What You're Getting Wrong When Mixing Hip-Hop Beats

Working at Studio 11 here in Chicago, a studio that specializes in hip-hop and R&B, we hear a lot of beats from producers on a daily basis—and work with artists to turn those beats into songs. Whether the artist made the beat themselves or purchased it from another producer, we've heard it all.

More often than not, we see common mix issues that arise that we have to fix in order to make the instrumental work for the vocalist. Acknowledging these issues and fixing them before sending it to an artist—or knowing them before you finish your own mix—can really help the recording and final mixing process.

In this article I will be referring to standard, stereo MP3 or WAV files, seeing how these are the most common formats to record vocals over. Here are some of the mistakes that come across our board all the time:

The Hi-Hats Are Too Loud

Something I hear all too often is hi-hats and cymbals that are way above the other instruments. This can be due to the fact that the producer had poor monitors or a bad mixing environment—or they just weren't paying attention. The main problem with hi-hats being too loud, aside from it drowning out the high-end frequencies of other instruments, is that they make it difficult to make vocals really pop over the beat.

If there is a lot of high-frequency content in the hi-hats, the articulation or "teeth" frequencies of the voice (between 3.5kHz to 7kHz) have no room to really poke through. Therefore, hearing the words will be harder.

Many times, we'll scoop some of that range out with an EQ. The problem with that approach, however, is that we will be cutting out things that we don't want to cut out—like the top-end of a snare drum that really cracks or a lead synth that helps carry the song. To take care of the hats, we're muffling other parts of the track the producer intended to be there, which is a shame, considering that the problem of piercing cymbals could have been solved just by turning them down in the original mix.

When preparing a track before sending it to an artist or a production house like ours, take a step back and ask yourself if the hi-hats or cymbals are too loud. Are they stepping on the articulation of the other instruments? You'll be surprised how much more room there will be if the hi-hats and cymbals are at an appropriate level. Try taking them down and hear for yourself.

The Bass Is Too Low

Bass really is hard to nail if you're a bedroom producer. You really need a calibrated pair of monitors and room to hear what's going on down there. But there are some ways to write basslines that work with the song and are properly blended in the mix.

The first common issue I hear a lot is bass that's written in too low of an octave. If bass is written too low, it becomes hard to hear on small speakers. (Also, due to those frequencies' long wavelengths, the lower they are the more headroom they eat up in a mix.)

Because a too-low bass is so low, it's hard to hear, and therefore needs to be cranked up in dB to really be heard in the mix. This then eats up dynamic space in the mix and makes it tough to get a loud overall mix in the mastering stage without over-compressing everything.

Try the bass in an octave above and see if it still has the same impact. A lot of times, shifting bass an octave up and rolling off some of the top-end will achieve a similarly powerful bass sound as the octave below.

If you're absolutely sold on the low octave and don't want to change it, consider adding some saturation or subtle distortion—something to give it additional harmonics, especially in the mid- and high-frequency ranges. That way you can turn the bass down in dB, and because of the newly added harmonics, it will still seem as loud as it was before, when it was cranked in volume.

The Bass Notes Are Simply Wrong

Another issue that arises that pertains to basslines, and especially to those written in octaves that are too low, is that the notes are simply wrong. Because our ears aren't as sensitive to changes in pitch at the lowest of the low frequencies—as compared, for example, to a lead instrument in the high-midrange—you may accidentally write notes that are not in the key of the song.

Some producers write 808s in super low octaves on their home setup. Then, when they bring them into our studio and listen on our calibrated setup with a subwoofer, you can hear the dissonance from the incorrect notes. You may not know what it is at first, but something about them just won't hit right. It very well could be your note choice. You have to check your work.

The way I always recommend to get around this issue is to write the bassline in the octave you want it in—then, once you like it, shift it up two to three octaves. Now you can hear it better and confirm that the notes are correct. You'll often find that the note you thought sounded right really isn't supposed to be a C, but a C#, for example. Once you have the correct notes, transpose the phrase back down to your desired octave.

Now, you may ask, if you can't hear the pitch changes down there, why is it important to get this right? The problem is you'll be surprised when you hear it play on a large system, or a calibrated system like ours at Studio 11, where you will hear what's really going on down there. Plus, songs just sound better when all the parts are in musical harmony with the key of the song. It has more emotional impact.

The Bass Is Too Loud

Everyone loves bass. But you just can't turn it up too loud in the mix. Aside from creating headroom issues—that is, not allowing the space for other parts of the mix—a jacked-up bassline is going to make a mix sound boomy. When it comes time to record vocals over the beat, the vocal engineer will most likely make a cut down there. And, like we saw with the hi-hat issue above, there could be other important things in the same frequency range, like the kick drum, that might be turned down with it.

There's No Room for Vocals

Most songs that we receive simply have too much build-up in the 250Hz to 600Hz range. This covers up the "body" of the vocals and can make it tough to really make a vocal sit within the beat instead of on top of it. Mids are the most common range for build-up, because most instruments that aren't bass or cymbals have these frequencies. Take a second look here and ask yourself, "Are there too many things clashing in this range?" Chances are, yes.

We also receive a lot of beats that are just too loud and too compressed, meaning that all the quiet parts and all the loud parts are smashed together and cranked in volume. When a beat is super compressed, it can be very fatiguing to the ear. Everything starts to sound like one sound. And if a beat is already maxed out, volume-wise, where can you go from there?

But ear fatigue isn't the only issue. It's also hard for vocals to fit within the beat dynamically when the instrumental sections are too compressed. Vocals naturally rise and fall in amplitude. So when the beat dynamics are squashed, the vocals struggle to stand out, as there is very little empty space left in the mix for another sound to sit. Therefore, we have to cut even more of the beat out with EQ to make it work.

The Arrangement Is Bad

A common issue that comes in to the studio is having to rearrange songs to cater to a format that artists can write too. There are some exceptions to the rules (and this does depend on the genre or sub-genre), but generally speaking, having a separate section for the hook and a verse is a must.

Sometimes we get beats that have no structure to them, so the artist struggles on where to focus their attention. They may have written a hook, but it's over the same part of the beat where the verse is, so it doesn't have quite the impact they want it to have.

Another problem that arises occasionally is having verses or hook sections of the beat with an odd number of bars (11 bars, for example—no kidding). Try to stick to the common 12- or 16-bar verses. When a beat of a verse is short by a bar, it feels like the hook comes in too soon and can throw off the momentum of the song.

Your Samples Are Between Keys

This is also something that arises on a daily basis. A lot of hip-hop beats are sample-based, and a lot of them are ripped from vinyl. The problem with vinyl, though, is while it can add a cool texture to the song, unless the pitch fader is locked on zero, or there are no issues with the platter speed of the turntable, it's very easy to record a sample where the pitch is in between key signatures. (These inconsistent keys can also happen because the musicians in the '60s or '70s tuned to themselves instead of to tuners. You may rip the vinyl correctly, but their C isn't necessarily going to match your C.)

One way around this is to follow suit, and to detune your instruments so that they match the sample. The problem with this is now the whole song is out of key, and it makes using Autotune, Melodyne, or other pitch-based mixing software very difficult and sometimes not possible, as these programs depend on whole keys.

Another source for a song being out-of-key is using 432Hz tuning vs. standard 440Hz tuning. I know a lot of producers that claim 432Hz has its benefits, which is fine and dandy. But keep in mind if you want to make money off your beats and have people use them (especially when said people want to use Autotune), it can create issues.

Other Miscellaneous Issues

Pops or Clicks from Bad Edits: Make sure all the cuts are done at the zero point in the waveform and fades are added before printing a final mix. I hear this issue at least once a day, where an 808 will be cut in between the waveform, which causes a small "pop." It's much harder to remove the pop after the fact than it is when creating the beat. Edit them pops!

BPMs Aren't Whole or Half Numbers: Most producers work at a different tempo than what the actual BPM of the song is. For example, I know a lot of producers that work in double-time to get more spaces on the grid—working at 140 bpm, for example, for a beat that is 70 bpm. This is fine, as when an engineer records to the beat he'll lock the beat in its true tempo at half the value (70). But this approach can cause problems when producers work in something like 140.678 bpm. This takes more time for the engineer to find, as it's such a specific number. Chances are you won't really hear the .678 difference in tempo anyway, so just make it an even number.

Too Many Drops Before Vocals: I hear a lot of beats that have drops in them already. This is cool if there is only a couple of them, but when there is a lot, it can really make writing difficult for the artist, as they are now stuck with those drops in those specific places. Traditionally, in hip-hop and rap culture, a drop is an effective way to emphasize a punchline or an important part of the phrase. If they are in random places, it forces the rapper to change their lyrics to match those drops, which limits them in a sense. It's usually best to leave the drops for the recording engineer—after the lyrics are laid down—so that the drops can be custom-tailored to the lyrical content of the artist.

These are just some of the common issues that arise from my experience. The point is to take a step back and really listen to the beat and how the artist is going to use it. Put yourself in the shoes of a vocalist and imagine how they would interpret the song, including their writing process. If you do this, you will undoubtedly be successful.


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