TCM MASTERING: HOME MUSIC STUDIO PART 41 – ARRANGING & PRODUCING VOCALS IN THE MIX

TCM Mastering: Home Music Studio Tips and Information

Part 41 Arranging & Producing Vocals In The Mix

Over the last two weeks we’ve looked at Lead Vocals in the mix process. We discussed the importance of the recording stage going well, so that you would have good raw tracks to work with in the mix. We considered ‘Comping’ vocal tracks to get a magical performance, splitting out vocal tracks for EQ purposes, Double Tracking to thicken the sound, the use of delays and other signal processors, automation and lots more.

Backing Vocal Group.

Today, we’ll look at Backing Vocals then consider Production values and the Arrangement of vocals in your mix. Next week we’ll move onto mixing Drums.

Backing Vocals can either be done by just you…..one at a time, layer by layer in the overdub stage, or as a group of backing vocalists who record together. Obviously a fuller, big sound can be produced much quicker with a well rehearsed, trained backing vocal ensemble than an individual working on his/her own. So it really depends on the size and the type of sound you want in your track, as to which way to go.

Overdubbing Four Tracks Of Backing Vocals, One Layer At A Time.

You should also consider if you’re working on your own and intend to do all the vocals yourself, the resultant sound may lack the richness one gets from using different male and/or female voices. In other words there will be less vocal tonal variation in the backing vocals if you do them all yourself, compared to a group of 2, 3, 4 or more different singers. But if you have a particularly good singing voice, you may still end up with a great result.

The Mills Brothers – Experts In Vocal Harmony.

If you want a really rich, full backing vocal sound try double tracking or even triple tracking each harmony part. For example, if your song requires 3 part harmony, you will need either 6 or 9 tracks of backing vocals. With so many voices, make sure that any hard consonants are sung together by everyone, otherwise it will sound messy. Because once you start to pan the various parts around the stereo field, the consonants can be heard to move from one monitor speaker to the other, if they’re not sung at exactly the same time.

Multiple Backing Parts, Allow Numerous Panning Options.

With several layers you also have many options. On your mixer you can pan each different harmony part evenly either side of centre. Or pan harmony part 1 at 10 and 2 o’ clock, part 2 at 9 and 3 o’ clock and part 3 at 8 and 4 o’ clock. The possibilities are numerous.

You can also use multiple part harmonies to help build a song dynamically. Try raising the level of a doubled or tripled harmony at each chorus to help give the impression that the song is building.

Just remember, the backing vocals are there to provide counterpoint, harmony and support to the lead. So do what is right for the mix.

Pro Tools Session For Maroon 5’s ‘Makes Me Wonder’ Contained Over 80 Tracks, Some Of Which Were Submixed.

Producing a submix of 9 or more backing vocal tracks down to a stereo pair is a useful exercise if you want to simplify your final mix (the same principle applies to submixing drums). In a DAW you can either ‘bus’ the various vocals to a stereo fader or ‘bounce them to disk’ to create a new stereo file. By using the newly created stereo file you will lock in the levels and everything else you used in the ‘bounce’ process. Which means if you don’t like the sound of it in the final mix, you will have to go back to the original backing vocal tracks and remix them again.

For further information on recording backing vocals and mistakes to avoid, check out this article.

In the mix, try cutting the backing vocals below around 250 Hz and between 2-4 kHz ( and always listen whilst applying EQ to find the optimum frequency to cut, never just go on a plug-ins’ visual display of the EQ and the effect you think it’s producing). This should help to prevent them from competing too much with the lead vocals frequency space. By boosting around 10 kHz, you can increase clarity. But be careful that you don’t start to interfere with the lead vocals as the same frequency will help them too.

Backing Vocalists Facing Each Other – Allows Them To See Each Other And Take Visual Cues, Plus Directional Mics Give Good Separation.

We could think of a mix as three-dimensional.

  1. Frequencies go from top to bottom or high to low.
  2. Positioning sounds in the stereo field, left to right.
  3. Front to Back – achieved by close/distant mic positions or dry and reverbed effects.

A mix should try to use all three dimensions as effectively as possible. Use EQ to cleverly create a unique frequency space for each instrument. Pan instruments to different positions in the stereo field, and place them upfront or back by using a close mic technique or reverb, allowing each one to have its own physical space.

With a careful combination of all the tools and resources at your disposal, each instrument can be given its own territory to shine. However, the more vocals and instruments you have in a mix, the more crowded that three-dimensional space becomes, meaning it’s more difficult for each individual part to be heard over the others. So consider well the ”less is more” mantra.

The lead vocal is almost always panned centre. But double tracked lead vocals, and effects can be positioned centre, panned hard left and right or placed in a narrower stereo spread. You have to experiment with your tracks and effects to find the best combination for your song .

Three Part Harmony From The Beatles.

If we look at just the vocal elements in a mix (the lead, harmony and backing vocals), they all have to work together cohesively before adding in the remaining instrumentation. All the elements in a mix are interdependent on each other. Alter the level, EQ or reverb of one instrument and it will affect the feel of everything else. So, you constantly have to be aware of looking at each instrument/vocal in isolation by using the ‘solo’ button and as a part of the whole mix too.

As we mentioned in TCM Mastering Home Music Studio Part 39 some producers/engineers prefer to start building the mix from the drums and bass, then add in the other instruments and finally the vocals. Others work in reverse and get a good vocal mix, before adding the other tracks, then finish by tweaking the vocals to sit properly in amongst everything else.

Vocal Arrangement – Copying Parts To Different Tracks, Allows Different Processing To Improve Contrast Between Vocal Sections.

If you have established an EQ setting that works for the lead vocal in the verse section of the song, then the lead vocal moves into a lower register or higher vocal range in the chorus, the EQ will most likely need adjusting. The picture above shows how copying the different parts of a vocal to separate tracks allows you to easily apply different EQs (and other effects like reverb) to either make a vocal performance consistent or to create contrast between vocal sections.

In the digital world, once you find an EQ setting that works for a chorus, you could copy/paste that setting for the other choruses.

Level meters are important obviously, but make level adjustments between the different vocal elements using your ears and not your eyes.

Don’t max out your vocal mix volume too much, just make sure you are producing healthy levels on your meters (without producing distortion or overloading). Remember, the other instruments will be adding volume too. The mastering stage will bring your final mix up to levels and standards that are necessary for commercial release.

Mixing the lead vocal(s) and backing vocals, requires patience and perseverance to get them exactly right for the song they’re in. If they’re the first thing you start to sort out in your mix, you will undoubtedly return to them once all the other instruments have been added in, to tweak them a little more. But that’s okay.

Riding The Faders Produces A Dynamic Mix.

The lead vocal tracks are the most important tracks of the mix for a song with lyrics. You will need to ride the fader(s) throughout the mix to ensure the lyrics are heard and understood, above the rest of the tracks. A mix should be dynamic, so setting a vocal level and leaving it will not suffice. Besides, it will sound boring if the vocal level remains flat throughout. Compression helps to take care of the extremes in level variation from a vocal, but you still want to let some dynamics through.

This advice also applies to most of the other instruments too, apart from maybe the kick drum and bass guitar, which are usually set and left. If you set the levels of most instruments and leave them, you will end up with a very flat, linear mix.

Also consider…..does the song’s arrangement work? Do the vocals build? The song should build as a whole for example, by starting with a sparse arrangement then adding more instrumentation. But do the vocals also build through the song, or do they lack energy as the song progresses?

Incidentally, if you seem to be spending way too much time trying to get a mix to work…..it could be that the arrangement is not quite right, more editing needs to be done or maybe another overdub is required to replace a sloppy or second-rate performance. In fact there are a whole host of reasons why a mix may be proving difficult to complete. So take a break for a few days. Then try again, maybe ask a trusted band member or musician friend to give you some unbiased criticism.

Next week we’ll look at Drums in the mix.

If you have any questions regarding the recording, overdub or mixing process so far, drop us a line. Our contact details are here. We love to hear from you.

And don’t forget, TCM Mastering and TCM Music Group provide a professional, fast and affordable service to musicians of all genres.

So if you have some songs that need producing, recording, mixing or mastering contact us for details on our rates and some incredible recording packages.

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