For the average, clueless listener, backing vocals might be among the simplest things. And in certain, rather special cases, they are. But that’s more like the exception than the rule. In reality, there’s a whole spectrum of different background vocals, from the rawest, live recorded ones to the extra huge and thick, multi-layered kind. Of course in the first, roughest bunch, there’s generally not much or at least not as much left to do in the mix as in the case of the latter two. Those other kind of ones are usually separately – and meticulously – recorded vocal tracks. They require certain EQ-ing and all kinds of further manipulation and processing with effects.
Close harmony singing – raw beauty
For example, if you take a song from artists like the Everly Brothers, Gillian Welch & David Rawlings, or Simon & Garfunkel, all you’re going to hear is two well recorded voices singing harmonies as perfectly as two human beings can get it. Often the “mixing” is done live too, i.e. the vocal line in the less dominant role will be sung from a bit further away from the microphone. Doing so sets the perceived depth and the levels in a natural, organic way, and also creates the stereo positions (if it’s a stereo recording).
Gillian Welch – “The Way It Will Be”:
Enhance what’s already there
Now if we go just a minor step towards the less raw and natural ways of doing backing vocals, we will find songs like the following – beautiful sounding – example. Notice that most of the time it’s still just the three voices, sung by three different people, but sometimes additional voices appear. Also, these vocal tracks were not recorded all at once. They are overdubs, and that way they required some effects to make it sound more coherent or “glued” together. This glue came in the form of some compression, and most importantly some well audible plate reverb.
Crosby, Stills & Nash – “Helplessly Hoping”:
The seriously processed vox
Now from the late 70s on, and during the 80s, the above style was perfected and transformed into something quite different. Something that – if done correctly – ended up sounding more like a synthesizer than a couple of human beings singing together. Michael McDonald himself said something along the lines of “don’t worry if it sounds bad with only a couple of voices, it’ll definitely sound good when doubled”. And if it sounds reasonably good when doubled, why should we stop there? Let’s keep stacking them damned vocal tracks all day long, so it will surely sound good, thick, massive, in tune and… distant. But since they are background vocals, being distant might actually be an advantage. And if it already sounds like a synth, we can add some chorus or flanger, so it will get even thicker. Oh, and don’t forget to add a whisper track, just to give the lead vocal line that certain sheen.
Queen – “I Want It All”: