Vocal effects have come a long way since the days of reverb chambers, tape delays, and the autotune explorations of Cher and T-Payne. As the effects have become more advanced and nuanced, vocal production has become a recognizable aspect of a singer’s tone, in addition to their vocal qualities. It’s hard to imagine T-Payne’s voice without the autotune (though we can hear it, and it’s beautiful), or Elliott Smith without the vocal double, or a dry, reverb-less Lana del Rey.
Vocal production can be an intimidating topic for singers and singing teachers—it means familiarizing ourselves with technology like effects pedals and mixers, and possibly buying expensive equipment. However, not being familiar with the sounds you like can cause delays in the studio; what if your engineer asks you what effects you want, and you don’t have the answer? Figuring out in real time in the studio how you’d prefer to produce your vocals can cost you time, which will cost you money. Having this skill set and knowledge base puts you more in control of your sound, and the best ways to conquer it are to listen and experiment!
I’d like to highlight some examples of typical vocal layering and effects techniques being used in pop styles today, using mostly excerpts from two of the most influential pop singers of the past few years, Billie Eilish and Lizzo. Famously, Billie Eilish’s album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? was recorded in her bedroom, so she does a lot of vocal layering of her own voice and her brother Finneas’s, as well as effects that are achievable in small home studio setups. Lizzo’s Cuz I Love You, on the other hand, was a studio recording with a vast array of producers and collaborators, and provides excellent examples of the studio recording standards in vocal production. The two albums are vastly different in tone and style as well, and are both incredible works of art and vocal prowess.
In the first part of this series, we’ll talk about vocal layering, which is adding background vocal tracks in addition to the lead vocal. Part 2 will cover effects and will include a crash course in how to apply these techniques yourself, including gear recommendations, basic production how-tos, and resources for further learning. As you listen to the examples in this first part, take note of the techniques you like and get ready to try them out at home!
One of the most common and easily recognizable effects is the vocal double or triple, commonly used to increase intensity between sections. It’s usually found in the chorus of a song, though some artists like Elliott Smith and Phoebe Bridgers use it throughout their songs. These two artists in particular have a delicacy to their vocal doubles that emphasizes the intimacy of their singing and songwriting styles.
A related technique to the double, the octave double can be achieved by using a synthesized effect, like the low octave in Billie Eilish’s “bury a friend,” or by another layered track. This is a favorite effect of Billie’s, as she loves to stack parallel harmonies, so I’m including examples of an upper octave double (all the good girls go to hell) and a lower octave double, performed by her brother and producer Finneas (i love you).
Rap/Spoken Doubling and Echoing
Another related technique to the vocal double is the rap or spoken vocal double. It’s commonly used for emphasis of certain words and/or to give lead MC’s a chance to breathe in rap, which is how Missy Elliott and Lizzo use it in “Tempo.” Billie Eilish uses spoken or even whispered vocals to create a creepy mood in “bury a friend.”
Probably what we all think of when we think of vocal harmonies—parallel harmonies go way back. Rather than sing in perfect CSNY parallel harmony, vocalists today tend to record all their parallel harmonies themselves, stacking them line by line. These will typically follow the harmonic structure and will often involve mostly thirds or sixths. As you get more comfortable with these, you can start to try some harmony lines that move in contrary motion, or in opposite direction to the lead vocal.
How do you do parallel-like harmonies but make them fresh and cool? Add a pedal tone part! This can be on its own with the lead or in the midst of other (usually parallel) harmonies. It can follow the chord progression or stay on a single tone—the 5th works with most chords and can give you some nice crunchy chords, and the tonic is also a common, lovely tone.
This is another classic—the ooh’s and ahh’s that background vocalists sing behind the lead line hearken back to the days of Motown and doo-wop. Some pop artists are inspired by this live-sounding trend, like Lizzo, while others prefer their background ooh’s and ahh’s to sound like eerie synthesized voices, like Billie Eilish.
Chorus + Lead Descant
This exciting layering technique is usually saved for the final chorus, or at least the second one, because the first chorus establishes the melody with the lead vocal. In the next chorus, the lead vocal is still there while the lead vocalist records another, usually higher part. This is typically meant to sound improvisatory and differ in rhythm from the lead vocal. Lizzo’s “Like a Girl” includes a great example of this, and throughout her entire career, Beyoncé has been the queen of this technique.
Call and Response/Echo
Another classic technique that stems from gospel and soul, the call and response and vocal echo techniques can fill space and add rhythmic intensity to your vocal production. “Call and response” is typified by a lead line sung by the soloist with a chorus of background singers responding “amen,” or a different response. In “Juice,” the response to each line of the verse is “ooh baby.” I use “echo” to mean an exact echo of what the lead vocalist has just sung by the background vocalists, as with Eilish’s echo’s of “come down,” “hurting,” and “learning.”
A true oldie from the Middle Ages! Much of the layering in pop vocals is polyphony, in the sense that it doesn’t follow homophonic movement with the exception of doubling and parallel harmony. I reserve the term “polyphony” for two truly unique melodies and rhythms moving independently and happening concurrently, and an excellent recent example is Fiona Apple’s song “Under the Table.”
Every single layering tactic we’ve discussed can be easily done by one person in a bedroom with a laptop and a decent microphone except for this one. Gang vocals are meant to sound like an entire group or chorus of people, and it’s far easier to make this sound happen if you have a large room and a lot of singers. You can achieve a rough DIY version if you layer parts from different places of your room and sing in different octaves and as many diverse timbres in your voice as you can (or ask several of your friends to do this). Add cavernous reverb to these and pan them in various spots on the left/right spectrum, and you’ll have an approximation of a choral gang vocal.
Gang vocal lines are often simple repeated passages, choruses, or even just shouted refrains—these should be the parts that are easy for the crowd to sing along to at a concert. In Lizzo’s “Soulmate,” she uses all of these tactics: the repeated melody of “I’m the one,” shouts of “one” and “love,” and final chorus all use a gang vocal and give the song the energy of a live stadium concert.
In Part 2, we’ll talk about Vocal Effects!