Let me start off by saying that I am not a vocal producer. I am an engineer that has worked with tons of vocalists and producers.
Given this, I have a good understanding of how to layer vocals.
Unfortunately, there is no one idea that will work for vocals as a whole. With so many different styles and genres of music, my attempt is to spark ideas only.
One thing I do know for certain, and what I share with the audio engineering students in our music production school, is that you never know what it’ll sound like until you record it.
Choosing The Right Mic For The Source
When we think of a vocal mic, we think of a large diaphragm condenser microphone. That’s fine, but don’t limit yourself to just this choice.
What you are comfortable with when standing behind the mic is key. Once you’re comfortable with your mic selection then we need to figure out what works best with your voice.
I generally set several different mics up when starting with an unfamiliar artist. Perform your parts a few times and then stop to listen to the recording through each of these mics. Which one will sit well in the mix with little or no processing (e.g. EQ and compression).
Changing Mics For Different Sections Of The Song (e.g. verse/ hook)
This is a practice that I don’t get away with very often. Between time constraints and not interfering with the creative flow, I don’t get to experiment too much with changing the mics and the signal flow of it. When I have had the time, I’ve generally liked the results.
Changing the tonality of the vocals ever so slightly has really helped in separating the main vocals from the backgrounds or ad-lib tracks. Therefore, helping build the dynamics in the vocal performance.
Understanding Multitracking Vocals And Stereo Imaging
For the most part, your lead vocal will be centered and up front in your song. The dynamics of this performance can be emphasized by taking advantage of the multitrack capabilities of your tape or DAW. I’ll discuss how you can approach this in both the verses and chorus sections of your song.
Lead Vocals – Single Tracking And Double Tracking
You should take the time to develop your sound when it comes to how your verses will be executed. A single lead vocal can be and should be very intimate. Breathing in the right spots will preserve this intimacy to the listener.
When doubling the lead vocal, your timing of the performances is a crucial factor. If your timing is off from your original lead the result will be undesirable. Loosely layered vocals will cause you to lose the intimacy you are trying to create.
There is an effect you should be aware of though when layering these parts. If your performance is so tight then your vocals will start to sound phasey. Almost canceling out the center image.
Ad-lib Tracks – Single Tracks And Doubling
Your ad lib tracks or hype tracks will allow to express yourself in a not so formal manner. Your tone should differ enough so these vocals will stand out.
A couple of ideas that you can try are layering your vocals with a whisper track. The breathiness can be tucked underneath your lead vocal and sound really cool. The opposite of that would be a scream track. This track can be processed through amp simulators and really add some angst to your verses.
Also to take into consideration is how many ad-lib tracks you may want. This is where you can make them stand out in the stereo image. If you do two or more. Try to do the same ad-libs on each take or create a stutter effect between the two tracks by naturally offsetting your performance. These tracks can now be panned to the left and right to create a dynamic build on certain phrases you may want to emphasize.
Background Vocals/ Chorus
The way that the backgrounds are going to sound as a whole is due to the arrangement. Understanding how these tracks can and will be panned will ultimately play a huge role in how many you record of a single note.
Say for instance, you come up with a three part harmony for the chorus but only record one take of each note. How will they panned in the mix? Will it have a symmetry?
I’m not saying that only recording a single track of each note is by any means wrong. All the parts of a properly arranged vocal should be heard. If you’re adding layers and parts just to simply build up your track count then you are going in the wrong direction. Less is more.
However, when a chorus has the correct number of vocals parts stacked for each part and the harmonies are added and layered properly, nothing sounds sweeter.
Translating These Vocals Into A Live Performance
Before you start adding 50 vocal takes to your song, You should be thinking about the future, not just the now. I want you to consider how it can performed live.
Of course, there are always ways to print stems of the vocals after it has been mixed but then you have to fake the funk and play some pre-recorded vocals during your performance, which we have seen go sour on more than one occasion.
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Grammy award winning engineer Pete Novak started his career after completing the audio engineer program at Omega Studios. His career includes work with Stevie Nicks, Dr. Dre, Aftermath, Outkast, Gwen Stefani, Will Smith and plenty more. He is now a staff engineer at Omega Studios and an instructor at the Omega School. Find him on Twitter @pnovak23.