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.
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?
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.
How to deal with an undesirable recording environment:
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.
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.
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.
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!