Backing vocals are often recorded to bring depth to a track and help support the Lead Vocal part. They can also be used to add a harmony or contrasting melody part to a recording, and vary from accenting single lines of the lead part to more gentle support throughout a song, more like a string pad. How you intend to use the backing vocals in the finished song will determine which recording method you use initially, so here’s our complete guide to recording the different types of backing vocals.
Single Harmony Part
This is probably the simplest of all the different types of backing vocals, because you can treat them very similarly to the lead vocals. Usually with a single harmony part you will want it to be fairly prominent in the mix, so a large diaphragm condenser microphone like a Rode NT1-A positioned around eight inches away would be a good choice to give the voice clarity help it stand out.
For a more gentle approach, maybe for a vocal part that runs throughout the song, then using a dynamic mic like Shure SM7B or even an SM57 about five inches away will help tame some of the sibilance (f, s and sh sounds etc) of the voice and give it some warmth to help it blend in and support the lead vocal.
Multiple Backing Parts
From a mixing point of view, multiple backing parts are best kept separate so that you retain control of the balance. Obviously if you have one singer for several different parts, they need to be recorded individually anyway. When recording multiple parts, pay particular attention to the sibilance of each part as it can very easily build up as you layer tracks on top of each other, and then take focus away from the lead vocal. The smoothness of a dynamic mic can be very helpful with this as it does a lot of the work for you.
Recording two voices at once can be problematic, because unless you completely isolate them from each other there will always be some amount of each vocalist on the other’s microphone. This makes it very tricky to separate the two if you need to edit one later on. However, there are a couple of reasons why you might record two vocalists at once; the first being for moral support if they need help with timing and pitching etc, and the second is if they are so good that you won’t need to separate them later on. The bonus that you get from recording two people simultaneously is that they will be able to follow each other better and sound much more ‘together’ as a result.
For mic choice, you might be more limited as to whatever you have available, but two condenser mics will help keep the voices clear if they are both great singers, and if not then two dynamic mics like SM58’s very close to the singers’ mouths will make them easier to separate later.
Choirs or vocal groups are brilliant to record for backing vocals, because the hard part of blending all the different voices is already done and you can just record them as one big group, and let them pad out the mix for you. For choirs, we would always recommend large diaphragm cardioid condenser mics like the Rode NT1-A because they need to be further away from the choir to avoid picking up individual voices, but still retain clarity and sibilance.
When it comes to positioning the mics, start just in front of the conductor (or where one might stand if they don’t have one). This could easily eight feet away which seems a lot, but remember we are looking for a nicely blended sound. Two mics will usually be enough to cover a small choir, but be prepared to use three or four if the choir is bigger. Space The mics evenly across the front of the choir, and if one section sounds louder than the rest then move your mics to compensate.
Also keep an ear on the stereo image of the choir, which is very important to get right from the beginning. You want a nice smooth spread of voices across the whole stereo image: if your mics are too far apart you will have a hole in the middle, and if they are too close the choir will sound small and unimpressive.
As always with fairly distant microphones, make sure that the reverb and ambiance of the room don’t overwhelm the direct sound from the choir. Remember, you can always add more later but you can’t take it away!
[image via kleemo]