When it comes to the roots of Hip-Hop, Rap and House Music production, one of the most contentious and important elements to these 3 styles is the technique known as sampling. Since the beginning, the craft of using a recording from one context and reconstructing it into another context has been one of the basic fundamentals to the Hip-Hop and House sound. It still defines the sound just as much so today. When it comes to mixing these kind of records, the mix really depends on the samples themselves and what effect they produce inside the song. Are the samples being used as the main melody/rhythm section, or are they being used to compliment the melody or subsequent rhythm section?
To understand how to mix sample-based Hip-Hop, House and other forms of sample-based music, we must first understand what sampling really is. It is generally defined as:
The technique of digitally encoding music or sound and reusing it as part of a composition.
Sampling pretty much falls into 2 different categories known as ‘Loop Samples’ and ‘Chop Samples’. For the context of this article, we will just abbreviate them to ‘Loops’ and ‘Chops’. ‘Loops’ are basically made either out of breaks (sections where the music is briefly incomplete) or made out of snippets of whole records and musical compositions (think 2 Live Crew, Dr.Dre, Puff Daddy produced records from the 90’s). In the former, space is given in the arrangement where other musical elements can be placed. In the latter, you are working with a full arrangement.
Chops are temporary audio slices of a record or sound source that can be copied, cut, pasted, rearranged, tweaked and re-tweaked. They can range from a drum hit (kick, snare, percussion, cymbals), to an individual instrument note or chord, and even to a vocal word, phrase, or melody. Chops are even cut up and rearranged into new loops that can become entire compositions or open to additional production and loops.
Because the potential arrangements one may be dealing with can be very particular, the mix of these kind of records generally tends to begin from a different place. A starting philosophy can be thinking about mixing what isn’t there in the song instead of thinking about mixing what is there. Let me go into a little more detail here.
If you have a sample loop track, a kick track, a snare track, and a hat track or tracks pulled up on your mixer, you notice what you don’t have is the percussion tracks, bass track or tracks, and any tracks of melodic instrumentation. All of those missing elements need to be acquired from the sample itself. Quite often when mixing these kind of records, I first find myself carefully processing the sample to bring out the bass line information as much as possible. Most of the time, this is done through surgical processing like equalization, such as filtering and notch gaining.
Other times, you may have to tighten up the dynamics of the bass information by using various forms of straight or multi-band compression before you EQ. Sometimes its better to use this compression after you EQ. I would say though, if and when you can avoid compression, avoid it.
Lastly, you might even have to consider adding some kind of sub-harmonic synthesis to get the bass to sit properly with the other low end information in the mix, which would most likely be coming from the kick and 808 (if there is one). That doesn’t always mean adding low sub tones to the sample, sometimes it means creating that upper bass register tone that doesn’t necessarily exist in the sample’s bass information.
If there’s also a key element or elements in the sample such as a guitar riff, string line, or multi instrument melody, I will do everything I can to bring that information out as well because those elements are probably what convinced the producer to use the sample in the first place.
To make things harder, occasionally the sample doesn’t always provide enough elements or information from the elements to fill out the overall sound of the arrangement. To rectify this problem, if possible (I say this because sometimes its not possible due to problems outside of your control inside the sample, such as performance and tuning), recreate the missing information by replaying and recording the missing elements on top of the sample itself. This doesn’t always work though, as it can sometimes change the overall aesthetic of what the sample brings to the piece of music. Sometimes the whole point is for the sample to sound broken and disheveled, not smooth and polished.
Now the other side to mixing sample-based Hip-Hop & House arrangements comes from the drums. To all you producers out there, drum selection should be the highest of priorities. Come on, its Hip-Hop!! The sound of the drums are of the most absolute importance, not just for the overall prosperity of the record, but also in defining the overall producer’s sound.
When a client sends in a Hip-Hop song for me to mix, especially from a producer who is very sample-centric, my main goal is to hopefully change the sound of the drums as little as possible. I do this not because I’m a lazy bastard, but because the sound of the drums is what provides the producer his signature and messing with it too much can throw off the vibe the drums give with the sample.
Now, I’m not saying I haven’t resuscitated my fair share of drum tracks or even upright replaced every drum sound with a different drum sound, but my overall goal at first is to respect whats going on there with the drums. Hopefully, the only processing I’ll do is to make sure the drums perfectly compliment the sample when the two play together in the mix.
Another important consideration when mixing sample-based Hip-Hop and music is, “match the space.” For example, if the source sample sounds like it was recorded to a tape machine and mixed on an analog console, and the drum sounds are coming from some kind of drum machine, synth plugin, or stock drum sample pack, chances are the context of the two together won’t make a whole lot of sense. When mixing, I’m always considering what I can do to make the drums relate better to the sample, but still hit hard and poke out in the mix. This might involve processing to the drums and processing to the sample, or even both. Generally, this may involve some bit of experimentation as everything depends on the way the sample and drums sound together.
Often times, its key to “match the space.” It isn’t the easiest thing in the world; it takes a trained seasoned ear to really get it right, or a bit of luck if you’re new to the game, lol. But, you can train yourself when listening to the ambience in the sample and learn how to recreate that specific ambience around the drums.
On the other side of things, a producer may use a sample in a more complex musical arrangement. Bass, drums, percussion, main melodic instrumentation, lead instrumentation, a sample or even multiple samples. It’s all about making all the elements as close-knit as possible and narrowing the sample down to the key information or instrumentation inside of it. In a simple arrangement of just the drums and a sample, I might focus on pushing up the bass information in the sample. But in a more complex arrangement, I’ll generally be trying to remove the low end information of the sample by means of subtractive attenuation or high pass filtering.
One of the most difficult situations that comes up is when the song is composed of multiple, overlapping samples. A drum break for the groove, a melodic sample or samples, a vocal sample, and even a percussion loop, quantized or time stretched, and shaped to work together form the backbone sound of the record. This is a difficult sound to properly produce as it requires many small edits and decisive pitch shaping to get the tuning and groove right. Sometimes, things just work better when they are slightly off.
From the engineering perspective, this is one area where it is really really important to be a fan of Hip-Hop or the sample based music style you are mixing. It’s a difficult call deciding if and what elements need to be tight and together or loose with a natural swing feel. Having that natural love and appreciation for Hip-Hop goes a long way when it comes to mixing this specific style.
After that, the mixing isn’t that easy either. Usually taken from completely different genres of music, audio sources, and time periods, the overall key to getting this Hip-Hop style to work is making all the samples sound together. Regrettably, there are too many variables involved for me to provide a clear cut, step by step solution for mixing in this kind of situation, but I gotta say, equalization is gonna be your daily fuck buddy here.
All in all, the key to mixing sample-based production is understanding what’s going on in the arrangement of the record. I’m not talking about arrangement in terms of intro, verse’s, hooks, bridges, and outro. I’m talking about arrangement in terms of what each track/stem inside the mix is doing. If the arrangement you are mixing is simple and sparse, use the sample to fill up that missing space. If the arrangement is real dense, just get down to the core of what the sample is doing inside the song.
In conclusion, if you keep those drums pimpin‘, vocals clear and present, and low end super heavy, you’ll always be the boss with the sauce when it comes to mixing sample based Hip-Hop. You might even make a gangsta cry, I have.
Kris Anderson/Senior Engineer
345 N.Loomis St., Chicago, Illinois