This time – a few generic tips on recording & working with rap vocals for those who are just starting out and haven’t got a first clue about the basics.
Since we’re talking about recording vocals, naturally the priority still is getting the best microphone and preamplifier. As most of you will know, prices of this equipment can vary quite a bit – you can get a beginners bundle or put together a condenser microphone and preamp combo that is worth more that your car.
The key is to do research. It would be foolish to suggest any brands, but it’s generally thought that you can actually get a good condenser microphone starting from around 400$. Same goes with preamplifiers.
Setting up: Microphone placement
When you’ve acquired your tools, it is time to set up your workplace, your studio. Since we’re talking beginner level here, let’s just assume it’s your parent’s house – nice, sturdy, wooden walls and big rooms. Joking aside, we’d suggest investing in some purpose-built acoustic panels with which to treat the make-shift vocal booth (the room you’ve chosen for your recording). If you can’t really spare the dime on them, thick blankets or heavy curtains should do the trick (definitely better than nothing at all).
After doing acoustic treatment, be it panels or blankets, do a thorough test recording to see if you haven’t dampened the sound too much (will result in poor dynamics and overall dullness) or left any huge noise sources (loose interior details etc.).
1) You’re in a studio, not a live show
As we’ve said before, even having top-shelf gear won’t save you from bad results if you don’t use it right. If you’re the one laying down verses, you must understand that it is very important to maintain a stable stance while performing in studio. If you are energetic, out-going or aggressive in your style, learn to refrain from expressing yourself through your body while recording. These things are quite important when communicating your art to a live audience but will probably degrade the results of your studio session.
Instead concentrate on the voice. Make sure the capsule of the microphone captures your performance – in a recording studio it is the only “spectator” you need to worry about. Don’t jump around, wave or clap (srsly?) your hands. Don’t kick or stomp your feet. Be in front of the microphone and learn to give a meaningful performance without unnecessary movement.
2) Avoid reckless dynamics
Actually we need to talk a bit more about movement. Even a slight swaying with your head can come into play when you record vocals. The distance between you, the source and the capsule of your condenser microphone determines the tone of your voice in the recording – that is if you do it right and manage to escape a serious pitfall – peaking.
Peking is what occurs when you overload your levels and this is not something you can just fix later on. Don’t even think about hearing a distorted, blown up phrase and just going forward. Monitoring your sound through meters is basic stuff – don’t overlook it.
3) Experimenting with tone
As was said previously, changing distance between you and the microphone will have impact on the sound and character of your voice. If you’ve been performing rap for a considerable amount of time you’ve probably found your personal style. Now it’s time to find the right spot for you in the vocal booth.
If you deliver verses smoothly, calmly then you could probably benefit from a certain warmth and fullness in your sound. 4-7 inches away from capsule would be a good area for you to try out.
If you tend to get a bit more aggressive, depending on the feel of a particular track, stand further away (9-15 inches). This way, although your voice will sound thinner, you’ll get more clarity, articulation and sound much more precise – this usually works better for an aggressive, fast delivery.
Being able to adjust is very important – if your performance consists of fast, aggressive as well as slow and chill parts, you need to be able to adjust your position for it. It is not that easy to master and apply in any situation/studio but it helps to be constantly aware that a studio microphone is a very sensitive thing – it will react noticeably to any sort of changes in your technique.
Compression & EQ
Compression is something that is very audible in modern rap recordings. It is actually quite important for this style of vocal performance. It can add much needed punch and aggression as well as control the dynamics and guarantee quality sound.
We won’t go over on how the compressor works, since this is a totally different and very complex subject. Instead we’d like to outline some basic guidelines on how to approach rap vocals.
Rap performance is usually not a melodic thing… so – not that much resonance in the sound you capture. Therefore articulating every aspect of the audio track is very important. The words that are said need to be clear and audible (also depends on a performer of course).
You can start with 2:1 to 4:1 and an attack of 8 to 10ms. Different release time will contribute to either chill, laid-back sound (quick release) or punchy sound (relatively slow release). These are, of course, only a few basic, generally accepted guidelines – use them as pointers, not as strict laws.
It is very important to understand that quality of any recorded sound comes from the skill of a musician/vocalist, gear and people you cooperate with and NOT an equalizer. It is not a magical tool that brings hope to those who’ve botched the recording process. It should NOT be overused. It is there for you to accentuate and polish the track so it fits into the mix.
There are a few traditions and standards of sound when it comes to EQ-ing rap vocals that you should be aware of. Usually rap vocals stand out (from other types of performances in a context of one mix) as audibly brighter (especially these days). So the usual technique is to cut into 200Hz zone (amount depends on the characteristics of a particular vocal track) and roll off anything below 90Hz.
To brighten things up increase (around 2dB) at 1300Hz and see what works for your particular project at 4700 zone. As said previously – concrete tips including Hz and decibels are just guidelines and starting points. You yourself have to determine what sounds best at any given moment and do an unbiased analysis of the end result. Of course, mistakes will be made, but that is the only way.