How to Record Rap Vocals – Tips for Rappers & Engineers

Many of you reading this have inevitably done some form of vocal recording before. It’s normally a gateway for many people to get into the music tech industry due to the limited amount of resources required. However, as you may be starting to learn, there are quite a few different ways to approach even the simplest of processes. When you attempt to record rap vocals, you’re probably going to find most of the techniques and concepts you’ve already learnt go out of the window. Let’s dive into some of the key considerations to keep in mind when recording rap vocals.

Dealing with fast flows and tricky sentences

When you’re working with singers, you tend to find that they will focus on enunciation and melody. The key will be to make sure you can hear and understand every word and that there is plenty of time and space for the listener to process what is being said. With rappers, this is often the opposite. Fast flow, complex rhyming patterns and insane rhythmic structures. These are all symptoms of an all too common inability in new rappers to fully perform, start to finish, what they have written.

This is where comping will save your life. So, what is comping? The art of comping is essentially to take multiple recordings of the same phrase of a song and edit sections from each together, creating one seamless and perfected performance. Let’s say you’ve got a particularly fast and complicated eight bar section to record. You’ve tracked it twenty times and the rapper is just not hitting it perfectly all the way through. However, on take six he nailed the first four bars and on take nine, he nailed the last four bars. Grab your magic slicing tool and get to work!

Whilst I always tend to advocate the approach of ‘get it right in one take’, sometimes it’s just not going to happen. When you’ve got paying clients or deadlines to work to, save yourself some hassle and comp. If you do a good job, nobody will be able to tell.

Microphone choices when you record rap

As a rule, when it comes to recording vocals we tend to gravitate towards our reliable condenser microphones. Rode NT1-A, Neumann U87, and so on. They offer us character, colour and sensitivity that you just won’t get from a dynamic microphone. However, if we’re going to record rap vocals, do we really want sensitivity?

Record rap vocals

A lot of rappers tend to be very expressive with their performances. Energy is one of the key things that is conveyed with rap and so we need to consider equipment that can handle harsh transients and dynamic aggression. Enter dynamic microphones. Whilst you’re probably not going to want to record rap vocals with an SM58 (otherwise known as the trusty old doorstop), it has the potential to capture more of a raw performance than a delicate condenser microphone may.

If you’re looking for some more useful examples of dynamic microphones, I recommend checking out the RE20 or the SM7B. Both offer much higher quality and capture a very full bodied sound.

This isn’t to say that condensers won’t work when you want to record rap vocals. Not every MC is going to give you that full on performance and sometimes you’ll need to capture a more delicate act. The best plan is to see how people perform in pre-production and make an informed decision on the microphone type you’ll need to use.

Some basic tips for processing rap vocals

The basic steps for processing any form of vocal recording tend to be the same. Correct mic choice, choosing the right pre-amp, EQ, compression, and de-essing. In order to make your life a little easier, here are some general suggestions for when you record rap vocals.

In terms of pre-amp choice, tube amps are generally going to be the best option. Rap performances tend to offer up aggression and so a strong, driving tube amp will introduce warmth and some subtle saturation to take it up a notch.

Your EQ approach won’t change much from normal vocal recordings. Filter out your unwanted low/high frequencies and then use subtractive EQ where needed. The thing to remember here is that most rappers aren’t utilising melody and so there is likely to be more mid-range to deal with than normal.

Compression is typically going to be more dominant than normal. I find that VCA style compression, with a ratio of around 6:1 will be fast and strong enough to tame rap vocals. Not only this, but we introduce a little more aggression to the performance by slightly exaggerating the compression. Don’t be afraid to be ducking 5-6dB here.

De-essing is also going to be a little stronger than normal. Faster flows with unusual word choices mean that there is less time to focus on minimising sibilance in the performance. I won’t make any specific suggestions here but just be aware that it’s something you will need to do.

TL;DR

When you record rap vocals, there is generally a little more to consider than with singers. However, as long as you make informed decisions in pre-production, you should be just fine. Experiment with dynamic microphones and don’t be afraid to go a little overboard with things like gain staging and compression.

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