Vocals are tricky. Plain and simple. Because no two human voices are the same, the mic changes every time, even each vocal take is different, so this complicates things even further. However there’s a few tricks to iron out the kinks in a solo vocal that can otherwise sound boring, or even shrill to the common user. To that end let's dive in and talk about vocal layering.
Backing Vocals Galore
Backing vocals covers a broad spectrum so we’re going to split this into a few groups:
- Vocal Dubs
- Left and Right Harmonies, or doubled vocals
- An octave Vocal
- Faux Harmonies
This should give you a clearer picture as to what the track might be missing as you learn this skill further, or even help you choose what sort of colour palette you’d like for your vocal sound when in the pre-production phase. Often, I’ll try to include all of these styles in my recordings if the space is available, even if just bringing up the fader on an FX vocal such as Faux harmonies while the space permits. This video will give a clearer insight to the sonic character you can achieve:
Vocal dubs are simply a duplicate layer to accent a specific word, or phrase, to help it stand out. Often, this will be the hook of the song, or possibly the name, etc. which is the main focus for the track. However, within the mix, this can also be a second harmony that you want to bring focus to as well. Typically, as we’ll discuss in a moment, harmonies are saved for a more ‘blended’ vocal, whereas these are a much more focused and exaggerated harmony vocal, that is at the same loudness as the lead vocal.
Vocal dubs can often be referred to as ‘ad-libs’, a much more common term in rap and hiphop studios. This is usually a term for those vocals that are between the main vocal takes - such as when you read the lyrics back and the vocals have a ”backing vocals take” at the end of the line. This is exactly the sort of thing a dub vocal would be useful for within the context of recording.
The Trap of Hard Panning
These tracks are typically saved for harmonies, or in heavier music, this is where those dub vocals really shine! When thinking in terms of the stereo image, it might seem like the obvious choice to hard pan left and right to avoid clouding the centre panned main vocal. However, a lot of that space can, and should have already been allocated with guitars and drum overheads/room mics. The
centre, is typically bolstered by the bass, kick, snare, main vocals, and any other elements within a 30% range either side. So where can you put them?
Instead of panning them I use Reel ADT by waves to not only pan by around 60-75% left and right respectively, and subtly double the vocal using a tape emulation - this gives a much more natural sounding vocal rather than a typical ‘doubler plugin’ - I usually save that for guitars instead where it doesn’t necessarily need the ‘natural’ feel. Below are my settings if you’d like to try it out and you can check out the sound of this in the video above as well.
Octave and Faux Harmonies
Subtle octave vocals are a really wonderful way of bringing out the main hook or a section of a song that may feel a little empty compared to the rest of the track. Layering this underneath subtly can add a lot of depth and body to a thin vocal if the musician is lacking in power as well - to this end, if the vocalist is unable to get to that octave, a lovely little plugin called Little Alter Boy by soundtoys is one of my favourites to create a layer with a certain element of ‘grain’ to it as well. This is a technique used by Fineas and Billie Eilish for her chordal vocal effects (the verse in Bad Guy is a perfect example of this).
Sometimes, you’ll find the vocalist is unable to focus on creating harmony layers, and keeps falling into the melody they’ve been used to practising so often. This can create problems if you’re looking to add harmonies that you know are there, but unfortunately the vocalist is either inept or not experienced enough yet. Luckily, there is a way to show them the harmonies you’re looking to embody into their songs even if they can’t necessarily do them. Enter faux harmonies and Eventide Octovox.
This plugin not only tracks and pitch corrects the vocal depending on the key and scale you choose, but then transposes and formants it similar to Little Alter Boy by soundtoys, but in a much smoother way. It’s almost vocoder-esc in its timbre, but in a really natural way and in the video above you can hear a perfect example of when both these techniques are added together in an otherwise absent sounding bridge.