Harmonize It! – 6 Tips for Recording Better Background Vocals

If you’re making music with vocals and want to spruce it up a bit a good place to start is by adding background vocals. Background vocals can play the supporting role, be used for call and response, beef up a chorus, or simply add harmony to choice parts of a song. No matter how you use your background vocals, there are many different ways to actually record them and each method will warrant specific results.

1. Layering Tracks

The most common technique (and simplest) is using the same microphone your lead just used, then layering the tracks, this technique is especially useful if you are limited to one microphone. Even if you only have one microphone that doesn’t mean you have to have the same exact sound as your lead, if you have more than one option for preamps/compressors/EQs (hardware or software) then now is the time to experiment! Saturate your lead vocal a bit to help it stand out then let the background vocals support the lead with their smooth buttery tone. Low-frequency content doesn’t always need to be present in background vocals, you can thin out the background harmonies with an EQ so they let the lead vocals really shine.

2. Recording Group Vocals

Often times if your recording group vocals with a single mic you may find certain singers sounding more present than others, that is a result of the recording pattern. If you have a cardioid microphone with options then switch it over to wide-cardioid, or go all out with omnidirectional, that way you can capture more of the rooms’ resonance and the collective product of the group singing. The beauty is really carried through when recording a group of vocalists harmonizing, omnidirectional patterns pick up sound from both sides of the microphone so they catch all of the reverb and echo throughout the room so what you get is raw and powerful.

3. Spatial Awareness

While reverb, echo and room sound can allow for a beautiful product you want to be aware of the setup you have prepared to best avoid comb filtering. Comb filtering is the result of echoes interfering with the origin of the audio source (a singer’s mouth) and canceling out frequencies. Microphone placement is the key to avoiding a messy recording, you’ll want to follow what is known as the 3:1 rule – you want any surface that will reflect sound to be 3 times the distance away from the microphone as the sound source (the singer’s mouth in this case) is from the microphone. It is important to edit out room sound if it becomes overwhelming the more background vocal tracks you layer.

4. Double Trouble

Having two singers available to record at the same time is fun but presents a logistical issue, how do you get the best recording? An effective method to use is to have the singers stand opposite each other using a bidirectional pattern on a cardioid microphone. That way the singers can look at each and really connect, they can follow each other’s cues and will probably have a better time singing too! If you are limited to dynamic microphones you can set up two of them facing opposite directions, make sure they are pointed in exactly the opposite directions by taping them together.

5. Three’s Company

Having three singers available is even better but the same problem exists, this one requires two microphones for the best results and it is known as the ‘mid-side’ technique. You’ll set up two singers opposite each other on both sides of a bi-directional microphone and place a second microphone facing perpendicular to those two singers for the third singer to stand and sing. This method puts the singers in the best positions to not interfere with each other’s recordings, aiming for one singer at 9:00, 11:30, and 3:00. The singer positioned at 11:30 should have a part that is the most different (tonally or melodically) from the lead vocalist’s part so that they don’t interfere.

6. Four…or More

If you are fortunate enough to have access to four or more singers at the same time then you are in for a treat. Recording a large group can be achieved with two bi-directional cardioid microphones placed at 90-degree angles to each other (one placed above the other). If you have your singers separated by their register then you will have more control when mixing after the fact. Groups of four plus can still see and hear each other while having their own (mostly) dedicated microphones. Have fun with htis one if you are lucky enough to record a group of singers this large, magic can happen!

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