Using compression on rap and hip hop vocals is pretty much a standard these days, but then it seems that’s true with most tracks in much of modern recording. Rap and hip hop vocals can definitely benefit from different amounts of compression and other amplitude based effects, but as with any instrument you must be careful when adding compression to rap or hip hop vocals. Compression is meant to even out the dynamics of a performance and does just that, the thing is this is often done to a point where there are no dynamics left.
How Compression Works for Vocals
Compression works by pulling down the highest peaks of your performance, in this case rap or hip hop vocals. The compression then brings up the amplitude of the signal as a whole, making your rap or hip hop vocal a more uniform volume. A couple important controls to understand on the compressor are; Threshold (the amplitude at which the compression takes hold), Ratio (The amount the signal is compressed), and Attack (how fast or slow the compression hits). For vocal performances you will want a fairly quick attack as this will make the compression catch all the little pieces of speech. A good starting point for the ratio on rap or hip vocals is around 4:1, you can then tweak this to get the sound you are looking for. Now the threshold is a different beast, you need to know what you are dealing with in this case. You will need to measure the peaks of the signal and decide from that where you want the compression to kick in.
A good way to compress rap or hip hop vocals and still keep some of the dynamics of your performance intact is called parallel compression. The idea here is to route your original signal to another channel, most likely a bus with its own inserts and faders, and add compression to that track. You then can keep your original rap or hip hop vocal closer to the actual recording; it still doesn’t hurt to add slight compression to original track. After you have sent it to a compressed buss, you can mix the two signals together to get exactly the sound you want. You may also want to add a little reverb to one of the tracks to liven up the sound and pull them apart a little to give them both their own presence. Also this can be a good place to add some sort of spreading effect to create an ADT or automatic double track. Many of today’s recording softer and DAW’s (digital audio workstations) have effects on the busses specifically for such uses. This will really widen and strengthen the lead vocal along with the compression and original vocal take.
These are of course just starting points, but I find these settings and effects to be a good starting point when recording and mixing rap or hip hop vocals. A little tight compression can go a long way to bring your rap or hip hop vocals out in front of the mix while the spreading and parallel compression helps it sit nicely in the mix at the same time. Again with today’s non destructive recording and mixing programs you can really try this stuff to your heart’s content.