Following on my chat with @ingolee about harmony in my latest bash-this I started wondering about how others craft their harmony.
How do you add harmony to a vocal?
I know the science… I failed university composition because I often enjoy consecutive 5ths and 8ves but it has taken me quite a journey to have the confidence to just make stuff up as I go along. For me, now, it is all about FLOW… that magic sense you get when the music just works and there is a slippery buzz to it all as sounds coalesce in the magical art of creativity. But…
yes, sometimes it is a cacophony.
My technique can be maddening. I literally throw everything at a track sometimes and then spend forever untangling and searching for treasures in the heap-big-mess. Careless and Catastrophic could be descriptors for my style but every now and then I find that I just love the process and the unexpected results.
Panning is another plaything that I love with harmony… O and fx, that is another great fun thing to play with. Automation… yay!
I love playing with harmony, it’s such fun. You can chop all the sibilants out, tune it to hell and back, cut it to pieces so it sounds absolutely wonky, but in a mix, it can add a subtle magic.
I usually find a vocal harmony by simply singing along with the melody. I might just do straight 3rd’s, 4rth’s or 5th’s but often sometimes I’ll do 2nd’s and 7th’s. Really any note has the possibility of working, though it’s not common to have a semitone harmony….That usually sounds too discordant….BUT I think it can work (in theory…although not common music theory) to create a lot of strange tension. So the way I view harmonies is the same as I view music writing. Which is, anything goes, anywhere at any time. No boundaries. Does this always work…,no! But thinking like this seems to create a more wide and diverse range of ideas and creative opportunities for me. I
To create a harmony I’ll usually sing along with the melody and record it to see/ hear what it sounds like. It’s not uncommon that I’ll change a note or two in the harmony if I think it can be improved. Usually I make a few different harmonies and compare them in order to choose which ones I like best. I’ve stacked harmonies, using 3rds and 5ths for example, but sometimes I’ll cut either one of them from the production if they don’t feel right for the mood of the song. I might cut out all harmonies if they don’t enhance the part in the way that I want. Sometimes no harmony is the best harmony.
Recently I’ve been working on a few songs that have a lot of harmonies going on in the back ground, weaving in and out amongst each other and I find it to be a bit chaotic to manage, though I like the sound of them. It’s really fun to harmonize and make your own huge choir but yikes, all those additional tracks can be confusing if you’re unorganized!
Most of the time my harmonies are some combination of thirds, fourths and fifths of the root. I find that the vocal harmony can really change the vibe of the vocal melody and the song, so I often pay attention to how the harmony is affecting the lead vocal melody and feel of the song. I’ve had at least a few experiences where the harmonies sounded really cool and grandiose but they completely changed the vibe of the main vocal and the mood of the song, so I ended up scrapping the harmonies, or some of them. There are other times that the harmonies just need to be turned down really low to avoid losing the initial mood that you created. Often times the volume-reduced harmonies will add a great vibe, whereas if their volume was fairly loud they might change the feel of the song in a way that you might not prefer. Many years ago my band went into a recording studio to do a 4 song demo. One of the songs was a fairly straight-ahead hard rock tune and I had some ideas about the harmonies I was going to use for the backup vocals on the chorus. I was pretty confident of the harmonies because I had already done a demo of the song on one of those old 4 track cassette recorders and I thought the harmonies sounded really exciting and made the chorus really shine. So, in the recording studio I laid down those harmonies but decided to also add a few other layers of harmony and what we ended up with sounded a fair bit like Queen…., which might sound good to some ….BUT, it totally changed the feel of the song. So we decided to not use all the extra harmonies for the final mix.
Harmonies are like icing and decorations on a cake. They can taste good and look great but if you overdo it you can lose sight of (and taste of) the cake. They can be made the star of the show or they can be used to subtlety compliment our creations, or they can be somewhere in between.
There are lots of things that can be said about this approach, many favorable. Risk vs. Reward - you have to take risks (and suffer the consequences) to obtain the eventual reward. Intentional Failure - many motivational speakers talk about failure being the key to success; you have to fail many times to learn a lot. There’s even an approach called Intentional Fast Failure (IFF) that takes that philosophy to it’s ultimate purpose. Keep failing by trying things, but do it quickly and learn, and don’t be discouraged. You’re likely moving in the right direction.
I recently heard someone say: “If you don’t have a plan, you can’t fail.” Meaning that plans set you up for expectations and when it doesn’t go according to plan you think you failed. So I inquired what he meant, and he stated that of course you have to have a plan … but he was still searching to solve the conundrum.
I think what he was trying to say, put into my own interpretation, is that you need both processes: 1) you have to set some kind of vision, intention, goal, plan or objective in order to achieve something; 2) but you also need a flexibility and adaptability to see where that energy naturally leads. Forcing things by only the will of the ego can be disastrous. Find the natural flow like the course of a river. A river is chaotic at times, as well as peaceful and serene at other times. You can’t easily predict where a river will flow, but the plan is to flow. The river will flow. Where it flows remains to be seen and experienced.
I approach harmonies is pretty much the same way I approach everything in music. It starts out in a completely creative, intuitive and exploratory space. Then, once the idea has solidified, I look to music theory and technique to try to realise it as fully as my limitations will allow.
Early on, I knew harmony was important because the harmonies always invited me as a listener to sing along to a song. It took a while to develop the ability to harmonise with others as a singer. I took the intuitive approach at first, just picking out harmonies by ear. Then, once I realised the concept of parallel harmonies, I was really off and running, finding it much easier to work them out for my own productions. That said, early on it was mainly just simple parallel harmonies on the chorus vocals.
Since then, I’ve really started to explore harmonies as a textural device, and my harmony arrangement have become a lot more dense and complex.
I really love the idea of highlighting lyrical phrases in the verse with harmonies that attempt to enhance the feeling of the lyrics. As a song progresses, I like adding in answering phrases and chordal textures using just my vocal, much as you would a synthesiser or “pad” type element.
Because I tend to use some fairly complex chords at times, I also like to create “block” harmonies - basically harmonies that are single notes of each note in the chord. Sometimes that means the harmonies are voiced very close together, and some notes, when played without context are actually very dissonant. This is really challenging to sing, but the results are very satisfying.
Another important aspect of my harmony approach is doubling, tripling and sometimes even singing 4 layers of the same harmony part to create a very lush, wide sound. The downside is you end up with a LOT of harmony tracks!
One of the most recent tracks I recorded that takes this approach to the limit is this track “Behind the Glass” The acapella intro section has 27 vocal tracks, all sung individually:
Here, I’ve solo’d the vocals in the 2nd verse/chorus/bridge section, and turned down the lead vocal to demonstrate what I’m talking about above:
It takes a lot of patience to complete a production like this, but I really enjoy challenging myself in this way.
Ooh great chat thanks everyone… how interesting! (happy grin). Sounds like several of us have used the ‘scattergun’ approach from time to time but also use the scientific method. I was also interested in the software results which do add a relatively effortless thickening and depth.
I’ve also made quite a bit of use of omnisphere’s vocal sounds for layering. The aahs and eees can blend with my own sounds plus there are some wonderfully wacky ones like doo bee doos and sliding vowels that can be quite irresistible.
27 tracks Andrew! @ColdRoomStudio… I think that beats my record. I guessed there were a bunch in there because it makes an amazing sound. And so much work to fit them in so seamlessly, what an amazing job!
More often than not, I will harmonies that follow a similar if not identical melodic pattern to the lead. Sometimes higher, sometimes lower, often both and sometimes double tracked depending on the song of course.
Sometimes I can ‘hear’ what I want before hand and nail them pretty quickly. Other times I find myself fumbling around trying to find the notes.
Every now and then, but not often enough, I mute the lead vocal and try to sing a harmony that does not replicate the exact movement of the lead. I love harmonies that do that but I’m not great at coming up with them per se. I’ll then unmute the lead and see if it works or not. That way I am not distracted by the lead and can simply listen to the new vocal to see if I am getting the notes in the right places.
I need to try that more often…
The Soundtoys bundle has a lot of interesting stuff. I like the Microshift, and the Phase Mistress and Filter Freak are cool for adding texture and width to harmonies. I’ve been using flangers a lot more in mixing lately too. Delays are great with harmonies, as they can be set up to add a rhythmic element that weaves in and out and creates additional movement and interest in a subtle way.
That was just in the intro! Including those, there was actually a total of 63 tracks of BVs on that mix.
I really like those harmony parts Andrew. Reminds me of Crosby Stills and Nash. Well sung too! I’d almost say that its a pity they’re so far back in the mix, but I think I understand why. I did something similar once but I can’t let you hear it because…
I’m lying in the hospital right now waiting for open heart surgery. I had a mild attack last friday. They fixed that the same day, but found out one of my main arteries was more than 50% blocked… They’re keeping me here untill there’s an opportunity for me to go to the specialized heart surgery hospital in Maastricht. So I’m entering a new fase of my life as a heart patient (assuming I’ll survive surgery, chances are pretty good these days). Don’t have a date yet but I’ll let you know. You guys keep singing those wonderful harmonies and I’ll pull through
Really sorry to hear that, Evert. Hope you have a speedy recovery. The good news is that heart bypasses are generally very successful. My Dad had a quintuple (5) bypass at around 71, it made a HUGE difference to the quality of his life, and he lived on until he was 87. Get well soon!
Crap happens Evert. I know this is not about me, but I will chirp anyway. I had a tripple bypass 15 years ago. I won’t go into all the specifics now, but I wasn’t a big deal for me. Up and walking a few hours after. I was 95 % clogged. I am surprised they even consider surgery 50% blocked??? They found several years ago that I had an electrical problem as well. My bpm would go down to 40, so I have a pacemaker too. It takes at least a few months before you forget about having the procedure at all. There is so much they can do now days. You will be fine old friend. I can still outwork the youngens. Good luck and keep us posted
Thanks Paul. Good to know it’s not that big a deal. Actually, that’s what I was saying myself, but my wife tells me I’m not taking it seriously. She’s worried… Oh and it might be considerably more than 50% blocked… I think the cardiologist was trying not to shock me too much I guess.
Haha that is a real Emma reply! Good idea to just listen. I’m so used to be working or otherwise being busy, forgetting to just take it easy and observe, take it all in. Even when I take a walk through nature I have all these ideas in my head, and I’m only half aware of all the beauty. That’s why I like painting landscapes (though I haven’t doen that in 10 years or so): it’s all about being connected with your surroundings, giving you peace in a way that even songwriting can’t. Think I’ll be taking that up again when I get out of this hospital.
Hospital sounds… mmmm interesting question. I’ll have to get back to you on that one! Reminds me of an Eels song (late nieties) called ‘Hospital food’. Very apt for this hospital too. Nothing very stimulating for the taste buds here.
Oh by the way, sorry Emma for taking over your thread, I was’nt thinking when I wrote it. Just goes to show when you add one more voice to a chorus it can change completely. I really like your question so lets get back to it.
Here’s to a successful procedure and a quick recovery . If it’s any comfort, my wife had a stent put in five years ago. We are in northern Michigan right now, and climbed a steep sand dune; she beat me to the top easily. I need to get out of the bedroom studio and get some cardio.
Back to the topic, what’s fun to me is finding those chord inversions where the notes bang around against each other, like bringing the 3rd down an octave and making a minor 7th harmony. I relate it all to the guitar, where I don’t really know what chord I’m making, because I always try to use open strings within the triad wherever I play it on the neck. Always searching for happy mistakes.
I actually have this plugin, but I only ever used it for client’s mixes where I needed to create a double, and I had no other option. Actually, the doubler in this is one of the most realistic available. The harmony engine is very cool, but I prefer to sing the harmony parts on my own productions. Actually, the harmony engine is a great way to work out harmony parts, because you can solo each harmony part.
Mate, the last thing you need help with is your harmony singing! You’re the closest thing I know to a one-man deep south gospel harmony group!
Yes, yes! I’m always using open strings to “complexify” my chord voicings, so that’s exactly what I was trying to describe above in the way I put together the harmonies for “Behind the Glass”… lot’s of what I call “tangy-ness”.
Here’s another idea I’ve used from time to time. This works especially well if you have trouble singing a harmony against the lead:
To work out harmonies, take a copy of the lead vocal, then put it in Melodyne (or the graphical tuning program of your choice), then move the notes up or down by a suitable interval until you have a harmony that fits and sounds good. Then turn off the lead vocal and sing along and create a real duplicate of your “constructed” harmony. Now you can discard the “fake” harmony, and you have a great, natural sounding, in-tune harmony.
That’s a great idea Andrew! I’ll have to try that (when I recoverd enough to finally rebuild my studio). I suspect you can - accidently or on purpose - come up with surprising harmonies that you wouldn’t have done improvising a harmony part (the way I ususally work).