+ Learn the nuances of producing beats, arranging, and sampling, drawing on the rich history and influence of hip-hop in Soundfly’s The Art of Hip-Hop Production.
By Ike Iloegbu of i2 Mastering
Spotify’s top three most followed playlists right now are Today’s Top Hits, Global Top 50, and Rap Caviar. It’s clear that hip-hop and pop music are the leading genres in the global music industry at the moment, with artists like Drake, The Weeknd, Jay-Z, and others continually dominating the charts.
Here’s the #1 song on Billboard Hot 100 for June 2021, Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak, a.k.a. Silk Sonic’s “Leave the Door Open.”
You can learn more about hip-hop production and its various subgenres in our hip-hop production course, but when it comes to finalizing your mixes in the mastering phase, there are some pretty universal techniques and processing tools that will help you achieve a successful master no matter the subgenre.
In this introduction to audio mastering for hip-hop and pop music, I will break down the sonic characteristics, mid/side processing, and my favorite audio plugins to use when I’m working for my clients. Let’s get started.
But first, if you’re producing hip-hop beats and looking for inspiration, creative alternatives, and to explore the work of one of the most influential beat makers of this century, look no further. Check out Soundfly’s new course with turntablist and sampling pioneer, RJD2: From Samples to Songs — he explores his creative process in detail, breaks down some of his most famous beats, and flips samples in real time.
Overview of Mastering for Hip-Hop and Pop
Mastering is the last line of defense before your music gets released to the general public; and it happens after the mixing phase. Your mixes should already be final, so our processing techniques are designed to repair and enhance the playback compatibility of your song or album for all distribution platforms — that includes digital streaming sites as well as CD, cassette, vinyl, etc.
Most artists will pass their record along to a professional engineer, like me, or use one of the automated digital sites out there to finalize their masters; but you can also learn to make significant adjustments and ready your masters, yourself.
Although the sonic foundations can be vastly different between hip-hop and pop music, vocal or topline clarity and low-end presence are among the most important aspects of both genres. In hip-hop, we prioritize the low-end frequencies and compliment that sound for transparency in the higher octaves of the frequency spectrum. In pop music, this theory is vice versa as clarity takes priority over the low frequencies.
Processing tools like EQs and compressors enable mastering engineers to make focused adjustments to the music, and help achieve appropriate loudness levels. But be wary of overusing these tools, as they can crunch and constrict your audio in unfavorable ways. Here’s a video in which Grammy-nominated engineer Joe Lambert talks about prepping your mixes for mastering, courtesy of Soundfly’s Faders Up: Modern Mix Techniques course.
Now, here are some tips to help you achieve a great master if you’re working on getting your own tracks to sound great on various playback devices.
Transients are the short momentary peaks in signal occurring at the beginning of any sound. We often relate transients to drums, primarily the kick and snare. Other instruments like piano, guitar, and bells also have distinct transient characteristics.
Hip-hop and pop music rely heavily on transients to dictate and clarify the rhythm of the music. You can control a song’s transients by using a compressor. Changing the attack and release parameters alters the amplification of the affected transients. If the kick is punchy, I would set my attack to a faster rate to retain more of its frequencies in place.
When adjusting compression values, keep in mind the role of ADSR characteristics in the sound. ADSR stands for Attack, Decay, Sustain and Release. Here are a few of my favorite plugins I use to modify a song’s ADSR with subtlety and control.
1. SPL Transient Designer Plus
Plugin Alliance designed the SPL Transient Designer Plus after Sound Performance Lab’s legendary hardware unit. This plugin allows you to add more detail to transients without using compression.
2. Slate Digital FG-X
Slate Digital’s FX-G is a compressor with unique parameters found only in this plugin. After compressing your signal, you can regain dynamic depth by using the transient controls and makeup gain in the middle section of this plugin.
3. LFO Tool
You can use Xfer Records’ LFO Tool to emphasize beat patterns that utilize the kick at 1/4th of the bar.
4. UAD 1176 compressor
Compressing signals in the early stages of your mastering chain is essential in maintaining actual dynamics before limiting. Universal Audio’s 1176 compression emulator is one of the best out there.
5. SPL Attacker PLus
Like the Transient Designer, the SPL Attacker Plus adds harmonic detail to transients as it doesn’t focus on the audio signal’s sustain amplification.
Hip-hop and pop songs generally features a rich harmonic balance throughout their frequency spectrum. We perceive this sound as impactful, clear, and present. You must discuss the creative ideas of the project with the artist, producer, record label, or whoever hired you before working, if it’s not your own music.
Implementing innovative techniques which focus on targeted harmonics gives the music you’re working on its distinctive sound. For example, you can add subtle distortion on the mid-high frequencies to create a heightened sense of vocal presence.
To shape a song’s harmonic texture, on the other hand, use distortion and saturation tools. The difference between saturation and distortion is simply the number of harmonics being added and altered. While saturation presents a subtle effect to the signal, distortion adds and modifies harmonics in a more extreme form; almost like “artful clipping.”
Using tools to add these textures correctly can create a sense of perceived loudness to the listener without actually employing a volume change. But remember that in hip-hop and pop music, clarity is king — so be careful as you’re processing audio with these tools as they can quickly destroy your sound.
You can use a compressor for dynamic control and enhance lower harmonics without modifying the audio signal with distortion or saturation. Plugins like the Weiss Maximizer have a dry/wet knob, which dictates the balance between the original and processed signal ratio. Be creative with these features and allow for more real harmonics to be added to the music.
Dynamic range is the distance between the lowest and highest peak of music. We measure dynamic range in music by Loudness Unit Full-Scale, also known as LUFS. In hip-hop and pop music, average LUFS can range anywhere between -11 to -7.
It’s up to the mastering engineer’s taste to determine the final LUFS for a record. To make your track louder without clipping, you need to compress the signal to control the audible peaks. Limiters help achieve a loud, clean sound as the ratio values are high enough to contain loud peaks. Here are five software limiters that you might want to consider checking out.
1. Fabfilter Pro-L 2
Fabfilter’s Pro-L 2 is one of the most commonly used limiters in modern mastering. This award-winning limiter allows for a clear audio signal with a transparent style of compression.
2. Weiss Maximizer
Weiss MM-1 is unlike any other mastering limiter in the market. Modelled after Weiss’s famous hardware unit, the MM-1 takes limiting to a whole new level with five different modes available to adjust the tone of your music.
3. Bx_XL V2
Brainworx’s bx_XL V2 is one of the very few mid-side limiters on the market. This plugin allows mastering engineers to add saturation to the signal after compression. You can process the side channel independently from the mids.
4. iZotope Ozone 9 Maximizer
If your looking for a loud and rich sound in an instant, iZotope’s Ozone 9 Maximizer is a plugin that allows you to add transient emphasis to your signal as you compress.
5. UAD Precision Limiter
UAD’s Precision Limiter has a distinctively warm sound the more you process your signal. Although this plugin is not as popular as some others by Universal Audio, it is just as helpful, if not more. The Precision Limiter has four types of processors that contribute to its EQ and distortion sound.
Find the dynamic range that is suited best for the track. It’s essential to keep the sonic foundation that the mix engineer established for the record. In mastering, subtle processing goes a long way.
Mastering in Mono
When you are monitoring your track, always check your mono compatibility. In hip-hop and pop music, lower frequencies should typically be in the center of the stereo field. As you enter higher frequency octaves and territories, the wider the spread in the stereo field the content will be.
Below is a diagram of frequency octaves in correlation to the stereo field.
As you can see, instruments like bass guitar, bass synth, and kick drums —which represent the lower frequencies in your mix — should be in the center of the stereo field and not widely panned. Mid-side processing helps to isolate the mono and side channels for independent processing.
So when you switch to mono to monitor the audio signal, you should always be hearing bass in tandem to your treble frequencies, but neither should be dominant. Achieving clarity in mono is essential in the sonic foundations of hip-hop and pop. Use monitor sources like the Presonus Central Station or the Dangerous Music Monitor St to switch between mono and stereo playback.
Mastering is a process that utilizes the analog domain due to the representation of true harmonics during audio reproduction. Yet with the growth of music technology, more mastering engineers are cutting financial costs by working with digital plugins.
Companies like Plugin Alliance and Softube are creating cutting-edge plugins which can compete with hardware units with the same functionality. Here are some more of my favorites to use, which are also affordable and easy to learn.
1. Bx_digital V3
One of my favorite EQs for mastering is Brainworx’s bx_digital V3. You can surgically process any frequency independent from the mid-side channels allowing for a detailed sound. This plugin is the only EQ that allows for stereo-width adjustments.
2. UAD Neve 33609
The Neve 33609 by UAD is one of the world’s favorite compressors, and for a good reason. This plugin allows you to compress and limit your signal while adding the famous “Neve” outboard sound to your records.
3. Fabfilter Pro MB
Fabfilter’s Pro Multi-Band compressor is a highly transparent plugin used to process audio at the set frequency range. The advanced features allow you to sidechain compress your set frequency range without altering the entire signal.
Mastering relies on saturation to achieve max loudness without compressing too harshly or clipping at the edges. StandardCLIP is a surgical soft-clipper plugin that allows you to add volume and depth in the final stages of your mastering chain.
If you are looking for a digital plugin that sounds like an analog unit, look no further. Brainworx’s Bx_masterdesk emulates famous mastering studios with a mastering console. Adjust your tonality, dynamics, and stereo correlation in one plugin.
Mastering for Vinyl
If you are mastering modern pop and hip-hop music for the vinyl medium, there are numerous technicalities you should understand and internalize.
The common characteristic that joins modern pop and hip-hop is the clarity in the higher frequencies. It’s essential to process high sibilance to avoid vinyl distortion. Processing your higher frequencies with a de-esser can help you avoid aggressive sibilance. My personal favorite de-esser to use is the Eiosis E²de-esser.
LFE Stereo Field
A broad stereo image in the low frequencies of your music will cause severe playback issues on vinyl. Your tracks may skip at a particular timestamp or not play at all. Since modern hip-hop and pop production typically contains highly audible bass in the arrangement, and technology has provided creative possibilities for achieving that, it’s often a danger to mixing and mastering engineers who have to clean it up before manufacturing.
To avoid these issues, you must follow the stereo image diagram in the above Mastering in Mono section.
Mastering your hip-hop or pop songs can seem intimidating when you listen to the sonic quality of high-charting tracks by Drake or The Weeknd, but if you use those artists’ songs as a reference track, you can try to recreate their fidelity and stereo image to learn what makes them sound so good.
Deep listening and ear training are great ways to improve your ability to identify problematic frequencies and make precise decisions in your mastering journey. Good luck!
Don’t stop here!
Continue learning about beat making, mixing, vocal recording, and DIY audio production, with Soundfly’s in-depth online courses, including Faders Up: Modern Mix Techniques, Pop Vocal Production, and The Art of Hip-Hop Production. Subscribe for unlimited access here.
Ike is the chief mastering engineer at i2 Mastering which is located in New York, United States. Clients include Merty Shango, Michael K. Woods, Sabrina Kors, Jeron Love, and reach number #4 on Billboard Top Classical Album charts from his work on Sonatas by Blake Allen.