Published on October 26th, 2012 | by Hugh Hession2
5 steps to better back-up vocals
Probably one of the most down-played and often ignored aspect of most bands are the backing vocals/harmonies. All too often, it’s put on the back-burner and viewed as random act, if anything else. One moment you might jump on the mic and then decide to back off of it, because you don’t really know how the next part goes. Hey, Keith Richards might be able to get away with it, but for everyone else, it really makes for a lukewarm performance at best.
Backing vocals that are “spot-on” can truly make a band shine, and to me, is often the difference between a band that is ok, verses a band that sounds polished and stands out. Which one would you like to be?
Here are some tips for developing your back-up harmonies and become the vocalist you’ve always wanted to be.
1. Have regular and separate vocal practices
Going over back-up vocals in a full band practice is a time-waster. Schedule regular vocal practices with the lead singer and all backing vocalists, to work out all the nuances before hand. That way, you’ll always be prepared when getting together with the full band.
2. Keep vocal sessions simple with only a guitar or keyboard as a guide
The key is to “hear” yourself and how you blend with everyone else. You cannot properly do that when everyone is playing their instrument. This is exactly why I recommend having separate vocal practices as mentioned in #1. Keeping it to one instrument helps to focus on the vocal parts but also, still maintain a reference point.
3. Always have a key person with a good ear, to lead the session
Two key things here. One, is leadership. Someone has to lead the session or it will go nowhere. I’ve seen it all too often. Before you know it, you’re drinking more beer than you’re practicing harmonies. Second, the person leading has to have an ear for harmonies, and preferably, knowledge of chord and interval structure. This might not be anyone one in the band. If that’s the case, then you need to find someone independent, who is experienced with singing and harmonies to help out. This is something I do all the time for my clients.
4. Work on the RAMP (Rhythm, Alteration, Matching and Pitch)
RAMP is something I developed to help music artists focus on the primary areas of effective backing vocals and harmonies. Here are the meanings.
Rhythm. As a backing vocalist, you have to follow the rhythm of the lead melody line (singer) to perfection. Of course, there are times when the backing vocalists counteract the lead vocal or sing at other places for enhancement. That’s fine, but you still have to be spot on, when it comes to the rhythm of the backing vocal line. The voice is an instrument. If a guitarist started playing “Back in Black” out of rhythm, that would change the entire feel of the song. Vocal lines are the same. Match the rhythm correctly, so the vocals are tight and in alignment.
Alteration. Don’t sing harmonies that you can’t handle. Change it up and choose another harmony that works. Notice how I say “that works.” Don’t just start singing an octave lower if it sounds like crap. Cover songs often include harmonies that are way up in the stratosphere. Sometimes these voices are legit, and sometimes they are merely manufactured in the studio with harmonizer plug-ins or Auto-Tune. Regardless, if you have someone who can sing up at that level, and it “sounds” good, then go for it, Singing an alto or soprano harmony with a full chest voice can sound strained if you don’t know how to access your mixed or head voice. Sometimes falsetto will sound great on certain tunes. For original songs, you need to tap into what works for your band.
Matching. You may think Matching is the same as Rhythm. In some ways, you’re right, but matching in this sense, is also known as blending. All singers not only need to match the way words are expressed and articulated, but also the dynamics involved, meaning how loud or soft everyone is singing. This is a common error. Each singer gets in the mic and just sings however they want. Even if it’s in pitch, it’s still going to sound off, because you’re not properly matching each vocal as a blend. If you want your backups to have that perfect sound, Matching and blending the vocals properly is a crucial part to establishing that.
Pitch. The best for last. What can I say about pitch? It’s what the entire vocal centers around. A huge dilemma is when the backing vocalist wanders off of pitch half way through a chorus. Instead of going up, they go down, or don’t move at all. This is where it’s important to have an understanding of intervals. Another common thing is when backing vocalists don’t keep a consistent distance level from the mic. They are either too far from it, too close, or worse, in and out.
5. Listen, listen, listen
The advantage to having a stripped down vocal practice, is that you can actually hear everyone. It’s the only way to work on the RAMP. To truly gain perspective, you have to listen to the other vocal parts. This is huge. For the most part, backing vocalists usually are so caught up in trying to remember their harmony, that listening is the last thing they’re doing. The goal is to learn your harmonies and internalize them, so you don’t have to think about it.
I guarantee you, that if you truly work on these 5 steps, your back up vocals will shine and bring your band up to another level. Don’t take my word for it. Your fans will be the first to notice!