Rounding It Out
Background vocals are simply run through a hall reverb, also on an aux, so it’s easy to control how much reverb is added to the mix.
I use the hall to make the vocals sound bigger than they are.
On a normal weekend, we have two or maybe three background singers, but I like it to sound like more. With some hall, I can make them bigger, and by varying the amount of dry and wet keep them back in the mix, or pull them out more in front.
I like to try to visualize background vocals as a “bandshell” behind the leader, making it easier to hear the leader, while rounding out the sound.
As for setting delay times, I’ve adapted a process that I first leaned about from mix engineer Dave Pensado. He talked about setting the delay to a 16th or 8th note of the song one time, so I gave it a try. I was happy with the result, so I keep doing it.
I’ve found that about 90 percent of the time, I really prefer a 16th note delay on the lead vocal. It rounds it out without having a perceptible echo—unless the tempo drops below 70, then I shorten it up by ear (sometimes as short as 100 milliseconds or so).
Rules & Exceptions
One day I was trying to figure out a method to help my new volunteers with decay times on the reverb. I wondered if setting it by tempo would work. So I tried it, and again, am happy with the result. Unlike the delay, which has a little more predictable time setting, I go with a value that equals either a half, three-quarter or whole note.
All of this is a bit like the English language, however. There are some rules, and a lot of exceptions. Sometimes the tempo method I just described works great. Other times, it’s too much or too little.
In those cases, I change it. I was teaching this in a church a while back and I spent almost as much time telling to be unafraid to break the rules, explaining the rules in the first place. So remember, these are starting points and guides, not absolutes.
I’ve been taking this approach for about six months or so, and it’s working quite well. It’s quick to set up for each song (I never get more than two runs through each song before a service, so it has to be fast), and it’s easy to show my volunteers.
The only tool you need is a simple calculator that displays beats per minute in milliseconds. There are websites that will do that, or look in the app store for your smart phone and you’ll find a bunch of them. Best of all, this method also works for setting delay times for all of your effects.
Mike Sessler is the Technical Director at Coast Hills Community Church in Aliso Viejo, CA. He has been involved in live production for over 20 years and is the author of the blog, Church Tech Arts . He also hosts a weekly podcast called Church Tech Weekly on the TechArtsNetwork.