Great backing vocals can be essential if you want to turn a promising track into a superb one — so find out how to get them right every time.
A strong lead vocal is the star attraction on most hit records, but it's unusual for it not to be aided and abetted by a supporting cast of double-tracks, harmony lines and other backing vocals (BVs). Far from being minor details to be thrown into the mix at the last minute, great BVs contribute hugely to the effectiveness of a tune, by adding emotion, sustaining interest, and delivering that vital punch to choruses and hooks. It makes sense, then, to lavish plenty of care and attention on your BVs.
A lead vocal will ideally be delivered as expressively and freely as possible, while respecting the melody, but this isn't usually the case for BVs. These supporting parts need to follow a pre-determined outline, and so require discipline from both producer and vocalist. This is especially true in the case of multiple-part harmonies, which have to be 'composed' to some extent, then tracked accurately, and then edited to varying degrees. Indeed, while you'll always get better results if the parts have been well rehearsed, when it comes to modern pop, dance and urban genres, editing is an equally (if not more) important part of the BV production process. These styles demand ultra-tight performances, with no ragged edges, so be prepared to put in some serious hours in front of a screen, and get to know your DAW's editing shortcuts to make the process as painless as possible!
There are no hard-and-fast rules that govern what part to use where, but knowing what type of BV you want before you hit 'record' is incredibly helpful: the choice will determine the number of tracks required and the amount of time you're likely to need for the job, not to mention how you brief any singers you're working with. A simple harmony may take less than a minute to record, whereas editing a multi-part section can turn into a solid day's work. With this in mind, spend plenty of time listening in detail to recent hits or your favourite classic productions, so that you develop a good understanding of the types of BV that appeal to you, and an idea of which sort of tracks the variations usually suit best.
For basic BV tracking, the usual rules of vocal recording apply: make sure you create a decent headphone mix for the vocalist, to aid them in their pitching; pay attention to the sound of the room, and the mic, making sure you minimise unwanted room reflections, avoid boxiness or excessive proximity effect, and so on. Your aim is to emerge from the session with good performances recorded cleanly, so that you have usable tracks to work with when it comes to the mix.
We've run plenty of features on vocal recording over the years, so rather than revisiting the basics, I've listed some useful articles in a 'Further Reading' box. Most assume the typical modern scenario of a producer with a DAW working with one singer, and one tip I'd add specifically for backing vocals in pop styles is that, even when working with two or more vocalists, it can be a good idea to stick with a single mic; there's often little other than phase issues to be gained from using more. While you might choose to use a stereo configuration to capture an ensemble or choir, large numbers of vocalists can often be placed around a single omni-pattern mic. All you need to do is to make sure you adjust each singer's distance from the mic to achieve the best balance between them all. In short, I recommend keeping things simple where you can while tracking, as it will get complicated enough later on!
As distinct from the sort of doubling that can be achieved via software delays or dedicated hardware, a proper double-track comprises two note-for-note performances, one duplicating the other. Whether or not a double-track is actually a 'backing vocal' is debatable (it's not a distinct musical part), but as it's not a simple lead-vocal recording, let's look at it anyway.
Because double-tracking enhances tonality while blurring the rough edges of a less-than-perfect performance, it's often a useful technique to deploy on mediocre or unconfident singers as a flattering effect. The (big) down side is that it can also reduce the immediacy and intimacy of a vocal part, especially if it's a good one, so tread with care. Creating a double-track is easily accomplished by getting the singer to accompany their own lead vocal, duplicating any nuances wherever possible. Often, though, the process can be even simpler: if more than one take of the lead vocal has been recorded, with a little luck and a bit of editing an unused take can function as the double. But if the vocal is up-front and exposed, or if the main part features a once-in-a-lifetime performance, additional takes to duplicate it and/or some serious editing will be required.
A variation on the double track is to have a duplicate vocal sung an octave up or down, subjectively adding 'weight' or 'air' to the main vocal. Typically, a low-octave double will end up being mixed dry and close to the lead, whereas octave-up tracks usually benefit from a good splash of reverb. Deciding whether to use either is a musical decision, and it really requires that you commit to it, as once you've started it's hard to change your mind. Beloved of Bono among others, octave tracks can help create a 'vocal sound', and they're best used on whole sections, such as a complete verse (or even the whole song), rather than on individual lines for effect.
Unfortunately, especially when going for a falsetto double, it's entirely possible to run into situations where the verse sounds fantastic, but the chorus is simply beyond the singer's range. In such cases, a useful compromise is to keep the fantastic verses, and maintain the high-octave melodic energy in the choruses courtesy of a guitar or keyboard part, while the singer drops to their 'normal' register and confidently hammers home the chorus. When the high vocal returns in the next verse, the contrast should be pleasing.
The simplest harmony line can be a thing of great beauty, with its timely arrival helping to sustain interest in a tune, by adding richness, poignancy and emotion. If your musical act is blessed with two or more exceptional vocal talents you may have entire songs sung in harmony, as in the Simon & Garfunkel classic 'Sound of Silence', or numerous Beatles or Crosby, Stills & Nash tunes, for example. But in most modern pop music, harmonies are used to highlight particular lines, and they don't usually appear until the melody has been firmly established. On verses especially, in order not to distract from the main vocal and overload the track, single harmony lines are usually best produced as just that: a single line, recorded once (or twice at most); there's rarely any need for the thickening effects of multi-tracking.
Recording multiple parts requires additional application from both producer and vocalist. I recommend that you start by getting a perfect take of the first harmony, then moving on to the next one up, then third, fifth, seventh and so on. Then finish with any low harmonies beneath the lead, if they're required. You can end up with a lot of parts in this way so, to avoid getting lost, take notes: good old-fashioned pen and paper can be used to cross off each part as it's done, and completed region recordings can be colour-coded in the DAW for easy reference.
Such book-keeping methods help to ensure that you complete individual sections, but they're also an aid to maintaining a compositional overview of a complete song. If, for example, you have a spectacular three-part harmony on the fifth line of the first verse, chances are you'll need something similar in the same place on later verses. Again, one or two tracks per part should be sufficient: if the harmonies are nicely constructed and well-performed, it's usually pleasing for the listener to be able to pick out the individual voices making their contribution, so the blurring and rounding of many layers can be counter-productive.
Lines that flow in between or through the melody (usually from above to below but not necessarily so) can help to join song sections together by reducing 'blockiness,' as in transitions from verse to bridge or chorus, for example. They can also be very satisfying from a creative, compositional point of view, as they add a welcome dash of complexity to an otherwise simple arrangement.
Some basic musical chops are helpful here, and it's always worth picking out the notes on a piano or guitar to ensure that as the harmony line passes through the melody no unison notes are created. "Why avoid unison notes if the part works?” I hear you ask. It's simply because they can cause an unpleasant jump in level at the crossover point, due to the summing of the amplitudes of the two parts when they're singing the same note. It's not impossible to deal with at mixdown, but usually there's at least one other note that works equally well or better and saves you the bother.
Another pitfall to watch out for is lyrical overload, especially if the words in the harmony line(s) are different to those used in the melody. Take care to avoid a confusing collision of lyrics, which can be distracting and disorientating for the listener: writers and producers will 'know' the words being sung, but the listener doesn't have that advantage. So make sure it sounds right, without clashes, no matter how clever the lyrics may be.
Nothing beats the massed ranks of a block of multi-tracked BVs to complete the high point of a song, whether that be a chorus or an anthemic outro. In many a pop chorus, the backing will join with the lead vocal as an equal, and even take over the role completely, allowing the lead singer to improvise and ad lib. In order to achieve this effect, the job of singer and engineer alike is to ensure that the chorus harmonies are powerfully sung and rhythmically tight.
Additionally, consider the sheer amount of tracking that's necessary to achieve the wide stereo spread typical of modern pop vocals. Two similar vocal tracks placed in the same location in the stereo field will clearly exhibit the effects of double-tracking, but once panned hard left and hard right, you'll lose much, if not all, of that effect: each is now a single voice coming from a single speaker. In other words, in order to create a truly wide multi-tracked vocal, each part needs to be performed at least four times — twice each for left and right. (And having done that, you may well find that three or four times is better!)
Even if you wish to place different tracks at less extreme pan positions, you'll have to record each more than once to get the lush sound you can hear on the best productions. The rich, smoothing effect of multitracking can be highly addictive, especially on the ubiquitous 'oooh' and 'aaaaah' parts, so a three-part harmony will usually eat up a lot of DAW tracks very quickly. Unless you're organised, this soon makes it difficult to navigate your project, so keep on top of things by designating a bus or group track for each harmony part, and once recorded, assign each track appropriately. The same goes when mixing: if you're supplied with a chaotic mess of backing vocal harmonies, don't even attempt to tweak the fader levels until you've grouped things together!
Getting multiple tracks of harmonies to really work together can be a lot of fun, but it's usually a lot of hard work. Repairing a track or two with micro-editing is fine, but while the techniques outlined below can be applied to lazy performances, having to micro-edit a multitracked block chorus will quickly have a debilitating effect on your will to live! The results aren't likely to be as good either, so having decent recordings to begin with is essential! On a more positive note, with quality material and a little effort, great results are achievable using the basic tools available in any DAW software. The essential rule is to establish a reference against which edits will be made, and with double-tracks and simple harmony lines the reference is, obviously enough, the lead vocal.
Start by placing the reference lead and the vocal to be edited on adjacent DAW tracks, just to provide a visual guide, then solo both tracks, and pan each hard left and right at a roughly equal volume level. It's not a bad idea to use headphones for this particular job.Such a forensic approach can be brutally revealing, to the point where it's often not much fun, but in the long run it's the best route to perfectly tight tracks and a professional result. Any timing issues will be quickly revealed by the extreme panning: good sections will flow past easily, while problem parts will jar uncomfortably. Once you encounter such a clash, zoom in on the waveform in your DAW. Most timing edits can be accomplished simply by separating out and selecting wayward words or syllables and nudging them into alignment with the reference. Make sure you add appropriate fades to the snipped events and the audio either side, just to avoid clicks — though occasionally you may need to stretch or shrink sustained notes to be really precise. As a rule, if the BV is noticeably early, deal with it as a matter of course. Conversely, a limited degree of lateness is often acceptable, unless hard-sounding consonants cause an unpleasant stuttering effect.
Once everything's sitting tight, use level automation to deal with loud or quiet words and syllables. Strong breath intakes are often best dealt with by drastic level reduction rather than complete elimination, which can sound artificial. If you plan to do the edits and then bounce them, you can use the track's channel fader, but if you tend to mix and edit in the same project, you want to apply the level changes before any further processing — for example, managing the levels of clip envelopes, or automating a gainer plug-in at the top of the processing chain. Another option in this case is to use a dedicated breath-attenuation plug-in such as Waves DeBreath — but do make sure that you listen to the results as carefully as if you were editing or automating manually. Clicks and pops should, of course, be cleared completely, along, where possible, with any other extraneous noises such as headphone spill.
I find that automation is also the best way to deal with excessive sibilance, though approaching the job in this way may be time-consuming. Most standard DAW de-essers seem sadly lacking, often colouring the sound while missing some esses and making lisps of others. So unless you have access to a high-quality proprietary de-esser such as Eiosis E2, be prepared for a little manual labour: it's well worth it. The good news is that you don't have to de-ess every track of a multitracked vocal, as the process can usually be applied after the parts have been bounced down to a single track.
At this point, you may as well deal with tuning discrepancies too — but before reaching for a plug-in, check that any problematic notes are not performed perfectly earlier or later in the track, in which case a quick cut-and-paste may well do the job. If your track is generally OK but not-quite-on-the-money, the pitch correction plug-in bundled in your DAW will probably deliver an acceptable result, albeit at the expense of a little sonic fidelity. More drastic problems will need the attention of dedicated software such as Celemony's Melodyne or Antares' Autotune, either of which is a must-have purchase for anyone unfortunate enough to have to deal with poor tuning on a regular basis. As a bonus, in addition to being excellent corrective tools, both are useful as creative devices for generating new harmonies and effects.
Multitracked vocals that do not follow the lead vocal in pitch can still be edited using the 'master take' of the part as a timing reference. Again, using the solo/left/right method will lead to the tightest results, and breath intakes are normally best reduced in level rather than totally wiped clean — although any that are blatantly out of time with the master should be deleted.
Tuning multitracked vocals needs extra care, as simply strapping multiple instances of a pitch-correction plug-in across a bunch of tracks sung by the same vocalist can lead to nasty phasing problems. To avoid this, adjust the absolute pitch reference of successive plug-in instances by a few cents flat or sharp. Remember, much of the glory of multiple vocals is due to the subtle but inevitable tuning discrepancies between takes, so completely ironing them out defeats the whole point of the exercise!
Pop backing vocals will nearly always — no, make that always — benefit from EQ and compression, which can be applied in two doses either side of bouncing down. For the pre-bounce processing, try to err on the safe side, using it as a corrective rather than creative measure. Your aim is to create a solid, problem-free bounced vocal suitable for more adventurous treatment later. Here's how to go about it.
First, remove any low-frequency noises and rumbles with a low shelving cut at about 150Hz, then use further EQ dips to gently deal with any tonal shortcomings in the vocal, such as muddiness or honkiness. Generally, try to use quite narrow Q settings for cuts like this, though you can start wider to find the problem frequency, and then narrow it as you home in on the offending frequencies. A good dose of compression can then be prescribed to bring some 'cohesiveness' to the sound and smooth out any major level jumps, but without squashing the dynamics completely. Use a gentle-ish ratio: as a broad rule of thumb, the gentler the ratio, the lower the threshold can be, but you must use your ears when setting the threshold, as this parameter is always programme-dependent.
Once you've arrived at a useful combination of settings, make a template of the channel strip so you can apply it to the other similar tracks. As with any presets, some tweaking of this template will almost certainly be needed for most parts, but at least you'll be working from a good starting point, and this will save you time.
Despite its ancient origins, bouncing down is still a valuable process, whether it be as an aid to mixing or project navigation, or simply a way of freeing up CPU or RAM resources. Thirty-two or 48 tracks are a lot easier to work with than 173! Also, given the susceptibility of automation data to the occasional gremlin, even a single track can be worth bouncing, especially if it also contains multiple edits.
In the case of our multi-tracked three-part harmony, which may easily involve 24 or more tracks, the aim is to emerge with three stereo tracks, one for each harmony, so that each part can still be manipulated at mixdown. Before committing, check each element's stereo placement and that the overall image is as wide as possible, as this is the major area in which the finality of the bouncing process can lead to compromise later on. If the mix isn't wide enough, it can only be increased by stereo-image manipulation, which will sound artificial. A fully-wide, hard left/right image can be narrowed without sonic compromise, though, so that's the best route to take. Ensure that no reverbs or delays are included in the mix (these are invariably best added later, in the context of a mix) and that any master bus plug-ins are bypassed.
The labour involved in editing and bouncing down bears fruit at the mixing stage: you should now have a minimal number of great-sounding tracks, yet still enough flexibility for creative processing. Bounced vocal tracks also make great raw material for samples, if chopped into snippets, reversed or otherwise effected and used at different points in the song's arrangement.
However, the main function of bounced tracks is to facilitate mixing, with the intention of getting our backing vocals to do their work without crowding out the lead vocal or obscuring instrumentation. The single most effective technique is to 'bracket' the BVs into their own space with some strong low-cut shelving, plus taking a little off the top, before applying some severe compression. As a rule, backing vocals can handle shockingly hefty portions of squash, as there's rarely any need for one particular word to be dramatically louder than another. This EQ/compression combination will quickly separate the BVs from the lead vocal part, and the extent to which it is done — which can be huge — is purely a matter of taste. If you want to hear this in action, check out the chorus of Adele's 'Rolling In The Deep' (the biggest hit of 2011).
Further separation from the track and/or lead vocal can be achieved by adding a second compressor, with its side-chain keyed by another element of the mix which may be in danger of being obscured. As an obvious example, you could key the second BV compressor with the lead vocal signal, to achieve 3dB of gain reduction in the backing vocals whenever the lead itself is present.
To finish, a touch of delay and/or reverb is usually required to add some depth, and place the backing vocals 'behind' the lead vocal or other instruments. Again, you must make these additions while listening to the whole mix in context rather than in solo: a sustained ping-pong delay can sound great in isolation, for instance, while also cluttering the mix to the point of unusability! Generally speaking, stereo blocks of BVs singing complete lines are not great candidates for spectacular FX, and mixing them is largely a matter of finding the best balance, then leaving well alone. Once everything's sitting in place, you're done.
And that really should be it! To recap, then, what you should take away from this article is that backing vocals are essential to making most modern pop tunes work, and that while there's plenty that can be done in the editing and mix stage, if you devote far more attention to arrangement, harmony, performance and recording you'll invariably end up with a much better result. But even then, you do need to work hard at the editing stage to get things tightly in time, even if you want to preserve some of the subtle pitch variation for interest. Your job now is to go away and listen to your favourite tracks and analyse what's going on with the BVs — then try applying some of these techniques to your own tracks. With a little luck and a bit of effort, they should be much improved!
Most vocal production advice relates as much to backing vocals as it does to lead parts, and I've thus skimmed much of this in the main article. If you want to learn more about vocal production and vocal mics, check out these articles from the SOS online archive:
Vocal Recording & Production Masterclass (SOS June 2006)
Vocal Mic Shootout: Matching Mics To Voices (SOS July 2010)
20 Tips On Recording Vocals (SOS October 1998)
The cycle record and 'take' facilities of your DAW come into their own when recording multiple vocals. Set an appropriately comfortable cycle region which gives the singer a bar or two lead-in for pitch, plus perhaps a bar or two after to catch a breath, and hit record. Exactly how many takes you need to record varies, though ideally you should be able to glean a perfect track from no more than three or four takes, using the 'take edit' facilities available in Logic and other DAWs.
Be aware that if you're working with a single singer, recording dozens of times as perfectly as possible will sap stamina and concentration, and after a while performances may become tired, mechanical and lacking in emotion, even if they're still perfectly in tune and in time. It can be a good idea to get two perfect 'master' takes (one for left, one for right) of each harmony part while the singer is fresh, then return to them later for multi-tracking. These masters should be referred to when editing, and when bouncing down or mixing: use them as your main tracks, and put the not-quite-so-fresh doubles slightly behind them in terms of level.
A little sonic something can be gained by recording pairs of tracks at increasing distances from the mic. So if you're going for four pairs, record the first two at your 'normal' distance, typically 6–8 inches, and increase this distance by a foot or two for subsequent takes.
With multitracking, a line such as "Gotta get you back” can easily become "G-G-Gotta g-get you back-ck.” So get your master tracks recorded with consonants sung in the normal manner, then ask the singer to soften consonants on later takes: it's easily done, and can save a lot of editing.
Once fully recorded, a block chorus can usually be copied to any or all choruses, which is obviously highly convenient. But if an identical combination of parts is used every time, more often than not the block will sound obvious and repetitious. At mixdown, try to avoid this by muting some harmonies on early choruses, or on specific lines, but introducing them later in the song. Alternatively, experiment with differing levels for each harmony as the song progresses.
Some singers are better than others, as we all know, but it's still surprising how many 'good' singers have trouble singing harmonies convincingly. Great singing often depends as much on attitude and emotion as actual vocal talent, while the backing vocalist's craft is much more reliant upon technical ability, experience and hard work. Consequently, it's not uncommon to hit a roadblock when recording harmonies, and it's easy for both singer and producer to become frustrated after umpteen attempts to record what may appear to be a relatively simple part. For when you find yourself in this situation, here are a few pointers:
- Double-check the headphone balance, and reduce or mute any instruments that may be cluttering the mix: often it's easier to harmonise with just the lead vocal, enough drums for timing, and minimal instrumentation in the cans.
- Don't let the singer get bogged down and depressed. Move on to a different, hopefully easier, section, and return to the troublesome part once some confidence has been restored.
- Using a simple piano sound, record or program the harmony line to be sung, and add upfront to the headphone mix, louder than the lead vocal. In extreme cases, copy these notes to the previous bar or bars (depending on the length of the line), then temporarily mute any clashing instrumentation during this 'rehearsal' section. The singer should now hear the notes loud and clear just before he or she has to sing them.
- In a similar vein, you can prepare in advance if you have something like Melodyne or Cubase VariAudio, which can allow you to create wildly different notes from the first melody. Although the results can sound unnatural, they are often more than good enough to provide a guide part in a vocalist's cue mix. As with the piano/instrument suggestion above, you simply feed this into the headphones mix as the dominant melody for the vocalist to follow.
- Take a break of at least 15 minutes, and try to clear the track from your heads. Listen to some different music, watch TV, go for a walk. When you return refreshed, the problem may well be sorted quickly – although, unfortunately, if it doesn't happen within the first half-dozen takes, it's unlikely to happen at all. Once this point is reached, it may be worth considering hiring the services of a professional vocalist...
Let's expand on that last idea. Many backing singers, often with their own recording facilities, now advertise online with examples of their work so that their suitability for any given project can be easily gauged. Whether the singer comes to your studio for a session or the whole process is done remotely is a matter of personal choice, budget and geography. Either way, given the professional 'finished' quality that a pro's contributions can bring to a song, and the relatively modest fees involved, it's an option worth exploring even for amateur and semi-pro producers.
The value of using a pro is that they should be able to hear a part just once or twice, then hit the mic and generate harmonies in an almost machine-like manner — but with feeling! Additionally, a separate backing singer will bring their own tonality to the track, adding a subtle sonic layer which would be impossible for the main singer, no matter how versatile, to emulate.
As a bonus, once the spadework is done many professionals will help out by suggesting additional harmonies that you may not have thought of. Always accept these gifts! Even if you think you've reached the point of BV overkill, such ideas can come in handy during the final mix — and, of course, you don't have to use them. But fresh harmonies offered by a pro who has just heard your track for the first time can often be useful additions to the originals over which you have laboured for weeks, so keep an open mind.