When it comes to mixing Hip Hop & Rap in Chicago, our engineers here at Studio 11 have a combined 35 years experience in the business. Not only have they delivered stunning mixes for Hip Hop and Rap artists inside Chicago and out, but for many major record labels around the world as well. Here at Studio 11, we take pride in delivering outstanding mix work that continually exceeds our clients’ expectations time and time again. The writing is actually on our walls.

To understand the process of mixing quality Chicago Hip Hop and Rap music, one must first come to understand the definition of what exactly mix engineering is. Wikipedia officially defines it as the process of combining (“mixing”) different sonic elements of a recorded piece of music (vocals, instruments, effects etc.) into a singular final version of a song (also known as “final mix” or “mixdown”). The mix engineer, who is the person behind the mixdown, mixes the elements of a recorded piece together (also known as “tracks”) to achieve a good balance of volume, while at the same time deciding other properties such as pan position, effects, and so on. To achieve this balance or what mix engineers refer to as “the pocket”, he or she can do anything from manipulate the equalization and dynamics of each individual track to rerecord certain elements so as they work better sonically in the context of the mix. Sometimes drastic manipulation must be done to radically change an element’s tone by adding or subtracting harmonics, reshaping the envelope, or re-pitching the voicing of the element in order to pocket with the mix.

Technically speaking, there is really no right or wrong way to mix Hip Hop and Rap. It really is all up to the person mixing the song and their specific preferences and tastes. However, what defines a good mix and even a mix engineer is that not only does the end result of the mix sound good to the person mixing it, but, to everyone else who hears it from the artist to their audience. A good mix of a song is what helps the listener better connect to a piece of music and can have a dramatic impact on its overall success. While again, there are no wrong ways to mix a song, there are certain mix philosophies and methods that are common among many good mix engineers and styles of music. For example, Hip Hop tends to be mixed bass heavy, Pop music tends to be mixed a little bright while Jazz is more dynamic.

Since it’s beginning in the mid 80’s, the sound of Hip Hop and Rap from Chicago has tended to take on a grittier tougher vibe than its east and west coast cousins. From the Super Bowl Shuffle to Chief Keef and everyone in between, the overall Chicago sound is rough and unpolished. Part of that sound is due to the underground nature of Chicago Hip Hop and Rap, but also partly came from the artist’s inability to afford the proper amount of time to have their song mixed in a professional studio.

The process of the mixdown can take anywhere from a quick 30 minutes to 8 hours. It sometimes may even stretch over the course of a few days though this rarely occurs anymore. The time frame of the mixdown usually depends on multiple variables; track count, track quality, track & mix setup, song arrangement & length, post production such as rerecording certain elements or adding new elements to the song, and finally session time. All of these variables equally affect each other. For example, a large track count featuring poor track quality will inherently take longer to mix because of the additional time it will take to clean up each individual track before any balancing can begin and effects added. A large track count will also generally increase the time it takes to set the mix up on either a mixing console or in a DAW like Pro Tools or Logic. And lastly, if the artist or producer doesn’t book enough session time to accommodate a large mix with poor track quality, then sacrifices have to be made with either the cleaning up of the tracks or in the mixing process itself.

Currently, the mixdown trend for most Chicago Hip Hop and Rap recording projects has involved mixing vocals and sound effects over a premixed and mastered instrumental beat. This trend is fed by the fact that increasingly, more and more Chicago Hip Hop and Rap artists are getting their beats pre made off boutique music sites which license instrumentals significantly cheaper than licensing the multi track of the instrumental. The producers who make and sell these beats online generally submit instrumentals to these sites that are mixed and mastered with the same loudness as music that you would buy in a store. While mastering these instrumentals for maximum average loudness may help sell beats on these boutique sites, it certainly is not optimum when mixing in vocals separately. But in a way, it is what helps add to the sound of the current Hip Hop and Rap format coming out of Chicago.

The methods behind mixing these kinds of projects slightly differ from mixing a multi track mix of music, effects, & vocals. Because most instrumentals are mastered to be as loud as possible, here at Studio 11 we find it is generally better to first get a balance of all the vocals together without the instrumental. This is done through careful blending, equalization, compression and using some basic effects such as chorus and reverb. These basic effects help tune the sound of the vocals to the instrumental they will reside over. Once all the vocals are balanced and special effects like delays or filters added, the instrumental is introduced into the mix. Our general rule of where the instrumental should sit in the gain structure of the mix is to level the instrumental so the main snare or clap is the same volume as the vocal. However, because these instrumentals can be so maximized, the density of the combined elements of the instrumental might not allow any sonic space for the vocal to fit into. When this becomes the case, it becomes necessary to treat the instrumental so that it and the vocal can work together cohesively and musically.

Treating the instrumental can be a tedious process, as too much treatment can radically change the sound of the instrumental. One method we use here at Studio 11 to un-maximize an instrumental without changing its overall fidelity is by using what we call transient dynamic expansion or “TDE” for short. The idea behind “TDE” is that we want to expand or turn up the volume of all the transient peaks within the instrumental. Transients are sounds that have a fast attack and short sustain like drums and percussion. By expanding all the transient peaks in the instrumental, one can effectively decrease the density of the overall instrumental by creating new dynamics and increasing the signal to noise floor ratio. Good transient expanders are Trans X Mult from Waves and Sony Oxfords Transient Dynamics Plug In. If the instrumental is too maximized for “TDE” to work properly, then it becomes necessary to side chain the expander to trigger expansion correctly. The best way to trigger expansion is by using a recreated drum performance based off the instrumental. This drum performance will reside on a separate track and run the duration of the song, mimicking note for note the drum performance in the instrumental. Its sole purpose is to trigger the transient expander to process and expand the signal only when the drums play in the instrumental. This will effectively create new transient peaks within the instrumental and thus decrease the density off all the other music elements. Lastly, a little subtractive equalization to the instrumental in the frequencies where the vocals resonate will help carve out a little extra space for the vocals to fit into.

So, if you are coming to that point with your Hip Hop and Rap production where you can’t get your mix to sound any better and need help, give us a call or drop us an email. Mixing is what we love and do best. We do it everyday and can always make time for you and your project. We are the professionals, so kick back, take a load off and let us take care of your mix.

CONTACT Studio 11 for your next mixing project.


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