Having Fun with Back-up Vocals
by Phil Gates
OK, so last month we talked about tracking vocals. This month we’re going
to talk about tracking back-up vocals. Which can be very much like
tracking lead vocals, except some variances apply.
First, we’ll talk about recording them, then we’ll talk about mixing them.
Recording back-up vocals is very important to a song. But as a producer in
our own studios, we need to get some other things handled first.
Yep, pre production!
Before you hire the vocalists, set up the mic(s), and get levels, have you
figured out exactly WHAT back-up vocals you want to record? Remember the
flight plan approach I’ve spoken of before? Get everything mapped out
first! If it’s you singing the back-up vocals, then maybe sing just rough
vocals, and record them to get the right harmonies in place. At times,
I’ll either sing them as roughs, or work them out on guitar or piano
first. Because at this point, it’s not about the actual lyrics, it’s about
the notes that will be sung behind the lead vocal. So working them all out
for every part of the song is very important.
Perhaps making a two-mix ( a stereo mix) of your song, then rehearse the
back-up vocals against that for a while. See how they feel to you. Notice
I said “feel” and not “sound”. Because back-up vocals can emote a lot of
emotion into a song, by where they’re placed in the song, what harmonies
are there, and where they lay in the mix. So see if they feel right to
you. Even if you have a lot of harmonies, you can sing them one at a time
against the song to see how they feel.
I spent a day in the studio when I was an engineer, and this three piece
vocal group sat in this studio they could barley afford, and spent over 90
minutes trying to decide who was going to sing what harmonies, and where.
They were producing themselves, and had not prepared efficiently. Finally,
when I said to them that they had spent a couple of hundred dollars in the
room doing what they could’ve done for many hours in their living rooms at
no cost, they quickly realized what it was costing them, quickly decided,
and hurried to use the remaining time actually recording. Not the best
studio day for them.
This also follows if you’re hiring talent to sing for you. Have they
material ready for them. Know what you’re going to have them sing way
before you book them. You may even realize that their voice is not going
to be right for the song, BEFORE you spend all day in the studio figuring
So you have the parts, have them rehearsed, and are confident you’ve done
your homework. Let’s get into the studio.
We’re back to what mics, the acoustics, and that end of town again. If
your singing your own harmonies, or having one vocalist over, then pretty
much re-read last months column for that info. If you have more than one
person singing at a time, perhaps a different mic pattern is desirable.
For two vocalists together, I’ll often use a mic that has a figure 8
pattern available. This mic pattern will pick up from the front and back,
but not the sides. In this case, the vocalists can be facing each other
If there are more than two, as for a couple of vocalists maybe four or
five, an OMNI pattern would be good. This mic pattern picks up sound from
all directions. So the vocalists could be in a circle around the mic. This
is fun to do with a rap group singing back-ups, or an a capella vocal
group from Barbershop to Jazz. If they can sing with good dynamics, it can
work out really well.
If your computer has limited power for how many tracks you can effectively
run, a little trick from my 2” tape days. Make a two mix of the song that
the back-ups are being sung to, save that as an audio file. Then open a
new song, call it the song name, and back ups (ex. Your Smile back ups).
Now all of the music is only taking one stereo track, which leaves you
plenty of tracks for back-ups.
How many tracks do you need for back-ups? I‘ve used anywhere from one to
twenty tracks for back ups. Even more if there are multiple back up parts
that sing over each other. Keeping in mind what the role of back up vocals
are in that particular song.
I like singing or recording talent with four tracks of each harmony. Yes,
actually singing the same exact part four times for each harmony. This is
an old technique used for decades to make back-up tracks sound much more
full. When doing tracks this way, the question usually is “Why not just
use a delay, and double it?” Which is a fair question, and sometimes that
even works just fine. When the track is sung four times, the point of the
exercise is to make them as close as possible performance-wise. An
electronic delay gives you an exact copy, time shifted. When they’re
actually sung, there are a million little nuances in volume, timing,
breathing, vibe, that make each track slightly different that each other
one. This is what makes it sound great. Doubling won’t achieve this same
effect. The end result is a wall of vocals that sounds amazing. Keep in
mind that even if you have all of these tracks, you can still decide that
say on the first chorus you’re only going to use half of them, then in the
second chorus go with them all. It’s tracks for you to play with as you go
to producer/engineer mode.
Placing them in the mix is the next part. If I have the lead vocal triple
tracked and panned at 11, 12, and 1 o’clock positions, then the backups
can stay to the outside of the lead vocal, and perhaps a little back in
the mix. You don’t want them fighting the lead vocal. That’s why they call
them BACK-UP tracks!
This is where it gets very subjective. Panning.
Some people like to pan back-up vocals with the lower notes (harmonies) in
the center of the mix, and higher vocal notes towards the outside, and
some mix the opposite, with the lows outside & highs closer to the lead
vocal. Try this and see. Another method would be to have lower ones more
to one side, and higher vocals to the other. The hip thing is that the
options are endless, and you are free to try any number of combinations.
The last part for today is taking each harmony or set of four tracks and
making them a stereo track. This would leave you four stereo tracks for
sixteen tracks of back-up vocals. You could then import these four tracks
back into your original song file, and they would be much more manageable.
You could also do all of the back-ups as one stereo mix in your back-up
song. And import just one stereo track that represents sixteen. This makes
your main song easier for your computer to handle, and if there’s any
changes you want to make, just go back to the “back-up song” and remix.
This is the tip of the iceberg. But enough to get started with.