Eminem. Dr Dre. Joyner Lucas. Xxxtentacion. NF. All these names have (among a lot of things) a natural raw talent that will go down in the history books as being the staple of modern hip hop and rap music. But what a shame it would’ve been if they hadn’t have had the production quality alongside them, right?
I mean, imagine - the beat is great. The melody and the hook have been dialed in, and then when the main vocal is placed in the mix, it all falls just short of great… in fact, it’d just nullify the efforts made until that point to make a great track.
So with that in mind, I decided to put together a guide on how I achieved the sound of the vocal below with Leyes (the rapper in question) at my own studio, Last Stand Studio so your vocals will never be left redundant on a track ever again!
The Signal Chain
If you’ve been reading the blog this year, you’ll notice a strong theme. Your source recording and how you record it is 80% of your mix done. Being aware of this, i understood that before the lock down came into place, I needed to provide Leyes with the appropriate tools to get the quality I needed. This included my mic choice, which I knew worked well with him, but also any rapper I've put it in front of, actually - and an interface for him to work with.
The mic? Our JZ Mics BH1 Large Diaphragm condenser. Not only does a large capsule capture the entire frequency range making it much easier to work with, the BH1 is special for a variety of reasons, my favorite one for rappers being the capsule is a Golden Drop Capsule! Golden Drop Capsule technology means the capsule’s diaphragm is lighter; therefore, it moves much faster to deliver more clarity and precision. This meant that the transients of his vocal would be picked up far easier, as its a lighter weight capsule than most, and therefore the pronunciation and dictation of each work would be far clearer leaving less for the compressor to do.
The interface is simply a Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 and recorded using a set of AKG headphones (closed back to limit bleed on the vocal track). We then set up a shared dropbox that I’d access the files from once uploaded to put into the track, and Leyes could access the beat to record to. We facetimed on our iphones to work coherently and concisely in every way - from the placement of the Mic in his room, to the structure and flow changes between each take.
Because the BH1 lends itself to such a natural EQ curve, and the lightweight aluminium capsule capturing the transients, compression was a logical choice to go to as a start to level out the rest of the vocal. I’d usually do this on the way in with my DBX 676 tube preamp while recording Leyes as I know a valve preamp just ‘works’ with his voice - but as this was all in the box, I’ve screenshotted my entire vocal chain processing for you to try with similar plugins at home and see if you can’t get something like what I did!
I’m trying to hit around -10db here with the CLA vocal trick engaged on the attack and release controls at a 4:1 ratio This irons out the vocal taming it across the board but leaving the transients untarnished just enough to make sure the vocal still pops in the mix. This is important as I could iron the entire vocal out and use a transient control plugin to enhance them, but with the colour and weight a compressor brings to the overall vocal - especially a FET compressor like this 1176 style one from Arturia - it adds an element of harmonic distortion when pushed and if the attack and release controls were maxed out left and right respectively, it might add too much and then the mix knob would have to be engaged to dial it back. So to take out the middleman (the mix knob), this seemed a better way to go.
This is my favorite EQ. The Electra from House of Kush. it encapsulates exactly what I like in an EQ - Musicality. By that, I mean it pushes the bands in a very musical way!
Let's start from the bottom up :I’ve high passed the vocal as it’s at a 12bd roll off, pushing slightly to add a warm low mid bump. After that, removed some muddiness from the mid range at about 350hz and some nasal midrange at 1.45khz. This opened the vocal up and allowed me to make my final adjustment to the top end, maxing it totally as the push is at 20khz. This band is my favorite by far - it lifts the vocal and makes the BH1 sound even more incredible than it already does.
My next moves are in the Virtual Mix Rack by Slate Digital. These are all subtle moves just enhancing the flavor a little more starting with the Custom Series EQ taming some low mid, rolling off at about 150hz again to back up the previous moves within the Electra. I then ushed the mid range at 800hz to compensate for the drip at 1.45khz - I did this because the size of the bands will be different. The Electra tightens the band as you push it more, whereas the Custom Series has wide bell curves to stay somewhat discrete when making subtle moves like these. Lastly, I finished on this EQ with a dip in the high mid range presence and lifted at 10khz to again, compensate for the 7khz dip. All of these moves were less than 2db. Lastly, we move to the API 550 style series to gently push at 1.5khz by 2db to again, compensate for the wide dip done on the Electra.
Finally, the end of the chain consists of nothing special, but definitely needed on most vocals. I already used a JZ Mics Pop Filter in front of the BH1 to dim the sibilance and plosives naturally occuring in speech; but a DeEsser further limits the brittle and sometimes harsh high end from S’s and T’s. As simple as this plugin move it, it can make or break a vocal as incorrectly used it can nullify the high end EQ moves we’ve made thus far, so i’m only taking down between 4-5db at 8khz to make sure I leave the top end untarnished, but tame the presence of the vocal.
Reverb And Busses
Now this is where it starts to get a little more complicated but it works nicely within my mixes.
The vocals are all sent to an aux channel where my ValhallaRoom Reverb is set as an insert. You can see the settings below, but more importantly it’s dialed out at 100% wet. This is because i’ll blend the reverb into the mix and automate the fader of that channel to bring up the reverb and dim it in the track where I’d like to - and I do this because automating a parameter of the plugin uses far more processing power than just moving a fader within the DAW I’ve always found.
After the initial reverb placed on the Aux track, I then used some subtle compression with a medium/fast attack and a slower release so the dry vocal can breathe before the tail of the rever slowly rises after the end of the vocal line. This, I find, is a really useful way of maintaining clarity, but not at the sacrifice of ambience and vibe.
Lastly, another instance of Electra to boost the top end as like on the main vocal channels, a dip at 5.4khz to tame the swelling upper mid range, and finally a dip at about 660hz to remove some cloudiness, married by a high pass at 170hz - bumped to maintain some weight to the room in the 200hz region that it would in turn effect.
The reverb Aux isn't sent to the Vocal Bus as doing so would crush the reverb and add unwanted EQ and compression to it, so instead we just push all the main vocals into the buss to make sure they are colored equally.
Going from left to right, starting with the Decapitator from Soundtoys, a saturation plugin. I have it set using the Neve style distortion with punish engaged which acts as a second gain stage to push it harder into the unit. I’ve rolled off some of the low end and adjusted the tone to make it a little darker as I love the Neve units for their warm, gooey sound. Once I find a sound I like, I roll back the mix dial until blended subtly again, just like the reverb, to add flavor and enhance the vocal - not to transform it into something totally new!
And Finally, the LA2A style compressor from cakewalk (the CA-2A) is only pulling down the vocal by 2db at very most to further level the overall sound while in limit mode, and maintain one level constant volume as much as I can without automation.
A Final thought...
I hope that helps you in your next project, and these techniques can be used across the board with most vocal styles. But remember, every vocalist is different, and therefore every vocal is different. Keep this in mind when processing your vocal and reading this post - and make sure to always trust your ears!