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Deconstructing A Hip-Hop Music Mix To Hear How The Mix Comes Together

See and hear the individual elements of the mix in context, pulled apart - and then re-assembled again

By PSW Staff May 31, 2011

Let’s look at a typical hip-hop mix and break it into its elements.

That way we can see and hear how the mix comes together from the musical pieces.

A rap or hip-hop mix typically has these tracks as a minimum:
1. The “track” or the “beat.” This is the instrumental backup. It might be downloaded from a website, created in the studio, purchased from a production house, or whatever.
2. The lead vocal (often doubled in spots).
3. Ad libs (“Hey”, etc.)
4. Effected ad libs (which are changed in pitch, pitch-corrected, stereoized, etc.)
5. Chorus and doubled chorus vocals panned left and right.
6. Sound effects (applause, gunshots, etc.)

In many hip-hop songs, the instrumental track for the verses and choruses is the same-unlike in a pop song where the chords change during the chorus.

Still, the lyrics are repeated in each chorus whether in hip-hop or a pop song.


With this knowledge in mind, let’s examine a portion of the complete mix. This song is copyright 2009 by Artavis Hardy (a.k.a. Col’tre), and the instrumental track was produced by Carl McCardle (Skyblue).

Here’s a screen capture from Cakewalk Sonar Producer:

From top to bottom, the tracks are:
1. The instrumental “track”. As you can see, it’s already been maximized by the composer.
2. Lead vocal.
3. “Hey” repeated several times (an ad lib).
4. The lyrics “Sold out show” repeated several times (an ad lib).
5 and 6. Chorus vocal panned left and chorus vocal dub panned right.

Note that the clips or regions are already trimmed to remove noises during pauses.

This also makes it easy to see where the chorus vocals are in the song. You can export a stereo mix of just the chorus vocals, then import that chorus vocal mix at each place in the song where the choruses occur.

That way the performers don’t need to repeat the performance each time.

To hear the complete mix of the song section shown above, click here: [complete mix.mp3]

If your playback skips, you can right-click the mp3 file to save it and then play it.

The Track
Let’s break it down. First we’ll examine the stereo instrumental track or beat by itself, along with an EQ plug-in inserted in the track.

This track’s percussion sounded a little harsh so I cut 3 dB at 7 kHz.

Click here to audition a few seconds of the track or beat, soloed: [track.mp3].

Lead Vocal
The lead vocal was mixed dry to keep it clear and up-front. The only EQ needed on the vocal track was a low-end roll-off to reduce the mic’s proximity effect (below left).

I also used a multiband compressor set up as a de-esser to tame excessive siblilants (below right).

Only the highs above 4kHz were limited:

After this processing, the soloed lead vocal sounded like this: [lead vocal.mp3]

Ad lib: “Sold Out Show”
After recording this track, I had fun lowering its pitch without slowing down the tempo. An MPX time-pitch-stretch plug-in did the job.

Below left is the Time/Pitch Stretch 2 plug-in with the pitch lowered 3 half-steps. Below right is the waveform of the phrase “sold out show” repeated three times.

And here’s how it sounded: [soldout show.mp3]

Ad lib: “Hey”
What’s cool about this track is the automated panning.

The repeated “hey” waveforms are visible below right, and you can see the envelope (diagonal line) that shifted the panning from left to right as the track played.

Below left, a chorus plug-in added some life, too.

Click here to listen to the automated panning and chorus on the “hey” track: [hey.mp3]

Chorus Vocals
Finally I recorded the vocal for the chorus and panned it left.

Another chorus vocal was overdubbed and panned right to create a stereo effect.

The pan settings are shown below as 75 percent and 75 percent right.

Here’s the sound of the left-panned chorus vocal: [chorus-L.mp3]

And here are the stereo-panned chorus vocals: [chorus-LR.mp3]

Let’s give a listen to all the vocal parts mixed together, without the instrumental track: [all vocals.mp3]

Reprise: The Complete Mix
Now that you’ve seen and heard all the parts of the mix, here’s the whole shebang again.

…which sounds like this: [complete mix.mp3]

Most likely, you can hear all the elements in the mix better than when we started.

Sound Effects
At the end of the song, the artist wanted to bring in some applause.

I had captured some during a live recording a few weeks ago with an N.O.S. stereo pair, and we used that.

I imported a clip of applause (called “crowd end” here) and placed it near the end of the song. The clip faded up as the music faded out.

Here’s the end of the song with the crowd noise: [applause.mp3].

I hope that these screen captures and sound clips have demonstrated one way that a hip-hop mix can be created.

Some commercially released songs are much more complex, endlessly striving to delight the ear.


AES and Syn Aud Con member Bruce Bartlett is a recording engineer, microphone engineer and audio journalist. His latest books are Practical Recording Techniques (5th Ed.) and Recording Music On Location.

Related PSW Recording Articles
Recording Microphone Techniques To Produce Warm, Spacious Stereo, By Bruce Bartlett
What Is Greatness? (In Recorded Music, That Is…), By Fletcher
How To Compare & Hear Differences In Microphones, By Ty Ford
Watch Out For The Big Lie: “We’ll Fix That During Mastering”, By Jackson B. Jackson

Music and lyrics used with this article: copyright 2009 by Artavis Hardy (a.k.a. Coltre). The producer of the music track is Carl McCardle (Skyblue).


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