How to create the perfect backing vocals for your song

Pro7ect founder and songwriter Lisa Fitz offers some invaluable insights into the art of great backing vocals.

Backing vocals are the icing on the cake for songwriters and vocal producers who get a kick out of the performance and production power of the voice. In this month’s Session Notes blog, Pro7ect Songwriting Retreats founder and songwriter Lisa Fitzgibbon explains some of the options available when writing and arranging these top-line vocal shades.

The BVs you add to a song are like the brush strokes painters use to shade, colour, and enhance their subject, and are typically used to build dynamics and energy to parts of a song, especially on hooks and choruses.

As with most contemporary music practices there are no hard and fast rules to writing and arranging backing vocals. I am a huge advocate of the ‘less-is-more’ school of BVs, as often a single vocal is far more impactive than an over-cooked harmony tsunami. It’s horses for courses though, and like most things, creating quality BV arrangements is all in the preparation.

For this month’s blog I’ll be staying in the lane of writing and arranging BV’s. The recording and mixing process requires a whole different skill set which I will write about in future blogs.

Arrangement First.

Start at the beginning - refine your process.

I usually start each BV arrangement by setting up the track on my DAW. My happy place is in the throng, thump, and thrash of creating BVs, and I like to experiment with vocal sounds and layers, taking risks and finding options in a free and fluid way. It is so much easier to experiment when you’re working alone, and I’m a strong advocate for singers to liberate themselves by using their own DAW (Digital Audio Workstation). It’s the perfect gateway to audio production and Garageband is an easy starter, the software is included with every MAC computer, so there’s really no excuses.

Later, a basic arrangement demo will prepare you for the actual recording or performance of the song. This suck-and-see scenario gives you total autonomy and creative control over your own artistry. But your first job as Backing Vocal arranger is to just get it all down. Other decisions apply when you are in the recording and mixing stage of the project, your job now is to enjoy experimenting with ideas.

Here are some things that you can try when you are arranging your BV’s:

1. Tracked vocals – layering the same part 2 or 3 times over the main vocal is a very simple but impactive way to improve the depth and drama of a vocal take.

2. Simple harmonies - above, or below (a nice change), the main melody is a traditional arrangement approach. This is quite often a 3rd or 5th above the melody line, but sometimes I like to use a mix of the two creating a counter-melody harmony that moves around the lead vocal.

BVs are like the brush strokes painters use to shade, colour, and enhance their subject. Lisa Fitz

3. Add octaves – if a section is feeling a bit flat but doesn’t need a harmony why not track in an octave above or below? I use this technique often to thicken up the spread of the main vocals.

4. Vocal pads – try building lush layered vocal harmonies and stack them like a string section. This can be a load of fun, especially if you use vocal sounds rather than words.

5. Short BV stabs or sounds – you can also play with stacking the BVs like a horn section, like in Aretha Franklins ‘Respect’ BV’s. Again, you can make the voice sound like a trumpet or saxophone and play with phonics and pitch tones. Add claps or whoops or any other sound you can think of.

6. Heavily effected vocal sounds – using pre-set guitar or synth sounds to colour your BVs is a great way to push the envelope on the character of a song. Like adding chilli to a stew, you can create a totally different soundscape when you experiment with effects and processors.

7. Vocals layered in chords under the track - adds depth and richness to the lead vocal. This technique can be used to create more of a musical instrument accompaniment arrangement. It can also transform the song to sound more reverend and emotional.

8. Repeat, repeat, repeat – if you wish to highlight a lyric section of a song, or create a familiar vocal pattern inside the song, then a simple and affective arrangement idea is to repeat a line, or word or phrase. The ‘Just a little bit’ BV lyric in Aretha Franklin’s ‘Respect’ helps build momentum and attitude in the song. This repeated melodic and rhythmic idea that occurs consistently through a piece of music is called “ostinato” and is fun technique to try.

9. Back to scratch – never forget the power of a simple, single voice. When I’ve been working on a vocal arrangement for a while, my hearing start to get woolly and I can lose perspective. To remedy this I peel everything away, go back to the single vocal and re-build it differently. It’s incredible the number of options you can come up with when you strip it back to the drawing board.

10. Ahhh’s not ooo’s – One of the many top tips I’ve acquired whilst collaborating with international artists and producers at Pro7ect Songwriting Retreats is from Headline Producer Stew Jackson from Massive Attack. Stew always uses the open ahhh sound when tracking BV pads, rather than the harsher sounding ooo. He prefers the wider, smoother blend and tonal spread of the ahhh sound, finding the sharp cornered ooo sound gets in the way of other instruments in a mix. Try it.

About Pro7ect:

Pro7ect is a global network of musical professionals that facilitate creative opportunities for songwriters, producers, and musicians to collaborate at residential writing retreats. We inspire musical collaboration.

Dates and Prices for Pro7ect 2023 are:

18th - 22nd July 2023 - £1,695


22nd July 2023: 10am - 5pm - £195

With Gethin Pearson and Lisa Fitzgibbon

To find out more and to apply for a place at Pro7ect 2023, please visit

A-list producers who have worked with Pro7ect include Youth (Sir Paul McCartney/The Verve/Echo & The Bunnymen/The Orb), Roni Size (Reprazent, Method Man, Zac de la Rocha), Mercury Music Prize winner Tavin Singh OBE, John Fortis (Razorlight, Ellie Goulding, Yellowdays), Andrew Levy (Brand New Heavies), Iain Archer (Snow Patrol, James Bay, Jake Bugg) and Matty Benbrook (Paulo Nutini, LENA, Rebecca Ferguson, Beverely Knight), Greg Haver (Manic Street Preachers, Mel B), Stew Jackson (Massive Attack) and Gethin Pearson (Badly Drawn Boy, Charlie XCX).