Anyone can learn how to record rap vocals in a home studio with great results.
But don't buy into the hype of needing super expensive gear. If you focus on learning how to record rap vocals, then you can get really nice sounding vocals for cheap, and it does not require crazy skills or a fortune.
Note: this post includes affiliate links, which means that I receive a commission for purchases you make. However, that does influence what I'm recommending here.
In fact, you can get amazing sounds with your audio interface, a mic around $100, and a couple of plugins applied with care.
Seriously - here's a some clips recorded with that less-than $100 MXL 990 mic.
Now that sounds pretty damn good for a cheap mic, right? So this guide will teach you how to get that sound.
In fact, here's how I basically used a cheap ass mic to record an entire hip hop EP which got a publishing deal that earned us a nice chunk of change.
You can record great rap vocals with a cheap mic. I've had great results with the MXL 990, so if you're on a budget, I'd say it's the best mic for recording rap hip hop vocals. I like it because it has a wonderful presence that allows vocals to cut through the mix with minimal eq. If you can afford a pre-amp (like the warm audio TB 12 mic pre amp), it will really make the vocals sound warm and alive.
To record great rap vocals, you need to make sure you have a mic stand and pop filter and an XLR cable. This package includes everything you need.
To Record Great Rap Vocals, Properly Setup the Pop Filter
You will struggle endlessly learning how to record rap vocals if you don't have a pop filter and a mic stand to get the mic in to position.
If you don't already have an audio interface, you'll need one like the Focusrite Scarlett to get your microphone signal into your computer (please don't by a USB microphone - you will literally outgrow it in a minute and then have wasted all your money on it).
You'll also need some recording software, if you don't already have any.
Most professionals call recording software a DAW (digital audio workstation). If you've already got one, you're golden. If you've got a Mac, you can get started with Garageband.
And if you're on a PC, I'd recommend starting with Reason 11 Intro. It's under a $100, it's powerful, and it lets you upgrade to my favorite DAW, Reason, when you're read.
If you have the budget for it, I'd recommend a warm audio Tone Beast mic pre amp, but this isn't that necessary.
Recording great hip hop vocals for cheap starts with your room. You need to spend some time figuring out where to record vocals. The deader the space, the better. So find a room that has lots of carpets and soft things. Tile and wood are bad.
How do you determine deadness?
You can test how reflective your room is by clapping as you walk around. The more echo you hear, the worse. Try to find the spot with the least echo. Nothing will be perfect, though.
Next, you want to figure out where the loudest ambient noises in your room are. Do you have windows next to a busy street? Aloud computer? A refrigerator that keeps turning on.
Well, point your microphone AWAY from the loudest noise. If it’s a window, then the rapper should face the window and the microphone toward the rapper.
The reason for this is because cardioid microphones, like the one I recommend (the MXL 990), are really good at rejecting the sounds behind it. So use this to your advantage.
You ever wonder why every time you see pictures of a recording studio there's all of these panels and Persian rugs? It's because they're trying to further deaden the space.
So if you’ve got soft stuff like blankets, towels, sleeping bags, pillows, whatever, you can bring them into the room now and try to cover the most reflective surfaces.
Next, before the session, you’ll want to be blasting the air conditioning or heater.
Why? Because you’ll need to turn them off once you start recording (they will make too much noise if they're on while you're recording). So be prepared - it will get hot/cold.
Make sure you’ve got some water on hand for vocalist, or maybe some tea. And maybe some other substances if that’s your/their thing.
Also, the vibe of the room is going to be a huge part of it, so set up some mood lighting. I use the Phillips Hue to get a good vibe going on. You know, to paint with lights.
If the room stinks, light a candle or some incense. Or take a shower. Come on dude.
Also, clean up things beforehand. It shows that you’re a professional and trustworthy.
Before the artist sets foot in your studio to record rap vocals, you should have already talked about what you’re aiming to achieve this session.
One song with multiple takes? Trying to push through multiple songs?
You need to figure that out in advance so you can set expectations and manage the time in the studio. It’s really helpful knowing how many takes you can do and whether you need to record doubles/harmonies and ad/libs, or whether you’re just focusing on getting the basic take.
Second, you need a copy of the lyrics so you can follow along and make sure that they’re hitting the marks.
Third, you need to stress that the recording will only be as good as their performance, so they should be practicing and they should be sure to have the lyrics memorized. They should also have done some thinking about where they want harmonies and doubles.
Fourth, you need to know if they’re coming by with a crew or not. Sometimes more people is better, but sometimes it can really mess things up, especially if you don’t have a separate, sound-isolated space for recording vocals. All the random noises people make can ruin a take, so don’t be afraid to push back.
Fifth, when it comes to drinking, try to get them to do a few takes sober. You want to make sure you capture a passible take before things get off the rails. The same goes double for smoking. If the rapper’s throat/lungs are burned up, their flow is going to be impacted, so ask them to hold off for a while.
Sixth, once they get to the studio, everyone needs to turn off their phones (you don’t want the vibration interfering with the electronics or a phone buzzing in the middle of the take). They also need to remove their keys, coins, and any thing else that they may be carrying that could make noise when they shuffle. If you've got wooden or tile floors, they may need to take off their shoes too.
Finally, you just need to try to get in their heads and give them the encouragement they need to swing for the fences.
As I said before, you need to get two pieces of equipment, non-negotiable. A good mic stand and a pop shield. They don’t cost more than $50, but they are absolutely essential.
This package includes everything you need. They’re affordable, reliable, and get the job done.
If you don’t have a mic stand, you’ll pick up all sorts of extra noise from the rapper handling the microphone. If you don’t have a pop shield, then the recording will have all sorts of unwanted noise and pops in the recording.
Next, you’ll want to place the mic stand in the position you’ve determined earlier (you know, the deadest space, with the mic pointed away from the loudest noise).
To record great rap vocals, you want the microphone to be slightly higher than the rapper’s mouth, maybe 2-3”inches (this forces them to stand up tall and open up their throats to sing into the mic). Then you want to tilt the center of the microphone down toward the rapper’s mouth. By making the microphone higher, the rapper is forced to open their throat fully and breath better, creating a much better sound.
Now you want the rapper to spit a few lines into the mic, starting about one foot away, but you need to experiment with the distance. Experiment with the sound between about a foot and two and a half feet. The closer you get, the bassier the sound will be, so put some forethought into the sound you’re going for. This bassiness thing is called the proximity effect, and can be a great tool if you understand how to use it. Or it can ruin all your takes.
At the same time, the closer they get to the mic, the more that small movements from the rapper will result in larger volume fluctuations, which will make mixing the rap vocals much more difficult.
Once you’ve found the distance that is best for each rapper (it will be different based on their voice and delivery style), you want to place the pop filter between the rapper and the mic at that distance.
Then tell the rapper to sing directly into the pop filter.
This is a huge tip to recording great hip hop vocals.
Basically, The pop filter makes it so that the rapper doesn’t have to thinking about where to put their mouth, and it will also help minimize volume fluctuations if their mouth is always in the same place. Now they can just focus on doing their thing.
This video kind of shows you how it's done.
Although the mic is a bit lower here than recommended.
Do not skip this step if you want to learn how to record rap vocals. You need to take the time to get the right levels, or your track will be full of clipping. In other words, it will be ruined by the ugliest distortion. No amount of post-production will fix it.
Generally speaking, you don’t need to worry about recording too quietly, because you can easily turn up the volume in your DAW with little distortion.
But, if you’re recording with a preamp, there is definitely something to be said for sending a hot signal into an outboard pre-amp like the Warm Audio Tonebeast, getting some of that analog warmth, and then using the “pad” function on your audio input to reduce the volume.
To check the levels, have the rapper say “September” repeatedly as loud as they think they'll be rapping at the loudest part. It’s a great word because it has lots of sibilant and plosive sounds. You want to keep your levels at around 50% of a full signal. Then turn it down a tad from there. If you see any yellow light, turn it down (rapper’s tend to record louder than they mic check because they get excited).
At the same time, don't get bogged down in this. At some point the rapper is going to be chomping at the bit to start recording, and you need to harness that energy.
Now it’s time to get the headphone mix going. Every DAW is going to be different, but what you need to do is get a great mix for the MC. They need to feel confident in their voice, so you may want to do a little bit of reverb or compression or EQ.
Ask them what they’d like more or less of, and check in with them about what they need between takes.
So that's basically how to record rap vocals.
But before you start recording, take a deep breath. Make sure everything is in place and ready to record. Listen one more time for ambient sounds that might wreck the recording. Go to the bathroom.
Then get to it!
Once you hit the record button, it’s time to consider yourself less of an engineer and more of a motivational coach.
You see, the key thing you need to understand about how to record rap vocals is that you can't polish a turd. So you need record good performances. Which means you need to keep the performer excited, feeling confident about what’s happening. This means that you need give them positive directions instead of negative directions.
Instead of saying: “You need to do that verse better, you were behind the beat.” Try giving them something positive and specific to focus on, saying “That was solid, but I wanna try it again with you putting more emphasis on the downbeat.”
It also doesn’t hurt to tell them that the first take doesn’t count and that you’re just trying to get levels. They’ll relax and may give their best performance. Similarly, toward the end you may want to say that you just want to get some weird stuff for filler, so they should just relax and do the weirdest version of the song they can imagine. Sometimes you get some interesting performances or weird bits you can sample.
Shoot for 4-6 takes of each song. This will give you a good chance of making sure that you get the takes you need to piece together a great song, but it will also keep the session from bogging down. Usually the first few takes are the best.
It’s important for the artist to feel like you’re moving forward, because once the spirit of inspiration leaves the session, it’s gone.
The number one secret to getting a good sounding vocal mix is not sexy. It's time consuming. Boring. But if you want to learn how to mix rap vocals professionally, you need to be willing to sit down and edit out all the bad stuff.
After the recording is done, it’s time to get editing. When you edit the vocals you’re going to be doing a few things: putting together the best performances, getting rid of unwanted noise, and using clip gain to get the performance to be at a consistent volume.
First, and most importantly you’re going to want to piece together the best takes. I often find that one take will be 80% there, and then you just need to drop in a line or word from the other takes.
Sometimes, though, you need to be much more aggressive with your “comping.” You may need to edit together different verses and choruses, or in extreme examples you may even need to combine words from multiple takes to create one verse.
Cross-fading the takes is going to be your best friend here. What I like to do is create an entirely new lane/track in my DAW and paste in the best bits. This way you don’t destroy any of the original material.
After you’ve gone ahead and assembled your compilation of the best takes into a final performance, you want to listen to the vocals in solo mode and take out any unnecessary noise. Listen for coughs, lyric sheets being shuffled, throat clearing, etc.
Equally important, you probably want to edit out any breaths. So listen to the track, and every time the rapper breaths, you want to use your DAW’s razor tool and mute it (don’t delete it). But don’t do these by rote – use your artistic sensibilities. Sometimes a breath can actually add a lot of drama or rhythm to a performance.
Finally, we want to work on the levels to ensure a nice, even performance. First look for any really loud or quiet words or passages. Use your DAW’s clip gain to lower or raise the volume of those sections. This will allow you to get better results from your compressor and volume automation in the next step.
You also want to use this opportunity to drastically reduce the volume of any sibilance or plosives. This video will show you what I mean. But the main thing is that you’re looking for sounds like “p” or strong final consonants of words like “think.” You want to go in and make them a little less extreme. This, again, will create a more even performance, which lets you turn up the volume of the vocals relative to the instruments without clipping.
At this point the main thing is to get a clear even sounding tone. As Rob Mayzes demonstrates in this video, you can break it down into a few steps.
First, you’ll want to boost narrow EQ bands and remove a few really resonant sections. You’ll also want to use a high pass filter and remove everything below 80hz – 150hz (depending on the amount of mud and the singer).
Next, you may want to apply a de-esser to help with both the tone and the dynamics. This will remove a lot of the most sibilant sounds, which will make the vocals sound slightly less harsh, it will also allow the compressors to work easier.
Next you’ll want to try adding two different compressors, if possible. An LA-2A style compressor first, which should betaking off a few decibels, followed by an 1176 style compressor with a slow attack and fast release time. These two compressors working together will get you a smoother sound then dialing in one compressor alone and having it do all the work. Just be sure to listen and make sure that you’re not strangling the dynamics of the track.
Next, you may want to add a little bit of EQ to enhance the tone of the vocals, whether it’s bringing out the body or adding a little air. The Maag style EQs are great for this. At this stage you may also want to consider adding a saturation plugin, like the free one from Softube, to dirty up the voice ever so slightly.
Finally, you may want to consider a short delay (10-20ms) panned hard to one side to create just a little more depth and fullness with the voice. Be careful you down drown it out, though. You want to be sure that the articulation and pronunciation are still clear.
Finally, you’ll want to automate the volume of your track to make sure that the vocals are always at the top of the mix. These are the steps you've got to take if you want to learn how to record rap vocals.
After EQ and compression, the next effect you'll want to consider adding to your vocals is a little saturation or distortion. A touch of saturation can really warm up the vocals and help them stand out from the mix. Applying distortion more aggressively can elevate a performance. Here is a list of the best distortion plugins and saturation VSTs out there.
You may want to consider the occasional "creative" effect on rap vocals. Maybe a really pronounced delay for a word at the end of a phrase. Or maybe some distortion on an aggressive passage. This is your time to shine. Just don't outshine the artist.
You might also want to try to get creative with editing. It's amazing the cool effects and transitions you can get by chopping up certain vocal phrases or by using pitch shifting. Just check out this video for some inspiration.
It's a common misconception among people learning how to record rap vocals that you want to master individual tracks. In fact, you will never want to be mastering rap vocals in isolation. This is not how to mix rap vocals professionally.
Instead, you master the entire final song, including the vocals, all together. If you master elements in isolation, you're going to end up with a smashed recording with totally whack dynamics. I use iZotope Ozone for all of my mastering needs (but, again, never for mastering rap vocals in isolation).
If you follow these steps, you've basically learned how to record rap vocals.
So there you have it – follow these simple steps and you'll learn how to record rap vocals cheap.
Now, I'll admit, there’s no silver bullet in learning how to record rap vocals. It takes a lot of practice using the gear, a lot of skill from the performer (plus a touch of inspiration), and an experienced ear in the mixing stage.
Nonetheless, if you keep practicing these skills, you will be able to produce professional quality mixes with really affordable gear.
Have any questions? Just let me know in the comments!
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