One of my music production guilty pleasures is writing and arranging backing harmony vocals. This stage for me, if done tastefully, transforms a song. Great sounding vocal harmonies provide three very important musical aspects to a song's production. Well-crafted vocal harmonies that....
- support lead vocal melody lines
- adds depth to the meaning of selected lyrics
- bridges instrumentation to lead vocals
Many artists I've worked with over the years have had difficulty arranging and singing backing vocal harmony lines. This is an area I've personally worked very hard at developing in my musicianship and many of my clients really appreciate the support I give them in arranging great sounding and tastefully written vocal harmonies. My role in this production process is to write and arrange vocal harmony lines that work within vocalist's range and, importantly, compliment the arrangement and direction of the song.
In this article I am going to share a handful of tips to help you, your collaborators and clients achieve better vocal harmony skills. This isn't a music theory lesson, instead, this article shares practical tips I've worked by over the years developing my own vocal harmony skills that I depend on heavily when working with songwriters and artists in studio sessions.
Listen To Lots Of Harmony Rich Music
This almost goes without saying but I'll say it anyway. Listen to as much harmony-rich music as possible - focus only on vocal harmony lines. People who struggle to pitch harmonies generally do not have much of a musical ear. Develop a musical ear and in time musical harmony skills will follow. I developed my vocal harmony skills by listening and singing along to vocal harmony-rich music by the following artists:
- Bob Marley
- Beach Boys
For me, the best collection of songs to listen to and practise with is music by Bob Marley and the Wailers. The distinct difference in tone between Bob's lead vocal and The Wailers' makes it the perfect practise material to focus just the ear to the vocal harmony lines. I also believe we all instinctively know Bob Marley song lyrics so not having to reach for lyrics sheets also means we can focus our ears and practise on attempting harmony singing.
Be A Live Backing Singer
Over the years I've honed my listening skills through listening to a lot of music, however, there is no better place than the live stage to develop musical experience and intuition. Over the years my band live music role in has always been guitarist/backing singer. This role forced me to develop an ability to play an instrument, while at the same time, sing harmony lines that compliment the lead vocalist. Sounds easy... at first, it isn't, but over time these skills get easier. Singing in small groups or choirs are also great environments to develop ear and harmony skills as by singing in groups you will have a responsibility to sing particular harmonies the support the strength of the vocal ensemble. Some of the best harmony singers I've worked with over the years have all been part of a choir at some point in their lives.
Don't Double Notes
Lots of vocalists experience a common pitching problem when signing harmonies - either doubling the lead vocal line or singing into the lead melody frequently. Vocalists often try so hard to sing a pitched harmony, this means they can accidentally sing or trace the lead vocal melody. This isn't a harmony. I've helped many singers understand how to place the first pitched note of a harmony as I've found when artists find that first correct pitched harmony note they then have the confidence to continue singing harmony in that harmony range/register staying clear of the lead vocal line. The rule I instruct is "Don't double any notes". This is easily demonstrated on a piano. Say we are working on a three-part harmony and the artist is having problems understanding the "don't double any notes" rule - I will play a three-chord triad on the piano keyboard with my first, third and fifth fingers and say at no point two fingers will hold down the same note on the piano - your voice shouldn't do this either.
I've always told my artists that harmonies should be written down and arranged in either musical note form or shorthand. Harmonies rarely work when freestyled or improvised. Often one harmony may work improvised but artists will struggle to get any more down correctly if not orchestrated. If a third harmony is improved on top of a second harmony the vocal arrangement can start to get messy - there is no substitution for planning vocal harmony sections, especially if it's planned to be a complex arrangement.
Remember The Key Phase - Backing
Backing vocals are generally recorded after a lead vocal recording or guide vocal take so that artists can place their pronunciation and pitch. Artists have a tendency to push themselves in vocal harmony recording as their voices may be in the sweet spot after tracking lead lines or they're trying too hard to get the harmonies right. The problem that occurs here is that they forget the keyword - Backing. I've come across many problems in sitting backing vocals in mixes as the energy in the vocalist has sung the harmonies either hotter or more present than the lead vocal line. When tracking backing vocals always make sure dynamics of vocal harmony recording are either performed slightly softer than lead lines or at least consistent in energy to the lead line it's there to support in the song.
Singing great sounding backing vocal harmonies in music production is all about getting the right blend of taste, musicianship and confidence without ever forgetting the golden rules:
- Plan your vocal harmonies
- Don't double notes or lines
- Don't dynamically out sing lead vocal melody.
Share Your Vocal Harmony Tips
I've started the ball rolling with my top vocal harmony tips - Let's hear some of your methods for singing and arranging vocal harmony lines in music production.