Background vocals can make or break a mix. Just a single out-of-tune harmony degrades the quality of the entire group in an incredibly noticeable way. Think of the last time you noticed a bad vocal harmony – it wasn’t subtle was it?I’m willing to bet it was harsh, probably unnatural, and way too loud in the mix. Why is that?
Because when something’s wrong you notice it. You fixate on it, wondering how someone could let something so out of place slip through to the final mix. Even people who consider themselves casual music listeners can hear it and recognize the problem.
But when you nail those backgrounds? They’re a wall of sonic perfection that can’t be matched by any other instrument. They’re complex and intriguing. They glue a mix together by adding dimension and characteristic.
So how do you take something basic like a 2-, 3-, or 4-part harmony and turn it into a lush choir stack?
Don’t Worry About Voice Counts
There are plenty of tools out there to increase the number of voices in your track. Simple methods like copying the tracks and nudging them a few milliseconds out of alignment is one trick, but it’s not the most natural sounding one.
Instead, you should be focusing on tools that do the work for you. Time-based effects like reverb and delay can create a 3D space around your vocals, and short delay times can even create some additional layers.Then there are the other tools that digitally duplicate your vocal tracks with some variation, specifically designed to add timing and pitch variations. The problem again here lies in how natural you can get them to sound. While they work wonders to quickly increase voice counts, they still need some massaging to sit correctly in the track.
Don’t Lose Your Center
The other problem you face with a limited number of source tracks is spreading them out in the mix without spreading them too thin. When your background vocals get mixed, you typically want them wide – but unless you’ve double tracked, it’s unlikely you’re going to have enough voices to really fill out the space.
What’s worse, spreading them wide without the proper track count can leave the center of your mix weak – making your lead vocal stick out like a sore thumb without any reinforcement.Instead, I prefer to use tools like SideWidener to fill out my mix because it works in a way that maintains the center image, creates a “pseudo-double-track effect by making my vocal tracks stereo, and gives me complete control over how wide each harmony should be.
Check out how Fluff uses this approach with his band:
At the end of the day, we need to work with what we get, but that doesn’t mean we need to settle for less than we desire.
By adding variation through different processing modes, changing widths & applying time-based effects, we can make each vocal part sound unique. Find a space for each of them by starting your low vocals at full width and building up and in (less and less width). Then try the reverse (or a combination of the two).
Spatial widening can get you to an even spread and a killer choir on any track when used right.
Are You Ready For More Robust BG Vocals?Try SideWidener on your next session to see how your background vocals react to spatial widening, without the center image fuss and concerns engineers usually run into with similar plugins.
Then, head over to the Joey Sturgis Tones Forum to share your experience and discuss with other like-minded producers.