How to Balance a Hip Hop Song

How to Mix Hip Hop (4 hours of video + multitracks)

If you are struggling to get your hip hop mixes to sound professional, than putting more time into the balance will actually be a good exercise for you.  It focuses you away from the technicals and onto what you are feeling.

When you start to balance a Hip Hop song by no means should it be taken as, once the balance is done that’s it.  That’s not really the point, the point is to get an idea of what your first initial thoughts, reactions and instincts are and then build off of that.  Remember the balance can and will be altered through out the mix process

So if you get a good balance and then 4 hours into the mix, you realize that the kick drum isn’t working and needs to be changed, allow yourself to make that change.

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SleepNBareProd

Song: Look At Me » Artist: Bare » Produced by: Sleep & Bare

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A Good Point of Reference

I like to start off with something where I can get a technical reference point.  I try to do this as quickly as I can so that I can move onto the balance right away.

The way I do that is by loading up a VU meter, in my case I choose to use the Satson Buss because it’s really the only VU meter I have.  Be warned that if you use the Satson it will add some colour to your Mix Buss which you may or may not like.

I aim to get my kicks and snares hitting around the 0 dBVU mark and then I will try and balance everything else around that.  Since that gives me a nice start I don’t have to worry about me slamming the MixBuss while I’m balancing.  I can focus purely on the vibe and how it’s making me feel.

If you don’t have a VU meter than the standard peak meters are fine and I actually use them a lot when I’m gain staging.  If I were using just the peak meters, I would aim for a -18 to -12dBfs as a starting point.  That is usually enough wiggle room for me to play with and again, allows me to focus on the balance and not on how hard I’m hitting the mix buss.

Where Should I Start Balancing?

This is a great question and I often wondered the same thing myself for quite sometime but have finally landed on something that I feel is the most useful to my mixes.

I like to start by creating a loop around the chorus.  I do this because the chorus is always going to be the most important part of the song.  It’s what people often remember and sing along to so I put most of my efforts into that.  I find that once the Chorus sounds good, it’s easier to take things away then to try and build them up later.

I used to start with the verse a lot because they were  a bit easier to figure out and I knew I was going to get something enjoyable really quickly.  What ended up happening was I never left enough room for a lift in the chorus and thus the tracks would suffer quite a bit.

Start Pushing the Faders Dammit!

Once my meters are set up and I have created a loop around the chorus, I will just start bringing up the faders one at a time.  Once I start, I try to keep moving through the session without thinking too much.

I will normally start with the kick and snare when I begin my balance.  There are times when I’ll start mixing the vocals first but in hip hop mixing, I prefer to work on the drums first.  From there I will just keep moving along to whatever grabs my attention.

I might go from the drums, to the vocals, to an ambient guitar and then back to the drums.  I kind of jump around a lot because I’m really trying to massage everything together.  I’m looking for that sweet spot that feels good to me.

Don’t Stress Over The Tonality

What’s going to happen as you keep bringing up faders and adding new sounds into the mix, is your going to start hearing tonal issues that you want to correct.

My advice would be to not worry about that stuff.  Just keep massaging, focus on the vibe and try to be an average listener for 30 mins or so.  Remember the average person isn’t going to be thinking about how crisp a vocal sounds or how snappy a snare is.  They just want to hear the sound and they want to feel something.

If you can get a general vibe and feeling from the balance then the processing and effects will only enhance that and make it that much more enjoyable.

Another reason not to stress over the tonality at this point is because it keeps you away from the high pass filter, which tends to get used fairly early on in the mix.  Once you achieve the balance, you might actually notice that the high pass filter doesn’t necessarily have to be used that much.  Try it out for yourself!

Summing it All Up

Remember this is your starting point so don’t stress about it being amazing right away.  Push the faders around and just try and trust your instincts and see what happens.

The good thing about mixing is that it isn’t a dangerous job, you aren’t doing brain surgery.  So if you mess up, it’s okay, just go back and fix your mistake or start over.

The balance is just one of those things that will come with practise so get your hands on as many session as you can.

Video Source: How to Balance a Hip Hop Song

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  • Thompson Edolo

    On the video I noticed that the individual tracks do not have any plugins on. Had you already processed the tracks before you balanced them? If so, why. And if not, when do you start introducing plugins like EQs and compressors?

  • Poe

    The hardest thing I struggle with is dealing with “stereo” tracks
    For example:
    Some tracks I feel like need to be left in stereo but they are hard to pan and find a decent position in the mix. I notice one of the instruments tracks u turned up is in stereo but it “sits” nicely with room for the sacred center area

  • jonnydjtracker

    what sample library do you use ?

    • Justin Smith

      Of course I use Trap Drums HQ a lot now but I also have samples I have collected over the years.