Spotify’s top three most followed playlists are Today’s Top Hits, Global Top 50, and Rap Cavier. Hip-Hop and Pop music is the leading genres in the music industry, with artists like Drake, The Weekend, Jay-Z, Bruno Mars, and Anderson .paak.   

Number 1 song on Billboard Hot 100 June 2021: Bruno Mars, Anderson.Paak, Silk Sonic – Leave the Door Open (Music Video)

4 Vinyl Hip Hop and Pop records

There are techniques and processing tools to help you achieve a successful master in a genre as competitive as hip-hop and pop. We will break down the sonic characteristics, mid/side processing, and my favorite audio z to use when mastering hip-hop and pop music. 

Mastering for Pop & Hip-Hop overview

Mastering is the last line of defense before your music gets released to the general public: our processing techniques are designed to repair and enhance all distribution platforms’ playback compatibility. So when you are mastering a hip-hop or pop album destined to be on vinyl, you better watch the high and low frequencies, which can cause your track to be skipped or not play at all. 

Although pop and hip-hop sonic foundations can be vastly different, the clarity and low-end presence are similar in 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. 

Processor tools like EQs and compressors enable mastering engineers to make focused adjustments to the music. Before mastering your next hip-hop or pop album, here are some tips to help you achieve a great master for any hip-hop and pop album. 

Transient Control

Transients are the short momentary peak in signal occurring at the beginning of the 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 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. For example, if the kick is punchy, I would set my attract at a faster rate. 

When adjusting compression values, keep in mind the role of ADSR characteristics of the sound. ADSR stands for attack, decay, sustain and release. Here are my favorite plugins I use to modify a song’s ADSR.

1. SPL Transient Designer

Spl Transient Design plugin

Plugin Alliance designed the SPL Transient Designer after Sound Performance Lab’s legendary own hardware unit. This plugin allows you to add more detail to transients without using compression. 

2. Steve Slate FG-X 

Dynamics Processing Plugin

Steve Slate FX-G is a compressor with unique parameters found only in this plugin. After compression of 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 

Xfer LFO Tool audio software plugin

You can use LFO Tool to emphasize beat patterns that utilize the kick at 1/4th of the bar. 

4. UAD 1176 compressor Universal Audio 1176 Compressor

Compressing signals in the early stages of your mastering chain is essential in maintaining actual dynamics before limiting.

5. SPL Attacker

SPL Attacker Audio Software Plugin

Like the Transient Designer, the Attacker Plus adds harmonic detail to transients as it doesn’t focus on the audio signal’s sustain amplification. 

Harmonic Awareness

Music is considered a complex waveform in which multiple sine waves are initiates because of the combination of instruments present. Mastering engineers are responsible for the repair and enhancements of these waveforms. 

Harmonic Aware Artwork

Hip-Hop and Pop music generally obtain a rich harmonic balance throughout their frequency spectrum. We perceive this sound as impactful, clear, and present. 

It would be best if you discussed the creative ideas of the project with the artist, producer, record label, or whoever hired you before working. Implementing innovative techniques which focus on targeted harmonics gives the music your working on its distinctive sound.

For example, you can add subtle distortion on the mid-high frequencies to create a sense of vocal presence in a hip-hop or pop song. To shape a song’s harmonic texture, use distortion and saturation tools. 

The difference between saturation and distortion is the number of harmonics being added and altered. While saturation presents a subtle effect to the signal, distortion adds and modifies harmonics in an extreme form. 

Using these tools correctly can cause a sense of perceived loudness to the listener without a volume change. Be careful as your processing Hip-Hop and Pop music 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 Weiss Maximizer have a dry/wet knob, which dictates the original and processed signal ratio. Be creative with these features a allow for more real harmonics to be added to the music. 

Dynamic Range

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. 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 can use to master for Hip-Hop or Pop music: 

1. Fab-Filter Pro-L

Fab Filter Pro L mastering limiter

Fab-Filter L2 is one of the most commonly used limiters in modern mastering today. This award-winning limiter allows for a clear audio signal with a transparent style of compression. 

2. Weiss Maximizer

Weiss Maximizer audio software

Weiss MM-1 is unlike any other mastering limiter in the market. Modeled 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

BX_XL multiband limiter

Bx_XL 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 Maximizer

Izotope Mastering Maximizer

If your look for a loud and rich sound in an instant, Izotope Maximizer is the plugin for you. Add transient emphasis to your signal as you compress. 

5. UAD precision limiter

Universal Audio Precision Limiter

UAD Precision Limiter has a distinctive warm sound the more you process your signal. Although this plugin is not as popular as the others, it is just as helpful,l if not more. The Precision Limiter has four types of processors that contribute to its EQdistortion 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, check your mono compatibility. In Hip-Hop and Pop music, lower frequencies should be in the center of the stereo field. As you go higher in the frequency octave, 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 and a kickdrum representing the lower frequencies music should be in the center of the stereo field. Mid-side processing helps in isolating the mono and side channels for independent processing. 

Stereo Image Chart

The 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 Plugins

Mastering is a process that utilizes the analog domain due to the representation of true harmonics during audio reproduction. With the growth of music technology, more mastering engineers are cutting financial costs by working with digital plugins. 

Companies like Plugin Alliance and Softube create cutting-edge mastering plugins which can compete with hardware units with the same functionality. I put together my favorite mastering plugins for Hip-Hop and Pop music.

1. BX Digital V3

BX_Digital v3 mastering EQ plugin

One of my favorite EQs for mastering is Brainworks Digital v3. You can surgical 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

Universal Audio legendary Neve 33609

The Neve 33609 by UAD is one of the world’s most favorite compressors for a good reason. This plugin allows you to compress and limit your signal while adding the famous “Neve” sound to your records.

3. Fab-Filter Pro MB

Award Winning Multiband Compressor Fab Filter Pro MBFab Filter 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. 

4. Standard Clip

Best Soft clipper plugin Standardclip

Mastering for Hip-Hop and Pop music relies on saturation to achieve max loudness without compressing. Standard Clip is a surgical soft-clipper plugin that allows you to add volume and depth in the final stages of your mastering chain. 

5. BX Master Desk

BX_ Masterdesk plugin

If you are looking for a digital plugin that sounds like an analog unit, look no further. 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 hip-hop and pop music for vinyl, there are numerous technicalities you should understand. 


The common characteristic in modern Hip-Hop and Pop music 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 my Eiosis e2deesser. The transparency of the compression occurring in the higher frequencies enables users to process audio without the risk of deterioration heavily. 

Vinyl record playing

LFE stereo field 

A broad stereo image in the low frequency of your music will cause server playback issues on vinyl. Your tracks may skip at a particular timestamp or wouldn’t play at all. Modern Hip-Hop and Pop music production have a wide range of creative possibilities due to the available technology, making it prone to sibilance issues and an expanded low frequency. To avoid these issues, you must follow the stereo image diagram above in the Mastering in Mono section. 


Mastering hip-hop and pop music can seem intimidating in competing with the sonic quality of songs like Drake’s, The Weekend’s, and The Baby’s. Focus on each record individually and practice between your client workload. Ear training is ideal in identifying problematic frequencies and precise decision-making during the mastering process. 

Contact for more information. 

Visit: to book your mastering session today.

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Ike Iloegbu

Ike Iloegbu

Ike Iloegbu is the chief audio engineer and contributor for i2 Mastering. With over 13 years of professional audio services in the New York City area, Ike continues to work closely with artist and his private students. Book your session today.

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