The Art of Backing Vocals PART 2: Recording

The art of recording amazing Backing Vocals is a specialist skill, and there are so many different tracking, delivery, and production techniques you can utilise whilst recording these vocal contours.

In last May’s blog, The Art of Backing Vocals Part 1, we looked at arrangement, focusing on some of the ways you can improve your BV’s using some tried and true techniques. In this month’s Session Notes blog, The Art of Backing Vocals Part 2, Pro7ect Songwriting Retreats founder and songwriter Lisa Fitzgibbon shares some BV recording nuggets of wisdom that will improve your sound and your experience.

You’ve done all the prep. Your arrangements are demoed, you’ve sifted through all the ideas and options, and you’re ready for tracking. I like to demo all my BVs in advance of the recording session, so I’m familiar with the song, and we don’t waste time when we get to the studio. This is particularly important if you are working on an album project and need to manage your pre-pro well in advance of the recording sessions.

I’ve worked with many renown music producers and although they all adhere to the same basic vocal recording engineering requirements (mic selection, mic set-up, recording levels etc.) they all have their own unique approach to this rather niche, but extremely important, part of a song’s production.

Ideally, by the time you come to record your BV’s you will have most of the track recorded and a guide mix to work with. It is ESSENTIAL that the lead vocal has been recorded in full before you add the BV’s. One of the main jobs of a good backing vocal is to lift the lead, and blend with the tones of the singer, which is so much easier to do when you have the final lead vocal to work with.

Lisa Fitz’s BV top-tips:

1. Choose a sound - Sometimes I like to use a different microphone to the lead vocal when I’m recording BV’s, especially if I’m singing them. This can give you a variety of sounds that are helpful in the mix. Sometimes the vocal peaks and frequencies of the same voice overlayed can cause phasing issues, and using a different mic can mitigate this audio trap.

2. Language is key - as a producer or engineer your job is to bring out the best in the artists you work with. Most musicians find the intimacy of multi-track recording difficult. It’s like putting your artistry and technique under the microscope and it can be a very exposing experience… especially for singers. I have been in many vocal sessions over the years, mostly good but some not so good, and the majority of failures are due to a lack of, or bad, communication. Reassuring artists in this stressful environment is an important part of the role of the producer. If a singer is struggling with timing or intonation they may need a different headphone mix, or a break, or they may not be warmed up. Sometimes taking one earphone off to hear your voice in the room can help. Perhaps you can try a different part of the arrangement while they warm up and find their flow. Positive and clear communication in the studio is fundamental to ensuring the productivity of the session.

3. Step back - The air or room around the vocal is an important consideration when recording. If I’m stacking vocals, I like to move away from the mic for some of the passes, ensuring to increase the mic preamp gain to keep the channel levels healthy. Alternatively, you can ‘kiss the mic’ and get right up close to sing softly for a more intimate, layered effect.

4. Housekeeping - If, like me, you often arrange a multitude of BV’s it is crucial that you label and group the parts for the mix engineer. Again, this will save time and a tidy session is a sign of professional practice. Colour coding the parts on your DAW will make it easier to manage.

5. Ascension - It is so much easier to perform harmonies ascending from the main vocal. This gives the higher harmonies context and tonal support.

6. Gather round - Some BV’s work well with a group (2-4 people) singing around the mic. If you are recording two singers, you can either get them to face each other (setting the mic to a figure of eight pattern) or leave it in cardioid mode if they are standing beside each other. It’s always best to check what the vocals sound like in the room before you commit to the tracking.

7. Watch your S’s and T’s - Vocal sibilance and the peaks you get from the hard consonants, like T’s and D’s can cause spikes or unwanted peaks in the audio. You can smooth some of these out with a frequency dependent compressor like a De-esser, but it’s best to avoid having to make these fixes in the first place. When I’m overlaying multiple vocals, I tend to leave these harsh sounds out of some of the takes. As long as the lead vocal pronounces the S or T you can tuck the BVs behind it. For example, I was working on a BV arrangement last week on a song called ‘Carnival Days’. The hook in the CH was stacked with BV’s so on most of them I sang ‘arnival ay’. It saves time and sounds fine.

8. Try it - It’s important to be flexible when you’re tracking BV’s. If the arrangement you’ve made in pre-pro doesn’t quite work, it’s better to adjust than to fit a square into a circle. The track may have progressed since you arranged the parts and certain things may not work, or other things may work better. It’s important not to be rigid at this stage of the process and to prioritise what works best for the track.

Whatever way you approach it the most important thing to remember when you are recording backing vocals is to do what’s right for the song… and to have fun, of course.