In this article, we will demonstrate and specifically show you several specific examples of how to produce and arrange background vocals in a modern pop song. In today’s musical landscape, we are witnessing one of the most eclectic and diverse array of songs to ever be on the charts at the same time. As of January 20th, 2013, we have artists such as Pink, Bruno Mars, Maroon 5, Alicia Keys, Rihanna, A$AP Rocky, etc… and that’s just in the Billboard top 20. While there might be differences in the “genre,” there are a few fundamental musical components that each one of these songs have in common: Rhythm, Melody, and Harmony, the three fundamental components of modern music. While Rhythm and Melody usually get all the glory, Harmony, specifically in the role of Background Vocals, can take an ordinary song and turn it into an anthem. Background Vocals can enhance the listener’s experience in a way the Lead Vocal could never do on its’ own.
Before we get into the hot ‘n heavy, I do have to point out the creative application and placement of Background Vocals can differ based on the specific genre. In music, harmony is defined by the use of simultaneous pitches or chords and often times referred to as the “vertical” aspect of music. There is no real “right” or “wrong” way to produce background vocals, as so much is dependent on the production style and taste involved; however, in listening to any modern song on the charts, you can quickly pick up that there is a lot going on, which usually means quite a bit of work editing in Pro Tools. Luckily for us, this type of work and associated workflow is what Pro Tools does best.
Recording Background Vocals (BGV’s) is pretty straight forward as is all recording in Pro Tools- set up your microphone, create some new tracks, and viola! Grammy Time! Sound simple enough, keeping in mind that you have planned out what the background vocal lines will be and your vocal talent has rehearsed their parts. Pro Tools can’t help you with a singer that doesn’t know the lines. Once you have the creative part ready to go, it’s time to create some tracks in Pro Tools.
For a modern Rock/Pop type of song, it is very common to do three-part harmony comprised of high, mid, low harmony and each one of those consisting of 4 tracks. Yes, I said 4 recorded tracks per part, giving you 12 tracks total of Background Vocals. By no means take this as an absolute starting point, more of a general guideline. There are no rules in music and you can apply the multi-track technique of layering BGV’s any way that creatively suits your needs. Once we create these tracks in the session, it is fairly easy to set up especially if you are working with a single vocalist.
Since we will be using a single microphone to record onto all these tracks, we can quickly set the input of all 12 tracks simultaneously by selecting the tracks and using the keyboard shortcut: Shift + Option (Shift + Alt – PC). Once you’ve selected the tracks, hold Shift + Option, 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: Assign 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 looks close to this:
4 Tracks Per Harmony:
In this example, we have recorded 4 tracks for BGV Hi (Red), 4 tracks for BGV Mid (Blue), and 4 tracks for BGV Lo (Green). Often, different harmony parts are panned distinctly different to create space in the mix; the EQ treatment is often “thinned” out so the background’s create texture in the mix without stepping on the lead. 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” or “bad edits”, the different parts do not spill over into one another. You’ll notice the current 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 “click” or “pop” at the beginning and end of your edited audio regions.
Proper Fades on Background Vocals:
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 “click” or “pop” at the beginning and end of your edited audio regions. You’ll notice in the example below each of these audio regions have been trimmed to length and had Fades applied. This type of attention to detail is the norm in the professional audio industry!
More than likely, the producer (or vocalist) is going to want to create some sort of arrangement as to when the Background Vocals come in and out of the song. While this may be done to individual taste, it is wise to remember that by recording all these variations give you a lot 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 1st verse, 1st chorus, and 2nd verse & chorus parts. Take a look at the example below and see how this can be achieved.
You’ll notice that all three parts very rarely play together. Notice for this arrangement that only Mid-Harmony parts are playing in the 1st & 2nd Verse, Right before the song transitions into the Chorus parts, all three (Hi, Mid, & Lo) Harmony parts are playing together and through the Chorus, only Mid-Harmony parts are playing. By the Bridge we see that only the Hi & Lo Harmony parts are playing at once. This type of thought put into the creativity can really enhance the listener experience and keep them interested throughout the song.
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. Select the regions you want to mute, then use the keyboard shortcut: Command + M (CNTRL + M – on a PC), you will wind up with something similar to this:
Command + M (CNTRL + M – on a PC)
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 (CNTRL +M – on a PC), in order to un-mute. You’ll find yourself muting and un-muting regions as you find a good balance of BGV’s in the different parts of your song.
A good point of reference is to listen to your favorite songs and pay particular attention to the background vocal structure, how parts are brought in and out and the contrast throughout the song. You’ll be surprised at what you might discover and the impact it can have on your production. 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 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 in Pro Tools. Track Groups within Pro Tools allow you to control primary track functions such as Volume, Solo, Mute, etc… across several tracks at once. The Track Group window can be shown at the bottom left corner of the Edit & 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.
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.
Pay particular attention to the naming, as Pro Tools will want to name your groups numerically. It’s 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. Pro tools does give you the ability to create a total of 104 Track Groups as it has 4 Banks of Groups total. Further down the window you will see two columns, one is for all Available tracks in your session and the right side column displays the tracks you’ve added currently in the Group by pre-selecting your tracks. You do have the ability to Add or Remove tracks if you realize you’d like a different configuration than what you initially selected. Once you are satisfied with your selection, click OK to create the new Track Group. It will look like this:
Now that we 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, 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.
Every professional engineer uses Track Groups for the same exact reason, allowing better control of multiple things. As you start utilizing Groups you will see how many things make sense to group together, such as Drums, Guitars, Lead Vocals + FX, the list goes on. 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.
As I was writing this article, I spent a lot of time becoming very familiar with the current Billboard Top 100 Chart, and I cannot state enough how important Background Vocal layering has become. Bruno Mars, The Lumineers, .fun, Justin Timberlake, Taylor Swift, Maroon 5, Phillip Phillips, Imagine Dragons, Rihanna, basically everyone selling popular music today has a tremendous Background Vocals produced in pro tools.
We look forward to seeing you in ProMedia’s Pro tools classes, where lessons such like these are broken down into much further detail. We will soon be providing tips on EQ treatment of background vocals which needs a lot of attention.
The final production of this song demonstrated in this video was written by Mega Hit writer Kevin Churko, and dance artist Jenna Drey, known for top dance hits like "By The Way" on Robbins Entertainment:
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Mihai Boloni is a talented engineer and long-time Pro Tools educator who is fortunate to draw from thousands of hours logged in studios around the globe. Mihai is a Certified Expert Instructor who has an array of Pro Tools experience, which ranges from songwriting, post-production, and dropping' big fat bass across the land. As an industry professional he knows first-hand the value of Pro Tools mastery for artists, producers and engineers. Mihai is a dog lover and the proud father of 2 beautiful Irish Setters.