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Eight Hellacious Background Vocal Mistakes

May 1, 2010
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Stacked harmony vocals and extensive background voices are being heard and dug on again! Some of the best examples are on tracks by redhot indie bands such as the Fleet Foxes and Grizzly Bear. These bold bands are not merely pulling the nostalgic card, but rather making cutting- edge music by blending tried-and-true techniques with elements unique to themselves.

So when it comes to vocals, be as creative and adventurous as the music will allow. However, you need to know upfront that recording background vocals (and leads, as well) may not be as simple as tracking instrumental parts. After all, voices can be rather “moody”—much like their owners. Try not to become too frustrated in the process, because the results of your patience can be what launches your song into a whole other level of greatness. To that end, here are eight traps you should avoid if you want your backing-vocal arrangements to be stunning.

Lack of Preparation

Don’t just announce at one session that everyone in the band will be singing background vocals at the next session. The musicians should be alerted ahead of time what will be required of them, and, even if they sing background vocals at gigs, they should be encouraged to do vocal rehearsals backed only by sparse acoustic instrumentation. This is an excellent method for sharpening everyone’s skills. And you don’t have to focus entirely on the songs you’ll be recording at these rehearsals— working on familiar cover songs is a good technique for practicing voicings and parts. Finally, repetition is your friend. It’s almost scary how much time great vocal bands spend rehearsing, arranging, and experimenting with parts. Singing wellarranged background vocals may be the furthest thing from jamming on the planet!

Choosing the Wrong Singers

Lead vocalists often have ideas for background vocals, and they usually want to sing them, but make sure your singer is versatile enough to chirp the background parts and fit in character. Like many personnel choices in the studio, it’s all in the casting. Some singers sound fantastic doing their own background vocals, and some sound absolutely dreadful. It’s like acting—you have your star (lead vocalist), and your support players (background vocals). You always want to be cautious not to water down the star power (or have it stolen), as you are looking to enhance it. In general, clean and clear voices are more prone to blend well with themselves than gruff, raspy vocalists. Look at it this way: For lead and backgrounds, Michael Jackson and Freddy Mercury each score a 10. Joe Cocker and Tom Waits get immediate zeros, which is why you’ve never heard them sing their own backgrounds.

Dumping the Audition

Don’t ever start tracking background vocals “deaf.” Before you even work out the parts, audition all the voices in the band, and find the vocal ranges and textures that work well together to form an overall blend. Start with simple vocal parts—you should find out right away who is gifted, and who will require a bit of patience to bring along. If you stress the importance of concentration and focus, even the less-gifted singers should be able to contribute to a sensual vocal blend.

Ignoring the Little Details

And speaking of “blend,” make sure everyone knows the lengths of the notes they’ll be singing, where to take breaths, and how much vibrato (if any) is desired. The object is to come off as one singular presence in the track, as opposed to many different approaches at once. It’s all about blend, baby, so practice and practice and practice some more until all the harmony voices seamlessly nail the same phrasing.

Setting Singers Up to Fail

Recording group background parts live in the studio is an amazing thing. When stellar voices are ringing in the room, all you have to do is set up multiple mics to grab different ambient sounds, and you’ll often capture pure magic. However, if the talent pool isn’t up for singing as a group, you can die a slow and painful death. Be honest with yourself—and those you are working with—and be quick to notice if a group can handle singing background parts live, or the parts need to be paired down, or even overdubbed one-by-one. For many inexperienced studio singers, getting tight parts together as a group can be very challenging, but the same singers may sound fantastic doing “onesies.” Never force a method on the artist that will fail— choose an option that’s comfortable and that will bring success.

Selecting the Wrong Mics

Sometimes, a vocal mic is set up, and all voices singing on the session that day will automatically use it. This could be a big mistake, as each vocalist may sound better on a different mic that’s chosen to enhance the individual tonal characteristics of his or her unique voice. Always listen to each voice before committing to a mic, and, remember, the price of the mic should have no influence on your choice. If a singer sounds amazing through a $39 Radio Shack mic, then that’s the mic to use.

In addition, don’t be shy about experimenting with mic positions, or recording in different parts of the recording space. Varied ambient sounds may help bring the background parts to their full potential. During the mix, you can enhance these differences further with EQ tweaks and/or signal processing to bring a range of textures to the parts.

Stepping All Over the Track

Arranging background vocals is a high art, but it’s one that can be done easily if you can hear effective parts and know how to voice them. Basically, you want to make sure the backgrounds have their own place in the soundscape, and don’t randomly double the lead vocal, or compete too much with the featured instruments. For example, try highlighting key phrases with one or more background parts. This is an effective way to ensure the background parts are tight and focused, and spotlighting key words and phrases also makes literal sense by bringing important elements of the lyric to the forefront. Listen closely to the lead vocal throughout the song, and choose spots that can be accented. I’m also a sucker for wellplaced “aaahhhs” or “ooohhhs.”

Leaving Well Enough Alone

There is often a tendency to capture a background vocal part, and be so thrilled (or relieved) that you simply move on to another task. But moving forward too quickly may cost you a great opportunity to expand on what you have just captured. While obviously a song-by-song option, doubling background vocals in unison is a time-tested technique. Usually, the best time to tackle this is right after the singer has sung the main part, because it is still fresh in his or her mind, and the phrasing and vocal tone will likely match. Of course, there are plug-ins that do a reasonable job of simulating vocal doubles, but I’ve never found one quite as cool as a great singer’s ability to overdub naturally. If I am going for a big vocal harmony wall, I often triple each background part in unison, and then add two, three, or more of the same with different melodies in various ranges for that massive, “bigger is better” sound. In the mix, I may pan the various parts slightly left, right, and center, while also adding the same reverb and/or delay to all of them.

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