“Here’s how to add more vocals to your melody without distracting from it (Backing Vocals, Call & Response, Counterpoint)”
This email on backing vocals appeared in my inbox last week:
Lets say I have a nice melody that I play on the piano. How do I involve other instruments to embellish that melody, – either to replicate it an octave up, or produce some kind of counter-melody, or complimentary melody that would make my song more interesting? – thanks : ) Ian
Sounds like a good topic to tackle in an article, so let’s talk adding secondary melodies. Or in other words: Let’s talk Backing Vocals, Call & Response and Counterpoint.
1. Standard Backing Vocals
Whenever I want to bring out a particular line in one of my songs, I like to use this type of backing vocals.
In fact, when I record vocals, I devote about 50% of the time to doubling and backing the original vocals. My approach: You can always take ‘em out.
The effect? Fatter lines, mostly. But backing vocals can also be used to play with new emotions. We’ll talk about both here:
Fattening Up The Melody | Doubling
I can’t remember the last time I recorded a chorus without doing this: Fattening the melody through doubling.
Here’s what you do: Edit your main vocals on the fly when you’re recording. Then let your singer listen to what she just sang and remember every nuance of her performance: Where she started lines, where she ended them and, of course, note choice.
Then hit record and let her replicate as closely as possible what she just heard. That’s what’s called a double. Repeat.
In the finished mix, I often pan my doubles to the sides (main vocals center, doubles 30% left and 30% right for verses, 100% left and 100% right for the chorus – more on that here). You may have to pull down the faders of the doubles a bit.
This makes the vocals sound bigger and fatter. Now they sound like they are coming from everywhere.
You can use this technique for pretty much every single vocal line in your songs, it’s that good. Enjoy!
Adding Emotion | True Backing Vocals
I’ll often use backing vocals like these for my chorus to make the melody pop out.
There’s two approaches to this, the normal, harmonic one, and the free one.
1. Harmonic Backing Vocals
Ever wonder why the chorus is called a chorus? Exactly. Let’s talk about choirs.
The simplest way to add backing vocals to your track is to let your singer perform the main vocals again on a different pitch.
For a full choir sound, you will want to use the root, third and fifth of the chord. So in other words, if the main vocals sing a third, you want to add the root below and the fifth above.
Important: As with doubling, make sure that the timing doesn’t change. You want everything to sound like one voice, not like 10 different takes all playing at the same time. Edit rigorously if necessary.
Once you got your triad, feel free to double the chord notes an octave above (sounds energetic) or below (sounds heavy, sad).
Want to know what emotions you’re implying with all of this? Check this article here.
2. Free Backing Vocals
This one is rather unusual, but I thought I’d list it for completion’s sake.
Some artists like to base the pitches of the backings not on the main vocals but on the spur of the moment.
This technique is often heard in Grunge and other slightly off Alternative styles. For a good example, listen to Cold’s Just Got Wicked for a good example (chorus).
The emotion created by this is a strange one. It sounds rough, unpolished, which may be just what you want.
To create this effect, let your singer improvise over the main vocals. Don’t let her think of what to do beforehand, tell her to just start on a pitch higher than the melody and keep going.
2. Call & Response
Another very commercial approach to secondary melodies is the use of Call & Response. Think Lorde’s Royals (the first line of the chorus).
The idea is to fill in the rests of the main vocal with new melodic lines. The main vocal therefore becomes the “call”, the backing vocals fill in the “response”.
You may know this from Blues music, where the guitar often fills in a little lick between the lines of the main vocals.
If you’re thinking of using this approach, read this article on “Trading Space”, one hell of an underestimated concept in modern songwriting.
Oh yes, counterpoint. Every student of music will come across this sucker sooner or later.
The concept: Your main vocals, called the Cantus Firmus (“fixed song”) serve as a backbone to a second melody, the Counter Point.
Counterpoint theory gives you an approach to writing a counter point to any melody on the planet without ever having to listen to what you’ve written.
It’s a very theoretical technique that allows you to write melodies all on paper, without the need of a piano or sequencer.
Here’s the problem: The Counter Point is a self-supporting melody: It is not secondary to the main melody.
That means that true counter point is fairly complex by nature: There’s always two melodies fighting for our attention.
It comes as no surprise that there hasn’t been a Pop song using the technique in a long, long time. Today, Counterpoint is mostly used in Jazz and orchestral music.
In other words, for most Pop songwriters, Counterpoint is not worth the trouble. However, if you’re interested in how Counterpoint still IS used in Pop music today, please comment below and I’ll get back to you.
QUESTIONS (Comment Below):
- Which of these 3 techniques have you used before and how often do you use them?
- What other techniques do you use to embellish your main vocals?
Songwriting Coach & Composer
With recommendations from industry heavyweights Erwin Steijlen (Pink, Shakira), Conrad Pope (John William’s orchestrator), Jeff Rona (God of War III, Traffic) and Rene Merkelbach (Within Temptation), Friedemann started his songwriting/producing school Holistic Songwriting in November 2015.