4 Hip Hop Vocal Production Techniques [with examples]

Whether you’re a rapper, an engineer, or a combination of the two, it helps to have a range of vocal production ideas up your sleeve to call on when recording.

There are a million ways to mix vocals which is an in-depth topic, but I thought it’d be worthwhile to take a look at some of the broad production techniques commonly associated with hip hop both new and old.

As always, a good recording starts with a talented performer, an appropriate recording space and if you have the luxury, a nice vocal chain.

Instead of drilling down on mix minutiae, we’ll cover some of the broader production approaches but offer some general mix theory to point you in the right direction.

The examples below will encourage you to listen closely to your favourite artists and pay attention to how they’ve produced their vocals. I hope you devote some time and dig deep into your favourite songs, gaining even more perspective and ideas.

Let’s do it.

1. Doubling tracking a whole verse for a thicker, fuller vocal sound.

Vocal doubles are used everywhere in music.

The vocal doubling technique is essentially recording the same thing twice and layering it up.

In hip hop, if you’re going to double the whole verse, the intention is often to fatten up a weaker sounding voice that doesn’t sound very full with just one track.

Doubling was used heavily in the mid-late 90s. It was not uncommon to double the whole verse, or at least a large portion of it as we can hear in the example below.

Thug Luv by Bone Thugs-N-Harmony:

The way to do achieve this sound is to make sure that you perform the second take by paying close attention to the nuances of your delivery on the first. It’s important to get the lead and the double as closely matched to each other as possible.

This requires a lot of skill and attention and can be time consuming to get done right.

Either that or your engineer will have to do some heavy lifting with the edits to make things match up. If the double isn’t tight it will sound sloppy and unprofesh.

Also, you cannot just use the same take and duplicate it. This technique relies on the subtle differences coming from two different recordings so it’s not just a matter of hitting that cntrl + D.

Here’s something that will help:

You might already have a take recorded within your project that could work as a double. Audition other takes to see if they work as a double.

Mix Tip: Using reductive EQ to help mix in the double.

Mix the lead vocal first, then copy the EQ settings onto the double.

Pull up the Double paying close attention to mid-low frequency build up, or excessive harshness, as you bring it up in the mix.

Remove frequencies from the double that don’t compliment the lead vocal. You can be quite aggressive with this: the double isn’t meant to be heard by itself, it’s a layering tool, so it’s all about how the two tracks sound together and with the beat.

There’s a good tutorial on this topic from Matthew Weiss on youtube, Mixing Rap Vocal Doubles.

2. Double tracking, but in a lower or higher pitch.

To create a big vocal sound, you can double or triple-track for vocal whilst singing or rapping in a different pitch.

In this example, we hear Kendrick Lamar rap a portion of the first verse, (from “Ever since a young man”) with a lower octave double. It’s quite subtle, but it’s there.

Listen from 00:40.

This really thickens up the vocal. Since there is no bass in that portion of the beat, perhaps things were sounding a little too thin without it. The lower double disappears as the bass comes in.

Mix Tip: Pan your doubles.

Low doubles can be mixed quite close to the lead in the centre, often without much processing.

I’ve had success mixing lower doubles closer to the centre and the higher doubles out wider.

The reason for this is that the highs will be more likely to clash with the lead, so you pan them further away from centre.

3. Layering backups for emphasis.

Getting creative with your backup layers can go a long way.

Have a listen to J Cole’s ‘Wet Dreamz’ and listen out for backup vocals employed to emphasize certain words and phrases.

J Cole has used this technique at the start of the first verse to add extra emphasis. Listen to when he says “First. Time.” around 00:20, the double is a bit late and to me gives off a laid-back feeling.

Layering backups is an opportunity to further express yourself creatively. They can be used creatively to enhance the message and emotion.

A simple mix approach:

Put the lead in the centre and record a backup for each side; one pan hard left, the other pan hard right. Mix them in at lower volume.

In the second half of the first ‘Wet Dreamz’ verse, (from “Cause when I seen them thighs on her”) at 00:40, you’ll notice the backups are tighter to match the intensity of what’s being said.

This also has the effect of maintaining the listener’s attention through the middle of the verse, drawing you back into the story.

You can use backups to further enhance your story telling.

4. Vary something

With all this talk of stacking vocals, it’s important to highlight the power of varying things up in the recording process.

If you have access to another voice for example, consider where it might fit in your song.

The beautiful chorus on Outkast’s Aquemeni features two female backup singers, Sonja Mickey and Anjahne Green.

The variation of different voices being used here adds up to a rich composition.

Often when layering vocals, it’s beneficial to change an aspect of how something was recorded, for example the mic, the distance from the mic or even the mic preamp.

Variation in the recording process improves the mix.

Recording Rap Vocals at Home

How do the pros get that clear, upfront rap vocal sound?

Should you buy a better mic? Hire a studio or an engineer?

Today I’m going to show you several techniques that will dramatically improve the quality of your rap vocals and enable you to start achieving mixes that are in the ball-park of the pros.

The best part?

It won’t cost you a lot of money. Today we are focusing on getting things done right from the start i.e. the recording process.

Let’s press on!

How your space plays a huge part in your vocal sound.

The first thing you’ve got to get right is the recording space.

I can’t emphasize this enough. You could be rapping into a $10,000 microphone but if you’re in the wrong room, the recording could be useless.

In most cases with rap vocals you want an up-front sound that really cuts through.

The presence of room sound in the recording can weaken the impact of your lead vocal and can make it difficult to fit in the mix.

Even if you process heavily with reverb and other effects, a good starting point is almost always a direct vocal sound without the room interfering.

Having the room in the recording is not always a bad thing and can’t be avoided 100%, but it’s something that you want to be aware of. Let’s have a listen.

VS

 

Same cheap mic, same bad singing. But a lot of difference in the result.

The first recording was done in a tiled bathroom (lots of hard surfaces), the second was recorded in an acoustically treated room.

The room issue is caused by sound bouncing off hard surfaces and back into the mic. If you’re going to invest time and money in any area, improving the sound of your recording space probably has the best cost to benefit ratio and should be considered a high priority before the purchase of other gear.

The bottom line?

A bad recording like the example above is difficult to mix, even if you’re an experienced mixer.

A vocal booth is often employed to counteract this, it being a ‘dead space’ that has acoustic treatment to prevent sound waves bouncing off walls and interfering with the clarity of the recording.

Do you need to invest in a vocal booth?

Perhaps not…

All you need is a space to record in that’s acceptable. It doesn’t have to be perfect.

The second recording (above) was made in a room that I treated for less than $200. The investment was entirely worth it.

You may also already have a room in your house that is a candidate to facilitate better vocal recordings without any further materials or investment.

Choosing the right space.

To figure out which spaces are better for recording vocals in, you can start by doing a simple test: Clap and listen to the length of the echo in the room. The less echo the better. You especially want to avoid any undesirable reverberations such as a ‘boing’ sound that can cause problems in the recording.

Tip: Rooms with a lot of stuff in them (couches, carpet, bookshelf, stuffed tiger) reflect less sound. Rooms with bare parallel walls often don’t make good recording environments.
A good idea is to test how your voice sounds in different rooms and in different positions within each room. 

So set up your mic and collect some test recordings. You will begin to understand the presence of the room on your vocal recording.

You may have a suitable room available that is adequate to record vocals in.

But you might not be so lucky…

The worst-case scenario is that your only option is a small, bare-walled room that rings like a banshee, A.K.A. your standard rectangular bedroom.

To work within this space, you need to somehow minimise the amount of sound that is bouncing around the room.

vocal-mic-example
A good room will make a cheap mic sound a whole lot better.

How to deal with an undesirable recording environment:

  1. Understand the pickup pattern of your mic.

    A ‘cardioid condenser’ microphone (often used for vocals) will reject sound from the back. By knowing this, you can position the back of the mic at a bare wall or towards a window connected to a noisy street, thus rejecting noise from this source.
  2. Treat your room by making or buying sound absorption panels.

    Do some research before investing in any sound absorption solution. It’s not a complicated science, but there are some fundamentals worth understanding.
    This video is a great resource and primer on the subject that covers building your own DIY acoustic panels. Treating your recording space will help A LOT.  If you’re serious about getting a great vocal sound from home, the video above will point you in the right direction when it comes to DIY acoustic treatment.
  3. Use what you already have at your disposal to minimize reflections.

    Experiment with rugs, mattresses, doonas. Get creative with these items to cover bare walls and surfaces in your recording space. You can also set up sound baffles instead of hanging things directly on the walls. Baffles would sit in between the wall and the mic, acting like a shield. A movable, hanging clothes rack would act as a makeshift sound baffle of sorts. A Japanese Futon on two mic stands could work as a baffle, too. This creates a barrier protecting the mic. 

This is all a matter of creative problem solving.

You’re never going to eliminate the room completely but you can adopt some creative measures to help minimise the issue so that it doesn’t destroy your recording.

How Mic Placement Makes for Better Mixes

There is no perfect microphone for the job. There are many that come recommended for rap vocals, but this doesn’t guarantee a good vocal sound. Instead, start by using what you already have or what you can afford. 

Experiment with the distance from the mic at which you’re recording the vocal. Somewhere between four to six inches is a good starting point.

Why does this matter?

The closer you are to the mic, the more bass build-up will occur (called the proximity effect) which can result in an unbalanced recording that will be harder to mix. Also at closer distances, the mic will be more sensitive to movements of your head, which is likely to lead to fluctuations in volume levels that are also not desirable for a hip hop vocal.

A few tips:

Try and keep your head at a consistent distance from the mic, moving your hands instead if you feel the need to move.

Purchase a pop-filter, too. This will eliminate plosives or loud popping sounds that can ruin a take. They aren’t expensive and it’s a must have for recording rap.

Take off any necklaces or loud jackets that could be picked up by the mic when you move and turn off any electronics causing background noise such as a fan or air conditioner.

Find the sweet spot by recording and listening back to different takes at varying distances from the mic.

Conclusion

Achieving a professional sounding rap vocal at home may seem difficult at first but you’ll be surprised at the production quality that can be achieved with a little time and money invested in understanding room acoustics and mic placement.

A good sounding vocal starts with a good recording.

Knowing how to achieve this will make you a better rapper as you’ll start to gain in depth knowledge on the sonics of your voice and how it relates to spaces and the final mix.

Knowledge like this, although perhaps a little boring, shows professionalism and dedication to your craft.

Best of luck!