Vocal Cords: Crafting Hard-Hitting Hip-Hop Vocals

In today’s world of major label hip-hop and R&B music, the need for an in-your-face vocal is near the top of the priority list for almost all of the artists I’ve worked with [Note: Evans has worked with Mary J. Blige, Britney Spears, Outkast, and Janai Malee, among others]. For years, people have employed digital reverbs to add the illusion of depth, but this can make your lead vocal sound distant, and not sit well in the mix. So I’ve devised a way of using other effects—delay, tremolo, and stereo expanders—to get that face-slapping hip-hop vocal sound.
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Dynamics Processing

My first insert in an effects chain is always a compressor—such as the Waves R-Comp—in order to dial in a gentle compression that tames unruly dynamic fluctuations in the vocal track. Next in line is always a more aggressive limiter that will catch the more dramatic dynamic shifts that can make a performance sound horribly uneven. I like the Waves L1. It’s heavy-handed, but its sound is pretty invisible. The third and fourth inserts in my effects chain are two separate Waves DeEsser plug-ins—each with different frequency settings so that I can control the sibilance. I set the first plug to focus on the 6kHz range, and the second to address the 12kHz range. The last insert is Digidesign’s 7-Band EQ.

Sends & Returns

In Pro Tools, I then create five stereo aux returns. This is where I will set up an array of digital delay, tremolo, and imaging plug-ins. On the vocal channel, I activate Send A, and bus the output to the corresponding input of my first aux return. Next, I route the output of effects Return A into B, B into C, C into D, and D into E. Personally, I prefer dark delays, so the first thing I do on Channel A is insert Digidesign’s 1-Band EQ with the low-pass filter engaged. Doing this ensures that the delays I set up afterwards all react to the frequencies I’ve specified. For organizational purposes, it’s a good idea to name all of the inputs and outputs after the appropriate plug-in. It’s also smart to color code, group, name, and add comments to every track in the Effects Return section for quick and easy recognition. This is especially critical for sessions with a high track count.

Echo Boys

Next, I dive into a ton of delays. I will often take one SoundToys EchoBoy plug-in, and feed it into another EchoBoy, which feeds into yet another EchoBoy. I set all three plugs to different Echo Time, Mix, and Feedback settings—the first plug to an eighth-note delay, the second to a 16th-note delay, and the third to a 32nd-note delay. Doing this results in so many delays going in so many places that it creates a sort of false reverb that doesn’t seem to add any “distance” to the sound of the lead vocal in the mix.


Once the settings on all the EchoBoy plugs are dialed in, I route all of my delays into the SoundToys Tremolator—a vintage tremolo simulator. The setting of this plug will vary greatly from song to song, but, generally, I start by setting the Depth to around two o’clock, Groove at nine o’clock, Accent all the way to the left Sync setting, and Rhythm to an eighth-note pulse (or whatever time the first delay was set to).

Stereo Imaging

Though things should sound pretty good at this point, it might be cool to alter the panning a bit using a few imaging plugs. I really like the Waves S1 Stereo Imager, Waves Mondo Mod, and GRM Tools Doppler plug-ins. There are no perfect settings for any of these—everything depends on what kind of effect you want to achieve. Play around with them, trying settings that result in a sound that’s not so traditional (such as panning the vocal straight down the middle). Try some sweeps from left-to-right, or widen your stereo image to get a big, all-encompassing vocal mix. Remember, mixing is an art form, and the key to success lies in every decision you make—just as every small stroke from a painter’s brush determines the final masterpiece.