The previous decade in the music industry have been characterized by a surge in hip hop music.
Artists such as Eminem, Kanye West, Lil Wayne, and Kendrick Lamar have made albums that have changed the entirety of what pop music has become.
For mastering engineers, it’s important to stay on-top of what’s happening now and then properly translate an artists vision into the final stage of mastering.
1. Low End Punch
Hip hop’s signature is having powerful low-end yet retaining clean and articulate highs.
Knowing how to maintain and sweeten the low-end is crucial.
One primary goal during mastering is to achieve a master that sounds great on all playback systems.
One step forward to accomplishing this goal is to retain low-end ‘punch’ while simultaneously leaving room to control the rest of the frequency spectrum using compression.
Using multi-band compressing allows control of specific low-end transients. In addition, it allows you to surgically shape the dynamic content of the low band-frequencies to get your low-end transients to ‘punch’ and have ‘impact.’
There are tons of software and hardware options for multi-band compression, everything from the Waves C4, FabFilter Pro-MB, to Softube’s Drawmer 1973.
Regardless of what equipment or software you use, in most cases you’ll want to start with a medium-fastest attack-time to catch fast transients, but not to fast as to diminish the tone and impact of powerful low-frequency transients.
2. Vocal Equalization and Compression
Hip hop usually requires a lot of clarity in the mid-range, specifically for the vocals. This keeps vocals sounding clear and articulate throughout the master.
Retaining and creating vocal clarity involves multiple types of processing and is certainly not limited to compression.
- With Equalization (Eq), vocal clarity can be achieved by attenuating lower-midrange frequencies. Depending on the needs of a mix, a good place to start is reducing 1.5dB around 250Hz, this can assist in lifting a vocal out of a dense mix.
A little bit can go a long way, so start small increments (1-2dB)
Remember any Eq changes that are made specifically focused on the vocal, will affect the entire master. So it’s important to keep a long-view thought-process when making any equalization changes.
Our ears are sensitive to frequencies in the upper-midrange, especially between 3-5kHz, so revealing too much of this frequency-range can result in a harsh and fatiguing listening experience, so be careful that any reductions in the lower-mid range don’t over-accent (reveal) the upper-midrange unnecessarily.
- Regarding compression for vocals, often fast attack times are used to level-out vocal transients, but in hip hop music the vocal articulation is contained in quick phrasing and lyrical content so we must keep this intact.
Using slower attack times will allow for the beginnings of words and phrases to remain unaltered. This will make the vocal articulation shine-through since slower attach times reduce the amount the vocal is being affected by the compressor attack settings.
Contrary to attack time, in many cases, release times need to be set a bit quicker to ensure that compression will not remain engaged throughout quick phrases. This can also allow for a more aggressive sounding master giving an edge to a vocal performance.
4. Control Sibilance
Another point to consider is vocal sibilance.
We’re faced with a bit of a challenge since sibilance and presence/articulation can overlap in the frequency spectrum(s).
Using of a de-esser or multi-band compressor can tame the specific frequencies that can make those s’s unbearable.
Reducing sibilance can also be achieved by inserting an Eq with the problematic frequencies boosted into the side chain input of a compressor.
- This allows the compressor to react to the boosted problem frequencies in the signal.
If you’re using a dedicated De-esser, try narrowing your de-esser’s range to only treat the specific problem frequencies. This way, it won’t affect other frequencies that may be adding to the clarity and articulation of the vocal.
There are are lots of hardware and software options are available for de-essing. The important thing to remember is, to find one that works best for your application and specific vocal needs. Also, a good multi-band compressor is another option to tame sibilant vocals.
Regarding De-esser settings, using fast attack and release times to target specific sibilant phrases is usually a successful approach.
4. Clean and Clear Transients
Going hand-in-hand with low-end punch, it is important to consider keeping your transients, especially kick and snare, relatively clean and clear when mastering hip hop.
These two dynamic instruments are a primary focus for most hip hop music and must remain powerful and pleasing throughout the entire master.
Clean and clear transients for the kick and snare drums can be achieved with a detailed combination of compression and equalization.
Using Eq can help bring out the snap of a kick drum or the body of a snare drum. Also, Eq can be a complementary tool for achieving clarity for your percussion as-a-whole, however compression for these mix elements is also equally important.
Depending on the song you’re working on, the drums may need to be heavily compressed to achieve an aggressive sound, or they may need something a little less to give a smoother presentation.
Playing with attack and release times can help hone-in your transients fit into the specific performance.
Compressing transients can quickly smooth-out the differences in a drum’s attack, making it fit better into the overall master.
Regarding the kick drum, remember the low-end needs to retain punch as much as possible.
- Try using attack and release settings that will not limiting the initial instance of the transient of kick drum. This will allow the ‘punch’ of the kick to shine-through.
Snare hits are usually more present in a mix and an essential part of any hip hop beat, they must be kept clean and clear.
- Snare hits will react nicely to Eq adjustments, while compression will provide much of the needed transient control.
For the snare, try setting attack and release times to allow the compressor to completely release by the time the next transient hits. This can work to keep the processing in-sync with the tempo of the master and contribute to the feel of the song.
5. In the Pocket Compression
In hip hop, the tempo and groove of a song are where a lot of the life of a production is.
Setting your compressor to accent this groove can help take your hip hop master to the next level.
To achieve settings that remain in the pocket of a song, again experiment with compressor with attack and release times.
If a song arrives without tempo documentation, look at key transients such as kick and snare drums to set attack and release times.
These quick transients outline the tempo.
After a transient has passed, watch the gain-reduction meter to see if the meter returns to zero just before the next transient arrives.
If the compression is returning to zero too quickly, adjust your release setting to a slower time to get closer to being in-sync with the tempo.
Accenting the groove of a song with compression that’s in-sync with the tempo can help keep consistency in a master along with retaining the original feel of the production.
6. Subtle Stereo Imaging
Another useful mastering tool is stereo image processing. As with most processing in mastering, a little can go a long way.
Stereo imaging can make a mix sound tighter through narrowing low-frequency information, or wider through widening upper-mid and high-frequencies.
Subtlety is key when using imaging tools for hip hop.
Consider widening the high-frequencies a little bit, but be mindful to avoid to over-accenting the the width of the high-mid frequencies as this can skew center, which contains the vocals and snare drum.
No matter how you choose to use stereo imaging tools, it is important to work in small increments.
Use your ears along with phase metering to check how much processing is being applied and focus on how well communicated your center image is.
7. Warmth Through Analog Compression
Now that we’re far into the the digital age, many mastering studios have converted to primarily digital tools, and many new music producers use software mastering plugins and/or convenient automated programs.
However, the the sound of analog equipment that can impart subtle harmonic saturation is still an invaluable tool for creating music that is both pleasing to listen too and commercially successful.
Here at Sage Audio Mastering Studio we use and regularly maintenance a generous amount of analog equipment which allows us to create uniquely polished masters for clients.
Specifically, a great way to achieve analog warmth and tone is through compression, and with many styles of compressor circuits, the options for tone are in good supply.
An excellent designs to use in mastering is the variable mu (gain) circuit. This type of circuit uses tubes to achieve compression and does not have a typical fixed ratio for gain-reduction, hence variable mu.
As the signal increases, the ratio increases as well which contributes to the smooth nature of this style of compression.
Because of their smooth nature, variable mu compressors often find themselves in a mastering chain to add “glue” to a mix. Some models such as the coveted Fairchild 670 or the Manley Vari-Mu have become staples in adding analog warmth.
Experimenting with analog equipment can provide unique results especially useful for hip hop mastering.
Mastering hip hop is a delicate balancing act between using detailed tools, techniques, and experience. Try these 7 Tips in your workflow and hear how they affect your next hip hop master.
Sage Audio Mastering is a specialized custom analog mastering studio located in Nashville Tennessee, with extensive experience in hip hop mastering.
To hear samples of hip hop music mastered at Sage Audio, please visit their samples page at: https://www.sageaudio.com/samples.php#hip-hop