Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Backing Vocals

All too often, we as musicians are focused on the foreground elements of music - guitar solos or driving drum beats or hypnotic synth basslines, or perhaps most of all, lead vocals. While this is undeniably important, it sometimes comes at the expense of not paying equal attention to the background elements. This is a big mistake because the more well-crafted those background elements are, the better those lead elements sound. These support players help to highlight and reinforce the lead elements and give them the "larger than life" sound that is the trademark of a professional sounding recording.

This is perhaps nowhere more evident than with vocals. When you hear a song on the radio, 9 times out of 10, you're not hearing just a single vocal track. There's usually harmonies, doubling, and other backing vocals there to make the lead vocal sound even better. So today I'm going to brainfart out some random thoughts on the use of backing vocals in music.

• Imperfection is Okay

Keep in mind that backing vocals are just that - vocals in the background. In some cases, they may be barely noticeable, just to add an 'edge' to a vocal. So don't worry about giving the vocal performance of a lifetime for backing vocals. In fact, a little imperfection might actually sound nice, within reason. Multiple vocal tracks have a tendency to "average out" instances where you might be a little flat or sharp, and the result is often a pleasant sort of chorusing. Which brings us to...

• Double It

Even if you don't want to try anything fancy, at least give a try to double-tracking your vocals. Chances are, you're doing multiple takes of your vocals anyway, so set a good one aside, put it on a second track, and mix it behind the lead vocal according to taste. Because you're human, you're never going to sing a melody the exact same way each time you sing it. Take advantage of that and the "averaging" effect I described above. You get the same fattening effect as chorus, but in a much more natural and pleasant way. Or, double your vocal by singing the second layer an octave above the first for yet another cool effect.

• Harmonic Convergence

If you want to try something a little more advanced, try singing harmonies. If you're like most people, this won't come naturally at first. Your natural tendency will be to sing along with the lead vocal than to harmonize with it. When I first started using harmonies, instead of trying to come up with them by singing against the lead vocal, I'd try to tap them out on a keyboard while I listened to it. I personally found this a bit easier, and it didn't take much time before I was able to do it with my voice on the spot. So if you're having trouble coming up with anything coherent by singing, try playing along to the vocal with whatever your instrument of choice is.

• Don't Compete

As I keep emphasizing, your backing vocals should be just that - in the background. Don't let them compete with, or even dominate your lead vocal. The lead is the star of this movie. Your backing vocal is that character actor you really like, but whose name you can never remember. It's there to make the star shine brighter. One way of helping to ensure that happens is to use EQ properly on your backing vocals. Your backing vocal doesn't need to contain as wide a frequency range as your lead. So my first move with most backing vocals is to make a big ol' low-end cut from about 200Hz and below. I'll sometimes add a tiny boost somewhere around 3-5k to add some presence. If you listen to the track soloed, it would sound a bit thin and weak, but behind a lead with a more robust range of frequencies, it'll sound great.

• Compressing the Issue

I tend to compress my backing vocals quite a bit harder than the lead ones. By doing this, I can mix them in at a lower volume level and they'll still sound loud enough. This allows for some nice 'barely there' effects, but is useful as a general rule in keeping your mix clean. You can't go too extreme or it'll pump and clip in a distracting way, but the lower volume level will definitely cover up some of the more unnatural artifacts of heavy compression within reason. I've also had some interesting results from not compressing the backing track at all. This can work for very subtle chorusing effects when the second track is mixed low.

• Spread Out a Bit

If you're doing multiple tracks of vocals, you should definitely play around with them in stereo. As a general rule, your lead vocal should always be front and center. But mixing the backing vocals a little off-center can really help fatten up your overall vocal sound. Try using a stereo spreader, too. Sure, it won't be mono-compatible, but honestly, I think the days where we need to sweat that too much are behind us.

• Snip Snip

The closer your lead and backing vocal match in terms of the rhythmic delivery, the slicker it will sound. The best way to do this is to rehearse the vocal a lot before you actually record it. If you know the song inside and out, you are more likely to sing each take consistently, so the parts will line up correctly. Even then, your timing is bound to be a little off, so I like to cut the backing vocal up by word and align each one with the corresponding word in the lead vocal. But like I said, imperfection is not a bad thing. You may prefer the more natural sound of an unedited backing vocal. The perfectly-lined up ones do sound really nice, though.

So what about you? What kinds of techniques do you use when you're dealing with backing vocals?


manson baptiste said...

I like to mix two takes to get a kind of chorus, but one has been recorded slightly out of tune.
To achieve this, I'll change the master tuning on my DAW and send a pitched version of the track to the singer without necessary telling him/her so.
So the singer will sing in tune with th the detuned track and then produced a detuned sing.
It gives more crisp to the backing vocals.

Anonymous said...

Thanks a lot for the info! Should really be useful to me sometime in the future!

Anu said...

In his book "A Year With Swollen Appendices", Brian Eno says there are few problems in the world that can't be solved with oyster sauce or more backing vocals.

EQ is critical - I will often roll off 500 Hz and down. You should also be careful when doing any "presence boost" as Tom suggests - the problem is that when you have many vocals layered, the consonant, fricative, and other articulation information becomes very prominent. I find that I actually need to be more aggressive with my de-esser, not less. Might just be my mic.

I'd also add "EXPERIMENT". Frequently you can get away with more dissonance or odd notes and in fact they'll sound very interesting.

If you can, use a different mic for backing vocals, or slightly different microphone pre-amp settings.

You can also use effects to place your backing vocals. A quarter-note delay on long "aah" parts is heavenly.

As Tom also notes, "imperfection" is important. Unless you're going for "singing robot", the whole point of the human voice in music is its expressive nature (both backing and lead vocals). Worry less about the notes and more about the feeling, vibe, and performance.

My last tip? Bring in someone else to sing your background vocals. It will produce richer harmonic content, sound more interesting, and music is always better when you get your friends involved!

Tom said...

Yeah, the EQ boost numbers really depend on both the mic and the singer. Some vocals will sound spitty and hissy in those frequency ranges.

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