Looking to mix smooth, exciting background vocals to fill up your song, but they keep getting in the way of the vocal?
Everybody struggles with this. But today, you’re going to learn how to make your background vocals melt into your melody and fill up your mix.
And you’re going to be able to do it… in less than 30 seconds.
But before we start, check out our FREE cheat sheet for mixing background vocals. It’s a great summary of all we’re going to cover here.
When you’re in the heat of the mix, having this by your side will make your background vocals sound pro in significantly less time.
Download it below:
Mixing Background Vocals
Before We Start…
It’s important to remember that you want to spend significantly more time making the lead vocal sound right than the BGVs. The word “background” is in the name, so they’re not as important! That’s why I came up with a method of mixing BGVs that takes only a matter of seconds.
The lead vocal is the cornerstone of the song. If that doesn’t sound good, then the song itself won’t sound good. The vocals have to sit well in the mix before anything else will.
Start the process of mixing your background vocals by first mixing your lead vocals. We need to get the sound of the main melody first before we can shape the harmony around it. Also, we will be using the plugins on the main vocal chain in our mixing process.
Also, if they need it, make sure you tune your background vocals. This isn’t part of “mixing,” per say, but it’s still very important.
Since these tend to fade into the background, they can be tuned more aggressively. They should never be 100% perfect (especially if they’re doubled), but they don’t need to be as naturally and meticulously tuned as your main vocal.
Some quick tuning work should do the trick.
Check out more on vocal tuning here:
Step 1: Create a BGV Master Bus
Your first step is to make a master bus for your BGVs.
What this means is that you want to have the output of each of your background vocal tracks set to the same bus.
This bus will be how you will mix your BGVs.
The genius of bussing is that whatever plugins you put on it will be applied to every single one of your BGV tracks. That will make your mixing process 10x faster and will make the final product sound more professional as well.
This is a common technique used for most instruments that have been overdubbed multiple times. Try using it with the rest of your session to streamline your productivity!
Step 2: Copy Your Plugins (and Check for Issues)
The next step is to copy each of the plugins on your lead vocal over to your background vocal bus.
This works especially well if the BGVs were recorded in the same room, with the same mic, and the same vocalist. Though I would recommend changing the mic (and maybe even the vocalist) for your background vocals, most time-crunched home studio sessions will keep everything the same.
Then, play the loudest part of the song on loop and check your compressors. Is the compressor getting slammed, reducing too much gain? Back off the threshold, adjust the makeup gain, and you should be fine.
Check the rest of your plugins too to see if there’s any weirdness happening because of the change in volume and tone.
Step 3: Reverse Your EQs
Next, reverse the EQ settings you set for your main vocal. For example, if you cut your main vocal at 670Hz for -4dB and boosted at 3800Hz for +5dB…
Then boost the BGVs at 670Hz for +4dB and cut at 3800Hz for -5dB.
It’s that simple!
Make sure, though, that you don’t reverse any surgical cuts you made in the main vocal. For instance, if you cut out any room resonances in the recording, leave those cuts. Boosting those sounds would make your BGVs sound much worse.
Step 4: Tweak Your Compression
The background vocals need to be consistent.
You can’t have random notes sticking out of the mix. They’ll draw the listener’s ear away from the main parts of the song.
But you don’t want to take as much time as you would on the main vocal, automating the volume of every single out-of-place note. Instead, you want to compress it hard.
Increase your threshold until you’re getting 5-10dB’s of gain reduction, then adjust the makeup gain. That should be enough to clamp down on all of your dynamic troubles.
Also, decrease the attack time. Faster attack times usually push sounds further back in the mix, which is perfect for background vocals.
BONUS TIP: If having compression that heavy is making the BGVs sound weird (in context of the mix, of course), then try using serial compression. That’s where you use a lighter setting on a compressor (less than 4dB’s of gain reduction) and simply make another copy of the plugin.
This should give you the same amount of gain reduction, but will sound more natural in the process!
Step 5: Pan Your Background Vocals
If you have several background tracks, you’ll want to pan them away from the center.
This will create space for your vocal to live in.
How much you pan your BGVs is up to you. It depends on the song and your own taste.
Whatever you do though, I recommend using the 50/50 panning method. It will take the guesswork out of how to pan your tracks, and improve the stereo image of your song.
Step 6: Add Reverb
Now, time to add some space to your BGV’s.
If you are using a single room reverb to send all of your tracks to, then make sure to send your BGV buss as well! You should adjust the send amount to be higher than the main vocals, since you want more reverb on them. That will make them sound farther back in the mix than your lead vocals.
If you’re not using a single room reverb for your entire mix, then set up a short room verb or plate reverb and send your background vocals there.
Alternately, if your main vocals are using any reverb, then send your BGVs there as well.
That will create a nice sense of consistency in your mix. Just adjust your send level accordingly.
Step 7: Tweak Your Tone!
At this point, you have laid the foundation. And it only took a matter of seconds!
This is where you put on your critical listening hat. Is there anything else that you are hearing that sounds out of place? Anything more that needs to be done?
You might need to work on the tuning of your background tracks.
Or maybe add some extra tonal EQ, or cut a little more of the room resonances out.
You may want to spice up your BGVs with some chorus or flanging.
Or maybe spread them out with a stereo imager.
It’s entirely up to you. The sandbox is yours to play in!
Wrapping Up: Mixing Background Vocals
Now that you know my system, mixing background vocals should be a breeze.
Just follow these 7 steps…
- Create a BGV master bus.
- Copy over the plugins from your main vocal and check for any issues.
- Reverse the boosts and cuts from the main vocal’s tonal EQ.
- Increase the compression until you are getting 5-10dB’s of gain reduction.
- Pan your BGVs to create space for the main vocal.
- Add reverb to push your BGVs back in the mix.
- Tweak your tone however you see fit – EQ, chorus, stereo widener, whatever!
Now go out and make your vocals fit perfectly in your mix.
Before you go, make sure to check out the free cheat sheet I made for this article. It’s a handy reference for when you’re trying to mix your BGVs.
Having these steps on hand will help you get your BGVs sounding like the pros much, much faster!
Check it out here:
Audio professional, musician and founder of Musician on a Mission.