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.
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.
Even within that you have A Tribe Called Quest - “1nce Again” vs. LL Cool J - “Loungin’”. Both are laid back smoother rap songs, but the mixing is totally different. (compare below)
Loungin’ is a quintessential Bad Boy style sound, mixed by Rich Travali - you can hear the similarities between that and 112, Total, Mariah Carey and later Biggie tracks.
1nce Again is a prime example of a Bob Power mix - a sound which pretty much dominated early NY rap.
I bring up this distinction because I hope you’ll compare the two. Notice how in Loungin’ the vocals are up in the mix - level with the snare - and have a “shiny” and smooth top end, great clarity and a really open yet detailed upper midrange.
Meanwhile in 1nce Again, the vocals are just under the snare and have an extremely forward and aggressive mid-range, and a grittier rolled off top end, and a steep hi-pass filter on the low end. The shape of the vocal is also different - the compression is much easier on Loungin, and again, very aggressive on 1nce Again (particularly Phife’s voice).
Let’s take a more modern track, say Nicki Minaj’s “Massive Attack.”
Here you have super clear presence and treble in the vocals, the vocals are up in the mix, and there isn’t as much lower mid range as say “Loungin.”
Each of the 3 examples does something very specific:
“1nce Again” is edgy and aggressive sounding - quintessential to the early NY sound, and rap’s image at the time.
“Loungin’” is very intimate and smooth - it’s almost like an R&B song sonically.
“Massive Attack” has the vocals clear as crystal, but leaves plenty of room for the low range drums to dominate the mix - which is good for clubs.
The point is, the what and why are just as important as the how when it comes to mixing vocals. Who is the artist’s audience, what is the artist’s style, where is the song being played - and what can you as the engineer do to encapsulate that?
So you’ve determined what you want… but how do you get there?