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How to Stack Vocals

When it comes to vocals, even some singers and rappers don’t know what to do with their own takes. Through years of recording artists, the best method I’ve ever come across for recording and arranging vocals was inherited from Epic Nation the Label’s Juggman Shizzy @entlceo_juggman and it goes a little something like this:

Take 1: “Preliminary Take” – Obviously try to get a good take, but this first take is more for structure than anything else

Take 2: “Double”- After you have a skeleton recorded (patch as many times as needed), record a “dub” take. The idea is, by keeping the skeleton on, we can get a take with more confidence from the vocalist. It’s reinforced by their own semi-mixed voice.

Take 3: “Main”- Record one more take, using the dub take from Take 2 as the new skeleton. Mute the original skeleton. Take 3 will be the main vocal, so try to get the whole verse/chorus in one complete take.

Now that we have a great main vocal track recorded, we need to spice it up by stacking takes.

Take 4: “Ins and Outs”- Add energy to the track by doubling the end of each phrase throughout the entire track. Alternatively, re-cut a full double track and fade in as needed, but this can get tedious.

Take 5: “Adlibs”- Sound effects, general chatter and talking

Take 6: “Adlibs 2”- More sound effects, character noises, etc.

You can choose to stop here, but this is a great setup for the mix engineer. You’ve got multiple takes to work with, in case a couple words aren’t fitting right, and you’ve also got plenty of arrangement material to work with. It’s easy to take stuff out later, but it’s not easy to capture the vibe again, so the more full takes, the better.

Now we need to mix all these vocal takes! The main focus of this blog post will be stereo imaging and EQ, so if you’d like more in-depth vocal mixing material, check out the Secrets of the DAW eBook!

Take 3 should be mixed completely mono. Gate, EQ dip at 400hz, 1500hz, compress 4-6db, high shelf +2-4db at 1khz, reverb and/or distortion sends

Take 4 should be mixed nearly the same as Take 3, but we want to make it a little wider. I LOVE using Soundtoys Little Micro Shift set to about 30-40% on ins and outs. It doesn’t make them super ridiculously distractingly wide, but gets them out of the way of the main, while blending in a great way. If you’re getting phasing issues, mess with the wet/dry, and consider taking out some lows 250hz-500hz.

Takes 5 and 6 should be again, the same as Take 3, but we’re going to pan Take 5 25% left, and Take 6 25% right. Now take a big chunk out of 2khz on each of them, and saturate to taste. I love to add a decent amount of reverb on the adlibs. If you can’t keep the adlibs pretty loud, you probably have too much lows/mids. The libs should be light and bright. We really want these out of the way of the main vocal’s body, so don’t be afraid to wash them out with reverbs and use drop delays.

Getting your vocals to blend is going to make or break your track. Panning and EQ is the most important way to get a great blend! If you’ve got any mixing questions, don’t hesitate to hit up the MASTRs on IG!

How To Be An Artist

The Basics
The art of rapping is going to take you years or for some only days to get the hang of. My name is Ty, I go by the artist name of Twhyy. This is my first article I’ve written for MASTR Productions. I’ll be touching base with you guys to share my journey as I learn and develop as an artist. I’ve been rapping/singing for about a year now and I’ve been making a list of many ways to help me improve my rapping and singing skills. To rap you got to think outside the box, be unique with your flow, change up the rhythm, be creative with your music and dig deep into yourself. Singing is a whole different ball game. In my opinion, most people who can sing have been blessed with talent, but even if you don’t have Godsent talent, there’s always ways to get better and improve your skills. Making rap or singing songs can be difficult, but can be achieved with daily practice and help from friends who have heard you rehearsing or freestyling or when at the studio, help from the producer.
General Advice 
To help you rap and sing better, listen to songs by successful artist and feel out the song. What do I mean by that? Take notes on the arrangement of the song (what comes first, the chorus or the verse? Is there a bridge before the final chorus?) Rap/sing along to the beat word for word. If you don’t know the lyrics they are on YouTube and other places on the internet, like Genius. Once you start going along with the lyrics, think about how you feel and what he/she is saying. Once you have an idea use the same emotion you are hearing and go along and try to match the tempo, flow, rhythm and pitch of the song. After a while of understanding what these artists are saying in there music go find an artist that you like and simply type in “the rappers name type beat”. I like “lil skies type beats”, but you can do this for pretty much any mainstream artist. Once you found a beat, try and think about the tone and delivery of your favorite artist and try and match it at first. After matching their style and delivery, try your own. If you don’t have any lyrics to try of your own try humming how you would want it to be. Sometimes the lyrics will just come to you out of nowhere, trust me. In general, just take things step-by-step. Start with the melody.
Other Helpful Info
Another helpful strategy I use to get better at rapping and singing is to find new artists, and take note of who I find to be inspirational or talented. Learn a bit about their life, how they work, what their daily habits are, and especially who their influences are. We all have someone who we look up to and want to be like etc. I love watching how artists come up in the music industry, and how successful artists get money and keep money. All of these big name rappers come from different backgrounds, and a lot of their stories really say something about their music – so be on the lookout for unique come-ups. They can be really inspiring, and a lot of times you’ll be able to relate their struggles and triumphs to your own life. I gain a ton of motivation in seeing all these rappers who came from basically nothing. It gives people faith that they too can make it big and put on for their city. After all, isn’t this what we all want?

Golden Vocal Chain

You may not be privy to this (especially if you’re primarily a beat-maker), but the vocals are arguably the most important part of your track. Of course melodies and groovy drum rhythms can get stuck in your head, but it’s the words, emotions, and melodies that come from the vocalist that are really ear-bug worthy. That’s why in this blog post, I’m going to be sharing with you a standard vocal chain I’ve been using for a while now, and it’s been working great for me. I start with this chain every recording session I host and most of the time it works perfectly with my remote mix clients as well! Check it out!

  1. Gain Stage – Make sure the input level from your recorded vocal track is sitting at about -12 to -18 dB (dry, no effects or compression yet). This is to ensure that you’re recording with ample headroom. If the rest of the mix is overpowering the vocals – DO NOT turn up the vocals!!!! I can’t stress this enough, as it’s a quick route to leveling problems later on down the line. Instead, just turn down the instrumental track! Alex Tumay (Young Thug’s engineer) talks about this in a couple of his interviews in reference to recording over a two-track. You don’t want to have your input so high that you risk clipping on the way in. A common request from recording artists is that they want to hear themselves more in the headphones. Simply turn down the beat! You’ll be turning everything up on your mix bus, so don’t worry about putting out a quieter track. You’ll be adding more elements to the mix, like background vocals, adlibs, and maybe even some gun sounds. If you’re clipping your master fader, chances are you’re not monitoring the way the track will actually sound. This is super apparent when mixing kick. If the kick is clipping out the master fader, it’s doing some limiting/soft-clipping, depending on what DAW you’re using, so you’re not even hearing the kick the way it is actually sitting in the mix.
  2. High-Pass / Preamp – Depending on your hardware setup, you may have a hardware preamp, or you may not. If you don’t, consider using a digital preamp to add some color and tightness to the vocal signal right off the bat. This isn’t really necessary, especially if you have a solid mic, but it can help! I notice that when using the Neve 1073 emulation from Universal Audio, there is considerably less background noise in the dry audio signal, and a couple of useful utilities built in to the interface. I wouldn’t recommend EQing with a digital preamp, but I would highly recommend putting a high-pass filter to use! Somewhere between 80hz and 120hz is a great place to high-pass, as this will reduce unwanted boominess, and further tighten up the vocal. It’s also a good idea to use a gate at this point to get rid of any unwanted noise when the artist is not performing. You don’t really want to use a gate before you high-pass, otherwise some low rumbling sounds could possibly trigger the release of the gate and allow noise through.
  3. EQ – At this point in the chain, it’s a good idea to start shaping the vocal. Oftentimes, a 3dB bell dip is called for around the first harmonic (usually around 400-600hz). We don’t want this area to trigger our compression later on down the chain. I would NOT recommend low-passing, UNLESS you’re using a very cheap microphone that has some absolutely disgusting information coming through above 15khz. In fact, a slight boost (3.dB) to the high frequencies (high-shelf boost starting at around 2-4khz) can be a great way to get some instant clarity to the vocals.
  4. Compression – This is where a lot of people screw up. They think that crushing their vocals here will make them sound thick and full, when in reality, compression is volume control. There are a million ways you could go about compressing vocals, but I’m going to share with you the most effective way that I have found. We’re actually going to use 2 compressors! The first one should be a FET-style, medium to fast-attack compressor. My absolute favorite is the 1176 Rev E from Universal Audio. I will almost always have the attack speed set to around 5 (fast), and the input gain such that the compression meter reads about 3-5dB of compression at its peak. You want nearly every word to move the needle at least a little bit. This will ensure that you’re squeezing the peaks down, and evening everything out. The release knob will vary from song-to-song, but ideally, you want it between the 7 and 4 setting. You’ll have to use your ears, but a good rule of thumb is that the compression meter should fall with the words, and not stick around too long. On fast rap, you will want to use close to the fastest release possible. On something slower, like melodic singing, you’ll probably like the sound of a slower release better.
  5. Compression (continued) – Moving on to the second compressor! I have found that once the main peaks have been tamed with a fast-acting compressor, a slower, optical compressor sounds incredible, and does a great job of lasering in the vocals dynamically, bringing them to the front of the mix effortlessly. My go-to is the White 2A Levelling Amplifier from IK Multimedia. Trust me when I say I’ve tried DOZENS of 2A emulations, and this is by far my favorite. You could absolutely use one of the emulations from Universal Audio, or Waves, but they honestly just don’t do it right. With the 2A, the goal is to squeeze the vocals a little more. We’re not chopping off sharp peaks, and we’re not trying to distort the vocals at all. We’re aiming for 2-3dB of fairly consistent compression. More often than not, you’ll just have to turn the peak reduction knob to the left a little bit, and then make sure your gain is not out of wack. You want to exit the plugin with the same amount of gain that you entered with.
  6. Multiband Compression! – At this point, I often find it very effective to ride the first harmonic with a multiband compressor. Make sure it’s fitted in with the low-mids, and then use moderate attack and release settings to make sure it stays there! I use the Fabfilter Pro-MB, and pretty much just stick with the default attack and release settings. A similar process can be used for the high end of the vocals by using a de-esser. Don’t get things mixed up – a de-esser is just a multiband compressor! My go-to de-esser is the Pro-DS from Fabfilter, using the “Audition” function to find the most annoying frequency. Hint: it’s usually between 4-6khz. It’s up to you how wide you want the band, but in general, I let the band go up to around 10khz.
  7. Post-Compression EQ –After you’ve levelled out the vocals with compression, it’s time to really dial in how you want the vocals to fit into the mix. We’ve already done a bit of shaping pre-compression, but that’s not where you should be focusing on fitting the vocals in quite yet. It’s far easier and more effective to EQ after compression, because there won’t be as many peaks throughout the audible spectrum. Everything is locked in, and ready to be shaped in the context of the mix. If there are any glaring resonances, consider using an EQ bell cut with a tiny Q factor, and just dip out the resonance 10-12dB as necessary. Don’t go all willy-nilly just cutting everywhere. I’ll usually allow myself 2 cuts maximum, otherwise there could be other issues earlier in the chain that are causing such resonances. When it comes to boosting, I find it most pleasing to use something with color. My go-to is the Pultec EQ Pro from Universal Audio. This is a combination of the EQP1A and the MEQ-5. In order to get the high-end of the vocals to stick out a little more (or a lot more), it’s really effective to use a wide-band, and boost around 5khz. Before you do that though, consider using the top module, the MEQ-5 to tame the mids. This is the most audible part of the audio spectrum, and it’s not a rare occasion that I find myself taming 1.5khz before moving on to the highs. If you find that, after boosting the highs, you have TOO much air to the vocals, it’s a good idea to nip that right in the bud. Set the attenuation to 20khz (sometimes 10khz works better, but I find that it does too much), and use the attenuation knob to dull the vocals a bit, as needed. This will allow you to tuck the vocals in, and fit them in with the hi-hats appropriately.
  8. Finish Up The Dry Vocals – At this point, you’ve probably been locked in to mixing these vocals for a while, maybe 15-20 minutes. Take a walk. Go grab some water, some coffee, take a smoke break, whatever you need. Just go out of the room for a couple minutes, and come back in with refreshed ears. Trust me. When you come back, it’s time to make sure the vocals are absolutely rock-solid. You may want to add another de-esser, you may want to tuck the high end in a little more, you may want to dip out a little more 400hz… You’ll be much more accurate in your decisions if you take a quick break. I find myself taming the high end a little more when I come back with either the Pro-DS or the C1-sc from Waves (check out the Mary Vox preset!).
  9. Effects – This is probably what you’ve been waiting for… Effects on vocals!!! Delays, reverbs, automated distortion, you name it – now is the time to add these effects. My favorite way of applying reverb is as a send. Using either an Aux bus, or an effect rack in Ableton Live, I’ll apply between -15dB to -20dB of 100% wet reverb. This maintains the perfect vocal we just mixed, and allows you to process the wet effects completely separately. This is HUGE! Don’t get lazy with your sends! The same goes for delays. Set up a bunch of different delay sends (1/8th note delays, 1/4 note delays, 1/2 note delays) and use them by automating their faders. You can even save an effect rack in Ableton so you don’t have to do this every mix, you can just call up the rack, and put it to use right away with everything pretty much set up from the get-go. When applying distortion, funny enough, it’s usually better to apply this directly to the vocal signal, instead of sending it to an Aux bus. I find it much more effective to change the signal, and put the listener in a different environment for a brief moment before bringing them back to the original vocal that they know. Automation is key.
  10. Grouping / Bussing – I’m not huge on bus processing for vocals. The only time I use it will be to EQ a resonance out of a crappy mic that builds up over the course of 4-6 simultaneously playing vocals. A lot of time, 4.5khz will build up on Rode mics, and other cheap brands. You won’t notice it until you have everything pretty much done. You might even try to start cutting it out of each track individually before you realize… wait! These are all the same resonances that I’m cutting out! Save yourself the time, and EQ on the bus. BE CAREFUL because this will apply the changes to every vocal in the bus. So only do this if you have to. The other instance in which I will use a full, “All Vocals” bus, is for leveling! Say you want to turn down all the vocals about 2dB. It’s much easier to just turn down the bus, and this ensures you’re turning everything down congruently.

Do you feel like a pro now? Do you think I forgot about AutoTune? I didn’t. It just didn’t deserve it’s own section. Put it at the beginning of the chain, right after your high-pass EQ/preamp. Use Autotune 5 or Evo (or a combination of both) and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. You’re welcome.

If you have any questions, or want to beef with me over anything in this article, don’t hesitate to hit me up on email – [email protected] or hit me up on the gram –

Peace! Happy mixing.

How Much is Too Much Bass?

We all love the feeling of bass – in the car, in a nice pair of headphones, in the club… It’s one of the most essential elements of hip-hop. It’s easy to fall to the trap of too much bass! If you’re not mixing on familiar speakers and not referencing mixes, it can be easy to lose track of where your levels should be, but here are 5 fail-safe rules to live by when mixing bass and kick:

1. Don’t clip your faders – (if you are clipping your meters from your bass, you’re wayyyy too far) You might love the sound of your bass in your mix, but when you bounce the track, you might suddenly find a strange clipping that occurs when you listen back in the car. The reason for this is more than likely a clipping sub-bass (below 100hz). This mistake can easily occur on a sound system that isn’t equipped to monitor down below 40 or 50hz. You don’t notice it because it’s not being replicated by your monitoring system, but it’s still tripping your compressors and limiting from source as it passes through the master bus. If your vocals are clipping out when the beat drops, this is almost definitely the case.

2. Dial in your 30-40hz range (if your monitors go down that low) – Set up a high-pass filter with a steep Q. Close your eyes, and roll off the sub starting at 10hz. When the bass starts to sound clear and tight, you’ve found the sweet spot. Do the same for your kick drum, and be amazed at the clarity and punch of your low end! The truth is, many tracks don’t have any valuable information below 30hz. It just sounds like mud, and it gets in the way of your precious bass space! Get rid of it! If you A/B your new bass EQ and it’s lost a bunch of power, you’ve gone too far. Songs in the key of C often-times can be cut at 32hz because the note’s fundamental frequency starts at 32hz. There are exceptions to this, but this serves as a decent guideline for high-pass cuts.

3. Compress and saturate – One sure-fire way to get your bass popping out of the speakers is to parallel compress the bass for thickness, and saturate for punch and tone. When I do this, I’m listening for harmonics above 200hz. I’m not looking for more low-end distortion, I’m instead looking for high end information to start popping out. Some of my favorite plugin saturators include: T-Racks Saturator X, the Ableton Saturator (soft clip is wicked nice), and Saturn by Fabfilter!

4. Make sure your sub is mono – On headphones, a stereo 808 might sound like a great idea. On a great pair of speakers, the punch and power of the low end is easily lost, especially in the club. An easy way to fix this is to use a multi-band imager, and collapse everything below about 120hz to mono (no stereo width). This will protect the punch of your low-end punch, and ensure that no phase issues are ruining the strength of your bass.

5. Experiment! – What happens if you add a flanger to your bass above 200hz? What happens if you run a parallel chain with tons of distortion, and you high-pass it at 500hz? What happens if you add rev- NO!!!! DON’T DO IT! NO REVERB ON BASS!!!!

Okay you get the idea. In general, you don’t need to slam your bass fader if you have everything levelled correctly. Compression and saturation can be great to manhandle bass, but if I’m being completely honest, the bass that always comes out the best is the bass that you hardly have to do anything to! Sample selection is 90% of the battle with bass. Take your time, do some digging, and find a great bass sample or synth patch. It’ll save you time in the long run, and you’ll probably find some new favorites in the process!

Letter to a Noob Beat Maker

Someone asked me the other day what I would tell beginner beat makers to help them sound more experienced from the beginning. I wanted to take that a step further, and drop 5 PRODUCTION GODSENDS-

  1. Use good samples – I can’t stress this enough. Find some good samples online, whether from a free source, or from a producer who mixes drums the way you like, and start there. Yes, you should be able to polish up mediocre drum samples, I’m not disputing that. But if you’re a beginner and you want to sound like a pro, this is a must.
  2. Don’t clip your master fader! – The first thing I recommend that you do, before you drop any samples into your track, is to turn every track fader down about 6db. If you’ve got some crispy, mastered drum samples you’re dropping in, and you put an arrangement together with them, the combined output volume of all the combined samples will be above 0db (clipping).
  3. Simple but powerful master bus – punchy/dynamic compression (I like to fade mine to 30% wet/dry), and a limiter that preferably has a true peak function to catch inter-sample peaking. If you need more loudness, add another limiter in between, and pull down the threshold as much as you need.
  4. 500hz = glue – This is kind of a random tip, but it’s served me so well, I think it need mentioning. If something sounds too boxy, it’s probably 500hz. If something sounds too distant/weak, you might need to boost 500hz. If your vocals are too heavy in the low end, check 500hz. If your pianos are getting in the way of your vocals, it’s probably 500hz. If your bass isn’t cutting through the phone, it might need saturation up to 500hz. If your kick isn’t cutting through the mix…. consider a wide-band boost at 500hz.
  5. Parallel Effects – Parallel compression and parallel distortion/saturation are insanely important to master if you’re trying to make thick, loud, rich tracks. I’m hesitant to say put it on everything, but it does help create a strong foundation for a mix, and can be used on pretty much any sound. Try different compressors, saturators, and different amounts of blending to get great depth and power to your mixes.

If you adhere to these guidelines, you’ll be a MASTR producer in no time.