Mixing background vocals

Mixing background vocals is a piece of cake, right? You just need to put up the levels of them, slightly under the lead vocals, and call it a day. Or is there anything more to it? Well, my friend, there’s a lot more going on to it than you might think. So here’s my take on mixing background vocals.

Mixing background vocals

Let me tell you right away, if you try to do what I described above and nothing else, you might end up with a rather funny sounding mix. It – as most anything in mixing – depends on your recorded tracks, of course. Maybe you happen to be a pro recording engineer or producer. Or both. Someone who knows what he/she is going for right from the start, and has the whole song pictured clearly in your mind. That’s when your backing vocals will be recorded the exact way you need them to sit later in the mix. It can mean a couple of different things. For example, the background vocalists will sing into the microphones from a greater distance. Or there will be a compressor on the way in, set to a certain compression level that’s going to be printed. Maybe an EQ as well. And the singers will sing keeping a steady level that’s softer than the lead vocals. I could go on, but most of our everyday mixes are not this ideal. Usually far from it, actually. So what do we need to do when we are mixing background vocals?

Mixing background vocals

mixing background vocalsWell, we have to simulate the above described process. Also the resulting sound. Unless you want to end up with so called backing vocals that really are just slightly quieter versions of your lead vocals. How to do that? The first step is to decide if they need compression. If the backing vocals are fairly dynamic, and you want them to sit at a steady, supporting level, compress. Depending the actual dynamics of your tracks, you might need to dig in rather hard. Vocals can generally take a lot of compression (because our ears are used to that sound). The next step is to EQ. The key to mixing background vocals is to get a feel for how much smaller you want them to be, compared to the lead vocals. Use high and low pass filters (or low and high shelves) to narrow down the wide open sound. With a dense arrangement, you can really eliminate a lot of low end. The high end can also go, so they don’t sound so in-your-face. Finally, when you’re mixing background vocals, you can spice it up with ambience and distortion. A reverb with short or zero pre-delay will make sure that they are moved to the background. Choose an appropriate reverb tail length, so you don’t muddy up the sound unnecessarily. Add effects when needed, but beware using anything too bright, so they don’t move your backing vox back to the front.

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