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BLENDING THE BACK-UPS - Part One - by Jeannie Deva
Back-up singing can be considered an art unto itself. Backing vocals help fill out the entire sound of a group and add excitement while supporting and enriching the sound of the lead singer. The musical arrangement of the back-up parts is key in achieving this. But regardless of the simplicity or sophistication of the musical arrangement, the execution and coordination of the vocal sounds are extremely important.
Producers and music industry people often complain that the backing vocals are given the least amount of attention in new groups shopping their bands. Sloppy backing vocals make a band appear unfocused and amateur. The key to good sounding back-up vocals is "blend". It's important to know what blend is, how to assign parts and then how to practice to achieve unified sound that is also stylistically appropriate.

Blend means to mix elements such as tone, pronunciation, phrasing, volume, rhythm, dynamics, pitch and intonation.

Tone refers to the timbre or characteristic sound of your voice. For the best blend, work on matching your tone to one another. That means matching qualities such as brightness or deepness of sound, nasality, and vibrato.

Ragged phrasing is one of the biggest reasons back-ups can sound un-polished. Phrasing choices should sound natural and make emotional sense, and work rhythmically with the instrumental parts and lead vocalist. For the optimum back-up blend, each singer's rhythmic phrasing should be identical. Listen for and decide on mutual rhythms for each word and syllable so that they synchronize.

Pronunciation can vary from one person to the next causing clashing intonation and sloppy rhythms. A good vocal blend includes matching the way you pronounce your words. Be sure to cut off your words at the same time. Any words that have to be sustained, should as a rule, be sustained on the vowel, not the ending consonant. Many singers close off on the consonant too soon. If this occurs while still sustaining the pitch, chances are you will sound strained and/or go off pitch.

Volume should be balanced behind that of the lead singer. Crescendos and diminuendos on given words or phrases should happen simultaneously and smoothly. Practice by sustaining an "Ah" while slowly increasing then decreasing the volume. Do this with your other back-up singers in unison and with harmonies, as well as each person separately.

Poor intonation in the back-up vocals can be devastating to the entire sound of the band. Each singer needs to sing with complete pitch accuracy. It can be difficult sometimes to hear what your pitch is when singing harmony. If you are singing with other instruments, your note is often being played by either the guitar or piano. When you practice your parts, listen for your note within the instrumentation. Use it as a guideline. Listening to all the other voices at once can be confusing and can throw you off. Pick one part with which to blend. Thinking of your part as a melody in its own right can be a big help.

Too often a band member is assigned a part only because he or she can "hit" the note. Voice lessons can help each singer improve vocal quality and control. But nonetheless, it's important to assign parts based on appropriate tonality for the most professional blend.

Evaluate each singer's voice. Notice who has a deeper sound (more mid-range resonance) and whose is thinner (more treble resonance). Which voices are most similar? Assign parts based on the voices that are most similar and will blend best.

For a tighter, fuller sound, put the voice that has a deeper, darker quality on top parts. Assign brighter or thinner voices to the bottom and/or middle parts.

For a group that has a female vocalist but is going for an "all male" sound, put the female on a part below one or two of the male vocalists.

For an "all female" sound with some male voices, use as many male voices as possible, singing with a "falsetto" sound (high, light and breathy). Put the female vocalist on or near the top.

To open the overall sound, use a high harmony or double the melody one or two octaves higher and/or lower. Upper harmonies are usually appropriate to sing breathy rather than shoutingly shrill. The importance of this part is "coloration" and enhancement of the sound spectrum. Conversely, doubling the melody or one of the harmonies from below can open the sound further. This last assignment can be appropriate for a band member who not only has trouble singing higher, but has difficulty staying on their own part and is a chronic "drifter".

In next month's article, we'll cover methods of practicing along with other tips to help your back-ups sound their best! Have a wonderful and creative month!

Jeannie Deva is heralded as one of the top specialists in the training and coaching of singers. Ms. Deva has recently opened a private studio in the Los Angeles area. Her school of voice is located in Boston, Massachusetts. For more information on The Deva Method® of voice training, locations and voice training books and CDs visit:

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