At the beginning of this year a few friends and I jumped back into the studios and started making some hip-hop tracks for an up and coming project.
The brief was to create two hip hop instrumental tracks (from our section of four) and head into the Penhyn youth unit situated in Port Phillip prison Melbourne. We were told the inmates could rap and harmonise vocals and were eager to do some recording. So we started planning the logistical nightmare and tried to cater for the many unknowns like the acoustics of recording in a prison, limitations to equipment and not being able to talk to the inmates prior. All we could do was put our best foot forward and start creating the best instrumentals possible with the brief in mind. The process was to be documented and put into a short film, the second in the series to “Doin Time”
Due to unforeseen difficulties with the prison the project has been put on hold until later on in the year, but I’ll walk you through where we are at and how we handled the brief, processes, techniques and difficulties.
Since I spent the majority of my time on one of the tracks I will be discussing just one in greater detail.
To begin with we needed some prior research into hip hop styles, grooves, microphones, recording techniques and instrumentation. After looking at various genres I went away and played around some beats and grooves. After deciding on a nice groove at 96 BPM inside the BFD3 drumming software I printed four bar loop with the BFD drum samples and headed into the studio.
Once in the studio it was decided that we wanted a more organic drum so we setup a live drum kit and sent the 4 bar loop through the headphones to the drummer in the live recording room. What we ended up with was the 4 bar loop with a couple variations and a more natural sounding drum track.
Once happy with the drums our bass player laid down a basic rhythm via a D.I and 6176 UAD Preamp linked with the compressor. Next we laid down some acoustic rhythm guitar via the BAE 1073 replica preamp and some “Wah” guitar via electric and a pedal. Following that we recorded other various percussion parts like a shaker and wood blocks. The final part (at that stage) was a flute melody which contained the hook for the chorus.
After going away and some basic mixing we came back and recorded two new parts to the track. The first one being a didgeridoo for the breakdown section and the other being a spacious, “reverby” electric guitar via the onboard effects of the amp.
From the recordings I went away and edited all the different parts and tried to make some sense of it. It was the usual case of having way too many ideas and I needed todetermine what worked better than others and start culling. I could have chosen:
- The rhythm acoustic track which was natural and bright changing the mood of the track completely.
- The didgeridoo which gave is a very Australian feel.
- The flute hook (slightly out of tune) was good but it was missing impact. I tried to layer this part with many other instruments but nothing seemed to gel.
- Another huge part was the electric guitar which changed the mood completely. By using the on-board effects on the guitar amp it gave the track a very spacious relaxed vibe mainly due to the long sustained notes played and the long decay from the reverb.
After trying different arrangements I became frustrated with certain aspects of the track. When we planned to mix the song in the studio we ended up with only 1 hour left due to mixing another song and decided it was not going to be beneficial to try. Instead we experimented with a new piano in the recording space and ended up with 3 new piano parts for the song. Because I was frustrated with the previous parts I started a new arrangement with the piano, drums and the spacious guitar and turning everything else off.
This is what it sounds like as an instrumental
Since it’s still unknown whether the project will go ahead I sent the instrumental to a MC named Krown and 2 weeks ago I recorded in the studio. I setup 2 mics for him to choose from. The Rode Classic valve condenser and the EV RE20 dynamic (classic hip-hop mic). Interestingly he preferred the Classic. Next I took a split of this signal from the half normalled patch bay so I had 1 signal going straight to the Audient console and the other through some gear making it dirty. The signal chain for the dirty signal was through the BAE 1073 replica, then a distressor and then straight into PT via the RME converters. I used the distressor manual emulate some famous compressors and found this really thickened up the sound and added some needed harshness to his voice. The setting I started with then adjusted to taste was ““* Old Fairchild IGFET - 6:1 att 3-5, rel 2 - 7 (start with att 4 and rel 4) “ was a good starting point and adjusted to taste from there” (Empirical Labs, n.d.)
Come mix-down for the entire track with vocal everything had to be rearranged and adjusted to make room for the vocal. Being a very heavy instrumental track already making room was tricky and time consuming. What I ended up with was a whole new arrangement also containing a new kick layer, new synth bass part, new piano arrangement and the edited vocals with some sections removed.
As you might gather the process for this track wasn’t linear and it could have gone a number of ways. The hardest part I found was limiting the number of parts and giving everything space in the mix. It’s easy to keep adding ideas, harder to commit and reduce.
Here is the final version with lyrics
Empirical Labs. (n.d.). Distressor User's Manual. Retreived from http://www.empiricallabs.com/manuals/distressor_manual.pdf