24 hip-hop tips for better beats and vocals

You don't have to wear shades to work here, but it helps.
You don't have to wear shades to work here, but it helps. (Image credit: Mika/Corbis)

Hip-hop tracks are extremely diverse, but they're generally characterised by repetitive beats with plenty of bottom-end and rapping. Their extreme levels of sub bass provided the blueprint for the mixdown style of rave music and, more recently, drum 'n' bass and dubstep.

We've got tips that will help you to improve both the instrumental and vocal elements of your hip-hop productions (including advice on finding an MC), whether you're just starting out or a seasoned beat maker.

Beat making tips

Steal a groove

You can lift a groove from a recording by using hitpoint-based audio editing - most DAWs come with this ability as standard these days. Even if you've decided not to use a particular drum loop, you can capture the essence of its funk by applying the groove to your choice of sounds.

Create a groove

The pad-based Akai MPC samplers were all the rage in the early hip-hop days and are still popular today, as they let producers tap out their own grooves. You don't need an MPC to play your own groove - you could use any MIDI controller, or perhaps beatbox and use hitpoint editing.

Building on simple chords

Chords might seem daunting at first, but they don't have to be. Learn the fundamentals of chord construction. Once you understand how to build the simple major and minor chords (Google 'music triads'), write a chord progression and experiment with adding another note to each chord.

Addictive loops

Some tracks do the business just by looping a short piece of music that you can't get enough of. At the heart of these loops usually lies an exceptional groove. Tweak your loops to make sure they flow nicely and feel satisfying at every stage.

"You don't need an MPC to play your own groove - you could use any MIDI controller."

Music needs hooks too

Don't rely on lyrics alone to provide your production with a hook = every backing track should also have its quirks and highlights. Think of the instrumental as a beast all of its own and put yourself in the shoes of the MC - they want something to vibe off and to inspire their verse.

Traditional structure

Verses are one thing, but don't forget that most hip-hop hits also have a chorus, and some have a middle 8 as well. Traditional-style song structure is popular because it works and is universally appreciated, so don't shy away from the winning formula, even when in pursuit of something fresh.

Make space for the vocal

Make space for your vocal parts by keeping the verse arrangement sparse. You can also take an EQ to any competing sounds and attenuate the main frequencies of the vocal. If you continually find yourself turning the vocal up just to be able to hear it, then something is not right with your mix.

Use reverb on everything

You've probably been told not to use reverb on everything, but this is old-fashioned advice. Every sound in the mix should have a sense of space, even if you're only gently mixing in the subtlest of early reflections. Just don't go soaking every sound in hall reverb - that's not the idea at all!

Hip-hop needs saturation

Without saturation, your mix will sound cold and clinical. Even the most modern, club-friendly records rely heavily on a bit of drive here and there. Try iZotope's Nectar or its Alloy mixing plug-in - these let you tweak the saturated sound and mix it with the dry signal to preserve fidelity.

"Be aware of current mixing trends even if you're producing an old skool-influenced cut."

Help tell the story

Support the lyrics with your arrangement and mixing decisions. Everybody has heard the obvious sound effects that correlate with the lyrical pictures being painted by the MC, but you might also think about how you might automate reverb sends when there's a verse about running through a tunnel, say.

Keep the mix modern

Be aware of current mixing trends even if you're producing an old skool-influenced cut. Hi-hats seem to have fallen out of favour at the moment, for instance, being used very quietly and with as little dynamic range as possible. This sounds pleasant when played extremely loud in a club.

Keep the mix tight

Use gates to minimise unwanted tails from the ends of sounds that don't need them. Use a high-quality limiter or saturation to absorb sharp peak transients that eat up headroom and cut too far through the mix. Roll off high and low frequencies, or if that sounds bad, use shelving EQ instead.

Vocal tips

Expose your beats

Once you have your first batch of beats that you feel confident with, don't be too precious about them. In the early days, it's important to get them out there and to get them heard. Make sure it's easy to get to your stuff online for streaming and make sure your (up-to-date) contact details are always easy to find.

Expose yourself

Walk out the front door. Make it known past your circle of friends that you make beats and you're looking to make something of them. If you're at a party, make sure you're meeting people and finding out what they could potentially do to help you on your quest. Be ready and willing to back up your words with your beats.

Find local talent

All around the world, kids are spitting lyrics in school playgrounds - and by college age, some of them are quite polished rhyme smiths. Keep an open mind and advertise locally for MCs and general lyrical talent. For the best response, remember to big yourself up a bit in the ad.

Long-distance talent

You don't have to work face-to-face with talent. You might find it even easier to find rappers online, and some of them will have access to recording equipment or perhaps their local college recording studio. Get yourself into instant messaging and install Voice-over-IP software so that you can dial in to the recording session remotely.

MC credentials

Any old rapper will not do. If you've worked hard to get every element of your instrumental right, it deserves to be blessed with a suitable vocal performance. Listen for their tone of voice, how their rhythms sit on your beat, the quality of their flow and the relevance and entertainment value of their lyrical content. Even if they're an incredible rapper, they might not be the right one for your beats.

Takes and comping

Always get multiple takes of a verse even if you feel that the MC got it in one. Listen carefully to their delivery and don't be afraid to suggest some improvements. If you're worried about an ego clash, tell them you'd like an 'alternative version' of their flawless take, just in case. Avoid comping rap verses!

Secure loyalty

Make sure you set a professional working relationship from the off and be clear about what you intend to offer and what you expect from the talent you work with. If appropriate, sign a written agreement so that you're clear on terms and they can see that you're serious. Do not engage time wasters.

Any mic will do

You could spend your lunch money on a microphone, or you could spend a year's wages. The truth is, the performance is much more important - especially when you're just getting started. Definitely get the best mic you can afford, but never let the lack of a dream piece of kit slow down your pursuit of stardom.

"Where possible, record the vocals through a compressor to keep the dynamic range in check."

Pop and lock

A pop shield is a good idea, especially if you're working with someone who really projects their voice (and you should be!). You can pick one up for next to nothing, or you can do the old trick of stretching a pair of tights over an old TV aerial or coat-hanger. Again, any shield is better than nothing, even if it's makeshift.

Catching a position

The positioning of the microphone and the pop shield in relation to the vocalist depends on many factors. Take guesswork out of the equation by sticking on your own headphones and listening to the sound while you move the mic and find the perfect position. Remember that the angle of the mic counts as well as the distance.

The vocal chain

Where possible, record the vocals through a compressor to keep the dynamic range in check. A high-pass filter might be a good idea, but all other EQ should usually be avoided at the tracking stage. It's important that the MC hears a compressed version of their voice back through the headphones as well.

Big up their voice

When recording with the vocalist you can help them to get into the zone and produce an awesome performance by making what's in the headphones sound outstanding. Create a separate mix for the vocalist (remembering to save your original safely), turning up the elements they want to hear more of. You should also make sure their voice has a touch of tight, close reverb on it for that larger-than-life sound.

Liked this? Now read: 10 hip-hop production tips

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