An argument could be made that a strong lead vocal is the most important component of a good song. If so, a strong backing vocal is the cherry on top, that finishing touch that takes a vocal performance from good to great. Bands from Def Leppard to King’s X make their harmony vocals a critical part of their sound.
We’re naturally wired to love singing, and nothing sounds sweeter to the human ear than good singers in harmony. Achieving this sweet sound is not as easy as it appears, though. Ask anyone who’s attempted to sing harmony with him- or herself or carry over well-established live harmonies to a record! It’s difficult to immortalize those perfect harmonies that have happened in rehearsal or onstage, but well worth the effort. Here are some tricks, practices, and ways of thinking to help get you there.
1. Consider your composition
When writing harmony parts, it’s important to add to your song, not dilute or clutter it. The best backing vocals come in behind the lead vocal compositionally.
Listen carefully to the parts. Can you still hear which line is the lead, and which ones are providing harmony? Your lead part should be the dominant part; that’s the main melody of the song. If your backing parts seem to be obstructing that melody, consider sending one of the harmony parts up or down an octave or try giving your backup parts less movement (having them hold notes longer, rather than always moving with the lead vocal).
2. Experiment with voice blends
There are cases in which your best backup singer is you, and it’s completely appropriate for the song if you handle all the vocal duties. After all, how often does Eric Clapton hire a lead guitarist for a session? He’s got that covered. But at times, you’ll want the effect that a chorus of different voices brings.
Giving each voice in the group its own personality while still hitting the notes is tricky. The best way to find this blend is through a chemistry experiment: grab as many singers as you can, give them different parts, and see what creates a reaction. Be open-minded; you might get an amazing sound that’s perfect for your song by recording your 12-year-old cousin, that sax player who usually doesn’t sing, and the delivery guy who just delivered your T-shirt order and always wanted to be in a band. When you get the right elements in your solution, you’ll know it because it’ll suddenly sound amazing.
3. Have a regular group with regular parts
An excellent a cappella group could probably pick a song they’d never sung, choose a key, and start singing in beautiful harmony on the spot. That’s because the singers know their ranges and their roles. They’re accustomed to blending with one another and know which intervals usually sound best. Having a go-to trio or quartet to back you up is a great practice, even if those people don’t always perform live with you. If you’re a regular recording artist, consider using the same singers every time so they can learn your style and augment it, while learning how to work together.
4. Limit vibrato and note-bending
Your lead vocal might be all over the place, bending notes, employing heavy vibrato, playing with time, and spitting out notes in a bark, growl, or scream. That stuff is tough to harmonize with. When singing a harmony vocal, you’ll want to play it straighter. Keep vibrato lighter and stay in your lane when it comes to pitch. You’ll make things easier on your singing partners and keep your intervals correct so those harmonies can really pop.
5. Know when each note begins and ends
When playing live, or singing by yourself, you can express yourself by singing ahead of or behind the beat. When trying to harmonize, you might suddenly find that you never sing the lead the same way twice, and you might have to make some decisions to lock down your part. Analyze your melody carefully and figure out when each phrase begins or ends. Nothing sounds sloppier than having three or four singers all ending a note at different times.
6. Skip your hard consonants
It’s just math: consonant letters like T, P, and C sound for a much shorter duration than those drawn-out "oohs" and "aahs." This means that it’s harder to hit them in unison rhythmically. If you’re going for a percussive, hip-hop-style vocal effect, the solution is to practice until you get that rhythm down cold. But in a more subtle, melodic context, there’s a more creative solution: leave the consonants out of the backing vocals and just sing along with the extended notes. This approach will lend depth and warmth to a lead vocal, almost sounding as though one singer is singing several notes at once.
It takes a little practice to “forget” all those consonants – writing up a cheat sheet with the phonetic sounds you’ll be singing can help – but the effect is mesmerizing when well done and can create an intangible sense of ambience in a piece of music.
7. Record on "good" days – don’t force it
Nobody has perfect pitch all the time. There will be times when things just don’t sound right, or you can’t seem to nail something that’s normally easy for you. Recording artists know that not every day is the right day to track. Because vocals are so important and recording them is such a delicate process, remember that sometimes the best move is to knock off and come back tomorrow. After all, that’s one of the great lessons of music. Whether it’s within a measure, onstage, or in the studio, sometimes the rests make the song.
Jesse Sterling Harrison is an author, recording artist, and part-time farmer. He lives in Massachusetts with his wife, three daughters, and a herd of ducks.