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.