Hip hop can be a particularly challenging genre to master. It can be difficult to balance the exaggerated lows and highs—especially without making your mix sound muddy or harsh. Plus, there’s a wide range of sub-genres, each with their own unique sound. In this blog, we’ll break down a few of our favorite tips for mastering hip hop to help you dial in the perfect sound.
The sound of hip hop has changed a lot over the years—especially in the last decade or so. From the sounds of classic boom-bap and G-funk records of the 90s to the slick aesthetic of modern trap and melodic rap sub-genres, it’s important to have a goal in mind when mastering.
Start by finding three to five similar tracks that you think sound great—even if it’s just the sound of the bass in one track or the sound of the vocal in another. You’ll use these as a reference to help guide your decisions while mastering.
REFERENCE makes it easy to quickly compare your mix to multiple tracks. Just drag and drop your reference tracks into the Wave Transport, click the level match button, and check the Trinity Display for detailed visual insights to help you match the tonal balance, punch, and stereo width of your reference tracks.
Shape the Low-End
Arguably, the most important frequency range in any hip hop track is the low-end. It needs to be powerful and present, but never muddy or muffled. You should be able to feel the kick in your chest, without it rattling the trunk of your car.
To accomplish this, it’s important to make sure that the kick and bass are working together in the mix. Use a high pass filter to roll off any unneeded low-end—typically around 30 Hz or so.
Then, use a surgical EQ like BASSROOM to correct any resonances. When working with 808s, the root frequency will be the most dominant, and often needs to be tamed. You may also need to make a cut around 160 or 320 Hz to reduce muddiness.
Finally, use an analog-modeled shelf EQ with a smooth bottom-end like a Pultec to boost or cut the lows, depending on what the song needs.
Tame the Highs
With hip hop, it’s common to boost the high end to help accentuate the vocals and cymbals. It also helps instruments to cut through the mix, despite all of the low-end.
Often, mixes will require a significant boost above 10 kHz to achieve that professional radio polish. However, this can cause the vocals or cymbals to sound harsh, aggressive or sibilant.
To solve this issue, we suggest a three-pronged approach. Start by using a surgical EQ like MIXROOM to remove any unwanted resonances, typically caused by problems with the recording.
Next, use a de-esser to tame any sibilance in the high-end. The frequency range will vary depending on the track. First determine if the vocals or cymbals are causing the problem, then try to isolate the specific frequency. Problems with the vocal tend to occur around 3-6 kHz, while issues with the cymbals are typically closer to 6-8 kHz.
Finally, use an analog-modeled EQ like those from Maag—or a silky-smooth EQ plug-in like Soothe—to add brilliance using a high-shelf.
Compression With Purpose
With most hip hop songs, the vocal is typically very upfront and heavily compressed. Because of this, vocals can quickly start to sound over-compressed when applying more compression. To avoid this, I typically take one of two approaches, depending on the style of track.
With old-school sub-genres like boom-bap, there tends to be less of a contrast between the low and high end, which makes it easier to evenly apply compression. Because of this, I typically use compression to enhance the groove of the song and glue tracks together for a more cohesive sound.
To accomplish this, use a high ratio and moderate amounts of gain reduction. Set the attack and release time to breathe with the tempo of the track—slow attack times are best for emphasizing punch, while fast attack times can help make a mix feel tighter and more controlled.
With most modern tracks, the kick and bass tend to be a focal point of the mix. It can be especially difficult to apply compression when one frequency range is significantly louder than the others. That’s where multi-band compression comes in.
Multi-band compression allows you to compress each frequency range separately, making it easy to adjust the balance of a mix. For instance, you can apply aggressive compression to the lows to tame unwieldy 808s without affecting the sound of the vocal.
Add a Touch of Harmonics
When it comes to old-school styles like G-funk, harmonics are essential. They help create the illusion that your track was created back in the day using authentic analog equipment. For this approach, it’s best to use a tape machine emulator.
With modern genres like trap and melodic rap, harmonics can be a great tool for making sure the 808s cut through on small speakers.
For this method, use a dynamic frequency-specific harmonic distortion plug-in like IGNITE to focus the harmonics on the low-end. This will help keep the highs sounding clean and silky-smooth.
Just be careful—too due to the enhanced highs and upfront vocal sound in most hip hop songs, it’s very easy to hear distortion, so don’t overdo it.
Limit with Lows In Mind
In most hip hop mixes, the 808 is typically the loudest instrument in the mix. Because of this, aggressive limiting often sucks the life out of the low-end.
Some limiters offer frequency-based limiting, similar to a multi-band compressor. This approach can work well when trying to increase the loudness of a hip hop track without affecting the balance of the mix.
Any hip hop fan will tell you—it’s more important for the bass to knock than the track to sound louder than someone else's. You can always turn the volume up, but the bass has to be right or your track is getting skipped!
Check for Technical Problems
Before sending your master off to publishing, it’s essential that you check for any technical problems. LEVELS makes it easy to quickly identify any issues with your mix, including clipping, lack of dynamic range and phase problems.
Plus, LEVELS includes presets to help you identify the proper target levels for all of the most popular streaming services, so you can make sure your track sounds great on every platform.
Use these tips the next time you’re mastering a hip hop track and you’ll be well on your way to achieving a professional, polished sound.