshold low enough to catch as much of the peak as possible while effecting the body of the signal as little as possible. I try to avoid using limiters for this purpose. I like the Empirical Labs Distressor for this (especially for controlling peaks while tracking), as well as digital style compressors such as the Logic or Pro Tools stock compressors or the Waves C1. The attack setting is very important – it’s usually between a number of nano-seconds and two or three milliseconds in the digital world, and on the faster side of things for the analog world (totally varies unit to unit).

Getting a Vocal to Stay Audible Through a Mix

The power of compression is that you can make something louder while not actually raising the peak volume of the signal. This becomes extremely useful for making something cut through a dense mix or to come forward. This is probably where the majority of compression work for rap vocals come in.

Rap is generally an in-your-face, visceral style of music. The kick is physical, the snare is physical, subtlety isn’t really the overall goal. And the vocals are paramount. I’ve mixed a number of rap records where the vocals are lower in the mix, but never have I thought it was a good idea. Generally I want the vocals to be equally as strong as the drums or stronger, and I want them as “forward” as possible. Compression is usually a part of that equation.

Let’s consider some more issues…

Conclusion

Compression is a powerful tool that many people struggle to fully understand, so try to get your hands on one and start experimenting. As always I’ll keep an eye on the comments in case there is anything that needs clearing up. I also encourage you to share your own compression tips!

To read the full detailed article see:  Tips for Mixing Rap Vocals: Compression

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December 15, 2011

Mixing Rap Vocals – Part 2: EQ

Filed under: Mixing reviews, Singing — Tags: , , , , , — audiofanzine @ 6:24 am

I’ve read (too) many articles about mixing vocals. Cut 300Hz, boost 2kHz, compress 4:1, yada yada. Unfortunately these articles don’t actually give you any real resource – they simply speculate on generalities. What I’m going to give you is specific things to listen for and how to address them. This article will focus on EQ.

In my previous article, Mixing Rap Vocals Part 1, we discussed the importance of having an end game for your vocal sound. In this article I’m going to give you techniques for actually getting there.

Microphones

A vocal recording is an interaction between the vocalist and the microphone. In order to treat the vocal we’re going to have to address both the character of the voice, and the character of microphone interacting with the voice. Two common issues that arise from the microphone are low-end proximity build-up, and mid-range resonance.

Proximity Effect

When a vocalist gets too close to a microphone the low end will build up. If you have control of the tracking scenario, the optimal solution is to get the vocalist at the right distance from the mic. In the mix, the best way to eliminate this is to use a high-pass filter. I recommend not doing this haphazardly – the weight of the voice is caught in that proximity mud. Try using a gradual slope where the build up begins, or a medium slope to knock out the heavy build-up in conjunction with a low shelf or bell to ease off any residual build up in the higher bass range.

Mid-range

Microphones also tend to be sensitive to the mid-range. It’s not uncommon for an airy-resonance to perk up somewhere in the 300-600Hz range. Usually a couple 2 dB cuts at a narrow Q will suck that right out. However, don’t make any cuts if there’s nothing there you want to get rid of! In fact – be very wary of this range – this is sort of the area where everyone wants to constantly cut – but that’s the body – the “thickness” of the voice. You want enough content here that the vocal feels “full”, but not so much that it feels “unmixed” or “sloppy.”

Now let’s take a closer look at vocals…

Conclusion

In conclusion – I am giving you certain things to listen for – not necessarily certain things to do. If a vocal sounds great – don’t mess with it. You have to rely on what you are aiming to hear, not the processing. The key isn’t to do a lot of processing, but to do just the right amount of the right moves. Also, these ideas apply to the vocal on it’s own merits – once we start bringing in the rest of the mix we may have to reassess our tone settings. Anyway, check back for my next installment: Mixing Rap Vocals Part 3 : Compression.

March 2, 2011

Tips for Mixing Rap Vocals

If I had to pick the most frequent question I get asked on a regular basis – it would have to be “how do I mix rap vocals?” Or some variation thereof. At least once a week, if not more often.

I mix a new rap vocal four or five times a week – much more if you count different rappers on the same song. I have developed an approach – sort of a formula to create a formula. In truth, we know that all songs, vocals, captures, and performances are different. There can never be one formula to mix all vocals effectively. And there are many approaches to conceptualizing a vocal treatment – mine is one of many.

The Concept

It all starts with the concept. I say this time and time again, and it only gets more true as I say it – in order to mix anything – you need an end game. There has to be some kind of idea of where the vocal is going to go before you start getting it there. That idea can and probably will change along the way, but there has to be some direction or else why do anything at all.

The big problem most people have with mixing rap vocals is that they think of the word “vocals” without considering the word “rap.” Rap is supremely general – there are big differences between 1994 NY style rap vocals, and 2010 LA style rap vocals.

Now let’s have a listen to some mixing samples…

Processing

Now you have the vocals clean (or maybe they came in clean to begin with). It’s time to decide what to do with them. Now, I can’t write how you should or should not process your vocals, but I can give some insight into things to consider and think about.

Balance

Figuring out the relationship between the vocals and other instruments in the same frequency area is extremely important. Quintessentially, Hip Hop is all about the relationship between the vocals and the drums – and the number one contestant with the voice is the snare. Finding a way to make both the vocals and the snare prominent without stepping on each other will make the rest of the mix fall nicely into place.

In “1nce Again,” you’ll notice that the snare is a little louder than the vocals, and seems to be concentrated into the brighter area of the frequency spectrum, while the vocals are just an inch down, and living more in the mid range. This was a conscious decision made in the mix. But mixes like Loungin’ have the vocals on par with the snare. And Massive Attack has the vocals up – but it’s not really a snare, it’s a percussive instrument holding down the 2 and 4 that lives primarily in the lower mid region.

“Air”

Hip Hop vocals generally do not have much in the way of reverb. There are three reason for this primarily. 1) Rap vocals tend to move faster and hold more of a rhythmic function than sung vocals – and long reverb tails can blur the rhythm and articulation. (2) The idea of Hip Hop is to be “up front and in your face”, where reverb tends to sink things back in the stereo field. (3) Everyone else is mixing their vocals that way. Not a good reason, but kind of true.

 

However, vocals usually do benefit from sense of 3-D sculpting, or “air.” A sense of space around the vocals that make them more lively and vivid. Very short, wide, quiet reverb can really do the trick here. Another good thing to try is using delay (echo) – and pushing the delay way in the background, with a lot of high end rolled off of it. This creates the sense of a very deep three dimensional space, which by contrast makes the vocal seem even more forward. Lastly, if you are in a good tracking situation, carefully bringing out the natural space of the tracking room can be a good way to get super dry vocals with a sense of air around them. Compression with a very slow attack, and relatively quick release, and a boost to the super-treble range can often bring out the natural air.

Shape & Consistency

A little compression is often nice on vocals, just to sit them into a mix and add a little tone. On a sparse mix, a little dab’ll do ya. The most common mistake people make when processing vocals for Hip Hop is to over-compress. High levels of compression is really only beneficial to a mix when there is a lot of stuff fighting for sonic space. When you read about rapper’s vocals going through four compressors and really getting squeezed it’s probably because there are tons of things already going on in the mix, and the compression is necessary for the vocals to cut through. Or because it’s a stylistic choice to really crunch the vocals.

Filtering

What’s going on around the voice is just as important to the vocals as the vocals themselves. Carefully picking what to get rid of to help the vocals along is very important. For example, most engineers hi-pass filter almost everything except the kick and bass. That clears up room for the low information. But often the importance of low-pass filtering is overlooked. Synths, even bass synths, can have a lot of high end information that is just not necessary to the mix and leave the “air” range around the vocals feeling choked. A couple of well placed low-passes could very well bring your vocals to life.

 

Also, back to the subject of hi-passing, unless you are doing the heavy handed Bob Power thing, you really don’t need to be hard hi-passing your vocals at 120hz. The human voice, male and female, has chest resonance that goes down to 80hz (and even under sometimes). Try a gentle hi-pass at around 70 or 80hz to start with if you’re clearing up the vocals. Or maybe no hi-pass at all…

Presence

Deciding where the vocal lives frequency wise is important. Mid sounding, “telephonic” vocals can be cool at times, low mid “warm” sounding vocals certainly have their place. Commonly, the practice is to hype the natural presence of the vocals by getting rid of the “throat” tones and proximity build up which generally live around the 250-600hz range (but don’t mix by numbers, listen listen listen). This in turn exaggerates the chest sound, and the head sound – particularly the sounds that form at the front of the mouth, tongue, and teeth – these are the tones that we use to pronounce our words and generally live in the upper midrange (2k-5k, no numbers, listen listen listen).

I think that about covers the basics of what to listen for when working your vocals.

To read the full detailed article with sound samples visit:  Mixing Rap Vocals

May 20, 2009

[Musikmesse] Cakewalk Demo

Check out the action that happened over at the Cakewalk stand as they were presenting their new V-Studio.

To see more exclusive video demos visit Audiofanzine Videos.

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