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Recording and Mixing Backup Vocals

7:01 am Home Recording

When we record and mix a new song, we naturally give a lot of thought to handling the primary musical elements: the drums, the vocals, the lead guitar, and so on. We consider relative volume levels and EQ, stereo placement, and the use of reverb or other effects for each track. But to make a great recording, we need to give just as much consideration to the secondary musical elements, like percussion, harmonies, and backup vocals. These elements provide the details and accents that make a good song into something really special.

In this article, I want to focus on the recording and mixing of backup vocals. Now, when I speak of backup vocals, I am not talking about harmony vocals, in which the harmonizing vocal part sings the same lyrics at the same time as the lead vocal. I am talking about vocal parts that just go “oo” or “ah” in the background, or that repeat (or anticipate) lyrics sung elsewhere in the song, or that sing lyrics not sung elsewhere in the song in a call-and-response pattern with the lead vocal.

For me, backup vocals must be sung in at least two-part if not three-part harmony. In general, there is nothing more pathetic than a single voice going “oo, oo” behind the lead singer! Most of the backup vocal parts in the songs I record are in close two-part harmony.

Gettin’ ‘Em Down

If you have 16 or more tracks available for recording, you will probably be able to have each vocal on its own track going into the final mix, but if you have only eight tracks you can’t really afford the luxury of using up three or four of those tracks on the vocals (a lead vocal and a possible harmony part, plus two backup vocals). In this case, I usually record a click track and rhythm guitar on Tracks 1 and 2 and then use these as a reference while I record the various vocals on Tracks 3, 4, 5, and 6. Then I make a stereo “premix” of the four vocals (with effects) onto Tracks 7 and 8 and erase the original vocal tracks for re-use, leaving me with a premixed stereo pair of tracks containing all four vocals going into the final mix.

Whether you combine all of your vocals in the final mix or use a vocal premix as described above, the stereo placement of the backup vocals plays an important role in the overall sound that results. I would like to use one of my songs, “Goodbye Angel” (mp3, chords, lyrics) to present some examples of different approaches to mixing a pair of backup vocals. In this very short song, there is a verse with a lead vocal only, a second verse with lead and backup vocals, and a chorus with lead and backup vocals, and that’s it. (I told you it was short!)

For each mixing approach, I will provide a mix of just the second verse and the chorus, made using that approach. During the verse, I will turn off the lead vocal so you can hear the backup vocals by themselves, then for the chorus I will turn it back on so you can hear the backup vocals together with the lead. Since the main point of this exercise is to experiment with stereo placement, it would probably be best to listen to the examples with earphones, although if your computer speakers are far enough apart you should still be able to pick up on the differences between the approaches.

Hearing the Difference

OK, so let’s get going. The first approach is to have both backup vocals dead center in the stereo, right behind the lead vocal, as in Example #1. (Enable popups for this site if the mp3 player does not appear here.)

With this approach the vocals are basically in mono and would only need to take up a single track going into the final mix. The tradeoff is that it can be hard to distinguish the backup vocals clearly when they are in the same place as the lead vocal. Also, the cramped arrangement just doesn’t “pop” the way a stereo vocal mix does.

The second approach is to have the two backup vocals together but off to the side, as in Example #2.

This makes it easier to hear the backup vocals but it also introduces a left-to-right asymmetry in the vocals, and thus in the mid-range frequencies in general. To compensate, I like to balance the off-center backup vocals with another mid-range part (the keyboard, in this case) positioned off to the opposite side of the stereo.

The third approach is to separate the backup vocals, panning one toward one side of the stereo and the other toward the other, as in Example #3.

This gives a nice symmetrical vocal mix, but with the two backup vocals so “far apart” in the stereo they don’t really blend into a single sound the way they do when they are “on top of each other.” I have panned them fairly far left and right for this example, but bringing them in closer to center reduces the non-blending effect, at the cost of approaching the mono sound of the first approach. (This is the approach I used in the completed version of “Goodbye Angel.”)

Finally, in the fourth approach, we pan both backup vocals toward one side of the stereo while also sending them both through a delay unit set to about 30 ms. The return signal from the delay unit is then panned toward the other side of the stereo. You can hear the result in Example #4.

With this approach, both vocals appear on both sides of the stereo. The delay fools the ear into thinking that there are two additional singers singing along with the original two. We end up with a full-sounding, symmetrical vocal arrangement that still only uses up two tracks!

These approaches give you a lot of options to choose from, but you can use your imagination and come up with still others. For example, what about panning one backup vocal left and the other right while also sending them both through a 30 ms delay unit, with the return signal from the delay unit placed at stereo center?

[”Goodbye Angel” is one of 21 example songs included with my eBook, Cheap Advice On Songwriting.]

Goodbye Angel (Bendig) (mp3, chords, lyrics)
Mark Bendig:
vocals, guitar, keyboard, percussion

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3 Responses
  1. Christian :

    Date: May 16, 2008 @ 8:26 pm

    Well thought out. Some interesting ideas.

    -C

    http://www.mixmymusic.net

  2. John Poulton :

    Date: August 11, 2008 @ 5:45 pm

    I’m going to bookmark your site. You offer mostly simple, but effective advice. This will improve my mixes. Good work and thanks for the tips. I know a little after 5 years of doodling - I learned something new today.

    Visit 2090.org! You’d very welcome.

  3. Swiss Ball Exercises :

    Date: November 12, 2010 @ 11:07 am

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