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Deconstructing a hip hop mix

by Bruce Bartlett, Copyright 2011

Let's look at a typical hip-hop mix and break it into its elements. That way we can see and hear how the mix comes together from the musical pieces.

A rap or hip-hop mix typically has these tracks as a minimum:

  1. The “track” or the “beat.” This is the instrumental backup. It might be downloaded from a website, created in the studio, purchased from a production house, or whatever.
  2. The lead vocal (often doubled in spots).
  3. Ad libs (“Hey”, etc.)
  4. Effected ad libs (which are changed in pitch, pitch-corrected, stereoized, etc.)
  5. Chorus and doubled chorus vocals panned left and right.
  6. Sound effects (applause, gunshots, etc.)

In many hip-hop songs, the instrumental track for the verses and choruses is the same — unlike in a pop song where the chords change during the chorus. Still, the lyrics are repeated in each chorus whether in hip-hop or a pop song.

With this knowledge in mind, let's examine a portion of the complete mix. Here's a screen capture:

From top to bottom, the tracks are:

  1. The instrumental “track”. As you can see, it's already been maximized by the composer.
  2. Lead vocal.
  3. “Hey” repeated several times (an ad lib).
  4. The lyrics “Sold out show” repeated several times (an ad lib).
  5. and 6. Chorus vocal panned left and chorus vocal dub panned right.

Note that the clips or regions are already trimmed to remove noises during pauses. This also makes it easy to see where the chorus vocals are in the song. You can export a stereo mix of just the chorus vocals, then import that chorus vocal mix at each place in the song where the choruses occur. That way the performers don't need to repeat the performance each time.

Listen to the complete mix of the song section shown above:

Complete mix

If the playback stutters, right-click the link and download the sample. For the best sound, play the samples through your studio monitor speakers.

The Track

Let's break it down. First we'll examine the stereo instrumental track or beat by itself, along with an EQ plug-in inserted in the track. This track's percussion sounded a little harsh so I cut 3 dB at 7 kHz.

Click here to audition a few seconds of the track or beat, soloed:


Lead vocal

The lead vocal was mixed dry to keep it clear and up-front. The only EQ needed on the vocal track was a low-end rolloff to reduce the mic's proximity effect.

Vocal EQ

I also used a multiband compressor set up as a de-esser to tame excessive siblilants (below right). Only the highs above 4kHz were limited:

Vocal de-essing

After this processing, the soloed lead vocal sounded like this:

Lead vocal

Ad lib: “Sold out show"

After recording this track, I had fun lowering its pitch without slowing down the tempo. An MPX time-pitch-stretch plug-in did the job. Below left is the Time/Pitch stretch 2 plug-in with the pitch lowered 3 half-steps. Below right is the waveform of the phrase “sold out show” repeated three times.

And here's how it sounded:

Sold out show

Ad lib: “Hey”

What's cool about this track is the automated panning. The repeated “hey” waveforms are visible below right, and you can see the envelope (diagonal line) that shifted the panning from left to right as the track played. Below left, a chorus plug-in added some life, too.

Click here to listen to the automated panning and chorus on the “hey” track.


Chorus vocals

Finally I recorded the vocal for the chorus and panned it left. Another chorus vocal was overdubbed and panned right to create a stereo effect. The pan settings are shown below as 75% L and 75% right.

Here's the sound of the left-panned chorus vocal:


And here are the stereo-panned chorus vocals:


Let's give a listen to all the vocal parts mixed together, without the instrumental track:

All vocals

Reprise: the complete mix

Now that you've seen and heard all the parts of the mix, here's the whole shebang again.

…which sounds like this:

Complete mix

Most likely, you can hear all the elements in the mix better than when we started.

Sound effects

At the end of the song, the artist wanted to bring in some applause. I had captured some during a live recording a few weeks ago with an N.O.S. stereo pair, and we used that. I imported a clip of applause (called “crowd end” here) and placed it near the end of the song. The clip faded up as the music faded out.

Here's the end of the song with the crowd noise:


I hope that these screen captures and sound clips have demonstrated one way that a hip-hop mix can be created. Some commercially released songs are much more complex, endlessly striving to delight the ear.

Music and lyrics, Copyright 2009 by Artavis Hardy (a.k.a. Coltre). The producer of the music track is Carl McCardle (Skyblue).