E10 - Vocal Arranging


This week we take a look into arranging vocals. As I mentioned in a previous episode, the reason I chose to do a cover is to avoid writing lyrics. This gave us a great starting point as the lead melody was already written, but Chvrches don’t use harmonies often leaving me plenty of room to get creative when it comes to harmonies. 


A general rule for me in recording harmonies and supporting parts is that I would prefer to have more than enough to begin with, as its easy to take something away in the mix, but its very hard to add something that you don’t have. As a result I wrote three or four part harmonies for a lot of parts of the song, but then cut certain words or sections out to stop it feeling consistently overloaded by vocals.


In terms of how to harmonise, the way I write mine is to learn the lead melody on guitar. Figure out what key its in, and then play the same pattern a certain interval higher or lower in the scale. Then I can learn to sing this new guitar melody, record it vocally and see what I think. My go to intervals are a third up, a fifth up, and often a 3rd down/6th up as they work out to be the same note.


Now that I know roughly what I want to sing, I will go and get a rough take of each. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to give me an idea of where the harmonies will sit.


Once they have been recorded, I will then aggressively tune them and time align them to the lead vocal to try and give myself something to anchor to. I really like tight sounding harmonies, so making sure that they are as close to perfect when recording is super important. Obviously no performance is perfect, so it will be quite loose in the studio, but having the best guide possible really really helps.


Next up I commit these harmonies to audio, meaning that if i’m tracking somewhere that won’t have my plugins, or even if I just want to save on the CPU stress. I then have a clear indication of where I need to record my vocals, and can drag and drop the final takes on top of each of the rough parts leaving me with a full session.


Something worth noting is that a harmony will need to change potentially if there is a new phrasing in the song. For instance singers will often change the lead melody slightly in the final chorus. This may mean that your harmonies do not fit. So consider the harmonies suitability should the melody change slightly. 


When it comes to backing elements, something I’m a big fan of is choral, almost organ like vocal parts. Following the main chord structure with some subtle shifting of melody. These are very easy to write as you simply need to follow 3 or 4 notes from the chords, and record soft oohs, or aahs. In graffiti I used this in the middle 8, and final chorus.


Try any of this in your next project and I’m sure it will feel bigger vocally!