Pop, Rock and everything in-between – we look at how to record backing vocals at home
Adding backing vocals to your recordings, whether at home or in the studio is an essential part of the recording process. It adds weight to your overall sound and really makes your lead vocals shine. No matter what style of music you’re in to, whether you prefer acoustic singer songwriter styles, you front a rock band or you prefer R&B and Soul, you should really consider the importance of adding backing vocals to your sound as they add emotion to the overall feel of the song and can really bring out the best in a chorus or vocal hook.
If you’re recording at home or in the studio, you’ll want to know how to record backing vocals or “BV’s” as they’re known in the studio. So in this blog we’re going to look at the equipment you’ll need to add all styles of backing vocals to your tracks including microphones, software and some examples for context.
Plan what you’re going to record
Although singing a lead vocal line is all about being expressive and bringing out the raw emotion of the track, adding to the song and directing the way you want your listener to react, backing vocals need to be a little more “strict”. A lot of BV’s need to be approached as if they’re another instrument entirely and one that follows a certain path, otherwise it can sound messy – like there are too many voices competing for attention. Each backing vocal needs to be written in a way that adds to the weight or emotion or brings out the best in the lead vocal, whether it’s through a simple harmony or multi tracked vocal supporting what’s being sung. Are you going to let the lead vocal do its thing for the verses and then beef up the chorus? Or are you going to add a harmony all the way through and take it out the bridge or drop down to make the listener take notice? Each part needs to be written just like you would a musical instrument. But first, let’s explain the different parts…
Double tracking vocals
Double tracking is achieved by singing the same thing over a lead vocal recording, capturing the same nuances as the first vocal as much as possible. You’re essentially duplicating the same performance manually. This is especially useful if you have a singer lacking in confidence or want to smooth out some of the rough edges of a vocal performance. It adds weight to the track easily, but be warned, it could take the intimacy of the original vocal away.
If you don’t think you can capture the same vocal performance again, you can simply copy the vocal track drag it into another track within your DAW entirely and add some very slight delay on it to get a very similar effect. However, if you feel the original vocal performance is not good enough, this will merely highlight the negative parts of the take – so be careful either way. A great example of recording a lead vocal twice can be found in almost any Foo Fighters song as Dave Grohl is a real fan of double tracking his lead vocals. To get a good lead vocal, you’ll need the right microphone for the job…
Three great options come in the form of the SE Electronics V3 Dynamic Microphone, the SE Electronics V7 Dynamic Microphone with patented shockmount system or the industry standard Shure SM58 Microphone. All of these great microphones are perfect for the live arena too, so you can take your preferred mic to gigs and save having to deal with someone else’s stinky old microphone!
Single Harmony lines
Harmonies can add such depth to your song, to the point where it becomes a vital part of the finished product – without it, the song just wouldn’t sound the same. A good example of a spine tingling harmony line can be found in the song ‘Poison & Wine’ by The Civil Wars.
Harmonies are usually only added in once the main melody lines of the song are established (around the 2nd verse), as they can be brought in to reignite interest in the song later on – especially when the big chorus kicks in at the end. Of course, entire songs can be sung with harmonies just as the Beach Boys and Simon & Garfunkle would do, but again it’s up to you. The beauty in harmony lines is that they can also convey emotion and don’t really need to be double tracked, as you risk overloading the track at this point if you add too many. Nailing harmonies is a real skill, so make sure you have a good set of headphones on that convey exactly what’s going on and utilise a good quality condenser microphone to capture all the nuances that perfectly convey that raw emotion you’re feeling.
A great set of headphones like the Beyerdynamic DT100 400 Ohms Studio Headphones will provide all the sensitivity and dynamics you need to hear everything going on in the mix accurately. For those who need a more budget friendly option, the Essentials HP-2 Headphones provide that all important isolation when recording so you can hear the lead vocal and harmonize correctly.
Backing Vocal Octaves
Another great way of adding weight to your lead vocals, especially during the chorus it to duplicate the lead vocal an octave up or down. When isolated, this can sound quite funny – especially if you’re adding a falsetto vocal, but in the context of a song sounds great. This type of backing vocal is extremely common in pop songs, such as DNCE – ‘Cake By The Ocean’ where if you listen closely the backing vocals are also falsetto.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, you have the likes of Bon Iver, who utilises lower octaves or a ‘chest voice’ in many of his songs to contrast the overall falsetto aesthetic of his sound. This type of backing vocal should be coupled with a little bit of reverb, so make sure you try adding it to both the high octave or low octave backing vocal parts to get the best sound for your track. Yes, it might sound a little silly at first, but stop laughing and get stuck in as it’s totally worth it. Pop acts and even Bono from U2 use this recording technique constantly. If you find you can’t hit the higher notes of the chorus, try backing it up with a guitar or keyboard instead and leave the octave backing vocals to the verse.
Fortunately with most recording interfaces, such as the Focusrite Scarlett range, you get a range of programs to record with, but if you don’t have one already, the Native Instruments Komplete 11 Select Music Production Suite is a an easy to use, professional grade music production tool that you can use to record all your instruments as well as your vocals. It’s also packed with a range of effects to help you shape those perfect backing vocals.
Group backing vocals, a chorus block or gang vocals as they’re sometimes called add a particularly interesting element to your sound and can be used in a variety of ways, whether in the chorus, verse or to make a up a new hook completely. A few examples can be found in the likes of the Lumineers song ‘Ho Hey’. Through the use of a myriad of different voices, the chorus hook really stands out and gives the entire track a party vibe. 30 seconds to Mars recorded an entire crowd at one of their gigs to get that signature sound for the album This Is War, taking the gang vocals to a whole new level.
Fear not though – you can achieve this great effect simply by getting your bandmates involved or even recording yourself in different parts of the room singing the line or hook you want to record. A good way to experiment is to place your condenser microphone in the middle of the room and record yourself singing the hook in different areas of the room. If you’re using other singers all at once, through one microphone, just place them at different positions in front of the mic to get the best balance – some voices will be louder than others so make sure to put the big voices a little further back.
You’ll need a decent recording interface that will tell you when something is clipping but allow you to get the best out of your recording by not limiting how loud you can go too drastically – the Focusrite Scarlett 2i4 Second Generation (2nd Gen) USB Audio Interface will do a great job of this, as will the M-Audio M-Track 2X2M C-Series – both of which are capable of providing professional level recordings anytime, anywhere.
How to record great backing vocals at home
In summary, when recording backing vocals you need to:
- Plan what you’re going to record
- Double track lead vocals
- Plan single line harmonies
- Layer with backing vocal octaves on the verse or chorus
- Try gang vocals to bring out hooks or chorus lines with a condenser mic
- Use good quality vocal microphones
- Use good quality, isolating headphones
- Use a DAW to edit your vocals
- Have fun!
View a complete range of recording equipment over at the Dawsons website.
Lee Glynn is a guitarist and multi-instrumentalist who lives in Liverpool, England. After moving to the UK from Perth, Australia, Lee enjoyed a successful career as guitarist in Liverpool based rock band Sound of Guns. After releasing two albums, a myriad of EPs / singles and touring extensively around the world for 6 years including stops at Glastonbury, Latitude Festival, as well as the coveted Reading & Leeds Festivals, Lee decided it was a time for a change of scenery.