Producing Background Vocals

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Background vocals are a key element in pop music, and Pro Tools makes it easy to record, group, and arrange vocals to enhance your home recording

Live Background Vocals

This article was originally published by ProMedia Training. Reprinted with permission.

The three fundamental components of popular music are rhythm, melody, and harmony. While rhythm and melody usually get all the glory, harmony, and specifically the role of background vocals, can take an ordinary song and turn it into an anthem. When used effectively, songs that utilize background vocals enhance the musical experience in a way the lead vocal could never do on its own.

Harmony is defined by the use of simultaneous pitches or chords, and is oftentimes referred to as the “vertical” aspect of music. Not exactly the most exciting definition, but when you think about how each of your favorite songs would sound without the harmony created by the background vocals, you’d find yourself with a fairly flat and unemotional listening experience.

For any given song, the specific approach to producing background vocals is dependent on the production style and genre, but when listening to any modern song on the charts, you can quickly pick up that there is a lot going on. Serious thought has been put in to the arrangement and presentation of these parts, which usually means quite a bit of editing work. Luckily for us, this type of work and associated workflow is what Pro Tools does best.

Recording background vocals is pretty straightforward, as is all recording in Pro Tools: set up your microphone, create new tracks, and voila! Sounds simple enough, assuming you have planned out what the background vocal lines will be and your vocal talent has rehearsed their parts. Pro Tools or any other system can’t help you with a singer who doesn’t know the lines.

Once you have the creative part ready to go, it’s time to create tracks in Pro Tools. For a modern rock or pop song, it is very common to do three-part harmony comprised of high, mid, and low harmony – with each harmony consisting of four tracks. Yes, I said four tracks per harmony part, giving you 12 tracks total of background vocals. This as not an absolute, just a general guideline, and you’ll see later why having these extra tracks can help with your arrangement. There are no rules in music and you can apply the multi-track technique of layering background vocals any way that creatively suits your needs.

Once you create these tracks in your session, it is fairly easy to set up – especially if you are working with a single vocalist. Since you will be using a single microphone to record onto all these tracks, you can quickly set the input of all 12 tracks simultaneously by selecting the tracks and using the keyboard shortcut Shift + Option (Shift + Alt on a PC). Once you’ve selected the tracks, hold Shift + Option and select the input of your first track: this will assign the same input to all your selected tracks.

It will probably look something like this:

Shift + Option assigns the same input to all selected tracks.
Shift + Option assigns the same input to all selected tracks.

Once you’ve set up your tracks, it’s just a matter of recording your vocalist onto each individual track. The outcome of recording these parts will look close to this:

Recording Background Vocals in Pro Tools

In this example, we have four tracks for Background Vocal Hi (Red), four tracks for Background Vocal Mid (Blue), and four tracks for Background Vocal Lo (Green). As you can see, each track has multiple edits, as is the case with every major production. Don’t be afraid to put the work needed into getting the parts edited correctly. When you listen to any popular song, you will notice there is no “slop” and no bad edits, the different parts do not spill over into one another. You’ll also notice the trend in popular music is to have very distinct beginning and end points for the verse, chorus, etc. In order to make sure you have clean edit points, you should be careful to apply fades as necessary to make sure you don’t have any unwanted clicks or pops at the beginning and end of your edited audio regions.

You’ll notice in the example below that each of the audio regions have been trimmed to length and have fades applied. This degree of attention to detail is the norm in the professional audio industry.

Trimming Background Vocals in Pro Tools

Once you have recorded and trimmed the different parts that make up your background vocals, there is still a bit of creativity that needs to be applied to the final production. More than likely, the producer (or vocalist) is going to want to create the arrangements regarding when the background vocals come in and out of the song. This is where recording all the variations gives you tons of flexibility toward creating an interesting performance. Listen to your favorite songs and take particular note as to how each of the song parts sound. You’ll probably notice subtle differences between the first verse/first chorus, and second verse/second chorus parts. Take a look at the example below and see how this can be achieved.

Arranging Background Vocals in Pro Tools

You’ll notice that all three parts very rarely play together. Notice for this arrangement that only mid-harmony parts are playing in the first and second verses. Right before the song transitions into the chorus parts, all three harmony parts (Hi, Mid, and Lo) are playing together, and through the chorus, only mid-harmony parts are playing. By the bridge, we see that only the Hi and Lo harmony parts are playing at once.

This type of thought put into the arrangement can really enhance the listener experience and keep the song interesting. An easy way to achieve this in Pro Tools is to use the Region Mute feature. Instead of applying the Track Mute, you can selectively mute individual regions within a track. To do this, select the regions you want to mute, then use the keyboard shortcut: Command + M (CNTRL + M on a PC), and you will wind up with something similar to this:

Using Region Mute for background vocals

Once you have Muted the region, you’ll notice it turns Grey, indicating it’s will not be heard during playback. To un-mute the region, use the same keyboard shortcut, Command + M. You’ll find yourself muting and un-muting regions as you find a good balance of background vocals in the different parts of your song.

Now that you have your tracks, no matter how many you decide to use, you are faced with the challenge of controlling and eventually mixing these tracks with the rest of the song. Since all of these tracks are a single element of the music, it would be handy to control them as a single element as opposed to individual tracks. This can be accomplished using a variety of techniques, but the most common is track grouping. “Track Groups” within Pro Tools allow you to control primary track functions such as volume, solo, and mute across several tracks at once. The Track Group window can be shown at the bottom left corner of the Edit and Mix window. The default group is available to allow you to group all tracks in your session at once. While that ability is good in certain situations, you are generally going to create your own track groups based on your session.

The first thing you want to do is select all of the tracks you want to include in the Track Group.
Track Groups for background vocals

Once you have selected all your desired tracks, you can use the keyboard shortcut of Command + G (CNTRL + G on a PC), or click on the “Groups” menu button to create a new group.

The “Create Group” window will appear and it provides you with all relevant information about your new group.
Create a Group for background vocals

Pay particular attention to the naming, as Pro Tools will want to name your groups numerically. It can be a huge pain to try and remember that Group 8 is your drum group. You will also notice that you have the ability to create a group in either the Edit Window, Mix Window, or both windows. For this particular workflow there is no reason to unlink the two windows and we will select the Mix/Edit group to make sure our group attributes apply to both windows. Each of the groups you create will be designated by a Group ID, which is displayed as lower case alphabet letters a – z.

Now that you have a group, try moving the volume fader on any of the tracks, click the solo and mute buttons on the tracks, make a selection on one of the tracks, and notice how all tracks act as one. This makes it so much easier to control the tracks instead of having to worry about several tracks at once.

As you start utilizing groups, you will see how many things make sense to group together, such as drums, guitars, lead vocals, etc. The more tracks you combine to make up a singular element of a song, the more it makes sense to control them as a singular element for your workflow.

Image of singers via ShutterStock.com.

Mihai Boloni is an engineer and long-time Pro Tools educator who draws from over a decade of experience in music production. Mihai is a Certified Expert Instructor with an array of experience that ranges from composition to post-production. As an industry professional he knows first-hand the value of Pro Tools mastery for artists, producers and engineers. As an instructor he loves sharing that value with his students in order to foster solid opportunities in artistry and creativity.

ProMedia Training is the premier authorized Avid Pro school, having certified more students in Pro Tools than any other organization. With a focus on recording, mixing, music production, and multimedia training for musicians, producers, and recording engineers, ProMedia offers programs featuring Pro Tools 10 (soon Pro Tools 11) Training and Certification. ProMedia facilities are located in Atlanta, Austin, Chicago, Dallas, Miami, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Nashville, San Diego, New York, and Washington, DC. Learn more at www.protoolstraining.com

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