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For those of you who sing backup vocals...


Dr88s

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...help me!

 

My band lost one of its vocalists this year, a talented guy who could seamlessly sing even complex harmonies. While I don't have a very good voice, I am not afraid or embarrassed to sing and want to step up and start singing some harmonies.

 

I am running into problems. When I am singing along with the recording, I can reliably and reasonably accurately hit my harmony note. Once the band kicks in, though, with less than perfect timing and less than perfect tuning, and the volume creeping up, I just can't find my note when it counts.

 

This isn't a keyboard related question, but I do trust your opinions. Any advice? I have thought about - where my keyboard real estate allows - setting a zone at the end of my Nord that gets routed to my otherwise unused output 3&4 which I'd send to a local monitor or earbuds heard only by me as a guide note, but that seems awkward both in terms of extra gear and having to reach over and find the note while otherwise immersed in the song.

Nord Stage 2 Compact, Yamaha MODX8

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I find the real problem is this:

the volume creeping up
Somehow high volume is an irritant, a distraction, something that stops me giving my best performance. (As well as being damned painful and unpleasant in that sense). I have a hypersensitivity to loud noise, so this affects me more than most people.

 

My solution is to go IEMs and a personal mixer. I have a simple Rolls PM351, which gives me the ability to dial in "more my mic" and/or "more my keys", and the IEMs keep "the noise in my ears" to a sensible level.

 

Cheers, Mike.

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Yes, the problem is probably monitoring.

 

I'll bring my PM55P and run the monitor out into it and mix in my mic. The problem is that the guitar and bass aren't amped so that way I'm relying on bleed. Also, everyone else uses wedges so by using in ears or headphones I'm isolating myself from them.

Nord Stage 2 Compact, Yamaha MODX8

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See if you can set up IEM's with just the sound you need to do the job -- emphasizing your own vocals, lead vocals, and whatever instrument(s) or voices might help you for reference. The trick is to de-emphasize the elements that impede or distract you.

 

The gain (if your brain works like mine) is that you will be able to carry your part with a lot more confidence. The loss is that you won't hear "what the band sounds like." But you won't be alone -- that loss is shared by every player in every great orchestra on the planet.

-Tom Williams

{First Name} {at} AirNetworking {dot} com

PC4-7, PX-5S, AX-Edge, PC361

 

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Thanks all!

 

Tom, in the guitarist's basement where we practice, the mixer only has three sub mixes for the various monitors, so with seven of us in the band I can't dial in exactly what I want because many of us share the same mix.

 

At the upcoming show, we do have a dedicated mixer tech with my own unique mix. I'm just afraid to avail myself of it there not having practiced under those circumstances.

Nord Stage 2 Compact, Yamaha MODX8

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The other thing that really helps is good moulded hearing protection. Consider that a substantial part of hearing your own voice is internal through your skull. So the more you block outside noise, the higher "in the mix" your own voice will appear. Your sibilants will get a little lost though, but that may have a positive side effect of making your enunciate more (which is almost never a bad thing). But your pitch will still be very audible.

 

Also, as someone mentioned, high volumes are disorienting, and clarity gets lost. Simply dampening the outside SPL may help you find your pitch better in the mix.

 

As for monitoring. I always carry around my own speaker. I honestly don't need anyone else in the monitor. I can ALWAYS hear bass and drums, and guitar/vocals aren't quite as necessary to lock into, and you can usually hear them. So I don't bother with monitoring them, I just blast my keys/vocals at my right ear (drummer is on my left, and I just knock him out with a big earplug).

Puck Funk! :)

 

Equipment: Laptop running lots of nerdy software, some keyboards, noise makersâ¦yada yada yadaâ¦maybe a cat?

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I personally wouldn't try to solve the problem with new equipment, before taking a couple of other steps first. Otherwise you'll end up with the same problem and less money.

 

In my experience, the problem with finding harmony notes live is the fact that our voice feels different to us at louder volumes, so our tendency is often to pop up to the next line up from ours, particularly if that's the melody or a harmony line you are used to hearing. So the first thing I would recommend doing is getting used to how your harmony line feels to sing at (your) performance volume. By which I mean, sing loud at home. You'll probably find you need to find a higher line to sing with the necessary force for live performance.

 

The second thing I would do is sing your line over and over again at the piano so that it replaces the melody for you as the thing you hear happening there. Forget for a moment that you're singing harmony and just learn it as the melody of a brand new song. Then practice "finding" the starting note coming out of whatever chords precede it.

 

To help with that, you could find a reference pitch in the melody a few bars earlier and "save" it--sing it quietly to yourself from the time the singer sings it until the time you have to deploy it. Or as Eric says, just give yourself a reference pitch before you sing, and "keep" that as well. I do this all the time. While I'm playing whatever I'm playing, I plunk out my harmony note and just match it off-mic. The nice thing about the creeping volume issue is that it gives you a lot of cover to try stuff out off-mic before your formal entrance.

 

Similarly, you could learn how to find your pitch relative to the melody of the section you are singing. That is, if the singer is singing an A, and you are the E above it, practice running up from A to your E. "Prehear" the A and find your note relative to it, or else just come in for a brief second of unison and jump to your note.

 

But the biggest thing is simply to learn your line as the "real" melody of the song (for you), and then you don't have to worry what anyone else is singing in that spot.

 

I would go down this route before I popped any $ on new equipment or a changed-up rig.

 

Good luck!

 

 

 

Now out! "Mind the Gap," a 24-song album of new material.
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That is very common, in my experience, with people that haven't done a lot of harmony singing. You "conform" to the main melody and don't stay in your "lane" :D

 

Better monitoring is important; experienced singers can get away with not hearing themselves as they can hear the note in their head (though this obviously is not idea even for them.)

 

Fortunately/Unfortunately, I think anyone can do harmonies...the bad part is that it takes time and experience, which leads to confidence--confidence is absolutely required for singing :) The minute you get hesitant, bad things happen.

 

I don't have the greatest lead technique, but I am very good (IMO) at finding harmonies and staying with them. I credit countless hours in the car, making up harmonies where none exist! I'm sure it's incredibly irritating to listen to, though to be fair I mainly do it when I'm driving alone. What I mean in, a tune comes on the radio/cd player, the singer starts in, I just try to harmonize along with them. Try a third up, a third down, try moving the part around...what all this does is trains you to sing in the key of the song (at whatever point in the song you are) independently of what the singer is doing. For example, if you want to practice a part that is a 3rd higher, you won't always be able to just stay in "parallel" with the singer, as that might put you out of key of the song. Harmonies might require you to stay on a note while the singer moves for example. Of course, you need the ears to hear when things go askew, and musicians typically have them :D

 

In particular, doing this has helped me do lower-than-the-melody harmonies, which are much harder for most people than those that go above. If you can develop this ability, it's a great asset. Another thing to work on that a lot of people struggle with is falsetto technique--not everyone is a high tenor, but a high falsetto harmony can sound great and really add to the overall sound. Head voice/falsetto covers a lot of ground. I'm a baritone but because I'm pretty good at these, I am the one to do the highest parts when we do tunes from bands like the Eagles for instance.

 

So in short, you will have your trials and tribulations, just like when you start playing live with an instrument. For the band's sake, I'd start out with whatever harmonies you find easiest on the songs, and get those down...that helps with confidence. While I love bands that do vocal harmonies, I'd rather they not sing them than do bad ones LOL! Audiences may not have musical knowledge but just about anyone can hear out-of-tune singing. So take it slow and get more ambitious as you go.

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First off, thanks for your lengthy replies.

 

EricBarker:

 

I do use custom moulded plugs; I already have a mild degree of tinnitus and I find loud noises physically painful - more than most people. I have them in for >75 % of practice time, taking them out only on quiet numbers.

 

I also occasionally bring an Alto TX8 as my own monitor playing only my keys, but frankly I get lazy and rely on the wedges at the practice space which are very suboptimally positioned. Perhaps I shouldn't be lazy and bring a mixer and have the mic running there so I can monitor vocals and keyboard simultaneously.

 

MOI:

 

Your suggestion to practice at home at performance volume is a good one.

 

Otherwise, I have tried, with varying degrees of success, all of your other advice.

 

Saving a reference pitch earlier in the song - check.

Learning by intervals - check

Singing the song with only the harmony so that it replaces the melody - check.

 

All good at home and in the car, but it all goes to pot with the rest of the band playing.

 

Stokely:

 

I have been doing this for years, even before I ever wanted to sing backups. I used to drive my wife crazy singing in thirds with her next to me in the car. She always wondered what the heck I was doing. Now that she is one of the vocalist in my band, she has started doing the same ;)

 

Nord Stage 2 Compact, Yamaha MODX8

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You have to be able to hear yourself. Period.

If you can't, you probably will not be on pitch, especially if it's a dicey harmony line. Second, you will probably push harder with your voice and you'll lose it by the third set.

 

Most sound boards have the capability to meter how how much of what goes into each monitor. Maybe the lead divas don't want to hear a bunch of you in their monitors, but you certainly do need to.

Muzikteechur is Lonnie, in Kittery, Maine.

 

HS music teacher: Concert Band, Marching Band, Jazz Band, Chorus, Music Theory, AP Music Theory, History of Rock, Musical Theatre, Piano, Guitar, Drama.

 

 

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Your problem is absolutely not "band tuning" - it's not being able to hear yourself.

 

Practice in your car with the stereo turned up so loud you can't hear your voice - you'll find that you can't find your note then, either.

 

I will sometimes pitch off the organ if I can't hear right, but mostly, if I can't hear right I sing badly(er). Muscle memory can help you get in the ball park, but it won't help your intonation; you need the larynx-ear feedback loop for that.

 

Too-loud bands can be very frustrating. I am rehearsing with a group later today that is too loud, but much less too loud than they were before I started bitching about it. I set up for rehearsals in the hallway and listen through the open door, LOL.

 

Geez 11:15, I better start packing the van.

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I used to drive my wife crazy singing in thirds with her next to me in the car. [...] Now that she is one of the vocalist in my bed, she has started doing the same ;)

How many vocalists were in your bed in the past?

-Tom Williams

{First Name} {at} AirNetworking {dot} com

PC4-7, PX-5S, AX-Edge, PC361

 

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As a few others have suggested, I'll spot me the starting note on keys - sometimes on top of a voicing, sometimes just blatantly playing it. Vocals always rule, and by far the most important thing for the band at that point is nailing the harmony - not what I'm playing on keys.

 

There are so many things I can't control during the night. That's one way of doing it that I can.

 

It usually doesn't take too long for the part to become second nature - and then I don't have to do that as much (if at all).

 

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Not sure if this has already been said, but if you listen to songs a lot, particularly when driving or while alone, practice harmonizing the melody. Doesn't matter if the recording has harmony in it or not, both are great practice.

 

I'm exactly with Stokely, I gravitate towards singing harmonies along with recordings, and not the lead, often making them up when they're not there, to the point of missing them when I can't sing along! I would consider myself a skilled backing vocalist largely for this reason.

 

Lead and Backing vocals are two very different skills that both come with their own set of difficulties. I would say knowing you're voice, range, and how to work the mic is VERY important to backing vocals. Lots of high harmonies are in falsetto, which is easy on the voice and quiet. If you cross into full voice your volume is going to explode by comparison, knowing when to back off the mic and your projection is paramount. There's nothing worse than a backing vocalist who suddenly appears and disappears during a line. That said, it's easier in that your annunciation doesn't need to be as forward (I will often purposefully drop consonants so they don't get in the way), you don't have to play frontman, and you don't have to use as much power. Oh, and your memory can be shit: you're usually going to be singing catchy chorus lyrics and not wordy verses. I sing backing vocals constantly for songs I barely know and do just fine. Ask me to sing lead, even on a song I know well, and I've got some homework to do.

Puck Funk! :)

 

Equipment: Laptop running lots of nerdy software, some keyboards, noise makersâ¦yada yada yadaâ¦maybe a cat?

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Taking a slightly different track. On top of all the great advice given here, another thing may be worth examining the organization of vocals in your band. What Im theorizing is that if vocals are not well planned out and orchestrated, it can lead to problems. Such as if harmony note ranges (or lanes) jump around from person to person, that can cause even good singers to miss or search around for their notes.

 

In a hypothetically perfectly controlled world of harmonies, vocalists would be organized by their strongest range, and they would stay in that range (or lane).

 

Example for 3-part harmonies:

Singer 1 sings tenor (low note in the harmony)

Singer 2 sings alto (middle note in the harmony)

Singer 3 sings soprano (high note in the harmony)

 

And for all harmonies (in our hypothetical and perhaps boring perfect harmony world), they would follow this pattern. What this does is bring consistency and reliability, especially when there are a lot of moving parts in the gig.

 

Even if these singers can sing outside their lanes with great skill, by switching this formula, youve now introduced variables. None of this is rocket science by itself, but with all the variables both within and outside the music, rhythms, volume, lead vocals, drums, guitars, keys, horns, the crowd, maybe a cocktail or two, perhaps some complex structures and melodies even great singers can lose their note.

 

So Im not sure if this applies in any way to your scenario, but might be worth exploring. If people are jumping lanes in their vocal harmony patterns, it could potentially be one of the root causes of your problem.

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+1 on absolutely needing to hear yourself to have a fighting chance. Finding your harmony note inside of your chord voicing is highly useful for practice (doesn't have to be the top note but that can help).

 

As a general rule, I can only think about one thing at once, so often I find myself putting my hands on autopilot while I focus on my voice. The other option - depending on the vocal line and/or the keys part - is a choreography where the two are interlocked. There's a lot of songs I'm used to singing backups on, and even if I'm not singing backs in that band, I will sing them to myself because I don't know the tune any other way.

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It seems like this either comes naturally or it doesn't. Sorry, but that's my experience. That doesn't mean you can't fight through it and get better based on some of the tips here, and there are some good ones. But if you're struggling to find your note I doubt if it will ever be easy. You might get better at doing it, but you'll have to work for it. Some people don't have to work for it, so you're at a disadvantage.

 

In the past, when I've worked with bandmembers who struggled to find their parts, I've done multitrack recordings which is even easier than ever now with cheap digital mixers. I'd do a mix, but then mute and pan individual vocal parts. Panned Center you hear everything. Pan left is all the vocal parts EXCEPT yours, pan right and it's JUST yours. So you could pan one way and practice hearing just your part. Then you could pan the other way and practice singing your part with all the other parts but NOT yours. This was back in the days of cassettes, but I would think it would be easier than ever to do something like that these days. Each person got a different tape with different vocals each side. In the DAW you really do only one mix, you just change vocal panning for each mixdown.

Dan

 

Acoustic/Electric stringed instruments ranging from 4 to 230 strings, hammered, picked, fingered, slapped, and plucked. Analog and Digital Electronic instruments, reeds, and throat/mouth.

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Singing backup vocals is what I do the most in our covers band (and the reason for my handle). There is a lot of great advice from others here. I will add a few more points:

 

1. You are a rookie, so simplify your assignment. Pick a short list of songs on which you will sing harmonies at an upcoming gig, and focus only on them. If you want to keep this new role, the #1 thing you need to do is not mess up on the songs where you do it. Otherwise you could get an elbow in your ribs from a bandmate during your next gig (how do I know this?).

 

2. You can start singing your first note before it is due to start, if you turn away from the mic, sing softly, and if the note does not clash with the chord preceding the time when you start.

 

3. Learn to move your singing pitch up and down by certain intervals independently of what's happening in the song, based especially on your ability to hear intervals of a whole step, minor 3rd, and major 3rd. Your brain might not be able to find the next pitch "by ear" or "by instinct", but if you know the interval between the current pitch and the next, your brain's "next pitch finder" can temporarily leave the context of the song, and think "hey, the next note is up a minor 3rd, ok I can do this".

 

4. (related to #3) write down your harmonies *by hand* on a piece of paper. There is an imprinting on your brain which takes place when you write it manually (pen or pencil), which does not take place when you use a computer or phone.

 

5. Falsetto carries risks. The easiest way to crash and burn with falsetto is not on the way up, but when you try to transition back from falsetto to normal voice, on the way back down. And it is much more difficult to control pitch transitions within the falsetto range than when singing normal voice. So you might be able to hit one falsetto note and stay there, but if you need to jump up a minor 3rd? - Could be a crash. My biggest advice about falsetto is don't even try this for any song at a gig unless you have tried that specific falsetto part for that specific song more than once.

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Wow. Lots of activity overnight. Thanks!

 

I guess I should put my situation in context.

 

The upcoming gig is a one off but a fairly big deal, >1000 people. Throughout the year, I play for fun/hobby with a subset of the group, my wife on lead vocals during that time.

For the gig we add a few extra musicians. One of them, an excellent vocalist, dropped out this year. The set is pretty short - a half hour.

 

I only have to sing harmonies on two songs, but I want to make them count.

 

1) For the first we're doing a song with a well known guest singer who will be singing his own song. Three of us in the band will do the backups, mostly 'ooooh's without words. It's a D major harmony, the vocals stacked from low to high A-D-F#, but while the D and F# are held for four bars, the low note ascends chromatically from A->A#->B->C over the four bars. Over this I'm playing broken chords from low to high starting on the A. I can most easily do the low harmony part because i) that's what I'm playing on the keyboard as the first note on the beat and ii)

it parallels the melody I'm familiar with that the singer is singing in words. Of the other two vocalists, one is an experienced musician who toured with national acts for years and is fine doing any of the harmonies, so he was assigned the highest F#. The other, my wife, is a very competent lead vocalist but struggles with harmonies, even more than I, and even with coaching. I've assigned her the low part as she can reliably and accurately sing it. That leaves me with the D in the middle. At home I can reliably hit it using the interval from the prior lyric, which I sing along with quietly. Live, though, the D is in the middle of the chord I'm playing.

 

2) The other is in extreme falsetto - doing the oohs and aaahs over the prechorus in 'Radar Love'. I'm actually OK with falsetto, but that last high E is beyond my range. Luckily the song is frantic and chaotic enough that I can slide toward that note without hitting it and it still sounds ok.

 

I think for this week I'll work on monitoring to see if that helps. I have a feeling it's part of but not all of the solution.

Nord Stage 2 Compact, Yamaha MODX8

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ooohs and aahs are harder than singing words IMO, but if they are done right it's awesome.

 

The point about the band being organized on vocals is a good one. Even if everyone is a good singer, if people are grabbing parts randomly it's likely to be a trainwreck.

 

Over the years I've been at a few "vocals only" practices, typically with the guitarist playing the tunes just for something to anchor to. With less tunes, you could do a "vocals only segment" at a practice to focus on them. The tough part is with hesitant/beginners, as they will tend to forget their parts when the time comes :) Just takes time and practice, and as others have said, getting a beginning note can be helpful. I highly recommend recording practices on a phone if nothing else, ideally a better device like a Zoom recorder.

 

Personally when it comes to vocal lines and lyrics both, the more I try to prepare at the gig the more I mess up...I do best if I practice a lot over time and then just let it flow at the gigs without too much thought.

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In addition to the monitor that you need to hear yourself it might also help if you hit the note you want to start singing with on your keyboard so that you can hear the pitch, then duplicated the pitch with your voice.

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Play with one hand and put a finger in 1 ear while you sing... that always helped me...I was 15 when taught by the older guys in the band how to sing harmony. They had a great reputation for harmony in the late 60's when I joined them ....when good harmony was almost mandatory for a band to have to be considered good!

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...

2) The other is in extreme falsetto - doing the oohs and aaahs over the prechorus in 'Radar Love'. I'm actually OK with falsetto, but that last high E is beyond my range. Luckily the song is frantic and chaotic enough that I can slide toward that note without hitting it and it still sounds ok....

 

I am taking you at your own word that you can't hit the note.

 

I suggest that you find another plan for who is doing what on the background vocals on that song, so that you don't have to try to sing a note that you have already admitted you cannot reach. Remember, the tendency at a gig is for anything that seemed "not quite there" during rehearsals to seem worse at the gig.

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We do "Radar Love" too (fantastic song) and that place you mentioned can be a bit of a trouble spot. I'm fine on it, but my guitarist sings the lower harmony, and... to be blunt... his pitch sucks, so it sounds even worse with a second person. If I realize that he's not on his A game, I'll duck out on the first note so it's not as noticeable. Another little hack is to sing it with a bit of pitch contour. I cover for the other guy and obscure the pitchiness with a dash of scooping and vibrato, make it look purposeful. It's not THAT bad, but putting a little pitch "blur" on it helps.

 

This section is also a GREAT example of how to work the mic. I can sing the last note just fine, but it's going to be much louder, so you'll always see me back off the mic a good 6in on that note.

 

Fun song, it's often my first trumpet tune of the evening. I get to do everything: B3, synth, sing and play horn! We have a standing disagreement about what the song means and whether the narrator is dead at the end. I think he's just been strung out on amphetamines the entire time, guitarist takes it at face value and thinks he dies in a crash. Who knows, those crazy Dutch geniuses!

Puck Funk! :)

 

Equipment: Laptop running lots of nerdy software, some keyboards, noise makersâ¦yada yada yadaâ¦maybe a cat?

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Eric

 

Im doing the horns on my Nord but it works.

I hated the song at first but as were getting there its starting to cook.

Thanks for the tip on that high line re: mic distance.

Nord Stage 2 Compact, Yamaha MODX8

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