Recording in your home studio all year may have yielded some duds, some fun jams, and some genuinely good songs. You’ve invested in great vocal mics, and doubled your main vocals, and now you wanna take the track to the next level.
The obvious thing left to do is tackle some vocal harmonies.
WHY VOCAL HARMONIES?
Vocal harmonies are one of the most effective techniques in modern songwriting/recording. From classical to jazz, folk music from every continent, to bedroom indie rock, vocal harmonies tie songs together and give the audience that sense of community that makes music so special. Artists such as Simon & Garfunkel, Crosby Stills & Nash, and the Beach Boys have pushed harmonies to new limits and heights of beauty and effectiveness. But at its root, a good harmony only needs to be one thing, the right note at the right time, sung with confidence.
When done well two or more voices blend into an almost mystical third voice, the harmonic mixture. And it makes any song stand out.
So let’s go over how to achieve that goal.
WHERE SHOULD THEY GO?
Harmonies are normally found in choruses of songs, and sometimes only highlighting the main hook or phrase. In The Beach Boys “409” the harmonies repeat 409 in harmony over and over while the lead vocal weaves in between with “Giddy up 409”. The harmonies act like a highlighter, drawing attention to the main part of the song that the band wants you to remember. It acts as a memory device, shining a light on the catchiest parts. The harmonies in this situation are written based on the melody line, taking into consideration the chord progression as a secondary concern.
Harmonies are very common in background vocals, especially when they are singing non-word syllables like “oo”, “ah”, or “oh”. In this case, the harmonies fit with the chord progression alone, not the melody.
Harmonies can also go in the verses of a song, but the song needs to be written more carefully, taking possible future harmonies into consideration. Certain melodies will be more hostile to smooth, simple harmonies. Other melodies are written such that the harmonies are sort of an obvious addition, and some can even hear what note goes where after enough practice. In this case, the harmony must be carefully strictly written with the harmony. Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Boxer” is an excellent example of this delicate balance between voices pulled off unbelievably well.
WHERE THEY SHOULDN’T GO
Harmonies shouldn’t go with parts that are improvisational or prone to unpredictable changes in speed and melodic riffing. Some vocal parts are best left alone and that’s worth always keeping in mind. If a gospel singer is doing a solo vocal, what he or she is doing is most likely about their ability to soar and embellish the original melody, so harmony would only serve to constrain their talent and make them feel hemmed in. On the other hand, a gospel duet who sings in harmony can be bolstered to new heights with a choir of ten behind them singing the right harmonies at the right moments. It’s all about keeping it on a song-by-song basis.
HOW TO TECHNICALLY RECORD THE SESSION
Pick Your Part!
The hardest part for some harmony singers is figuring out the best harmony to sing. In general, keeping your harmony above the lead by a major/minor 3rds, a perfect 4th, or perfect 5th are the most common intervals to sing as the melody rolls along, but others remain possible.
Practice! (With a keyboard if possible).
The most important part of harmony recording is practicing the track. Over and over. If I could I’d have vocalists sing the part at least one hundred times before trying to track, and it’s a lot to expect, but the results show in the playback. So once you have your harmony, practice it.
Practice more to the track!
I’m not joking. Once you think you practiced enough, do it again. In the car, in the shower, online for groceries, when you’re walking the dog. Practice recording it, practice practicing recording. And then it will be so much more comfortable when you record.
Listen to the lead and yourself at the same time — Be ready, this is hard!
The hardest thing about tracking harmony to lead vocals is being able to hear yourself sing WHILE you simultaneously listen closely to the lead vocal and all its idiosyncrasies. The job here isn’t to do your own thing, it’s to sing the correct note in the most similar way as possible to the pronunciation of the lead singer. This means trying to copy vowel sounds (is it proper sounding or twangy?), the consonants the singer hits (do they say all their s’s? do they drop syllables regularly?), and the timbre of the singer. Not the notes, but the mood and color of their voice. Sounds heady, but it really makes a genuine difference when you play it back.
Take one headphone off one of your ears
Sometimes it helps to only have headphones on one ear, then you can hear yourself in the open air outside the headphones. Some even plug one ear with their finger or an earplug to hear themselves better. Try it all. It’s all about that harmonic mixture— that third voice that appears when two voices harmonize very tightly.
Solo the lead vocal track and record only to that
Finally, you can solo the vocal track and try to sing to just the one voice singing lead. It can help make the tuning between the two parts way easier to hear and determine if the harmony needs to be flatter or sharper.
ONE FINAL WORD ON RECORDING VOCAL HARMONIES
Harmonies are one of those production techniques that take a raw, bare track and can transform it into a very special, magical sonic moment. Think of the harmonies in some of the best songs ever recorded and revisit those moments and try to imagine how these techniques may have been used to craft those memorable hits.
Now sing away. And when you are ready to hear your own stunning harmonies flow out of a radio near you, call Planetary Group at (323) 952-5050 and inquire about their array of promotion services to get yourself heard by the right people in the right places!