Tracking and mixing tips for building a huge ensemble sound
Can you make your group vocals sound this big? Yes, you can!
BY MICHAEL COOPER
GROUP BACKGROUND vocals—multiple parts sung by an ensemble—present an interesting challenge: How do you make them sound big without swamping the rest of the production? Try these recording and mixing tips for colossal yet clear “BVs”!
Weed Out the Bottom The key to great-sounding BVs is bass control. If your room’s acoustics will allow it, use an omni mic to record. Unlike cardioid and other directional mics, an omni doesn’t exhibit any bass proximity effect, so you can sing within kissing distance of it without adding any blurry or boomy bottom end. If the sound is still too murky, use the mic’s built-in high-pass filter (HPF) to dump more lows; a rumble filter may not remove enough bass, but a roll-off below 150Hz should work great. If your mic doesn’t have an HPF, use an equalizer or EQ plug-in with a gentle roll-off slope.
If your group has laser-focus intonation and atomic-precision phrasing, gather everyone around one omni mic and record the lot to one track. (A good omni mic will pick up sound with equal level and consistent timbre from all directions.) If, on the other hand, the group sounds too sloppy, record each singer in turn to a separate track; that way, you’ll be able to tighten and tune up each part during mixdown to produce a cohesive whole. (The tips in the rest of this article will assume you’re recording each singer to a separate track.) Avoid mic overload like the plague; you’ll need super-clean tracks to avoid having the BVs turn to porridge when combined at mixdown.
Go Easy with Tubes What sounds great on one BV track may disappoint when used for all of them. For example, it might sound fantastic to use multiple tube stages—mic, preamp, and compressor—to record one singer. But do that for several singers in turn, and all that tube luster will turn your group BVs to mush once they’re tucked into your mix. To maintain clarity and edge when multitracking BVs, use only one vintagestyle tube stage while recording. (You can probably get away with using two tube stages with equipment using very modern, ultra-linear, low-noise designs.) I’ve had terrifi c success combining the lush Lawson L251 tube mic (in omni mode) with the crystal-clear Millennia HV-3D solid-state preamp.
Fig. 1 Use Waves Doubler to mushroom the size of your group BVs. Here’s one of my favorite custom presets.
Tee Off Once all the BVs are recorded, listen for hard, sharp consonants such as t’s that don’t voice exactly at the same time on every track. Eliminate those that are ahead or behind the subdivision beat. In fact, you don’t need more than one prominent hard consonant to voice in an ensemble to define a lyric, so delete any that are causing flamming that keeps the BVs from sounding tight.
Keep a Lid on Each Track When every singer tracks the same levels as the others in an ensemble singing multiple harmonies, a beautiful gestalt occurs in which it becomes difficult to pick out the separate parts and the group sonically becomes a single organism. To produce this effect, compress each track individually as needed before combining them. This will prevent any one voice from jumping or dipping in level with respect to the other tracks. It won’t work to bus all the BVs to one aux channel and apply a compressor to the aux.
Tune Up The use of Antares Auto-Tune on lead vocals has its champions and detractors, but for ultra-tight BVs, it’s an absolute godsend. The more harmony parts you have in an arrangement, the easier it is for one off -key singer to create distracting dissonance that ruins the blend. True, too much tuning can flatten a lead singer’s unique character. But BVs aren’t supposed to have a lot of individuality that attracts attention; their purpose is to support and meld, not take the spotlight. So don’t be afraid to lightly tune each BV track.
Auto-Tune’s Auto mode is fast and effective for all but the most ear-bending phrases. For a thicker-sounding effect, use a different Retune speed for each BV track. A Retune speed of 15 to 35 ms usually works great for BVs.
Double Your Pleasure Recording each harmony part several times—each take to a separate track—is a great way to craft ginormous BVs, but the process can be exhaustively time-consuming. Use a doubler to simulate this effect in seconds.
The Waves Doubler plug-in sounds fantastic for this application (see Figure 1). Bus all of your BV tracks to the same stereo aux channel. Instantiate Doubler on the aux. Detune two Doubler voices +6 and -6 cents, respectively, and delay them roughly 9 to 25 ms (using a different delay time for each voice). Set the feedback parameter for each voice to zero. Pan the voices apart and mute the direct signal. (You’ll combine the 100%-wet output of the plug-in with your dry tracks in your DAW’s mixer.) In Doubler’s equalizer section, roll off all lows below approximately 400Hz to avoid adding mud and boominess to your svelte dry tracks. Boost high frequencies above 5 or 6kHz to add shimmer and heighten the effect. Now you can ride the aux fader as needed to adjust the level of the effect— without affecting your dry BVs—dynamically throughout the song. Voilà—an instant battalion of BVs!