Contrasting Vocal Production for Duets & Features

When working on a song, sometimes the best thing you can do to give it a new sense of life is to introduce another vocalist to the track. That’s not knocking your current singer; it’s just that the reality of today’s music industry is that people love variety. It’s why you’ll see guest slots filling up all over pop and hip hop tracks and it’s the reason why some of your favorite bands have guest vocals on some of their biggest hits. 

Collaborating brings a new element to a band’s sound that you just can’t get when it’s the same singer on each and every song.

If you’re new to the idea of adding someone new to your work, you might want to start out with a feature – a spot in your song where another singer joins in for a verse and maybe some support on the chorus. This can be more easily arranged, with many singers offering guest vocals for a flat rate where they can record it themselves and send you the file for mixing.

Of course, if you’d rather jump all in, duets can bring an entire production to life in a new and meaningful way. They can even act as the core of your arrangement with the melody and harmony of the two voices acting as the pivot that all other instrumentation moves around. There are plenty of cheesy duets out there, but a great one can be a timeless piece of music.

Regardless of the approach you take, you need to keep a constant contrast between the two voices in the mix. Make sure they sound good together while being easily distinguished and full of character with these tips.

Islands In The Stream

Perhaps the greatest example of a duet comes from the 1982 single from Kenny Rogers & Dolly Parton, “Islands In The Stream” (originally by the Bee Gees). Their version has topped dozens of charts, been certified platinum by the RIAA, seen covers from several other major artists and was even sampled on a hip hop track in the 90’s (which also went on to top the charts).

You can also walk into a bar on almost any karaoke night and, for better or for worse, hear a cover of it.

But even if you don’t love the song, there’s one thing about it that makes it an instantly recognizable work – the distinct contrast between Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton.

Kenny Rogers has a deep, gravelly country vocal. There’s a decent amount of grit to his voice naturally and he stays in that zone throughout the song.

Dolly Parton’s voice is almost instantly recognizable in any scenario, but even if you’re not a fan, it stands out especially well in this duet. Above the full baritone of Rodgers, Dolly’s higher pitch and additional presence hits you starkly. When her voice comes in just seconds after Rodgers, you’re pulled in and feel the push and pull of the two voices the rest of the song. 

Mixing Two Voices Instead of One

When you’re working with two singers that both deserve the lead spot in your mix, your approach to mixing changes. While you’re still using a similar vocal chain in most instances, you’re not always going to EQ your vocals the same as you would when they’re standalone – you’ve got to fit two voices where you usually put one.

In a situation like the one with Dolly & Kenny, their natural vocals can help push you in the right direction. You can readily sculpt a male vocal into a lower frequency range than a female vocal in most cases just by working as you would naturally. Things get a bit trickier when it comes to two vocalists with a similar range.

For me, these singers get mixed almost identically. I’ll use the same EQs and compressors on both if it seems right, but the “seasoning” on top is where I’ll create separation. Sometimes this comes in the form of a high-shelf boost to raise one over the other while other times I might use a bit more saturation or even a lo-fi effect. It all depends on the song and the vocalists, but I’ve even used a radio-effect on a singer’s feature before to event more heavily accentuate the contrast between the two.

Getting Input From The Singers

At the end of the day, you’re working with two artists who take their work seriously, and both deserve input on how they think their voice sounds compared to their co-singer. Get feedback from both of them upfront whenever possible so you understand their vision for the mix. Maybe they recorded with a specific dynamic in mind – you’ll never know until you ask and it’s your job to make it all fit together.

Making More Out Of Your Vocal Sessions

One of the places I feel like everyone could improve (yes, even the pros) comes from the writing and recording sessions for vocals. So many people seem to fail to use this time to their full advantage. Outside of topline writers and vocal producers, who else is really putting in the work to get options and innovating during this time versus just trying to capture what’s already been written?

If you’re ready to get on the level of a vocal producer to start getting the results you’re hearing from your favorite artists, The Ultimate Vocal Producer’s Handbook is the perfect place to start. Inside, we’ve included over 40 pages of tips and tricks to get the most out of your vocal productions.

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