Hey, this is Jason Moss from BehindTheSpeakers.com, and today you’re gonna learn three simple tips for mixing background vocals that sound clear, balanced, and radio-ready.
Now, before we dive in, I also put together a free vocal mixing cheatsheet that’s packed with tips and tricks for taking your vocals to the next level. So if you wanna download this, it’s completely free. You can click the link in the description below or up there in the video to get instant access right now.
My first tip is to process background vocals independently.
Now, most of the time when we’re talking about background vocals, we’re not just talking about one track. We’re talking about eight tracks or 16 tracks, where there are multiple versions of the same part, or there are multiple parts that make up a background vocal arrangement.
Now, a lot of the time, people will group all of these tracks together and they’ll process them on the group. Now the problem with this approach is, let’s take compression, for example. If you put a compressor on a group of background vocals, the compressor can’t control the level of individual background vocal tracks within that group. All it can do is turn down the level of the entire background vocal stack. And so what ends up happening is, while you might control the level of the background vocals as a whole, you’re not evening out the differences in dynamics and volume between those individual background vocals.
So instead of processing things on the group or on the bus, it’s usually a better approach to apply processing to each individual track in your background vocal group. So usually that’s gonna give you better results. You can apply some processing on the group of vocals, maybe some subtle EQ or even some compression. But for the most part, I try to do most of the heavy lifting on the individual background vocal tracks within that group.
The second tip is you wanna tighten up the timing.
Now, timing between background vocals is incredibly important. And whenever you get one performance that’s been recorded multiple times, it’s very natural to have subtle variations in those performances. So, in one performance, the vocalist might have sang a note a little bit later than another performance, so you have all these subtle different variations, right? But over the course of a group of background vocals, it just creates this kind of messy, sloppy sound where things are kind of starting and ending in different places, and it just sounds kind of amateur.
So what I like to do is go through the individual tracks and actually tighten up the timing and make sure that everything’s kinda consistent. Things are starting and ending in the same spot. There’s no kind of weird performance where something just kinda pops out and it comes way earlier than the rest of them. And I usually like to use the lead vocal as the guide. If you match the timing of the background vocals to the lead vocal, that’s always gonna lead you in the right direction.
Now, there’s a tool called Vocalign that you can download. It’s a plugin that will allow you to basically do this automatically. It’s not always 100% effective, but this is a great tool when you have tons of background vocals if you just wanna line things up really quickly.
But I wanna jump into my DAW and show you basically how I approach this manually. So if you don’t have this plugin, don’t worry. I’m gonna show you right now how I do this and clean up the timing on the background vocals in my mixes.
Okay, so I have a track here called “It Starts Today” by artist Leah Capelle. I wanna take a listen to the lead vocal and the chorus, along with the background vocals in solo. So something just to note here, Leah is an amazing singer and her background vocals always come in perfect. I never have to do anything to them. So I actually had to move things around a little bit just to create this demo. So don’t be deceived—Leah’s an amazing singer.
♪ Oh I won’t tell you to put your hands up ♪
♪ ‘Cause we all know we’re gonna get stuck on the wire ♪
♪ Our feet to the fire ♪
♪ So tell ‘em right now we’re gonna be free ♪
So the timing isn’t terrible by any means, but I feel like things can be a little bit tighter. The background vocals don’t quite mesh with the lead vocal. And when you have tracks like these where there are a lot of words going by very quickly, it’s pretty common to have this, where the timing is just a little bit off.
So if we scroll down here, you can see there are four background vocal tracks. So what I’m gonna do is drag this first background vocal track up so it’s right below the lead vocal track. I’m gonna zoom in a little bit and just make this a little bit bigger. And using the lead vocal as a guide, I’m basically gonna adjust the timing of the background vocal tracks so that it matches the lead vocal a little bit more closely.
Now, depending on what you’re working in, what DAW you’re working in, there are different ways to do this. In Pro Tools, there’s something called elastic audio, and the way that you turn it on is over here. So I’m just gonna set this to monophonic, ’cause there’s only one note at once in this vocal track. And then I’m gonna change the view mode on this track to warp.
Now, if you’re in another DAW, obviously these steps are gonna be different, but you wanna just look in your manual for elastic audio, flex time, or something like that that allows you to adjust the timing of individual tracks.
So I’m gonna zoom in here, and now you can see we have these warp points. And I can go through and basically adjust the timing of this background vocal track to match the lead vocal a little bit more closely. So I’m gonna just do this visually. I’m not really listening to things right now. I’ll probably listen to it later and make sure that things are lining up and that there’s no kind of weird glitches or anything like that. Now after I’m done with this background vocal track, I’ll go through the rest of the background vocals and do the same thing.
If you take the time to do this, I know it’s kind of a pain and, you know, it’s not the most fun part of the music-making process, but this is the stuff that really is gonna make a difference when it comes to the sound of background vocals. And it’s just gonna make things sound a lot tighter, cleaner, and a lot more radio-ready. It’s just gonna sound like the stuff you hear on the radio.
The third tip is to remove the breaths on the background vocals. Now, this might sound a little bit weird; I know a lot of people like to leave the breaths in. But I’ve found that the breaths can often be sources of inconsistencies between the tracks and the background vocal group. So often times, one track, the vocalist will have taken a breath in earlier, and in another one it’s kind of late. And so you get this kind of mish-mosh of different breaths that occur at different times. And the trick here is you can often get rid of the background vocal breaths completely and you’re not gonna miss them.
Now, I always leave breaths in on the lead vocal, and I’ll automate them if they’re too loud so they don’t get distracting. But because you have those breaths on the lead, you can often get away with just taking them completely out of the picture on the background vocals and you don’t miss them. Because really, they’re only a secondary element in the mix. So by getting rid of those breaths, it’s just gonna contribute to a cleaner, tighter background vocal sound. You’re not gonna have breaths that are all over the place, that are pulling you away from whatever the primary focus of the track is.
I hope you enjoyed these three tips for mixing background vocals. And if you want to dive deeper, I put together a free vocal mixing cheatsheet that’s packed with tips and tricks that I didn’t have time to cover here. So if you wanna download this, you can click the link in the description below or in the video and you’ll get free instant access.
Thanks so much for watching. And if you want more mixing tips like these, you can check out my website, BehindTheSpeakers.com. Take care.
Video features music by Leah Capelle.