Tips On How To Record Better Rap Vocals
Throughout my years as a recording and mixing engineer, I’ve always been asked how to record great sounding Hip-Hop and Rap vocals. Although this is subjective and depends on a great many variables, there are a few easy steps to take to have a great sounding vocal track.
The first step to getting better vocals is to use a great microphone. You do not have to go out and purchase a $5000 microphone to accomplish this though. There are plenty of decent sounding microphones for around $200-$400 that can do the job well. Most people favor using large diaphragm condenser microphones. Normally, if I have access to it, I prefer a good dynamic microphone like the Shure SM7B that captures the low-end of rap vocals exceptionally well. I never tend to use a lot of the high-end information that gets captured through a large diaphragm condenser anyway. If I do need a little more high-end, a little EQ goes a long way.
The next crucial step in the signal chain is a good microphone pre-amp. If you are unaware, a microphone pre-amp is what boosts the signal of the microphone. Some pre-amps do a great job of preserving the sound while others do not. Like the microphones, you do not need to purchase an expensive pre-amp to do the job. Most mid-range audio interfaces come with decent pre-amps. My go to microphone pre-amps tends to be the Neve 1063, Neve 1073, or the API 512. I am also fortunate to have my Universal Audio Apollo Interface which allows me to use incredible pre-amp plug-ins like the UA 610 and the API Vision Channel Strip while tracking.
A crucial component for any recording is correct gain staging. When recording, use the mic pre-amp of your choice in a way that never allows for the vocal track to clip. I normally aim for my vocals to average around -6dB which allows for a strong signal and allows for sufficient headroom. Although you may have taken levels prior to recording, vocalist tend to be louder once they realize they are actually recording a take. Make sure you take that into account and do not be afraid to stop the take if you notice that the levels are running hot. A recording session riddled with clipped tracks will not only cause distortion, but is a clear sign of laziness and an unprofessional recording engineer.
Hip-Hop/Rap vocals tend to be very dynamic. You should consider using a compressor to tame some of those dynamics to keep the vocals in-front of the mix. When recording, I tend to use a little bit of compression. My go to compressor is the Empirical Labs Distresssor. The settings vary from project to project, but I usually set it to a 4:1 Ratio with a fast release and fast attack. If I need to compress more, I leave it for the mixing stage. If you are unfamiliar with compression and do not have a lot of experience with it, do not compress while recording. Over compression can ruin the feel of a vocal and if done really incorrectly can cause unwanted effects.
It goes without saying that in order to capture great sounding vocals you need to get a great take from the artist. There are different ways of getting a great performance from your artist, but providing them with a great headphone mix should be your top priority. Before your recording session even begins, go into the live room or vocal booth and listen to the headphone mix. If you have a headphone system, take the time to show the artist how it works. If you do not, set a separate headphone mix for your artist in your choice of DAW. Use panning and FX such as reverb tastefully. I promise you, if you provide a great headphone mix, you will get a much better performance for your artist.
As mentioned, there are many variables to getting great sounding rap vocals. If you follow the steps above, I guarantee that you will have better results. What do you do to achieve better rap vocal tracks? Do you agree or disagree with the above methods? Let me know if you think I missed anything important.