Layered/stacked vocal harmonies...what's the secret?!

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Layered/stacked vocal harmonies...what's the secret?!

Post by cardell » Tue Feb 05, 2013 3:57 pm

I heard this on the radio today:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a3jdHtpIuNM
I Want it All - Queen

Those vocal harmonies gave me chills, just amazing!! :o

I've made some modest attempts at this kinda thing but it takes me ages to get the phrasing and pitch right. I've also tired tuning the vocal tracks (with Melodyne) but it seems to make it too artificial sounding.

One thing I noticed is that: the harmonies are quite loud in the mix. I've noticed the same thing with Michael Jackson's harmonies too. Like here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pEEMi2j6lYE ...difficult to hide problems, at this level. :?

Anyone got any tips on how to do this (& mix this) well?

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Re: Layered/stacked vocal harmonies...what's the secret?!

Post by bassman » Tue Feb 05, 2013 4:18 pm

There really is no secret to it. Queen had 3 great singers that somehow blended really well and this is how it sounds when these guys sing together. It's obviously doubled a few times with added compression/reverb.

Same thing with Jackson 5, Beach Boys etc. the blend is amazing.

Having said that, it's perfectly possible to get a 'large choir' type sound by layering single vocals one at a time.

- As you pointed out yourself the pitch has to be right on the money on every track.
- the harmonies need to be arranged correctly as 3 part harmonies.
- Try adding a fourth harmony that's a bit odd. Sometimes singing one note on a 6th can sound really odd but really great when low in the mix. Experiement.
- Sing each harmony twice with first one panned hard left and the other hard right.
- Try singing the lowest harmony also an octave above using your headvoice.
- Try altering your tone with some of the harmonies belting out at full blast and others with a gentler tone.

I would say a mixture of pitch, vocal arrangement and the right tone will get you there.

Hope it helps.

Best

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Re: Layered/stacked vocal harmonies...what's the secret?!

Post by playagibson » Tue Feb 05, 2013 6:07 pm

Hey Stuart,

Each harmony was repeated four times and then layered.
A three part harmony had twelve tracks.
It also helps having perfect pitch like Freddie , Brian, John and Roger did. :lol:
In some songs all members would sing each part together, four times.
You can cheat with auto tune and build up some nice chorus/phased vocals.
Sending all the vox tracks to master bus with a tape emulator like Slate VTM and a good bus compressor works wonders.
Also a little verb doesn't hurt.

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Re: Layered/stacked vocal harmonies...what's the secret?!

Post by mojobone » Tue Feb 05, 2013 11:35 pm

Buried somewhere deep in this forum is a link to a video with Gus Dudgeon (IIRC) discussing how vocal harmonies were recorded for early Elton John albums; there's a smidge of mic choice per singer, a nip of subtractive EQ, a touch of tape compression and reverb, but basically, when he throws the faders up, what you hear is the record. In other words, a great natural vocal blend is pretty hard to beat. (just ask CSN& sometimes Y)

There are however, a few tricks to making the most of what's available. One is to use a shelving boost in a band way above human hearing range, (it's referred to as "air-band", and there are only a few EQs that can do this; the famous one is from Maags) but mainly when you layer vocals, you tend to get buildup in the lower midrange, so you cut somewhere between 350-800kHz in pretty much every layer, depending on the singer and the number of layers.

Recording really hot to tape can give you a very natural sizzle that's hard to come by in any other way, but there are a few plugins that will get you there. UAD's Ampex and Studer plugs come immediately to mind, and Steven Slate offers something usable, too. (you want to send it into the burn range; if it start's to get too crunchy, you've gone too far) To get that supernatural 70s sound you'll want to avoid any kind of digital chorus, but keep in mind that tape speed manipulation was very common and can allow you to get more mileage from fewer vocal takes, in a pinch.

If you don't have a really good tape sim, a smidge of pitch-shift chorusing can take you pretty close. Backing vocal parts don't really need to sound too natural, so don't be afraid to smack the bejaysus out of 'em with a cool character compressor. (which can also provide a bit of crunch, if there's no good tape sim handy, but different compressors can distort in wildly different ways, so be perspicacious, here) Theoretically, this should make mixing and blending easier, since these types of parts seldom need a lot of dynamics, but the choice can be genre dependent; certain kinds of vocal jazz, you want to use a very light touch.

Mainly, you want to cut low mids on the reverb send, for which I'd recommend a bright and splashy plate. The more layers you have, the less 'verb you should use, generally, and keep the dwell times short or (cool trick) use the early reflections by themselves and kill the rest of the verb. Oddly, with digital reverbs ,the shorter reverb times are harder and more expensive to pull off convincingly than the "big hall" type sounds; you'd think a closet would be easier to emulate in an algorithm, but you'd be wrong. The best reverb for this application is probably the Quantec Yardstick; google it if you're prepared for some sticker shock. ;)

Here's a bit of EJB: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NwLgwLzP4Bw
Last edited by mojobone on Wed Feb 06, 2013 3:11 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Layered/stacked vocal harmonies...what's the secret?!

Post by Len911 » Wed Feb 06, 2013 1:28 am

Well Stuart, I did a little research(?), and there are 3 versions of this song. The only one I really hear singing harmony is Roger Taylor, the other's seem to be singing unison. The other 2 versions are the album version, and the live version with Roger Daltry.
Album:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TCrXPh8m-dc

Live:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hCzkT5H7Udg

Wikipedia says, "The song is sung mainly by Mercury, with May singing on the choruses, and the middle eight." I think that is for the album version. I could swear I could hear a little Roger Taylor harmony on the album version, though maybe it's because I'm so used to hearing it on the other 2 versions?
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I_Want_It_All

The live version, unless they are playing recordings also, sounds good without the stacked recordings. I can imagine Freddie Mercury singing the parts differently in stacked recordings, but the others in the group, not so much.

I'm not sure I really hear 'harmony' in the MJ song either, it sounds like 2 voices(copied) in the backing that might be slightly detuned, delayed, or just effected differently, the phrasing just seems too perfect for 1 voice not to be an exact copy of the other one.
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Re: Layered/stacked vocal harmonies...what's the secret?!

Post by andygabrys » Wed Feb 06, 2013 9:33 am

Len911 wrote:I'm not sure I really hear 'harmony' in the MJ song either, it sounds like 2 voices(copied) in the backing that might be slightly detuned, delayed, or just effected differently, the phrasing just seems too perfect for 1 voice not to be an exact copy of the other one.
0:38 is the first occurrence of harmony in the MJ tune, on the first half of the phrase.

I am willing to bet that its MJ doing sung doubles and harmony - the tunes from 1996 (predating Cher's Believe by several years) and while vocals used to be tuned in those days using VSO's and all that jazz, I bet he's doing it himself. The production enhances the sound of the day, the detuned / chorused sound.

at some point in the past, singers actually sang. lol.

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Re: Layered/stacked vocal harmonies...what's the secret?!

Post by coolhouse912 » Thu Feb 07, 2013 2:26 pm

andygabrys wrote:

at some point in the past, singers actually sang.
:shock:
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Re: Layered/stacked vocal harmonies...what's the secret?!

Post by Russell Landwehr » Thu Feb 07, 2013 7:13 pm

I read something... or watched a documentary or something... that explained that those guys sang every part. I mean all the parts that you hear were sung by each one. i.e. If it is a four-part harmony... then every one of them sang all four parts. So in order to re-create that sound, you've gotta have more than one singer sing EVERY part....

and then spend a week with Autotune.

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Re: Layered/stacked vocal harmonies...what's the secret?!

Post by jdhogg » Fri Feb 08, 2013 9:28 am

I also heard they would usually in unison all sing the same parts and there was no magic processing...thats just how it sounded when the faders were pushed up.

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