How To Mix Hip-Hop: Step By Step

How To Mix Hip-Hop: Step By Step

It is the opinion of some snooty audio engineers that rap and hip-hop is just a two-track vocal that anyone can mix. I’m sure you agree with me that they couldn’t be more wrong and that this opinion ignores the complexities of the genre. 

Although some hip-hop music does contain just a two-track stereo mix, the music is often set up as separate multitrack files to include tons of tracks and is in fact an abundance of vocals.

Mixing hip-hop and rap is liberating but challenging. It is liberating because you have the opportunity to do things that would otherwise be wildly inappropriate in many other genres.

Pitch-dropping, for example, can really liven up a rap or hip-hop track – not so much in rock. Meanwhile, the challenge comes from creating a mix that is interesting as well as balanced.  

Below, you’ll find a few tips to help you tap into your creativity and beautifully mix hip-hop and rap.

Beware of Clipping

Clipping is a distortion that occurs when signal levels are beyond the limit of a device and is a common problem in rap and hip-hop recordings and mixes. In an attempt to create the loudest track, people end up mixing way too hot. 

‘Too hot’ is usually considered to be any level that is so high that it causes unwanted distortion. Specialized tools such as the De-clip module in iZotope RX repair clipping artifacts, and while this is an incredible tool it can only do so much to reduce distortion.

But even if your files are not clipping, they can still be hot enough for clipping to easily occur later in the signal chain. 

There is a simple solution to this problem though, and that’s turning everything down. This is what the fader you have on each track is designed to do, and this usually follows the track inserts (where you insert plug-ins) in DAW signal flow.

If clipping has occurred in a vocal track’s EQ plug-in, lowering the fader after it will only attenuate the clipped signal. It won’t reduce the amount of distortion in the signal.

Pitch

Pitch-shifting is a cool way to accentuate certain words and phrases, as well as creating variation where it didn’t exist. For example, if the vocals in the second verse rap the same line back to back three times, a pitch drop may prevent it from sounding repetitive. 

Static Pitch shift and “tape stop” are two common methods used for vocal pitch-drop effects. A static pitch shift results in an amount of pitch change that remains constant over time.

Meanwhile, “tape stop” creates the effect of an analog tape machine coming to a slow stop. This decreases both the pitch and the speed. 

To achieve static pitch shift, duplicate the vocal track or copy and paste the desired vocal part(s) to a new track Try out a per-track transpose or pitch function if your DAW has it.

If it doesn’t though, use a pitch plug-in such as Serato Pitch ‘n Time, zplane Elastique Pitch 2, or a stock model to lower the pitch on the new track/duplicate.

Keep in mind there is one semitone between each note in the chromatic scale, so start somewhere between three semitones and an octave (12 semitones).

Of course, you can use panning, EQ, and level adjustments to give the pitched track a different tone and stereo position than the original vocal. 

Meanwhile, ‘tape stop’ is more often done on the original track rather than a duplicate. To achieve ‘tape stop,’ select the original vocal part that you want to pitch shift.

If your DAW offers effects that can be applied to sections of tracks, you can use plug-ins like iZotope Vinyl (which is free), kHs Tape Stop, or Avid Vari-Fi to apply the ‘tape stop’ to the selected part. 

Some DAWs such as Ableton Live and Apple Logic Pro have per-region functions that let you ‘pencil in’ the desired pitch curve, which makes your track sound even better. Additionally, “tape stop” effects also work well on instruments like drums, bass, and synths.

Chop it up

Known as the ‘stutter edit’ this cool special effect can be achieved with or without special plug-ins. It means editing the vocal to make it sound like an obvious stutter or stammer. When done correctly, it can sound very cool indeed.

But remember the adage of having too much of a good thing. Be careful not to overuse it. 

As an example of using the stutter edit without plug-ins on the word ‘get,’ you’d select a small portion of the word, like the ‘g.’ Then, select a musical amount of time like the 16th note or 32nd note, as it’s easier to keep the stutter in time with the music.

Now, copy and paste the small section before the original word. You can create rhythmic patterns by pasting it multiple times before the original word, thus resulting in ‘G-G-Get,’ or ‘G-GG-Get,’ or whatever you like!

You don’t have to limit stutter edits to the beginning of words though, they can be used to slice up the middle and end of words too. 

Conclusion

Of course, not every trick will work on every mix. That’s just overkill. Every song is unique, and you have to treat two songs – even from the same artist – very differently. Figuring out what works and figuring out your techniques is a process of trial and error.

But that’s what makes practicing any skill fun! 

Once you know what each technique will sound like in practice, try to envision how they will sound in your head before spending valuable time executing them.

If a pitch-dropped stutter edit doesn’t sound quite right in your head then it probably isn’t going to sound right in practice either, so there’s no point setting everything up just to have that suspicion proven correct.

But if you’re unsure or on the fence, then it won’t hurt just try it out in the session to see if it works or not.

Blake Gibbs

I have been a professional DJ for almost 10 years. In that time I've played a lot of gigs and gone through a whole bunch of equipment. My new goal is to spread my knowledge of DJ products with the world through this website!