Mastering Hip-Hop for Radio
What an industry Hip-Hop has created! More and more awesome Hip-Hop has been coming out, and I love mastering it. I don't see much end in sight for such a creative and open-ended genre of beats, synths, color, crime, sex, drugs, hope, religion, music, and generally a huge audience of underground listeners who many won't even admit it. You've seen the opening sequence to the movie Office Space? Yeah, many times I feel like Michael Bolton, too frightened I'm too white to be caught enjoying such a genre. That said, it comes with great pleasure that I may have made some headway in that the masters I produce for Hip-Hop artists are killer and the artists, labels, and even mix engineers are thrilled. Now I want to document something I've discovered which is a known problem to many in the industry, but maybe perhaps not widely addressed.
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What is it that makes Hip-Hop so engaging and compelling? The beats, for sure, the lyrics, certainly, the artists' background and drama that surrounds them. All that. But it exudes another facet that I believe makes it successful and to stand out: Synths and samples--and even, noises and blurts by alternate voices which give yet another twist, such as "BRRRR" with the roll of the tongue. You've heard it, no? It's made popular in newer Hip-Hop almost like the beats themselves. I believe it's called "Birdman". However you spin it, the birdcall is yet another catchy vibrancy to the modern world of Hip-Hop. And it needs to be HEARD!
Here's my problem. While the genre is bumpin' and has so much life to it, one realm where it nearly gets destroyed, having the power and bite sucked out of it like a little dog's squishy toy is radio airplay. I can't stress enough how insanely frustrating it is that many Hip-Hop stations haven't gotten the hint that listeners will turn up the volume if the song "hits hard!" Instead, some stations leave those old-school garbage limiters engaged in the hopes to keep the signal loud enough to be "competitive". Well, let me explain that we've learned so much about streaming master targets, loudness wars, and dynamics that we're finally able to work around those "dumb" limiters.
You know the limiters I'm referring to? The ones that, when you're hearing a minute-long intro buildup of a great Hip-Hop tune, including a massive crescendo, rising and rising, getting your ears ready for a massive BOOM of the first beat, and then.....the whole volume/level of the song drops to near inaudibility, only slowly to recover in time for the next BOOM! As soon as a beat hits, the vocals, synths, drums, and everything else takes a half-second backseat to the BOOM that just happened. This is what I dub....
The Hip-Hop Radio Problem
For anyone who's listened to Hip-Hop on the radio for any real length of time, it doesn't take more than maybe a few minutes tuned into one of the bad stations to hear this criminal act against a great mix. BOOM, and the music's life is sucked out for half a second before you can really enjoy the song, then BOOM and the cycle repeats. It's like the radio station's limiters are set with too slow of a release time, and audible "pumping" is the effect. Mix engineers know what I mean. Awful, awful, awful, and even some Grammy-winning artists like Drake lose their hit songs to these abandoned limiters.
I use the term "abandoned limiters" lovingly, because they were born in a time when they actually had usefulness you couldn't argue against. They did make radio signals louder and more musical, but this was in an era of what's now Classic Rock, Vintage Rock, and Motown. They really don't have a useful place so much these days. They only serve to cause problems with modern dynamic and bumping transient material. They've been just left in the closet, alone in the dark to do what they've been set to do for more than 30 years--even survived station format changes from Pop to Country to Hip-Hop. They did their jobs well in the 80's, but today, they need to be taken down a notch.
How do we get around this?
The best way would be to convince all the stations to hone new "Hip-Hop" threshold and release setting for their limiters. Actually, I believe some stations are proactive about this, but there's many still clinging on to the limiter gear locked away next to the radio tower in a room collecting dust. Until they all get onboard with better limiting settings, I think we can work around this issue with some creative mixing and mastering techniques.
We'll roll off the super-low end. As non-intuitive as this sounds, yes, there's super deep bass even Hip-Hop doesn't need (at least for radio).
Trade some deep bass Boom fundamental frequencies for upper harmonic information. For example, if you've every used Waves Maxx-Bass, this allows deep, boomy frequencies to be heard even on tiny Bluetooth speakers and smartphones.
Use distortion on the meaty low bass notes to keep them present and loud in the mix, meanwhile not overwhelming the master or radio limiters.
All of these play a crucial role in getting a Hip-Hop tune to play loudly on many platforms, especially streaming and radio airplay. Rolling off the low-end removes some rumble that could easily be detected by radio limiters as massive bass. While radio listeners aren't really focusing on the deep, fundamental bass frequencies, they can still enjoy the music for what it is.
Using harmonic information of bass pushed to upper frequencies causes the human ear to "fill-in" the deep bass by a natural human auditory phenomenon. The human brain is intelligent enough to reconstruct the bass that's "expected". It's truly amazing how well this technique works, and companies like Waves with Maxx-Bass knew how to capitalize on that trait.
Use of distortion in the bass allows it to sound louder and more present, without it being louder in the measurable frequency range, causing significant pumping. This helps get around the radio limiters in a decent way, because they aren't "listening" to the music, they're constantly measuring voltage of the signal and adjusting it when it spikes.
Finally, we can say that the BOOM bass hits might be subdued a bit. Using a transient shaper, or dynamic EQ, we can adjust the bass beats so that we can predict how they will impact the radio limiters and find the right amount of limiting that's still musical and tolerable.
Let's review "Separate Masters"
In my eBook: Prepping For The Master I talk a great deal about having separate masters for each format or release platform. In the case of radio airplay, this couldn't be more true. Yes, I highly recommend that, should you want your music played on the radio, a radio master is paramount. And this has been done for decades, although maybe not for the same reasons. It's not a new concept by any means, and frankly, allows you to get the most from radio airplay, meanwhile allow your CD's and streaming masters to nail the other platforms and formats with the intensity, power, punch, vibe, and "survivability" that those platforms will allow.
Finally, Hip-Hop isn't the only genre where this is important. It just happens to be one that is most impacted by the limitations (pun intended) of radio airplay.
You can't remove what radio stations will do your music. You can't simply ask them to bypass their output limiters to allow your songs to beat and hit the way you intended. So, we must work around that. Send me a mix you'd like to have on the radio, and I can master it so it performs quite well on the airwaves.