Don’t let your backing vocal mixing be an afterthought. Backing vocals can define the quality of your mix. Looking back at my last twenty years of mixing, I’ve seen worship teams with anywhere from one to five backing vocalists. Backing vocalists can sing in different ways for supporting the song and/or the lead vocalist. Let’s get down to mixing…
Before jumping into the top seven ways, let’s first look at where backing vocals can sit in the mix;
- Behind the lead vocalist as a means of supporting the verses or chorus. They are singing the same words but they aren’t as loud as the lead singer. They might only sing the chorus or specific parts, but they are in a supportive roll for adding depth to the mix.
- Counter melody. Much like supporting the chorus, they might be singing a different melodic line.
- In place of the lead singer. In this case, the backing vocalists take over during a chorus and the lead singer doesn’t sing. Did I mention song arrangement is an important part of performing music?
Mixing the backing vocalists, you need to consider their role (arrangement) in the song and their placement in the mix so their role can be fulfilled.
The Top Seven Ways for Blending Backing Vocals
- Less volume. Most of the time, the backing vocalists are supporting the lead singer. You don’t have four lead singers, you have a lead and three backing singers. While there are instances of multiple leads, that’s another story. Therefore, their volume needs to be less than the lead. How much less? I can’t assign a magic dB number but I’ll say it should be noticeable.
- Roll off some of their high frequencies. As well as reducing their volume for lead support, you want to place them in a reduced frequency range, just as you would any instrument in your mix. You don’t want to cut out their highs completely, but by using a shelving EQ on their highs, you can make the lead stand out. Remember, backing vocals should be blended together while not sounding like a doubling of the lead singer.
- Back off the lows. Again with a shelf filter so they aren’t clogging up the instruments while at the same time, not sounding too flat.
- Separate and blend with reverb. First, use a different type of reverb than the lead vocal. The lead vocal would be good with a short reverb time while the backing vocals can be blended together with a longer reverb like a Hall reverb.
- Compress them. They will be fitting in the mix in a very tight space and you don’t want a backing vocalist to suddenly sound louder than the others…especially the lead singer. Use a higher compression ratio if necessary, especially if you have one singer who really likes to belt them out.
- Actively mix them. Blending is more than setting the initial volume levels, setting the EQ, and putting on some reverb. Place the backing vocalists into a group and control all of their volumes with one fader. Then, you can easily cut or boost their volume so they are always in the right relationship in the mix. If the lead singer let the backing vocalists take over for the chorus, then you can easily boost their volume. You can also boost their vocals at a point in the song when a verse has a punched up line that stands out. This is where it helps to listen to professional recordings of the same songs during the week.
- Blend the vocalists together. You aren’t creating three distinct sounds for the three backing vocalists. You are creating a single sound. Cut and boost frequencies so they sound as one. Looking beyond the highs and lows, consider these frequencies as a place to start;
150 Hz – 600 Hz: Warmth
500 Hz – 2 kHz: Nasal (Cut to eliminate)
3 kHz – 5 kHz: Sibilance (Cut to eliminate)
1.5 kHz – 8 kHz: Clarity and Presence
The Take Away – and a question
All vocalists on the stage shouldn’t be singing at the same volume level. They shouldn’t all sound distinct. Backing vocalists can be used in multiple ways depending on the song arrangement. They aren’t used to sound like a duplicate of the lead singer. Consider the group as an instrument when in one song, they are a blended rhythm guitar and in another song they are the highlighted lead instrument.