4 essential vocal layering techniques

Illustration: Leo Peng

What can you do to add a little more “oomph” to your songs?

You have a fully-produced track and you’ve recorded the lead vocal, but the whole thing still sounds a bit underwhelming. It doesn’t make sense to add any more instruments, so how do you make it sound fuller and more polished?

The answer may lie in vocal layering.

Now, the key word here is “may.” Some songs can be taken to the next level with an elaborate symphony of background vocals and ad-libs, while others sound best with a more minimalistic approach that gives the lead vocal lots of room to shine. It all depends on the genre and style of music you’re working with, as well as what that particular song needs.

In this article, let’s take a look at a few of the most popular ways you can layer vocals to add depth and dimension to your songs. Again, they may not be needed in every situation, but you can use this list to find inspiration and try out techniques you may not have thought of before.


What is vocal layering?

Vocal layering is the art of stacking vocal tracks. It usually involves recording copies of the lead vocal, harmonies, ad libs and other vocal elements, and then carefully mixing them to make sure they fit well together.

Producers are used to arranging different instruments using chords, melodies and harmonies that play off of and complement each other. Vocal layering follows the same idea, but with the singer’s vocals.

Layering vocals in this way can help fill out the mix and add depth, complexity and personality to a song. In certain genres of music, especially Pop, a tasteful vocal arrangement can take a song from an amateur-sounding recording to a polished radio-ready master.


4 vocal layering techniques you can try

Vocal layering has traditionally been done by manually recording each new vocal track. But thanks to modern production software, it can also be achieved through manipulating existing vocal recordings. Most contemporary music uses a combination of both.

With this in mind, let’s look at four broad categories of vocal layering techniques and see how they can include both manual and artificial layering.

1. Doubles

Doubling is the most basic way to layer vocals, and it involves simply recording duplicate versions of the lead vocal track. Doing this gives more weight, thickness, and texture to the vocal and helps it stand out better in the mix.

The average listener doesn’t realize this, but what they typically hear as a single lead vocal is more than likely anywhere from three to eight tracks stacked together.

It’s important to note that you can’t achieve a doubling effect by simply copy-and-pasting the same recording. The benefits of this technique lie in the fact that each recording is similar, but not entirely identical to the rest. The slight variations in the singer’s tone are what help add body and thickness to the final result.

You can take the concept of doubling even further and start playing around with different vocal textures. For example, you can:

  • Whisper the lyrics instead of singing them to add dimension to the lead vocal and create a dark, intimate, or tense atmosphere.
  • Try purposefully changing the timbre of your voice with each take. By pretending to sound like different people, you can emulate the sound of a choir.
  • Experiment with dynamics and precision to emulate a crowd or “gang vocals.” This is similar to the choir effect, but the goal is to sound like a group of average people, rather than professional singers, so feel free to be a little messy with it.
  • Experiment with standing closer and further away from the mic, or even using different microphones.
  • Use a vocal plugin to play around with the formant of your doubles.

2. Harmonies

Adding harmonies is an easy way to embellish and emphasize your lead melody. It helps brighten the lead vocal and offers additional support by reinforcing the underlying chords.

If you haven’t already, be sure to familiarize yourself with how to find vocal harmonies:

The goal is to create new versions of the melody that also fit the chord underneath. Start by finding a note that exists in the chord, but isn’t already taken up by the lead melody. If you’re completely new to harmonies, you can even just stay on this note the entire time—this is an easy harmony that still sounds impressive!

If you’re comfortable going further, you can move to different notes to create a new melody that complements the lead. Feel free to maintain the same interval and mimic the movement of the lead melody, or go off and create something new and unique. As long as it fits the chords and the lead melody, your harmony will sound great.

Octaves are considered harmonies by many, too. So, if you want an easy way to add impact and dimension to your lead vocal, simply record a double, but sing it an octave higher or lower. If you want the benefit of extra frequencies without the added texture, you can even just duplicate the lead recording and use a plugin to pitch shift it up or down by an octave.

Speaking of plugins, there are a few other ways you can use them to add harmonies without actually recording them. For example, the Voices module in iZotope’s Nectar can automatically create harmonies based on your lead vocal. You can also play around with a vocoder or a vocal synth plugin to build artificial harmonies using your MIDI controller.

3. Pads and other background vocals

Imagine for a second that you’re a member of Pentatonix and you’re recording a song entirely a cappella. Without any instruments to rely on, how can you use your voice to create the accompaniment for your lead vocal? You can:

  • Create pads by holding each note of the underlying chord. Try singing open vowels like “Ooh” and “Ahh” or repeating the lyrics along with the lead vocal.
  • Fill in empty spaces by repeating lyrics at a different time, singing slightly different lyrics or responding to what the lead vocal is doing.
  • Use your voice like you would any other instrument and create some fun melodies to complement the lead vocal. You can sing lyrics or vocables—sounds that aren’t real words—like “la,” “na,” “pa,” “doo,” or “wah.”

Listen to a capella groups for inspiration. Of course, since your song already has a fully-produced instrumental track, your background vocal arrangements don’t need to be nearly as complex, but it’s a great way to get some fun ideas.

As a general rule, pads and other background vocals sound better when they’re fully filled out. In other words, record an idea and then build onto it with its own set of doubles and harmonies.

4. Ad-libs

Another great way to fill empty spaces is with ad-libs. These can really be whatever you want, but here are a few go-to things you can do:

  • Echo the ends of lines.
  • Respond to the lead vocal.
  • Add a run or a riff.
  • Speak, laugh, exclaim, or show your personality in some way.
  • Loosely sing along or harmonize with the lead vocal.

While other background vocals should be stacked with doubles and harmonies, ad-libs are typically recorded only once. If you think about the function they serve, this makes perfect sense. They embellish the song with unique elements and keep it interesting, especially during parts we’ve already heard before. Their beauty lies in the fact that they’re one-of-a-kind and can’t easily be replicated.

Keep this in mind when you’re singing ad-libs. They’re not supposed to be perfect—just unique. If you’re repeating the melody, switch it up a little, add an interesting riff, or finish off the line with a run. Remember to keep it loose and have fun with it.


Putting it all together: Arranging background vocals

Perhaps the most challenging part of layering vocals is knowing when to stop.

Every song is different, so it’s important to assess your need for background vocals on a case-by-case basis.

Generally speaking, a minimalist approach is a safe bet. What’s the least amount of background vocals you can get away with, while still giving the song what it needs? If you feel like something definitely makes the song better, then include it, even if it means you end up with 100+ vocal tracks. But don’t add unnecessary layers just for the sake of adding layers.

Keep things minimal not just in terms of how many layers you record, but also how packed each layer is. For example, you can harmonize an entire line, but you don’t always have to. Sometimes, it’s enough to add a harmony to select sections of the line or even just a few words. Think about what you’re trying to emphasize and cut out the rest.

In the same vein, see where you can combine vocal layering techniques. For example, say you want to support your chorus with four tracks of pads and four tracks of harmonies, ending with eight tracks in total. Maybe this works for the song, but maybe there’s a more efficient way to achieve the same effect, without having too many things going on at once. If you sing pads that turn into harmonies and keep alternating between the two, you can keep things interesting with two types of background vocals, but condense everything the song needs into just four tracks.


Practical tips for vocal layering

Now that you have some ideas for layering vocals, let’s take a look at a few tips on how to record and process them.

  1. Before you start recording any background vocals, make sure you’ve finalized recording, comping, tuning, and cleaning up your lead vocal. When recording doubles and harmonies, you want to make sure that what you’re singing along with and trying to match is the final version.
  2. Get in the habit of recording two takes for each background vocal (other than ad-libs). You don’t want them to sit right in the center of the mix and interfere with your lead vocal, so doing this will give you flexibility to pan them right and left, while maintaining a sense of balance.
  3. As you’re singing, try to closely match things like timing, the length of notes, how you finish words, and even where you take breaths. If your timing is still a little off, you can use a plugin like VocAlign to align your background vocals to match the lead vocal and / or each other.
  4. Tune your background vocals. An overly-tuned lead vocal can sound unnatural, but when it comes to background vocals, they need to be as tight as possible. Otherwise, your harmonies will sound messy and unpolished. This is especially true for pads—they play the same role as instruments, so in order to provide accurate harmonic information, their pitch needs to be precise.
  5. Remove or tone down the sibilance—harsh sounds produced by consonants—and breaths. They’re perfectly fine in a lead vocal, but when stacked together (and with less-than-perfect timing), they can get messy and distracting. For example, if you have a stack of harmonies singing the word “songs,” each track probably arrives at the final “s” at a slightly different time. And the combination of different “s” sounds makes the sibilance even more pronounced and harsh. To avoid this, leave it to the lead vocal to sing the full word, but fade out the ends of the harmonies, so it almost sounds like they’re singing “song” instead of “songs.” Similarly, fade in at the beginning of phrases to tone down the breaths.

Get inspired

Listening to music is one of the best ways to learn how to layer vocals and find inspiration. Pay attention to the background vocals in your favorite songs and analyze them. Think about what you’re hearing, what effect it has on the song, and what it adds to your experience as a listener.

You can even browse Splice samples with vocal layers if you want to hear and analyze them in isolation.

And, of course, get behind the mic and experiment with layering vocals yourself. The techniques we’ve covered here are common, but there’s no need to limit yourself to only these. Give yourself permission to play around and see where your creativity takes you!


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April 25, 2024

SAYANA

SAYANA is a contemporary R&B singer-songwriter based in Toronto, Canada. She’s currently releasing a new song every month for a year. Check out her latest release, “Favourite Day” anywhere where you listen to music.