Here is a piece in summary from a producers perspective, on how I record and mix background vocals.
Sometimes your production will require a lush, thick layered background vocal. It could be layers of harmony, or counter melody, but the goal is the same, you are intending to envelop the listener in a 360 degree blanket of the human voice.
A lot of decisions in this process will be made based on the song and its genre, the vocalist/s and the desired end product. I will try and cover as many bases as I can in this short posting, but you may find yourself with unique issues to overcome.
Firstly you have to establish your goal: Let's say we are working on a pop ballad, it calls for a big lush chorus with a harmonized lead vocal and a harmonized counter melody. Let's assume that your singer is fairly proficient at working out the harmonies/counter (that's a whole different discussion that others are far more qualified to speak on), so we won't go into the musical theory side of things.
My main concern would be the lead vocal not getting dwarfed by any new vocal layers, and a counter melody not taking away from the impact of the lead line. These are creative decisions that we will assume are made by others, or in pre production. Of course volume/panning and such will diminish the impact of layers that need to sit back, but if you are attempting to hide things you are recording, I doubt the validity of their inclusion!
So we have all our layers planned out, next we have to decide who will sing them. Should the person singing the lead do backgrounds? In my experience that is often the best solution, but that again is a creative decision that should be decided case by case, and in preproduction. It's pointless me talking about the pro's and cons of each option, as it is so dependent on the vocalists and the song.
Lets say we have the lead vocalist singing lead and background… If you don't have one already, I would suggest recording a pass through of the lead vocal, whether this is scratch or a take, it will give you something to reference against throughout the layering.
Good communication with the singer is crucial, and as with any vocal session they have to have a good headphone mix and plenty of light to see any words/score. The booth shouldn't be too hot/cold. They need room-temperature water and ideally a sightline to you. Crunchy clothing, rattling jewelry, squeaky shoes all need to be sorted out. Now you are ready!
If your vocalist was singing 5 inches from the mic for their lead, I would recommend moving back at least a few more to start with. Air is a great natural compressor, and the very tiny timing delay that occurs when a singer is picked up by a mic by standing further away is noticed by the listener, and is perceived to be further away (ideal!).
If your mic has a high pass switch, use it! The low frequency buildup with upwards of 20 layers can be pretty wild and it saves you some plugin juice later on, if you don't need to do it then.
Now talk with your vocalist and find out how much of the lead vocal (if any) they would like to sing with, some prefer to hear the lead as a guide for their part, others find this too distracting. If they are having a hard time sticking to their harmony, try reducing down the lead vocal, or give them more of their own mic.
I find 3 good takes of each part are enough to give you plenty of options come mix time. But be sure to listen through each for timing, pitch and any word inaccuracies. When doing this I try and get layer 2 and 3 to match layer 1. So for example, by the time we are doing layer three, mute layer 2 and match it to layer 1. Matching layer 3 to 2, then 4 to 3 and so on can result in a big shift in timing/inflection etc... from layer 1 to 4, so try and be consistent with your references.
You may also want to experiment with moving back a few inches with each layer which would give the perception of depth. However these layers will then not match (sound wise) so panning them Left, Center, Right, wouldn't work as well.
You may want to try getting a few people in the booth, switching the mic to Omni and have the singers stand around the mic for extra layers to use for thickening purposes when mixing. This ragged effect can be pretty useful further down the line.
Colour coding is a quick way of keeping your brain on track when mixing all these parts, so maybe separate soprano, tenor, baritone etc… or harmony, counter melody, lead, whichever works for you.
Pan to taste. This is dependent on so many factors, I can't give you a categoric answer to panning. A good starting point is LCR (Left, Center, Right) and then filling in 2 o'clock, 4 o'clock, 5 o'clock etc… However, you may want your harmonies on the left and your counter melody on the right with your lead right in the middle. Again, case by case.
Output your layers to buses, so you may have a harmony bus, a counter bus, and then those buses to a background main bus. Solo safe your original layers so you can solo your buses as and when you need to. Then you can apply your processing to the buses and save yourself a load of computer resources.
Now the time consuming part: You need to go through everything, clean up all the silence between vocals, adjust any timing discrepancies between takes, apply any retuning, and set your relative levels (to each of the other vocal layers).
Once that is done you are now really looking at working on the buses with volume automation, EQ, compression, saturation, effects etc… Hopefully you have high passed on your way in on the mic or pre-amp, if not, do it now, and clean out any mud in the lower frequencies. I would also apply a low pass filter too, as removing sibilance and super bright sounds will help to sit the backgrounds back, and not interfere as much with the lead. I like to add a non pumping LA2A style compression to backgrounds, it levels them out without sounding too processed. And then fiddle around with EQ, effects etc… to get the sound you are looking for.
If you find you need a thicker sound and you can't re-track any more vocals you can duplicate the layers you have and push and pull them back and forward in time by 10-20 samples here and there, and pan accordingly. Make sure they are not phasing, and check in mono for total phase cancellation.
Now you can use the bus faders to place your backgrounds as far forward or back as you need to work in your song.
This is how I work with backgrounds but as with all things recording and mixing, everyone does things at least a little differently. I hope this gave you some ideas for when you need a wall of background vocals on your next song.
If you have any other tips, tricks or comments please let me know below!
Another post from my voiceover blog here. This one is an introduction to microphone pre amps. It's a subject that is as important in music too, so please excuse any references to the world of voiceover.
Last time I spent some time discussing microphones, their pickup patterns and how you can use them to get the best possible sound for your project. In this post I am going to spend a little time talking about Pre Amps.
What is a Pre Amp?
We use a pre amp to boost the signal of a source to line level, line level being a healthy signal into your recording device. Microphones have a very low output, whichever microphone you use (condensers/tube mic's have a slightly higher output than dynamics) that needs to be boosted to a point that is usable within your DAW. Line level is the goal (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Line_level).
The output directly out of your microphone is called "Mic Level", and out of an instrument such as a guitar jack is called "Instrument Level". Although instrument level is a much higher output than mic level, it still needs boosting to line level.
Why do I care about Pre Amps?
Well they are the next step (after the mic) along the signal path for your voice before it hits your AD converter and then into your DAW of choice. This stage influences the sound of the signal as well as the level, and so it cannot be ignored. Mic pre's come in many forms and you can disappear down all manner of rabbit holes trying to find the "best" one. The truth is, there is no "best" mic pre, only the one that sounds best to you, compliments the source/mic, is affordable to you and reliable.
If you have some kind of outboard interface such as an M-Box that has a pre-amp built into it, you can plug your mic into it, it boosts that signal to line level, converts it to digital information and sends it down a firewire/USB/Thunderbolt cable to your computer. These days the mic pre's on these consumer devices are very good, and are certainly usable in most applications. However, if you have started to lust after an expensive microphone you may also want to think about improving your whole signal chain, which includes your mic pre. Your sound is only as good as the weakest part of your signal chain, so don't waste your money on a $3000 mic and plugging it into an M-Box. That's like buying a Ferrari and fitting it with shopping cart wheels.
You could choose a tube or solid state pre, a channel strip, a 500 series, or a vintage re-issue: just make sure it gives you the sound you are looking for, to enhance whatever it is you are recording. If your main mic is a dynamic mic, it will more significantly effect the sound of your pre amp and how it performs, so take that into consideration when choosing.
So you have an M-Box (for example) and you want a new mic pre, do you have to replace the M-Box and get a new AD (analog to digital converter) box too? Nope! If you are happy with the audio to digital conversion of your M-box, you can simply bypass the pre on that and use your new pre while using the M-Box solely as an AD converter.
Let's say you buy an API 512 pre (nice!), you plug your mic into that, make sure it is set to mic input, then turn up the gain as you see fit. The API will be outputting a line level signal, simply plug that line level signal into your M-Box, making sure that the input is set to Line Level. It then knows that it doesn't have to apply it's pre and as long as the input knob is down to zero it will not provide any of it's onboard gain boosting from its pre. You are then only using its AD conversion technology.
After you have saved up your pennies you may consider buying a dedicated AD conversion box and replace your M-Box altogether, which may well improve your sound a little more.
It should be said that replacing a pre or converter may or may not improve your sound, but it will certainly change it. If you have a somewhat muddy, warm sounding voice, adding a Neve 1073 (for example) will only serve to enhance that, and exaggerate any problems associated with your voice, so it is best to research and then test out any pre's you are thinking of purchasing.
I am a strong proponent of as good a signal chain as you can afford, but as stated earlier you should be aware that mixing pro quality and consumer quality components will result in a consumer quality sound. If that is the only way you can afford to complete your pro chain (let's face it, how many of us can drop $5-10k on 3 components), by all means play the long game, knowing that you will ultimately end up with a great sound.
As a final point I would like to say that there are a lot of sources on the internet "debunking" the idea that you can't get a pro sound from consumer products. Well you can get close, but that final 10% of quality costs, and in the professional environment the difference is noticeable. People who can't hear the difference tend not to have real world experience of either using pro equipment, or working in a professional environment.
This is a short and very unspecific post from my Voiceover blog about microphone use in the VO world, and how you can use placement and mic choice to affect the sound of the recording, but it also applies to music so I am posting it here too.
There is a plethora of information about microphones and their use on the internet, as well as how and when to use different types, and I won't just repeat everything here. However I will give a brief synopsis, and direct you to some good resources.
As this is a voiceover blog I will focus this toward that application, but most if not all that I am going to talk about applies to all other microphone use.
First things first I am going to commit the ultimate sin of asking you to leave this page and read a very long document. But before you go please pay particular attention to the different types of microphone (dynamic, condenser, tube,ribbon) and the general characteristics and applications of these. Also take the time to really study the polar patterns.
Here it is: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microphone
OK so now I expect (if you have come back) you are somewhat sick of microphone talk, so I will stick to the big headlines and how it applies to the world of VO.
Often in voiceover you will be using a large diaphragm condenser mic, this has a broad frequency response, by which I mean it hears way down low, and way up high (and everything in-between). You may occasionally come across dynamic mic's such as the SM7b or RE20 (often used in radio), they have a specific frequency range that compliments certain voices, but they are somewhat specific and have their limitations.
As you have studied the Wikipedia page you are now aware that different mics have different polar patterns, and depending on what you are recording you will choose one polar pattern over another. Some mic's have one pattern, some give you the option of a few.
A cardioid mic picks up sound in a mushroom shape around the front of the grill, so if you are speaking within this mushroom your voice will be within the mic's ideal range for sound pickup. Undesirable noises such as computer fans can be less intrusive if placed well outside of this region. We call this off axis rejection and it can be used to great effect. Another example is a mic with a Figure 8 pattern which has a very pronounced deaf region between the two pickup regions. Have a look at the polar patterns diagram on the Wikipedia page and you will see the range of options available, and how these can be used to your advantage.
Sticking with a cardioid mic we also have to take into consideration the proximity effect. It is very simple, the closer you get to the mic, the more the mic will emphasize the lower frequencies in your voice. Radio DJ's will often get so close to the mic they give themselves lip burn on the grill in an effort to get a bass resonance to their voice. You can use this to your advantage if you don't have much bass in your voice, moving closer will exaggerate what you have. Conversely if your voice is boomy and muddy, moving back a few inches will reduce this bass buildup.
However mics set to the omni pickup pattern do not have proximity effect. The benefit to this is that you can get up very close without a change in tone, you do not get any off axis rejection but as you are now right on the grill of the mic, the signal to noise ratio is very high (in favor of the signal!). The mic in omni mode is also much less likely to pop.
Your mic may have a high pass filter switch. This simply removes ultra low frequencies (typically 100 cycles and below) from the mic signal before it hits your pre amp. This can help to avoid a muddy sound and possibly remove hum, or accidents like knocking the mic stand, or the rumble of a truck driving by outside.
So there it is, a very brief outline of the microphone as used in the world of VO. The microphone is just one part of a chain of equipment and processes that go toward the finished product, but it is the first piece of equipment that your voice encounters and it has a huge impact on your finished product.
If you have any questions or comments please feel free to reply here or shoot me a message.
Until next time…
I am a British Producer, Mixer & Musician who is privileged to live in New York City.