If you have ever tried your hand at mixing rap and hip-hop, chances are you know that it is challenging, to say the least. The vocals can be especially tricky: when working with a number of separate multi-track files, achieving the perfect sound takes a lot of time, experience, and effort. Fortunately, modern technology has come up with quite a few vocal effects for rappers that can help you get the vocals just right.
Some of the best vocal effects for rappers are de-essing, pitch shifting, time alignment, and parallel processing. Other powerful tools for improving rap vocals include stutter and reverse effect, vocal delay throws, saturation, submixes, and distortion.
If you are actually looking to buy vocal effect plugins, we have a whole article talking about the best wave plugins for rappers too 🙂
Using vocal effects in rap is both a science and an art. The good news is that with some dedication and hard work, it can be learned and mastered — just like any other part of music. If you would like to learn more about how to work with each of the sound effects above, keep reading.
Rap vocals can — and even should be — punchy and aggressive. And that’s perfectly okay until you hear one of those harsh, ear-piercing “s,” “sh,” or “z” sounds that are part and parcel of fast speech.
What’s more, these sounds are much more common in rap than in most other music genres. The explanation is quite simple: the typical hip-hop track has much longer and less repetitive lyrics than, say, a pop song. More words mean more s’s.
Luckily, there is a way to get rid of the unwanted hissing sounds, which are also known as sibilants. To do that, you need a vocal de-esser plugin.
How does that work?
Simply place the de-esser after whatever equalizer you are using. Alternatively, insert the de-esser toward the very end of the plugin chain. Most de-essers come with a “Listen” mode that allows them to automatically detect the sibilant frequency range. That way, you can quickly and easily identify any problematic frequencies and turn them down.
However, make sure not to go overboard with the de-esser. If you start hearing a lisp, that is a clear sign that you have gone a touch too far.
One of the best de-essers currently on the market is Sibilance by Waves. This plugin features Waves’ pioneering Organic ReSynthesis technology and advanced spectral filters. As a result, Sibilance is able to detect and eliminate harsh sibilants without tampering with the rest of the vocal signal. That gives you smoother and brighter vocals while maintaining the timbre, duration, and natural resonance of the original track.
Sibilance works great on both vocals and voice-overs. It is also very easy to use: simply insert the plugin on the track and enter your desired range and threshold.
Pro Tip: You can also reduce some of the harsh sibilants in the recording phase by using a dynamic microphone. Another option is to place the microphone slightly off-axis.
Pitch shifting is a great vocal effect for when you want to highlight certain words or introduce variation where it did not exist at first.
For instance, rap lyrics often repeat the same line two or more times back to back. If there is little or no vocal variation between the reiterated phrases in the original recording, they might end up sounding too repetitive or redundant. A quick fix to a problem of this kind is to add a pitch-drop to one of the repeated phrases.
How do you do that?
Static Pitch Shift
One way is to use a static pitch shift. This method gives you a pitch change that remains the same over time. To do that, first, make a duplicate of the vocal track or copy and paste the vocal parts to a new track. Then, lower the pitch on the duplicate or the new track using your DAW’s built-in pitch function or per-track transpose. Alternatively, get a pitch plugin such as zplane Elastique Pitch U2 or Serato Pitch ‘n Time.
A good rule of thumb is to start somewhere between three and twelve semitones (one octave) and then gradually work your way down. If you want, you can also change the tone and stereo position of the pitched track using panning, EQ, and level adjustments.
In addition to static pitch shift, you can also opt for tape stop. Tape stop gives you an effect similar to the sound of an analog tape machine slowing to a halt. The result is a gradual decrease in the speed as well as the pitch of the vocals.
Typically, you apply a tape stop to the original vocal track and not a duplicate. To do that, select the vocal part you will be pitch-shifting. Then, tape-stop the selected part using your DAW’s selection-based processing or an external plugin such as Avid Vari-Fi, kHs Tape Stop, or iZotope Vinyl.
Pro Tip: The tape stop effect also works great on bass, drums, and synths, so make sure to give it a try.
One key to achieving great-sounding rap vocals is to keep them tight. This is especially important if you are using multiple vocal layers. Rappers and hip-hop producers often record a lead vocal, followed by a double of it and highlights. The highlights track includes only certain words or phrases from the original vocal for added emphasis. And some artists record even more vocal tracks.
The problem with using multiple vocal layers simultaneously is that it is difficult to pan them in the exact same position. The ensuing timing discrepancies, which can be as minimal as 20 milliseconds, can result in unwanted audio effects such as echo, slapback, or stutters.
To achieve tighter layered vocals, you want to align their respective timings so that identical words and sounds from the various layers end up in the same place.
There are two ways to go about it. The first involves manual adjustments using editing techniques such as cut and paste and nudging. However, this method can take quite a bit of time and effort.
The second method involves using automated time-alignment plugins such as Revoice Pro and Synchro Arts VocALign. Tools such as these allow you to easily stretch, shift, and time-compress tracks so that they end up matching one other perfectly.
Parallel processing is a catch-all that refers to applying any sort of processing to a duplicate of an original track and then mixing the two together. One type of parallel processing that works great on rap and hip-hop vocals is parallel compression. Why is that? Because vocals feature prominently in this music genre, and parallel compression is a foolproof way to ensure that they always sit on top of your mix.
In addition, parallel compression can help if other sound effects such as reverb and delay are pushing your vocals further back. Compressing the vocals also highlights the subtleties and richness of the voice, making the sound experience a lot more intimate and emotional.
Here is how to apply upward parallel compression on rap vocals to make them louder:
- First, make a new aux track and load a compressor.
- Then, send the lead vocal to the new aux and change the output to the “Lead Vocals” aux.
- Gradually dial in the compression, starting with an attack time of 5 ms and a release of 30 ms. You should aim for a gain reduction of 6 dB’s or upward.
- Finally, place the new aux under the lead vocal until it starts turning up the volume of the vocal. When you notice an increase in the apparent volume, stop — or keep going if you want to take it further.
The result? Your vocals are now not going to drop below a certain volume.
Pro Tip 1: Feel free to add a limiter after the compressor to control the dynamics even more.
Pro Tip 2: If you notice any resonant frequencies due to the high levels of compression, fix them by applying EQ or multiband compression.
Pro Tip 3: For best results in rap and hip-hop tracks, try applying parallel saturation on your kick, bass, and snare.
The stutter vocal effect, also known as “stutter edit,” is just what you might suspect it is: taking a vocal and editing it to make it sound like a stutter or stammer. It may seem eccentric, but if it is done in keeping with the rhythm of the song, it can sound really cool in hip-hop. Just make sure not to overdo it — as with most special sound effects, moderation is key.
You can achieve the stutter effect with or without special plugins.
If you want to give it a try without plugins, select a small portion of the vocal phrase you want to “stutter.” For instance, if you are working on the word “cool,” select just the “C.” Then, copy and paste that “C” a few times right before the original word. This will create a rhythmic pattern, such as “C-C-Cool,” “C-CC-Cool,” or any other variation you may have chosen.
Please note that the stutter effect does not necessarily have to be at the beginning of the phrase. You could also place it in the middle or at the end.
Alternatively, if you want to get a stutter effect using a plugin, consider getting iZotope’s Stutter Edit. This versatile tool allows you to pick the rhythmic pattern and timing value. You can also create custom stutter sequences. What’s more, you also get an incredibly large preset library with more than 35 preset banks and 800 gestures.
Pro Tip: If you want to seriously step up your hip-hop mixing game, consider applying pitch shifting on stuttered vocals. The results will amaze you — and your listeners.
The reverse effect allows you to play audio backward. When applied to a low-volume layered rap vocal, it can create a uniquely eerie and dramatic effect. The reverse function can also work great when added to reverbs and drum hits.
To apply the reverse effect to vocals, simply select your desired word or phrase using your DAW’s built-in “Reverse” function or an external plugin. Then, hit the “Reverse” button, and you are all set.
If you want to use a plugin, the Avid Reverser is a highly effective and easy-to-use option.
Pro Tip: To lend further emotional impact to your hip-hop track, apply the reverse function to drums and cymbal hits. This will give you a truly dramatic sound effect whereby the percussion starts quietly and gradually builds up only to disappear with an abrupt and loud bang.
Vocal Delay Throws
One of the most common sound effects in rap and hip-hop is the vocal delay throw. The term may seem complex, but it simply refers to the process of repeating certain words by way of echo or delay. The reason why vocal delay throws are so popular is one of convenience: repeating words is probably the easiest way to fill in the pauses between vocal phrases.
You can usually hear vocal delay throws applied to the last word of a phrase. Let’s say you have a line in the lyrics that goes like this: “You drive me crazy, lady.” When you apply a vocal delay throw to the ending, it will go like this: “You drive me crazy, lady, lady, lady, lady.”
There are two ways to apply vocal delay throws. The first one involves automating a vocal aux send to a spare track. Alternatively, you can copy and paste the vocals to a spare track. In either case, you would have to place a delay plugin, such as iZotope’s DDLY, on the spare track. This will “throw” or send the selected parts of the vocals to the plugin.
Automating a Send
- First, insert a delay plugin on a spare track.
- Then, make an aux send through a bus to that spare track. Make sure the aux send level is turned all the way down.
- Next, switch on the track automaton and play the recording.
- Turn up the aux send level for the final word in your chosen phrase. That word will then be sent to the plugin.
Copy and Paste
- Create a spare audio track and place it underneath the original vocal.
- Then, insert a delay plugin on the spare track.
- Play the original track.
- When you hear the word that you want to “throw,” copy and paste it onto the spare track. Don’t forget to paste it in the exact same place as in the original.
Pro Tip 1: Whether you are automating a send or copy-pasting, make sure to set the mix control of the delay plugin to 100 percent wet.
Pro Tip 2: If your session tempo is set to match the music, start with a delay of ½ or ¼ note. If it isn’t, go for tap tempo or set the plugin regeneration or feedback between 10 and 30 percent.
Okay, here’s the thing: rap vocals do not always require saturation. More often than not, rappers tend to go heavy in on the mic, and the preamp will naturally overdrive slightly. That being said, every now and then, you may get a recording with a dull, weak, or thin vocal that could use a little body and bite. If that’s your case, you should definitely consider adding some saturation.
For best results, you can use a special saturation plugin such as the Waves Kramer Master Tape. Developed in collaboration with legendary recording producer and engineer Eddie Kramer, this plugin was modeled after a real vintage reel-to-reel machine that was used in the famed Olympic Studios in London.
The Kramer Master Tape gives you full control over your sound, including adjustable bias, tape speed, flux, wow and flutter, slap and feedback delay, and noise parameters.
Alternatively, you could try the iZotope Ozone 9 Vintage Tape. Yet another vintage-inspired plugin, this tool brings you the richness, distortion, frequency coloration, and phrase effects of tape saturation. Overall, this product can give an added dimension, depth, and warmth to your rap vocals.
Submixes are a great hack that grants you easy control over the sound of vocals as well as the various instruments in your track. With submixes, you can use a single fader to turn up or down all vocals, and more. All you need to do is send certain sets of tracks to dedicated aux tracks. So, all vocals, drums, and all other instruments will each go to a separate stereo aux track.
Here is how to set up a vocals submix:
- First, change the outputs of all vocals to a pair of unused stereo buses, such as Buses 9 and 10.
- Then, assign those buses as the input for a new stereo aux track.
- Double-check that the stereo aux track pans are set to the extreme left and right. If the pans are in the center, the mix will be summed to mono.
- After you complete the routing, all vocals should be passing through the stereo aux.
- The fader of the aux track is now the level control for the vocals.
If you would like to set up separate submixes for the drums and all other instruments, too, simply repeat the steps above.
The great thing about submixes is that they give you level controls and also allow for smooth and easy plugin processing for each track. So, if you were to insert a saturation plugin in the aux track for your vocals, it will be applied automatically to all vocal signals. If you did not have submixes and wanted to apply a saturation plugin to multiple vocal tracks, it would have taken a lot more time and effort.
Adding a tiny amount of distortion to a rap vocal track can really do wonders to enhance the overall quality of the song. Distortion makes sounds louder and more aggressive, which is precisely the effect you are looking for when mixing hip-hop vocals.
All you need to do is use a distortion plugin with a mix knob. Start to gradually increase the level of distortion until you notice that the vocals are becoming somewhat distorted. Then, turn the distortion down slightly until the effect becomes unnoticeable.
The goal here is to bring out the airiness of the vocals and give them that extra harshness and edge you want. What you do not want is for the listener to be able to detect the distortion or to make the vocalist difficult to understand.
If you want to invest in a high-quality distortion plugin, check out Waves’ Abbey Road Saturator. This powerful saturation and distortion tool was inspired by the iconic sound of old-school hardware units used in Abbey Roads Studios.
The plugin comes with two distortion types to choose from: the harsher tube REDD tone and the smoother TG12345 sound. What’s more, you also get unique M/S processing that allows you to distort the mid, sides, or in stereo separately.
While it may seem somewhat counterintuitive at first, the beat has everything to do with rap vocals. This means that whenever you are working with the beat, you need to remember to always make room for the vocals.
If your vocals come on top of an instrumental track, the beat will typically look in one of two ways: with tracked-out stems or as a single stereo file.
If you have stems, or separated bass, clap, kick, etc., you will have greater overall control over the sound. In that case, it is a good idea to mix the entire beat first and only then add the vocals. While you can also start with the vocals, drums, or bass, you will have to readjust the mix of these instruments when you add the other aspects of the beat later.
As you do this, don’t forget that the vocals will be needing some of the space occupied by the other instruments. This means that you should aim to keep some open space in the low-mids and higher frequencies. That will allow the vocals to sit within the beat rather than on top of it.
A Single Stereo File
Alternatively, you may be working with a single stereo instrumental track, such as a .wav or .mp3 file. If that’s the case, you will find it harder to open up space for the vocals without also tampering with the other instruments within the beat.
One possible solution is to use an equalizer to reclaim some room for the vocals. The body of a vocal sound is normally located in the low- to upper-mids, or somewhere between 300 Hz and 600 Hz. Of course, some rappers have deeper voices, and some have higher, so the exact position where you should dip the beat frequencies will vary. You can use a plugin such as the FabFilter Pro-Q 3 Equalizer to help you visualize and hear these areas.
As a rule of thumb, you want to start dipping somewhere between 2.5 kHz and 7 kHz. Then, slowly work your way up or down. Things to watch out for are whether the instruments are too loud or stepping on the vocals. Ultimately, where you end up will depend on the vocalist and the beat.
The Parting Words: Practice, Practice, Practice
They say that practice makes perfect, and they are right. The most important thing when mixing rap music is to keep trying out new hacks and practice what you have learned on many different songs.
Working on various recordings is essential, as you cannot try every trick on every single track. And even if you did, they wouldn’t work. So, in order to figure out what works and what does not, you would have to use each vocal effect countless times.
Last but not least, a really useful trick is to try playing the completed song in your head before you start the mixing and editing. Not only will you get some really cool ideas, but you will also get a feel of what vocal effects are likely to sound off with the recording at hand. Being in touch with your gut feeling is a must for any creative process, and this one is no different.
A Quick Recap
Mixing and recording hip-hop is challenging but also incredibly rewarding. While fixing the vocals can sometimes be quite the handful, nowadays, we have access to great technologies that allow us to achieve amazing vocal effects.
The best vocal effects for rappers include de-essing, pitch shifting, time alignment, and parallel processing. Other great plugins that can help improve rap vocals include stutter and reverse effect, vocal delay throws, saturation, submixes, and distortion. And let’s not forget the beat!
Hopefully, you found the information in this guide useful and learned something new. In any case, always remember that, when it comes to rapping, the most important part is to enjoy the creative process.
- Avid.com: D-Fi
- Avid.com: Reverser
- Britannica: Sibilant
- iZotope: 5 Ways to Use Parallel Processing in Music Production
- iZotope: 8 Tips for Mixing Rap and Hip-Hop
- iZotope: DDLY
- iZotope: Ozone 9 Vintage Tape
- iZotope.com: Stutter Edit
- iZotope.com: Vinyl
- KiloHearts: Tape Stop
- MR Mix and Master: 5 Tips on Mixing Rap Vocals
- Musician on a Mission: 8 Parallel Compression Hacks: Kick Your Mixes Up a Notch
- Musician on a Mission: How to Use a De-Esser in 4 Simple Steps
- Musician on a Mission: How to Mix Vocals: Everything You Need to Know
- Musician on a Mission: Vocal Compression: Learn How to Mix Like the Pros
- Range of Sounds: Best Reverb for Rap Vocals
- Raytown Productions: 6 Industry Secrets to Get In-Your-Face Rap Vocals
- Reverb.com: FabFilter Pro-Q 3 Equalizer
- Reverb.com: How to Mix Rap Vocals: Basic Techniques and Effects
- Serato.com: Pitch ‘n Time Pro
- Synchroarts.com: Revoice Pro 4 – The Ultimate Pitch & Timing Toolbox
- Synchroarts.com: VocALign Pro 4 – Advanced Vocal Alignment Plugin
- Waves.com: Abbey Road Saturator
- Waves.com: DeEsser
- Waves.com: Kramer Master Tape
- Waves.com: Renaissance DeEsser
- Waves.com: Sibilance
- Wikipedia: Eddie Kramer
- zPlane.de: Elastique Pitch U2