Big, Gang-Style Backing Vocals

Let's talk about how to get big sounding backup vocals, a la Mutt Lange/Def Leppard. It's pretty simple, but there's a neat little trick that adds excitement. Let's get to it. There's a wrtten explanation below the video.

Record Multiple Tracks

One thing that helps a lot is recording multiple tracks. Take your melody (if there is one) and record it 8 times or so. Pan the takes away from each other, whatever amount sounds good. They don't all have to be hard left and right.

Melody Vocals

Do the same for any harmony vocals. Multiple takes, and pan the takes.

Harmony Vocals

Consider adding parts an octave up from the melody, and/or an octave down from the melody. If you're feeling ambitious, you can add octaves to the harmonies, too.

Octave Down Vocals

Whisper Scream

Then add another set of takes of what we can call a whisper scream.

A whisper scream is the sound you make when you're imitating a stadium full of people cheering. It's not loud, like a scream, but it has the intensity of a scream. It also has no note. It's the airy part of talking. The vocal chords are not closed. Don't be afraid to add some distortion or saturation.

Whisper scream tracks can add a sense of excitement to your backing vocals. 

Whisper/Scream Vocals

And here's everything together.

All Vocals

Stacking Vocal Tracks

Each vocal part is recorded 8 times, in this example.

It would help to have multiple singers and use different mics for different takes, as the differences in the sound tend to make this technique richer. In my case however, I didn't have multiple singers waiting at my beck-and call. And in fact, my vocal mic was not even working. So I used a USB mic to do all the vocals.

That's OK. The idea of these background vocals is not a pristine sound, but a rowdy, almost group shout.

So here's how you do the Mutt Lange Background Vocal Technique

  • Record Multiple takes of your melody, harmony and octave vocals.
  • Pan them to varying degrees (I like to keep the lower parts more centered).
  • Add a whisper vocal with multiple takes.
  • Feel free to add a touch of distortion or saturation.
  • Mix the whisper/scream vocals in so you can just barely hear them.
  • Collect your Grammy.

See you soon!

About the author

Keith Livingston

Keith Livingston started recording his own music in the late '70s, on a 4-track. He worked his way into live sound and studio work as an engineer -- mixing in arenas, working on projects in many major studios as a producer/engineer, and working in conjunction with an independent label.

He taught audio engineering at the Art Institute of Seattle, from 1990-1993, and in '96, contributing to authoring several college-level courses there.

He was General Manager of Радио один (Radio 1) in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Now he spends his time recording his own songs wherever he roams, and teaching others to do the same.

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