One thing I’ve learned about mixing hip hop is that it (1) doesn’t matter what software DAW you use (I’ve started using FL Studio to mix hip hop) (2) you’ve trained your ears (3) you have good monitor speakers and are (4) listening in a good acoustic environment and (5) you have quality plugins/vsts.
So you’ve got all that? Check.
The next thing we want to do is set our track volumes. Let’s look at a basic hip hop song with 7 tracks.
To avoid confusion, when I say “the volume should be -14” I mean the level on the track shouldn’t go past -14, not that you should set your fader to -14. Hopefully, this diagram will make things clearer.
For this song the bass is created with an 808 kick. Now the bass is the focal point in many hip hop songs, however, that doesn’t mean it has to be the loudest. In fact, because an 808 produces so much low end energy you can turn it down quite a bit as when you send you’re song of to mastering it’ll get turned back up.
For this particular song the bass doesn’t go past -14. Keep in mind this song is “trap” so the bass has to be really loud and aggressive sounding. A good general range for bass is between -15 and -25. Just remember: the level of your bass has to match the feel of your song. A song with emotional lyrics or a different style of production may or may not require super aggressive bass.
Another thing to note is if you have chosen your samples really well (which you should) you won’t really need to apply any plugins or even eq to your bass. However, if there are problems with the bass sample than you’re going to need use those tools.
When I use an 808 as the bass, I like to use a really thin kick for the kick drum. It’s kind of like the sound you’d get from setting the attack time really short on a normal kick drum. The beginning ‘bip’ sound is what I’m referring to. I find it helps give the bass definition and helps give the kick that “knock”.
The volume I like to have my kicks at are between -4 and -8.
Snare is pretty straight forward, in this song the snare is set at -10 and I’ve applied some reverb to it to make a little more wet.
With a lot of the mixes I receive, I find hi-hats are usually the biggest problem, because most of the time they are too loud! Remember when you send your song to mastering, the highs will be increased so things like the hi-hats (duh!) will sound even louder.
For trap songs where the hi-hats are quite prominent, you don’t want to go past -18. For other types of rap songs, -25 to -30 is fine.
Piano & Synth
In this song the piano riff runs throughout and is the focal point of the beat. The volume is -20. With any instruments you have in the song, you’re going to want to low shelf them until about 100Hz to 200Hz. For this particular piano, I’ve filtered out up to 189Hz. I’ve also added a high shelf at 15kHz. Each instrument you use is going to have its own eq’ing needs, the main thing is using the low shelf eq or high pass filter to remove the low end energy as it will give room for the bass and kick to breathe.
For your vocals it really depends on how well you recorded them to determine what the appropriate volume should be. Having said that turn the volume up! Okay, well if your vocals are too loud than turn them down. But if they are too low in that you can’t make how each word you’re saying than turn them up. The majority of rap songs I receive for mastering the vocals are turned down just a touch too low. Listen to any Drake, Lil Wayne, Kanye, 2 Chainz song and the vocals are front and center. You want people to hear you otherwise they won’t be able to connect with you’re song.
I’ll be doing a more in-depth tutorial on mixing rap vocals as that would require its own post.
Your master volume should not be going past -3, with -6 being ideal. This is because when you send your songs to be mastered, the mastering engineer will make everything sound louder and will need the headroom to work. You can read more about this here: How to Prepare Mix for Mastering.
That’s about it for mixing hip hop. If you’re stressing about it, it’s because your ears are not trained yet to distinguish sounds, it takes practice, lots of practice. I remember my first hip hop mixes I was stressing out. I would spend 18 hours on one song and I’d be exhausted! I’d listen to it the next day and it still didn’t sound right. I thought something was wrong with me. It wasn’t my equipment because I was in a multi-million dollar studio. It was only when I realized it was my ears that I could do something about it. What did I do? Practice. Practice. Practice.
A nice thing about hip hop mastering is that even if your mixes are not 100% a mastering engineer can fix the biggest flaws in your mix and give you something you could show to other people with a straight face.