With this article, we hope that you receive greater insight and understanding into what vocal chain for rap vocals might be perfect for your particular setup.
But in short, in order to achieve the best results possible, you need to evaluate your recording gear and capture a very clean and transparent track. Although there tons of very capable plugins designed specifically for vocals, you want your vocal chain to consist of an EQ, compressor, reverb in parallel mode, and a saturation plugin if needed. Using a de-esser or even an auto-tune plugin also might be rather beneficial.
Now let’s take a closer look at how this all works.
Before applying the effects
As it goes, a perfect sound doesn’t start with an effects chain, it begins way before you even think to apply some compression and EQ. Those effects are designed to enhance the sound, not fix it. So in order to capture perfect rap vocals, you need to record it properly first.
Minimal gear requirements
To capture rap vocals or to make any recording, for that matter, you at least need to acquire a good mic and a decent audio interface. But ask yourself whether you have ever met an audio engineer who stopped at a bare minimum.
What if we go absolutely crazy
The longer you do this job, the more gear you acquire and in turn, the more opportunity to use that gear you have. So if you have an opportunity to record your rap vocals through a vintage mic preamp, a couple of tube compressors, you should definitely go for it. But no matter how exciting this prospect sounds, it sure has its own drawbacks.
The problem with that approach
It might sound a bit absurd, but the more outboard gear you use, the less versatile you become. It’s a perfect way to invent your own signature sound, but other than that, you won’t get much benefit from this recording technique unless you want your vocals to sound really dirty.
Record dirty vocals
Vintage mic preamp, if pushed really hard, can give you a heavily saturated sound with a lot of flavor. And this sound would be perfect for almost any rap vocal recording, but this recording technique has one very significant downside. If you’ve made a mistake and pushed your preamp too hard, it would be simply impossible to dial it back later.
Record transparent vocals
We believe that in this modern day and age, it’s better to make very clear and transparent recordings in order to process it later, either with digital plugins or analog gear. Luckily, contemporary audio interfaces have extremely transparent preamps with almost no coloration at all.
Vocal chain for rap vocals: explained
A vocal chain could consist of any number of effects depending on what goal exactly you try to achieve. If your rap vocals were properly recorded, to begin with, your best bet would be to use some EQ, tame it just a bit with compression, give it more depth with reverb, and spice it up with saturation.
Order of FX
The order of plugins that your chain will consist of depends purely on personal preferences and experience. Usually, EQ comes first since it allows you to clean the signal up before it goes into a compressor. But some compressors also change the timbre, so you may want to consider adding another EQ on top of it.
What effects to choose
There’s a vivid collection of equalizers and compressors to choose from and all of them are equally capable of delivering great results. The only thing you might want to keep in mind is that subtractive equalization greatly benefits from clean and digital EQs and analog emulations are perfect for boosting frequencies.
You can always add to your chain a de-esser or even auto-tune plugin if you feel that it’s necessary. But another thing to consider is that there are certain plugins designed specifically to contain the whole chain of effects usually used for vocals in one simple package.
Whether an EQ would be the first plugin in the vocal chain or not, you’d still probably use it in pretty much the same way. When you’re using an equalizer to keep track of things, it’s better to divide a frequency range into three different spectrums and treat it separately.
It would be very wise to start with a high-pass filter with a pretty aggressive slope somewhere between 50 and 80 Hz. Female vocals could be cut as high as 100 Hz, but it should be done carefully so the vocal wouldn’t lose its substance.
If your vocals sound rather boomy, you may want to make a very wide cut somewhere around 200 Hz. But if you want to add just a little bit of weight to your vocals, consider making a very gentle boost somewhere between 500 and 600 Hz.
If you want your vocals to have more presence, make a high-shelf boost starting from 5 kHz. And if you want to get rid of some offensive high-frequencies, you may find those around 2 kHz. And remember that all of the changes shouldn’t be all that aggressive, whether you’re boosting or cutting 2-3 dB should be enough to make a noticeable difference.
A compressor is a very powerful tool and it’s an essential plugin in any effects chain, let alone the one that is used specifically for rap vocals. In fact, you may even consider using 2 compressors in your vocal chain. A highly adjustable digital one for surgical improvements and something like a vintage Opto-compressor to give your vocals a bit more flavor.
Attack and release
Particular attack and release settings would depend on what exactly you’re trying to achieve. Fast attack and fast release will help you to tame some rogue transients, which usually is very useful when it comes to rap vocals specifically. And if you want to even things out, you should use a very fast attack and a much slower release.
There are 2 basic ways how you would use a threshold and both depend on the attack and release settings. A fast attack and slower release should be combined with a significantly low threshold and for taming peaks, you should put it in a very high position so it would just touch the loudest parts of your track.
A particular ratio would depend on how noticeable you want your compression to be. Lower ratios would make it very subtle, which isn’t always beneficial for rap vocals specifically. And very high ratios could make it sound over compressed. So your best bet would be to find a middle ground somewhere around 5:1.
The knee controls a transition between the original signal and the compressed one. So, obviously, if you just want to tame the transients, a softer knee will be of great benefit. In any other case, a harder knee makes a little bit more sense.
Although most of the time, we prefer to record things as dry as possible, it’s only for the reason of having more control over the spatial treatment of our tracks on mixing stages. When it comes to rap vocals specifically, you want your reverb to be as subtle as possible to the point when it’s barely noticeable.
Decay and pre-delay
More often than not, reverb plugins have a rather sophisticated set of controls. But when it comes to vocals, we’re only interested in decay and pre-delay settings since they allow us to tailor the signal exactly to our needs. Most of the time, rap vocals are very rapid and energetic, a longer pre-delay time will help you to leave the transients unaffected and a shorter decay will prevent the sound from cluttering and muddying up.
You can always put your reverb straight to the effects chain and control it with Dry/Wet settings, but most of the time, it’s better to put it onto the auxiliary track and send a signal from your vocal track straight to it. This will help you to dial the right amount of reverb without affecting the initial signal.
Saturation plugins can help your vocals cut through the mix and at the same time, they can give it some analog flavor. What type of saturation to choose and where exactly to put it in your chain is completely up to you, but we recommend putting it after the compression.
Don’t overdo it
The important thing to remember about saturation is that it has to be very subtle unless your project demands it to be very heavy from an artistic perspective. You should also keep in mind that if your vocal chain already consists of analog EQs and compressors, you may not even need to use a separate saturation plugin since those provide plenty of harmonic distortion.
It’s been a very long time since hip-hop stopped being a very niche and underground style of music. It developed into a giant culture with a massive following. So it’s almost inevitable that every audio producer at least once in their career would have to deal with it. So in this article, we hope we helped you to understand the correct way to implement the correct vocal chain for rap vocals.