Updated: Nov 10, 2022
In the song-making process, mixing and mastering are two vital stages to achieving a professional sound. Mixing and mastering are done after the recording and producing stages where audio engineers use tools such as EQ and compression to make the mix more dynamic and smooth. These stages are typically performed by audio engineers who have acquired specialized knowledge and professional experience in studio environments. Many successful performers such as Beyoncé and Lady Gaga, for example, have worked with various mixing and mastering engineers to make sure that their music is high quality and enjoyable to the masses.
In this article, we'll go over mixing techniques used in today's popular music such as hip-hop and rap. In addition, we'll talk about what to expect during the mixing and mastering stages and what working with an audio engineer is like.
What Is Mixing and Mastering?
Mixing is the first stage of audio post-production. In this stage, audio engineers use tools such as EQ, compression, panning, and reverb to reduce clashes between instruments, tighten grooves, and emphasize important song elements.
Mastering is usually performed by a mastering engineer after the mixing stage. The mastering engineer ensures that the mixes transfer correctly to a pre-master format. He or she also edits sonic elements to ensure optimal playback quality across all systems before distribution.
Important (And Sometimes Confusing) Mixing Terms
Before we talk about the mixing techniques used in today's popular genres such as hip-hop and rap, let's go over some essential (but sometimes confusing) mixing terms.
Boomy: excessive low-frequency energy that creates prolonged sustain effects on your speakers
Muddy: congestion from a buildup of competing elements in your low midrange which affects the clarity and separation of instruments
Boxy: a mix composed of mostly midrange frequencies with not enough lows and highs
Warmth: a term used to describe a smooth and rich musical quality that is often found in analog equipment
Harsh: describes an aggressive upper midrange that's tiring to the ears
Depth: the three-dimensional quality of a mix
Subbiness/Subby: excessive level in the "subwoofer territory" or sub-low frequencies
Hiss: high-frequency noise
Automation: changes to parameters that a system can record and play in synchronization with the timeline of a project
Attenuate: to turn down or lower the level
Headroom: the available space in dB (decibels) between your loudest peak level and 0 dBFS (decibels full scale)
High Pass: a filter that reduces low frequencies but allows high frequencies to pass through unaffected
Low Pass: a filter that reduces high frequencies but allows low frequencies to pass through unaffected
Sidechaining: using one signal to trigger a processor on a different signal
Tonal Balance: the distribution of energy across the audio spectrum
Width: the perceived difference of how "far apart" signals sound
Clipping (or Peaking): another word for distorting that occurs when a channel on a DAW or mixing board has too much volume being sent into it
Pumping: short-duration volume surges caused by over-compression, over-limiting, or incorrect configuration of a compressor/limiter's settings
Bus (or Buss): the pathway along which an electrical signal flows
Dry: unprocessed sound or signal without an effect
Wet: processed sound or signal
Tips for Mixing Popular Genres Like Hip Hop and Rap
Mixing hip-hop and rap comes with both creative liberties and challenges. These genres allow artists and producers to take creative risks that would be harder to pull off in other genres. Take a pitch shift in a rap production, for example. It's techniques like this that make today's hip-hop and rap music dynamic and interesting.
Below, we'll discuss more techniques to help you create musical moments that define today's popular music.
Clipping is an undesired distortion that occurs when signal levels go over a device's limit. Solve this by turning down the signal before clipping occurs. Depending on your DAW, you may be able to adjust the gain of each region or clip. If your DAW doesn't have that capability, insert a gain, trim, or EQ plug-in and lower the region/clip's level. By lowering the level, you'll create more headroom later in the signal flow.
One of the biggest mistakes in rap production is applying too much reverb. Since rap vocals are typically tight, any use of reverb should be subtle. Avoid long decay times and reverb effects that emulate concert halls and cathedrals.
In rap production, it's standard to have at least a lead vocal, a duplicate copy of the lead vocal, and highlights (a track where only certain words from the main vocal track are performed to emphasize them). This being said, knowing how each vocal track relates to one another is essential. The key to creating tight rap vocals is aligning the vocal tracks together so that their timing is identical. This can be done manually (by cutting and pasting or nudging the track) or by using plug-ins with time-shifting, stretching, and compressing capabilities.
Pitch-shifting is an effective way to emphasize certain words and phrases. It can also be used to create variation and prevent repetitiveness. To achieve this effect, use static pitch shift or "tape stop".
Static Pitch Shift: A static pitch shift creates changes in pitch that remain constant over time. To do this, copy and paste the desired vocal parts to a new track. Use your DAW's per-track transpose function or a pitch-shifting plug-in. You can play around with the pitched track's tone and stereo position by adding EQ, panning, and level adjustments.
Tape Stop: A "tape stop" replicates the sound of an analog tape machine being slowed down to a stop. Achieve this by selecting the vocal part that you want to work with. Depending on your DAW, you can either "pencil in" the desired pitch curve or use a plug-in to create the "tape stop" effect.
"Stutter Edit" is an effect that purposefully creates a stutter or stammer. This can create a sense of surprise and also add a rhythmic element to the vocals. To create a stutter edit without plug-ins, cut out a portion of the word you want to repeat and paste copies of it in 16th or 32nd notes (depending on your preferences). You can try this at the beginning of words or at the end of them.
The reverse effect is exactly as it sounds: it plays audio backward. You can try this with a word, phrase, instrumental track, or sample. This can be a great way to experiment creatively and find new, interesting sounds.
A popular effect used in rap is "vocal delay throws." This describes the use of echo or delay on specific words. "Vocal delay throws" are an effective way to fill in gaps between vocal phrases. It is commonly used on the last word of a phrase.
Try adding this effect by automating a vocal aux send to a spare track. You can also copy and paste the vocals to a spare track. Insert a delay plug-in on the spare track and certain parts of the vocal performance will be sent to it. To make the delay more digestible, lower the echo track's fader a bit.
Parallel processing is when the processing of an original signal is applied to a copy and then mixed together with the original. In hip-hop and rap, this is often used on vocals to add harmonics and control dynamics.
A submix is the grouping of tracks that are mixed into the "main mix" as a composite signal. Submixes give you control over level and tone. For example, they allow you to use one plug-in to apply harmonic saturation to all drums. Create a submix by routing selected tracks to dedicated stereo aux tracks.
The Benefits of Mixing and Mastering
Balance and Clarity
Mixing and mastering bring balance and clarity to your music—both of which are necessary for attaining a high-quality, professional sound. Your mix should have balance in frequency, stereo image, depth, and level. Your music should sound good at both low and high volumes. This guarantees that your listeners will hear all the important parts of your songs regardless if they're using headphones or speakers.
Consistency Across All Platforms
One of the ultimate aims of mastering is to achieve consistency across platforms. Typically done by a professional audio engineer, mastering ensures that your song will sound great on your phone, earphones, computers, and loudspeakers. Mastering engineers make the necessary edits to take your music to its highest possible quality. They make a 'master' track which is used to create WAVs or MP3 files that can be used for streaming, CDs, or Vinyl.
A good mastering engineer knows how to enhance dynamics while ensuring that your song is at a good volume. To do this, the mastering engineer must ease on the compression or limiting between the loudest and quietest parts of a song.
Smooth Flow Between Tracks
Another aim of mastering is to create a smooth flow between tracks. This way, listeners won't have to change the volume from song to song. This step involves rearranging the songs' order and/or adding fades to give enough time between tracks.
Working With Professional Mixing and Mastering Engineers
An audio engineer is someone who records, edits, mixes, or masters audio. There are several benefits to working with professional mixing and mastering engineers. They bring specialized knowledge and experience from working in professional studios alongside artists, producers, and other audio engineers. The best mixing and mastering engineers have spent years doing their craft. Most engineers have access to the latest technologies and equipment such as analog gear which can produce better results.
The end goal of mixing and mastering engineers is to help artists deliver their message in the best way possible. When artists have reached their limitations, mixing and mastering engineers pick up the shortfalls and refine their work to its best version. They remove any sounds that drain the ears and instead add depth, punch, and balance to your music.
For many A-list performers, working with professional mixing and mastering engineers is necessary in order to deliver high-quality music to the masses. Justin Hergett, for example, is a mixing engineer who has worked with Beyoncé. His job is to listen for parts of Beyonce's songs that speak to him and improve depth, width, separation, and sonic clarity. According to Hergett, good mixing and mastering engineer doesn't change the DNA of the song but instead expands on the artist's vision. The end result is a polished song that maximizes the sonic experience. Lady Gaga has also worked with audio engineers for her projects. One example is Philip Larsen—a Grammy Award-winning engineer who, like many audio engineers, helps artists build upon their demos, vocals, and overall creative vision.
By learning as much as you can about production and mixing basics, you can better understand where your mix stands and where to take it from there.
For many artists, hiring a professional mixing and mastering engineer is the next step to making sure your music is commercial-ready. For artists who want to focus on creating music, working with experienced audio engineers takes away the stress, time, and learning curve of mixing and mastering.
If you are looking for an audio engineer to mix and master your project, Mikes Mix & Master is here to help bring your vision to the next level. With streaming having the potential to reach listeners from all across the globe, ensuring that your music is of the highest quality will give you a competitive advantage. Please visit our website or contact us to learn more.