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How to Record Great Rap Vocals

This excellent article from David Hogan explains how he acheived a pro quality RAP vocal recording on a shoe-string budget and includes audio examples.

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How to Rap Part 5: How to Record Great Rap Vocals in your Home Studio
This is a 6 part series on How to Rap  

- How to Rap - Introduction
- How to Rap Part 1 - Cadence and Rhythm
- How to Rap Part 2 - Confidence, Delivery, Energy
- How to Rap Part 3 - Become a Better Freestyle Emcee
- How to Rap Part 4 - How to Write Great Rap Lyrics
- How to Rap Part 5 - How to Record Rap Vocals
- How to Rap Part 6 - How to Stack and Polish Rap Vocals

Author: Slik Nixin
Published: April 2011

There are many things that go into recording great Hip Hop vocals including using the right equipment properly, microphone placement, compression and EQ. We'll tackle these issues and ensure that you get a pristine and concise recording in every situation.  Fasten your seat-belts and enjoy the ride!

Getting the Right Equipment

Build your own vocal booth

The first step to recording great hip-hop vocals is having a good quality condenser microphone and preamplifier combo.  When your starting out it’s easy to get lost in all of the allure of high-end equipment that is way too expensive for most of us to get our hands on.

We’ve all done it before - walked into some music store and drooled over the $10,000 microphone in the glass case

Fortunately these days, if you’re not a zillionaire or running a major studio, you can get a good mic/preamp combo for $800 to $1,000. 

For good preamps in the $300 to $600 range, check out some Presonus models. They’re a great buy for the money.  AKG also makes some great microphones in this price range.

Don’t forget that good cables and a pop filter are a must for great rap vocals!

Mic Placement & Setup

How to record rap vocal in your own home studio vocal booth

Now that you have a solid microphone and preamp combo, let’s discuss where to put the microphone.  If you’re recording at home, I suggest investing in some reflective foam and turning your walk-in closet into a vocal booth.  If you cannot afford the foam panels, then I recommend hanging some thick blankets or curtains on the closet walls.  This will dampen a lot of the reflecting noise and keep you from getting a “boxy” sound in your recordings.


When using the foam, do not cover the closet from top to bottom - this will make the recording seem lifeless and dull. There is nothing more boring than a lifeless vocal recording.  Placing a few panels in the right places will help dampen the sound reflection and still allow the dynamics of the vocal performance to shine.

If you do not have a sizeable walk-in closet (or equivalent space), then you might have to take more drastic measures to prevent sound reflection.  You might have to hang thick blankets on the wall of the room you’re working in and stick the mic in one of the room’s corners.  This doesn’t look very professional, but it will really help you get a clearer, more concise recording. 

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Proper Mic Usage

Having a great mic/preamp combo and solid vocal booth can still lead to a crappy recording if you or whomever you are working with does not understand proper microphone techniques. 

First things first: no jumping all around, no stomping your feet, and no clapping your hands while you’re recording.  Don’t be a menace! Save that energy for the live show!  For the most part, you want to keep your orientation toward the mic the same from start to finish.  This will give you an even keel of input that will allow you to assess your levels and prevent any unwanted peaking.  Peaking will result in irreparable damage to your recording, so getting your levels right is a must.  Pay attention to your meters - that is what they are there for Ding-Dong!

There are several ways to achieve different recording tones based on the desired result.  If your rap vocalist is somebody like Fabolous who has a smooth, calm delivery then he or she should probably stand 4 to 6 inches away from the mic.  This will give a warm, full sound.  If your vocalist is somebody like Eminem who likes to get loud and aggressive on some tracks, then he or she might need to stand 10 to 14 inches away.  This will generally give you a slightly thinner, crispier sound. That’s what I prefer for my rap vocals.

Experienced vocalists really know how to utilize proper micing techniques.  They’re trained to move closer to the mic for more intimate passages and to move farther away for louder verses.  If your vocalist likes to switch up his or her flow a lot, then this technique will save you a lot of Aleve and Tylenol!

Compression and EQ

Now that you are up to speed on great mic placement and technique, let’s really get into the meat and potatoes - compressing and EQ-ing rap vocals.

Compression

One of the most misunderstood and most valuable tools for producing great rap vox is compression.  The function of a compressor is to reduce the peaks in an audio signal so that the overall dynamic range of a vocal performance is reduced.  Understanding and utilizing compression correctly can make your hip-hop vocals punchier, more intelligible, and most importantly, it will give them that professional feel.  Properly applied compression is extremely important for rap vocals because the rapper is normally saying a lot in a short amount of time. You want to keep a listener’s attention, and every word needs to be understandable to your audience.

In terms of compressor settings, I like to run some very mild compression on the input signal to tame some of the audio peaks and then tighten that up with some moderate compression on the output signal.  For hip-hop vocals, I like to start with a ratio range of 2:1 to 4:1 and an attack of 7 to 10ms.  If you are one of those “speed rappers” you might  want an even quicker attack time of 3 to 5ms and a higher ratio of 8:1.  In regards to the release time, a quicker setting will give you a tamer vocal while a slower setting will give you a punchier rap vocal. 

These guidelines should get you moving in the right direction, but when starting out, experiment with these settings to achieve your desired effect. 

EQ

EQ-ing is a lot less difficult to understand than compression and can be a great tool for getting your rap vocals to cut through your mix.  Again, this is important because your hip-hop vocalist is typically saying a lot in a short amount of time, and every word must be understandable.  As a rule of thumb, if you have to do major EQ-ing to achieve the desired tone you might want to go back and experiment with your mic placement and vocalist orientation (to the mic).

For example, if you recorded an audio segment but it sounds too muddy, there are two ways you could go about handling this.  The quick way would be to roll off those low-end frequencies by EQ-ing the audio segment.  However, the more professional way of handling this would be to re-record the vocal performance and have the vocalist step back from the mic a few more inches to get a cleaner, clearer audio source.

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When EQ-ing rap vocals I like to roll off most frequencies below 95Hz and add a slight dip of about -2dB at 200Hz.  To brighten up the high frequencies I boost the vocal performance +2dB at 1200Hz and +1dB around 4800Hz.   This is a good starting point that will help your rap vocals stand out and shine bright! 

Here is an example of a vocal performance before and after using the EQ and compression settings mentioned in this article.

Vox with no compression or EQ (acapella)

Vox with Compression and EQ (acapella)

Vox with Compression and EQ (with beat)

The results are clear!!! (Vocals and beat courtesy of Slik Nixin)

Summary

Getting great rap vocals is contingent upon several things - none of which are rocket science but do require a basic understanding of micing and audio processing techniques.  Congratulations!  Now you are well on your way to achieving great rap vocals.  Remember, don’t be afraid to experiment, and get creative – You might get lucky and find a gold mine you never knew existed!
This is a 6 part series on How to Rap  

- How to Rap - Introduction
- How to Rap Part 1 - Cadence and Rhythm
- How to Rap Part 2 - Confidence, Delivery, Energy
- How to Rap Part 3 - Become a Better Freestyle Emcee
- How to Rap Part 4 - How to Write Great Rap Lyrics
- How to Rap Part 5 - How to Record Rap Vocals
- How to Rap Part 6 - How to Stack and Polish Rap Vocals

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