Layering Backing Vocals to create Harmonies

Let me show you how you can maximise your backing vocals for impact and interest by band-passing and layering!


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Backing vocals are as important as lead vocals and getting them to be dynamic and interesting can be quite a challenge.

Cleaning vocals – corrective processing

The first step in processing vocals, be it lead vocals or backing vocals, is to ‘clean’ the vocal take. Cleaning is what we refer to as a ‘corrective’ process in that we are trying to remove redundant frequencies (frequencies we can’t hear and don’t need), remove background noise and headphone spill and to remove boxiness or the dreaded nasal effect. Once the cleaning process is complete we can think about ‘colouring’ the audio with creative processes.

To remove background noise and headphone spill (when the microphone picks up the over-spill from the headphones) we use a noise gate and to remove redundant frequencies and tame boxiness we use ‘corrective equalisation’. I show you how to use both professionally and easily.

Once the corrective processes are completed we need to start to think of ways to layer the vocals to create harmonies.The best approach to creating backing vocal harmonies is to re-track (re-record) the vocals multiple times and to then use each take as a layer. Once we have stacked the vocal takes we need to align each take so that the vocals are all in time.

Once we have processed all the vocal layers we need to ‘glue’ or consolidate them and in the video I use a Tube Leveling Amp to add some dynamics to the layers and enrich them with some lovely tube colour.

Creating vocal harmonies

The most common industry process is to copy and layer the single vocal take into multiple layers and to then pitch shift them to create the desired harmonies. A simple example of this would be to create two copies of the vocal take and pitch one copy up a third and the other up a fifth. This will create a basic major triad harmony.

But to truly master vocal harmony processing you need to think a little deeper. Pitch shifting vocal take copies is the standard approach but we need to define it further by altering the start times of each copy. You see, when a vocalist sings they are not always exactly in time and every time you run another vocal take the timing is different. Once all the copies are layered with slight timing variances they sound far more natural and richer. If you were to just copy the vocal takes and pitch shift them they would sound too static and unreal.To achieve micro tuning processing I use Cubase’s built-in Nudge Tool to move the copies by milliseconds until all the layers combined sound big and colourful. I then supplement this by panning the copies slightly off center. This gives the illusion of  size.

In the video I show you, step by step, how to first clean vocals using corrective processes and then to layer them to create lovely harmonies. I explain each and every process using audio examples and I finish off the video tutorial by showing you some industry techniques that we use to add polish to the vocal harmonies.

Plugin used in this video:

FabFilter Pro Q3

Topics covered in this video are:

  • Corrective Equalisation
  • Noise Gate
  • Dynamic Motion
  • Tube Leveling Amp
  • Nudge Tool
  • Timing Layers