When layering vocals, start with a good lead performance or comp, then build from there - layer in a lead double, lead harmony, and then any additional BGV tracks and process as needed. Additionally, use an instrument like a synth or piano to support your melodies, in turn strengthening the pitch.
Starting your vocal layering processing with a good lead comp is crucial - it gives you a solid foundation from which you’ll determine the pitch and timing of your vocal doubles, Harmonys, and general BGVs. To create a good lead comp, record multiple takes of your lead vocal, then edit them.
Select only the best parts of each recording and great a compilation of the multiple takes as your lead.
With your lead comp created, you can now double it with as close to an identical performance as possible - so your pitch, timing, and timbre should be as close to the comp as you can make it. We’ll blend this double in with the lead comp to help strengthen it.
Additionally, small variations in the 2 track’s pitches will make the lead some more in tune.
After we’ve created a lead comp and it’s double, let’s add in a vocal harmony to make the performance more interesting. How you decide on what harmonies you create is entirely up to you, and will depend on the song, genre, style of vocals, and other factors.
If you’re in doubt you can do a perfect octave or a 5th, which usually sounds good.
Your track may not include group BGVs, but if it does it’s important to layer at least 3 takes of the performance. Group BGVs are usually Oohs, or shouts, or other vocal performances that sound better when grouped and performed together than when sung alone.
Small variations in each performance help strengthen the pitch, similar to how a chorus sounds more in tune the more singers are included.
If you want to add a little extra strength to the melody of your lead or BGVs, you can subtly layer in an instrument that performs that same melody. For example, in the chorus I could add in a synth that isn’t too aggressive, allowing it the join in seamlessly.
Since the synth has a perfect pitch, this will help my BGVs sound in tune.
Going back to observing our Double and Harmony tracks, we can see which plugins we used. I had compressed the tracks going in the DAW, so I only used a doubler here, but typically, strong compression and a chorus effect will work well and cause a controlled but varied sound.
We’ll process these tracks more with our BGV bus, but we’ll cover that more in a later section.
For the BGVs and BGV harmonies, some simple equalization will typically be enough to shape them the way you need, but some compression can help as well. In this particular instance, I used very long reverb on some of the BGV harmonies for creative effect.
Similar to our last section, more processing will occur to these tracks on our BGV bus.
If you enjoy the sound, and you’re not terribly concerned with mono compatibility, try binaural panning on some of your BGVs and harmonies. This will spread the signal to other aspects of the image, and carve out more room for your lead and other instrumentation.
It can also be used creatively - for example, you can have a harmony start on one side, then gradually move to the other in-time with the music.
Last, lets’ talk about our BGV and harmony bus - we notice that the lead vocal comp is routed to the stereo output, but our double, harmony and BGVs are all routed to a bus. On this bus, we’ll compress and use various types of tape and tube saturation.
Additionally, we’ll route these tracks to some collective reverb busses, that is subtly processing the entire track.