Background vocals may sit behind the lead, but how you pan, process and affect them can have a huge impact on the texture and excitement of your mix. Learn 10 great hacks for mixing epic BVs.
By Mike Levine
Like many other aspects of the mixing process, mixing background vocals involves a blend of science and art.
Depending on the number and type of background parts, you have many options for how you pan them, process them and set their levels.
Sure, you can get a decent sound by simply panning the harmonies to either side and throwing on some compression and reverb. But If you want more than just average results, it helps to adopt a strategic approach and tailor your tactics to what best fits the song. The following tips will help you do just that and take your background vocal mixing to the next level.
1. Edit and Tune
Before you start mixing, it's important to make sure the various background vocal tracks are in tune, lined up rhythmically and free of extraneous noises.
Cut, mute or gate the spaces between lines on your vocals to make sure that any unwanted audio doesn’t get into your mixes. Make sure to crossfade at all your edit points to avoid creating clicks.
Phrasing is critical!
Make sure that the singers are in sync rhythmically and are all starting and ending their words together. Pick a track to use as a master rhythmic reference (it could be the lead vocal if the backgrounds are all singing right along with it) and make sure all the other vocals match its phrasing. If they don't, you may have to edit, cut or possibly time-stretch the beginning and endings of words to make everything lineup. Since they’re background vocals, you can usually get away with heavier-handed editing than you may usually do on the lead vocals.
Here’s an example from the bridge of a song that has background vocals doing “oohs”. The start and end points are not lined up, and there’s a noise that needs to be cut right after they end. What’s more, the transitions from note to note aren’t all happening together.
To clean that up, the oohs were edited by cutting out the spaces before and after. On a couple of the parts, the singer moved to the second note in the second section a little early. Those transitions were moved back. Also, the releases on the lines weren’t consistent, so they were cut (on a beat) so that they all ended at the same time. Fades were added at the end of the notes and at all edit points.
After the edits, it sounds like this.
It’s also important to check the tuning on all parts. If your BVs are way out of tune with the lead vocal, the overall vocal sound won’t feel rich in the mix. If you hear pitch issues, consider inserting Waves Tune or Waves Tune Real-Time on the problematic tracks. Unless you’re using the vocal-tuning plugin as an effect, make the settings as gentle as possible to keep the vocals sounding natural.
2. Create an Aux Track for Processing
They don't call them "group vocals" for nothing. In most cases, background vocals should sound like a singular instrument rather than a disparate group of voices.
Because of that, and to keep your CPU load more manageable, it makes sense to do most or all of your processing (except for pitch-correction) on an aux bus. Create an aux track or equivalent in your DAW and route all the vocals to it.
From there, you can process them as a group. Doing so, with compression, EQ, saturation and ambience effects, helps glue the harmonies together into a more homogeneous part. I'll get into tips about specific types of processing later in this article.
Another benefit to a background vocal subgroup is that you can also use it to control the levels of your background vocals globally.
3. Plan Your Pan
How you choose to pan your BVs is an artistic choice and depends on your vision for the mix. If you have multipart and layered background vocals, you have a huge range of choices regarding panning. Still, there are a few things to keep in mind.
If your mix is center heavy, panning the vocals hard left and right will give you more width. If you have group vocals with each part layered, an effective strategy to make them sound full and balanced is to pan them symmetrically so that each side of the harmony vocal submix is a mirror image of the other.
In this example (the tracks are from “Mendoza Line” by Julie’s Party), you’ll hear part of a chorus with lead, and two doubled harmony parts. The low harmonies are panned to one side and the highs to the other.
Now, you’ll hear the parts split evenly over both sides. Notice how the latter feels a lot more balanced.
You may also want to pay attention to whether you're panning the higher or lower parts closer to the center. It can subtly change the character of the background vocals and is worth experimenting with.
4. Add More Voices…Artificially
You might find yourself in a situation where you wish the singers had recorded doubles or triples of their parts to create a larger group sound. The best solution is always to add more real vocal tracks, but sometimes that's not practical.
In those cases, you can create faux doubles in your DAW using a variety of methods. If your song is of an organic genre, you have to do this carefully, or it will sound unnatural.
One way to go is to duplicate the harmony tracks and then delay or move them forward in time by a very small amount from the original (slightly different for each track). About 25ms is a good place to start. Also, pitch-shift the doubles up or down by a small amount (e.g. 10 cents) to help differentiate them, but not enough to put them out of tune.
Vocal Bender is an extremely useful plugin for simple pitch-shifting utilities. You'd want to set it on its Fine shifting mode for this application.
Also, consider using Formant shifting (another capability of Vocal Bender) to add further differentiation to your harmony parts. Formants are non-pitched frequencies that help determine the timbre of a singing voice.
Like with the pitch shift, you'd want to do a slight variation up or down with the formants (unless you're going for a special effect, of course). Significant shifts can change the apparent gender of a voice, or at extremes, introduce the chipmunk or monster effect depending on the direction of the shift.
Another option is to use a plugin like Doubler, which allows you to create multiple doubles. It takes care of the time and pitch-shifting automatically, and you can edit those settings. A good way to configure a doubling plugin is to insert it on a dedicated aux track, which you feed with a send from the harmony bus or individual harmony parts.
In the following example (using tracks from “Downsizing” by Doug Hall), you’ll hear a chorus consisting of a lead vocal and two harmony tracks.
In the next example, doubles were created for both parts by manually duplicating, time-shifting and pitch-shifting the harmonies. In addition, the audio from the original tracks was routed from a send on the background vocal bus to Doubler, which created more doubles.
The third time through is the same as the second, but with the instrument tracks in, so you can hear it in context.
5. Create Harmonies from Scratch
If you have a part that has no background vocals, but you want to harmonize it, or if you want to add an extra harmony part, you can use a plugin like Waves Tune, which lets you graphically edit individual notes. Duplicate the lead vocal or one of the harmonies and adjust the notes in the tuning program. For even more realism, move them a little forward or backward, as described previously.
This example consists of a lead vocal but no background vocals.
This time, it features two harmony parts, which were constructed by duplicating and harmonizing the lead vocal track. The harmony tracks were also doubled electronically.
Depending on the melody and the harmonic structure of the song, sometimes all you need is a parallel harmony, say, a fifth up. For that, you can use a pitch-shifting plugin like Vocal Bender and set it to shift up by seven semitones.
If the harmony has to move to a different interval at certain spots, you could automate Vocal Bender’s pitch shift to match it.
6. De-Ess the Group
Doubles and triples of harmony parts allow you to create a thicker, bigger sound. But all that layering can intensify problematic aspects of the tracks, particularly sibilance.
Only one voice needs to produce the “S” sound for a word to be intelligible, even if ten voices are singing it. Most likely, that will come from the lead vocalist’s track. For the background vocals, it’s best to insert a de-esser such as Sibilance on the background vocal bus on a moderate setting to start.
To set up Sibilance, start by adjusting the Detection knob to match your song. If you’re hearing just “S” sounds, keep it set to the narrower half of the knob’s range. If the problem is “SH” sounds, you want it to be in the wider half. Use the Monitor button to listen to only what’s being detected. Then adjust the Threshold to set the level at which the plugin will start attenuating.
7. Filter Out Unwanted Frequencies
Another processor you want to put on the background vocal group is an EQ with filters. Whether you use a dedicated EQ plugin like H-EQ or a channel strip such as CLA Mixhub, Scheps Omni Channel or SSL E Channel, they all have high- and low-pass filters.
On the low end, consider using a high-pass filter to roll off some of the low end from the vocal track. Not only do you want to get rid of frequencies below the vocals, but perhaps even thin out the backgrounds a little to reduce lower-midrange clutter.
On the other hand, if the lead vocal is providing the high-mid vocal presence in the mix but doesn’t have much body, you may want to boost the low-mids in the BVs to provide extra weight to the overall vocal sound.
You might also want to use the low-pass filter to take away some of the high-end response of the harmonies. It depends a lot on the song, but you'll often want to slightly reduce the high frequencies on the background vocals compared to the lead.
In addition to being louder, having more high-end makes a track seem more forward in the mix. So, rolling off some of the highs will make your background parts move back and sit nicely behind the lead vocal, which you probably want in many, although not all cases.
8. Choose the Right Reverb Space
One of the most critical decisions you’ll make when mixing background vocals is the reverb type. Before deciding on a plate, hall, room or other space, think about what kind of vibe you’re going for in the mix and choose accordingly. The difference between putting your background vocals in a reverberant cathedral or a small room or chamber is significant. The former will make them seem distant, and the latter, close to the front.
If you want the backgrounds to sound like they’re in the same room as the lead vocal, use a matching reverb treatment for both. If you want them to be intimate sounding, go for a small space like a room.
Be mindful of the reverb time (aka “room size”), particularly on medium to fast tempo songs. You probably don’t want the reverb decay to wash over the following vocal line.
Experiment with the reverb time until you find a setting that gives you the ambience you want without adding a lot of lower-midrange clutter. Cutting low-end from the reverb itself will help minimize the clutter issue.
H-Reverb is an excellent choice to use on any source, and its versatility makes it great for background vocals. You dial up anything from a plate to a room to a large hall, and it has built-in EQ, compression and other processing tools. TrueVerb is also a great option for a very “realistic sounding” room, or you can choose from a selection of sampled convolution reverb spaces in IR-1.
9. Delay the Group
To help add space and depth to your background vocal tracks, try adding a short delay on the group in addition to any reverb. Use a stereo delay on the BV bus, either inserted directly or on an aux send. For a medium-tempo song, a good starting point is an eighth-note or dotted eighth-note delay.
Keep the effect relatively subtle with the feedback all the way down. You want to add a little space without it obviously sounding like “delay.”
The first time through in this example (using tracks from “Maybe I Got Lucky” by Julie’s Party), the background vocals have reverb but no delay. When it repeats, they have H-Delay inserted and set at a dotted-eighth note.
10. Compress the Background Vocals
Yet another processor you'll want to insert on the background vocal bus is a compressor. If you want to add color as well as compression, an analog-modeled plugin such as Puigchild Compressor, CLA-2A or Abbey Road RS124 will work great, as would the SSL G-Master Buss Compressor.
As a starting point, shoot for between 5dB and 10dB of gain reduction. Keep the attack and release at medium settings. The compression will help tame the dynamic differences between the various tracks and give the vocals a more homogenous sound.
Sure, spend as much time as you need getting the lead vocal sounding awesome, but do the same with the background vocals. A well-thought-out and creative approach to mixing background vocals will do wonders for your mix.
Mike Levine is one of the preeminent music-technology journalists working today. He’s the Technical Editor-Studio for Mix and the former editor of Electronic Musician. Levine is also a composer and producer who’s written music for numerous national commercials and for TV networks like CNN, the History Channel and A&E. A multi-instrumentalist, he’s played sessions, concerts, and on Broadway. Visit his music site at michaelwilliamlevine.com and check out his writing at mikelevine.journoportfolio.com.
Want more on working with vocals? Watch 10 tricks for AMAZING vocal production here!
Want to get more tips straight to your inbox? Subscribe to our newsletter here.