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Creating and Editing Multitrack Background Vocals
Written by Bill Gibson - © 2005, Cengage Learning. Reprinted with Permission.
This article is an excerpt from the following book: The S.M.A.R.T. Guide to Digital Recording, Software, and Plug-Ins.

Backing vocals are very important to a song's impact. If they're done well, they can help the song convey its message in a stronger way. If they're performed, recorded, and edited poorly, they become a distraction and indicate a shabby project.

Tightening the performance during recording helps save time in the editing process and helps keep the quality standards high. Even when the vocals are very clean and tight, there are still several places the editor can help. Breaths, entrances, releases, and intonation are all factors that must be perfected to facilitate a professional-sounding product.

It's very common to double and triple backing vocals. For the following considerations, we'll assume all parts have been at least doubled. When a group sings tracks together, these factors should be addressed during the performance, since they're sometimes difficult to cover up during mixing. If the vocal group or individual sings with energy, life, and precision during tracking, the recordist should be able to quickly tighten any loose ends to create an impressive sound.

Breaths
The worst thing to do on any vocal track is to take out all breaths. For a track to sound natural, real, and believable, some breaths need to be heard; they make the recording sound alive. However, they shouldn't be so loud that they're distracting to the lead vocals or to the instrumental bed.

With a digital editor, breaths during backing vocals can easily be turned down, left out, or repositioned. The most important consideration is the groove. If the breaths are left in as part of the track's life, they need to be in time with the groove. If they're not, move them, turn them down, or eliminate them. Musical judgement is the key.

Listen to Audio Example 3-18. Notice how the breaths are out of time and a little too loud.

Next, listen to Audio Example 3-19. Notice how the breaths have been shifted in time and adjusted slightly in volume. Now they maintain life but add to the rhythmic feel of the arrangement.

Entrances
One of the primary indicators of well-sung, cleanly performed backing vocals is the precision of the entrances. If every part starts together, they'll probably stay together, often all the way through the release.

Entrances are easy to place. It's always clear where the waveform begins and, when the backing vocal tracks are lined up vertically, any part that's slightly out of time is instantly detectable. The computer-based digital recording system is laid out perfectly for fine-tuning these details. The illustration below demonstrates how easy it is to see when tracks are out of the groove. It also shows the same tracks after the vocals have been slid into place to produce a precise vocal performance.

Audio Example 3-20 demonstrates the sound of a backing vocal with sloppy entrances.

Listen to Audio Example 3-21 to hear the same piece of music with all entrances clean and precise.

Releases
Releases are nearly as important as entrances to the polished feel of a song. The most critical releases are transient releases. Words that end in s, t, k, sh, and ch sounds are very distracting when the tracks lack precision. With a digital editor and some patience, these ending sounds can be easily lined up with great precision after the fact. As with breath placement, these sounds should fit together nicely with the groove. Transients act like additional percussion instruments in most cases, so they should be placed with that in mind.

Audio Example 3-22 has some sloppy releases that distract from the groove.

Listen to Audio Example 3-23 to hear how much better the backing vocals sound when they're working together on the releases.

Intonation
Tuning is very important to the impact and professionalism of the recorded sound. As indicated earlier in this chapter, it's unrealistic to expect a work to command respect in the music community if care hasn't been taken to ensure appropriately precise intonation.

One of the problems in backing vocals is fading intonation over the course of a long note. Since the vocalists are often singing along with themselves or others, it's easy for them to lose track of pitch as they hold long notes—so they go flat or sharp.

This problem can be dealt with manually by retuning just a portion of the note and burying the edit point in the mix; some software packages also address this problem. For example, the now defunct Opcode developed a clever feature called Audio-to-MIDI, which analyzed the audio data and created MIDI parameters to correspond to note value, velocity, volume, tone, and pitch bend. With this technology, it was possible, once the MIDI parameters have been created, to adjust any parameter as if the audio had always been MIDI data.

With this process, if a note slides flat, then sharp, then flat again, that movement is registered as pitch bend data. The recordist can simply redraw the pitch bend data as a straight line at zero, therefore eliminating any variance in pitch. Next, the edited audio could be recreated through the MIDI-to-Audio command and the vocal track would play back with perfectly consistent intonation. Antares Auto-Tune plug-in provides this type of control in their Graphical made.

Detuning
In the digital domain, it's a simple task to detune an entire track. In the analog domain, detuning between tracks to create a bigger vocal sound could be accomplished by slighty varying the tape speed between takes—typical speed variations are between one and seven cents. Digitally, the same effect can be created in a nondestructive way. Raise or lower the pitch of one or more recorded vocal tracks, then blend the vocals together. If you don't like the sound, undo the action. Try another pitch change amount and blend again.

Listen to Audio Example 3-24 to hear a doubled backing vocal track, first as it was originally sung, then with the backing vocal tracks detuned by five cents.

Readjusting Formants
Detuning fattens because it changes the overtone structure of the vocal sound, simulating the effect of a different vocalist or group on the altered track. With modern digital editing packages, formants can be adjusted separately from pitch. Since formants control the apparent size of the voices, independent of the pitch, this adjustment can produce some amazing vocal effects. Alter the formant slightly on one of the backing vocal tracks for a fat sound.

Audio Example 3-25 demonstrates a tripled backing vocal track with the center as recorded, left with raised formants, and right with lowered formants.

Fills, Frills, and Licks
The digital domain is wonderful for recording, moving, altering, and comping solos and licks. It's very convenient to just let the soloists play. Let them fill the track. Have them perform multiple takes—keeping them all, of course. Once you're sure you have enough to work with, thank 'em kindly and pay 'em highly. They'll be on their way, happy to receive your call another day, and you'll have lots of material to work with. It's better to have too much than too little.

Only select the necessary frills. It's anticlimactic to include too many hot licks. However, just the right amount provides a powerful musical addition. It's common to assemble solos and licks together from different takes or to use a lick that was originally performed at the end of a song in the early part of the song. With the incredible flexibility available in modern technology, you can make your decisions based on musical considerations rather than performance positioning. For more information, see The S.M.A.R.T. Guide to Digital Recording, Software, and Plug-Ins.


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