High-energy rappers are fun to work with, but to mix them properly you need to know how to sweeten and control aggressive rap vocals. Learn the top 4 ways to achieve this goal, using fundamental mixing and recording tools.
By Charles Hoffman
Microphone selection, compressor type, and creative effects all play a role in the quality of the results you can expect when mixing aggressive rap vocals. To broaden the scope of artists you're able to work with comfortably, let's take a look at the top 4 tips you should try.
1. Record with a Dynamic Microphone
If you're both the recording and the mixing engineer on a project, there's a lot you can do at the recording level to make the mixing process easier on yourself. Microphone selection will have a significant impact on the amount of processing you need to apply later on. When recording aggressive rap vocals, it's usually a good idea to start by reaching for a dynamic microphone.
While condenser microphones are the popular choice for studio vocal recordings—due to their sensitivity and ability to capture the small details in a performance—you'll likely achieve better results recording aggressive rap vocals using a dynamic microphone. Dynamic mics tend to mellow out the harshness inherent in aggressive hip-hop, metal, and punk vocals.
The less articulate nature of a dynamic microphone will likely produce much smoother and controlled results than a condenser mic. As a budget option, you may want to consider a microphone like the Shure SM58, or if you're going to step it up a notch, something like a Shure SM7B with a Cloudlifter to deliver ultra-clean gain. The latter option will provide a warm tone that nicely compliments the deep vocal range of many male rappers.
When the recordings you capture are free of harshness and distortion, you can add your own creative distortion effects in a controlled manner. Vocals are often recorded in isolation booths to avoid capturing room reverb for the same reason. It’s easier to add effects to a clean, dry vocal than it is to remove unwanted effects and then apply your own.
In the following video, you can see Logic recording with a Shure SM7B. This particular microphone uses a cardioid polar pattern, which helps reject a substantial amount of room tone, making it ideal for the recording environment Logic is in.
Within the context of the final mix, Logic’s vocals sound controlled due to the fact that he’s using a dynamic mic, but his performance still comes across as aggressive; this balancing act is a game you constantly need to play.
2. Use a Fast Compressor
Not all compressors are created equal, and it becomes abundantly clear when you try to apply peak compression to aggressive rap vocals. Ultra-fast peak compression can quickly slam transients down while avoiding unwanted pumping effects. The result is a transparent form of compression that tames dynamics without drawing attention to itself.
The CLA-76 Compressor/Limiter allows for super-fast attack times as quick as 50 microseconds, which makes it perfect for controlling aggressive rap vocals. It also offers an "All-Ratio-Buttons-In" mode that applies very aggressive compression with a bit of distortion.
Another element to take into consideration when choosing a compressor is whether it uses a feed-forward or feedback design; this refers to the placement of the level detection circuit. A feed-forward design places the detection circuit before the VCA (if you're using a VCA compressor), while a feedback design places the detection circuit after the VCA.
A feed-forward compressor will often respond quite quickly to transients, while a feedback compressor will react more slowly but potentially more musically. For silky smooth compression, you should try using a compressor like the CLA-2A Compressor/Limiter that uses a feedback design.
Some compressors like the API 2500 allow you to switch between a feed-forward mode and feedback mode. In feedback mode, the API 2500's gain reduction needle is visually much less responsive to transients than it is in feed-forward mode. This particular compressor tends to sound slightly brighter and a bit more open than the CLA-76, which may compliment the voice of some rappers.
Overdoing peak compression can suck the life out of vocals, so to bring back some of the energy you’ve lost, you can increase the attack time of your compressor; this will allow transient material to pass through the device and give your vocals the “edge” you’re looking for. Control your vocals first, and then start adding in the desirable aggressive characteristics you’re looking for.
3. Keep the Vocals Dry & Try Slapback Delay
Rappers generally like their vocals dry and free of noticeable reverb; the reason for this is that reverb reduces intelligibility, which makes it difficult to understand what a rapper is saying when they're rapping quickly.
Some mixes inevitably call for reverb on the lead rap vocal, so to keep vocals present in a mix, you can boost the reverb’s pre-delay time to separate the reverb tail from the vocal. Instead of choosing an arbitrary pre-delay time, consider using a delay time synced to the tempo of your session to increase musicality.
For example, at 120 BPM, 125 ms is equivalent to 1/16th note, while 250 ms is equivalent to 1/8th note. You can use an online tempo to ms calculator to figure out the ms value of notes at different tempos.
To add a sense of space to your vocals while keeping them free of reverb, consider using a slapback delay. A slapback delay uses a delay time between 40-120 ms to produce a single echo. The result can sound quite "live," like the sound of someone rapping in a theater or concert hall.
Waves' H-Delay lets you create controlled slapback delay effects that you can modify in creative ways using its built-in filters and modulation section. Feel free to pan the delay around the stereo field as well. You can get super creative with this relatively simple effect.
Slapback delay can be somewhat difficult to hear, especially when a short delay time is used, and the feedback signal is mixed at a low level. When you A/B the effect, the difference is obvious, but in the context of a completed song, the result is often something you feel more than you hear. Brian Temme has a great tutorial on how to apply a slapback delay to rap vocals using Waves J37 Tape.
Again, the focus here is on control, which will allow you to highlight the aggressive nature of vocals without letting them slip away from you. It’s not hard for listeners to distinguish between vocals that have been mixed aggressively with intention, and an aggressive vocal performance that has been muddled with negligent mixing.
4. Apply Vocal Effects to Doubles and Ad-Libs
Keeping your lead vocals dry doesn't mean that you can't have fun with vocal effects. Doubles and ad-libs are scattered throughout most rap songs, but they don't necessarily need to be as clear and articulate as lead vocals; this means you have a lot more freedom to get creative with reverb, delay, and distortion.
Instead of drastically modifying the arrangement of a beat during a bridge, consider changing the perceived space of the mix using washed out reverbs applied to secondary vocals. Doing this will create a sea of reverb that your dry lead vocal can effortlessly float across.
Abbey Road Reverb Plates can produce shimmering reverb effects that contrast nicely with aggressive rap vocals. You're able to choose from one of four different plates. The built-in EQ section allows you to sculpt the frequency response of the reverb produced, which lets you cater to different styles of music.
Rhythmically timed delays applied to doubles is a classic vocal processing effect. To keep your mix clean and coherent, pan your doubles out to the sides, along with the delayed signal. Flip H-Delay into note value mode by clicking on the "HOST" button and experiment with an 1/8th note or 1/4 note delay time. Tweak the Feedback knob to control how long it takes for the delayed signal to full decay.
Waves' Berzerk Distortion plugin delivers a wide range of creative distortion options that are perfect for shredding apart ad-libs. You can choose between 10 different distortion shapes. The "Clipped," "Loony," and "Crushed" distortion options add tremendous color and character that you can refine using the Temperature knob and Mix knob. If you need some creative inspiration, consider pressing the The "Go Berzerk!" button to produce unpredictable distortion effects.
If Berzerk is a little over the top for the needs of your project, consider a more subtle solution such as the character provided by one of the emulations found within The King's Microphones plugin. You can enrich your doubles and ad-libs with the unique frequency response provided by one of these emulations to create the illusion that your vocals were recorded through a dusty old microphone.
In “Voidwalker” by Jake Hill, the vocal responding to the lead vocal throughout the song is distorted and contains a washed out reverb tail that helps create contrast. If you listen carefully, you can also hear filtered vocal doubles panned out to the sides, and a rhythmic delay panned to the center of the stereo field.
Aggressive rap vocals are fun to record and mix, but they require a special touch if you want to prevent them from running away on you. The goal is to maintain the energy that aggressive rap vocals provide while controlling them in a way that allows you to massage them into your mix. By recording with a dynamic microphone, using a fast compressor, keeping lead vocals dry (with perhaps gentle slapback delay), and applying vocal effects to doubles and ad-libs, you should have no problem mixing killer aggressive rap vocals.
Want more on processing vocals? Learn how to mix clean pop vocals.
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