Who’s backing you up? Simple backing vocals mixing tips

Today I’d like to share with you some personal experience and some recording/mixing tips about the use of backing vocals in your next mix. Because those subtle harmonies, whispers, “ooohhs” and “aaahhs” could really make a difference in the final balance of sounds and dynamics.

Little introductory paragraph… During the years, I had the chance to record many demos for new bands – the majority ranging from rock, indie to pop. Some of them had a band member that had clear ideas on how they wanted their mix to sound – acting as some sort of producer, some had a real one, but the majority didn’t have any production at all. So, the first thing I do, in order not to lose time in the studio –  is a pre-recording meeting, usually a week before the actual recording session starts.

That meeting is always extremely important. The band can make final decisions about the songs to record, the instruments to use, the time schedule. Many questions are asked and answered. Then I ask the singer if the lyrics are all set – sometimes they still have to make adjustments and the recording session is NOT time to experiment with verses and rhymes – unless you own the studio 🙂 – Then… my last question is always about the backing vocals: Do you guys have any BV to record? Who is going to sing? Have you decided and tryied out the harmonies?…  At this point I always find that there is a bit of confusion, the band plays live and the guitarist backs up the vocals – but the drummer reckons that he could do better, then the singer maybe suggests that he can do all the BV parts and that would sound good, but the key player now believes the BV could be a lot more textured and that he wants to write the parts… now, believe me, that has happened a few times 🙂  …“So, ok, thank you for the meeting, I believe that when we’ll meet next week you’ll have it all sorted…” 

Now, I’ve always loved those open, textured, big sounding, in-your-face backing vocals, especially when it comes to rock music. You’ll find some simple, practical suggestions below, and maybe you can experiment with that.

Backing vocals can make a huge impact on the song dynamics. BV dont have to exist only on the chorus parts. Try to record some BV on the verse of the song – on all lines of the verse, then maybe use only some parts of it. Try adding different BV on different choruses, keeping in mind the “build up” of the song you want to achieve.

Don’t copy and paste BV parts. Record multiple takes, instead – the texture of the melody will be richer. (Also, keep in mind headphones mix spills in mics – you are recording many tracks, and spills will eventually add up).

Try harmonies: its a clichè, but when it comes to mixing you may find those clichèes handy, you don’t necessarily have to avoid them. You can give it a little twist by having the backing vocals sing the words at a different timing – I mean on a different musical accent – so that they start earlier or finish after the main vocals.

Record one or two tracks having the singer whispering the vocals and use them for the special, with a bit of panning automation to make them sound interesting.

You can be drastic with the EQ: select a HP to cut lows, and try to come up with a sound that doesn’t interfere too much with the lead singer, always by subtracting and not boosting. Use a compressor to squeeze and tight the backing vocals, with a fast attack and medium-slow release time. Don’t pan different harmonies too far apart, otherwise they’ll loose that “chord”, fat sound. Place them left and right, but on the same spacial spot.

Reverb pushes the track away from the listener, so in this sense it could help placing your vocals where they have to be – in the back. But balance is also crucial, so try to use a little reverb and a clever balance to keep the BV behind the lead.

Be always aware of the clarity of the general mix and try to preserve it eq’ing the backing vocals tracks separately.

Some of the best BV I’ve recorded were made using a U87 in figure 8 pattern, having the two vocalists singing together, one in front of the other. Two to three takes, having the singers at a different distance from the mic on each take. Lots of cancellations, but an interesting result. I’m not saying that could necessarily work for you – but if you have time to experiment, and the singers are willing to do it with you – then take advantage of it.

For me, an interesting mix is like an interesting story: it surprises you, when you thought you already knew what it was going to happen. In other words, I keep in mind that a song has to have its own “development” and flow – apart from the song structure – that may be more conventional. Here’s where the BV can help, adding subtle, yet crucial variations to the mix.

Try to be creative, and consider that for many rock and pop songs, the backing vocals give can give the production a more professional, polished sound – even if you are not making a hit record today… you still want your demo to sound great. 🙂

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