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One of the most effective ways to get your songs above the fray and to the next level is by recording great harmonies and background vocals. Over the years we have found that the bigwigs in the music biz love to hear excellent lead vocals AND quality harmonies/background vocals. The problem we have observed is that many artists are used to hearing backing tracks and harmonies on songs without really noticing them. They know a song sounds good but when asked if there are vocal backing tracks on that recording, many actually don’t hear them until they’re pointed out. A lot of bands do not fully understand what vocal backing and harmonizing is until they get into the studio, but with a little coaching, most can learn how to record a good harmony and will soon be trying to write harmonies for all their songs.
At this point you must be asking yourself the burning question: What is the best way to record a harmony/background vocal?! In this article, we will detail some of the techniques that we have found are the most successful for recording, as well as some mixing tricks that will help give you those sexy harmonies to make your tracks pop!
The first thing that you should do when getting ready to record harmonies and background vocals is to have rehearsed and written vocal parts before the session! Many bands do not even think about this, so if you want to save yourself some money, spend a little rehearsal time working out some background vocals before going into the studio. Once you have your background vocals rehearsed, you must then figure out who will be singing them. Some groups will only have a lead vocalist, so in these instances you will have him/her record harmonies to their already-tracked lead part. In other cases, you may have multiple vocalists. Once you have all of this established, you are ready to move on to the next step, which is…
Every engineer’s favorite thing in the whole recording world! (Note the sarcasm). Getting the perfect headphone mix can be one of the most time-consuming parts of any session, much to the dismay of us engineers. At Night Train Studios, we have recently adopted the Behringer Powerplay P16-M Personal Mixer system. This allows for the artist to control their own headset mixes, which has made our lives (and theirs) a lot easier. But many studios still use a more traditional headphone amp system, where you have to manually adjust the headset mixes of your artist, so there are some good tricks to keep in mind. One thing we would recommend trying is adding some reverb to the vocals. A little reverb can help your performer feel a little less “naked” when they hear themselves through the cans, and give them more confidence while performing. Most singers do better hearing themselves naturally, which will often times play a role in deciding which headphones we will select. There are two categories that most headphones fall into – closed and open. Closed cup phones (like the Sennheiser HD 280 PRO) block out much of the ambient room sound and work great when other loud instruments are present; they also help keep the music from leaking into a hot mic. Open cup (like the AKG K 240) have a more natural feel but allow more unintentional leakage. If time allows, let the talent audition a few different pairs to see which they prefer. Headphones give singers a version of themselves that they may not be used to, so we often suggest they experiment a bit as they warm up by moving one cup off their ear until they find a sweet spot between the room and headphone mix. Once a vocalist finds a pair of headphones they like, we often recommend that they purchase a pair and use them all the time so that singing with them on becomes second nature.
Background vocals rehearsed: Check! Headphone mix created: Check! Now we need to pick out which mic we’re going to use. We almost always use a pop filter to help eliminate plosives P’s and B’s when recording background vocals. We also like to use a mic isolation shield (like the Auralex MudGuard) to help minimize unwanted room reflections that can color a vocal performance. These are especially helpful if you are forced to record in a less-than-optimal space. While there is no right or wrong answer when it comes to mic selection, you hardly ever can go wrong with a large (3/4” – 1”) diaphragm condenser mic on vocals. If your budget is limited, there are many low-cost mics that do a great job – check out the MXL 990 or Audio Technica AT2020, great choices for under $100. For a few hundred bucks, the choices are virtually limitless and many vocal mics double as great instrument mics, too.
A veteran vocalist knows how to move during a vocal take, sidling up close to the pop screen during intimate passages and taking a half step back and turning slightly when the chorus comes and it’s time to belt it out. Let’s also mention here that you might be tempted to record two or more vocalists simultaneously for a backing vocal track – fight that temptation. Unless the vocalists are pitch-perfect pros, you will be left with a track with imperfections in pitch and volume that you will have trouble fixing in the mix. Better to track each vocalist separately with two or more takes each so that you can focus on individual performances and can easily tweak any inconsistencies later on.
Zac Cataldo is a musician and owner/producer at Night Train Studios, a recording studio in Westford, MA. He is also co-owner of Black Cloud Productions, a music publishing company. Reach him at [email protected].
Brent Godin is a bassist/guitarist and engineer/producer at Night Train Studios. He is also a talent scout at Black Cloud Productions. Reach him at [email protected].