Using Time-Based Effects With Background Vocals

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We’ve extensively covered ways to use time-based effect like delays and reverbs on your lead vocals to create a lush, moving soundscape, but we rarely discuss the situations you should be using these effects on background vocals. The results you can get from them vary widely - from just a hint of echo to massive vocal stacks large enough to give “Bohemian Rhapsody” a run for its money! But knowing when and how much to use takes a bit of practice or training.

For some engineers and producers, time-based effects should serve the same exact purpose on background vocals as they do on leads – and to an extent, they’re not wrong. The end goal of any vocal processing is to get something that fits well in the mix and enhances the songs.

If you fall into this group though, you’re probably still struggling with the “trial and error” approach.

With a bit of intuition about when and where you can get the most out of echoes and reverbs on your background vocals, you can begin refining your process and start making more informed decisions about how your mixes develop. Let’s take a look at some of the prime cases of when and when not to use time-based effects on your background vocals.

Where Are Your Vocals?

This question is a great starting point, but more importantly, it should always be accompanied with the question of “Where do you want them to be?” If the two don’t align with each other, you’ve got some work to do.

Getting from Point A to Point B isn’t just about the effects – panning, EQ, and compression all play huge roles in getting your vocals to sit right in the mix. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about leads or backgrounds; dynamic processing will always play a role. For questions about the space your vocal lives in, a reverb is probably your best bet.

Reverb makes it easy to determine both the size and space surrounding your vocal. Do you want something to sound upfront and present? Go with less reverb with shorter decay times. Need it to sound larger than life? More reverb with longer decays – but don’t turn it up to the point where it sounds distracting. Only when your working with vocals that should sound unnatural and spacey should you be pushing the level of your reverb up to match or even exceed the level of the voice.

So how does basic reverb technique apply to background vocals?

Largely, the same advice should be applied. With background vocals, we get the luxury of being a bit looser with the amount of reverb we use because none of these vocals are meant to be the highlight of the song. Reverbs can be used on individual vocal tracks or on a background vocal bus to be treated as a group. I love using the second approach because it almost turns the backgrounds into a melodic pad as a sort of backdrop for my lead vocals.

Less Is More

Engineers should be cautious when it comes to the use of delays on their background vocals as well. As an occasional delay throw or way to add some movement to a song (see our ping pong delay article), delays are completely fine. Use them to add a new musical element to a mix as a production technique and you’ll get some great and sometimes crazy results.

For all other uses of delay, you need to consider the impact those echoes of your background vocals contribute to the makeup of your song and their impact on the frequency spectrum. I can’t tell you how many songs I’ve heard where mixers were careless with their delays and you’ve suddenly got this muddy, unintelligible mix of voices. It’s like having all of your singers sing at the same time in a massive cave – just a nightmare with echoes bouncing all over the place. Using smaller amounts of delay that don’t mask or clutter other parts of your mix should always be your goal.

If you’re set on using a delay on your background vocals, you can almost always consider rolling off some low-end as a solution to muddiness and build up. By hi-passing your delays, you can get a LoFi-style effect going that essentially place your echoes in a different headspace altogether than the main background tracks. Try it out the next time you’re in a pinch.

Getting Rid of the Background Noise

As the mixer on a session, you may be faced with a tough decision of choosing which background vocals make the cut for the final song. This can be a difficult but necessary choice whenever you get too many vocals to fit them all into the mix. When you’ve done your best to group everything together and try to make it all fit, how do you decide what goes and what stays?

In situations like this, having a fundamental understanding of what a professional vocal producer would do can be a great ace up your sleeve. By understanding the production and writing aspects of the vocals, you get to make the cuts as a producer might. This was our goal when writing The Ultimate Vocal Producer’s Handbook.

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