6 steps to record great harmonies

For more information on creating your first song using Band-in-a-Box and RealBand check out my online video course First Song with Band-in-a-Box for Windows

I often get questions about how I go about recording my harmonies so I thought I would write a quick blog post about it. I hope some of you who are interested will get some use out of this article. Please feel free to share it with whomever you feel will benefit. 

Here is my 6 step approach. 

1. Record Lead vocals 

I first generate the basic backing using Band in a Box. I then open the file in Real band and mute everything except the bass, drums and one rhythm instrument (usually guitar but sometimes piano).  I then record the lead vocal three times on different tracks. I spend a bit of time listening to the lead vocal tracks and splice together the best bits and end up with one lead vocal. 

2. Generate harmonies 

I then select the entire track. I use the TC- Helicon Harmony generator that comes with Real Band to generate a low harmony.  I then use the Harmony generator to generate a high harmony and save each to its own track. 
I then mute the lead vocal and the high harmony and render an MP3 with just the backing and the low harmony. I repeat for the high harmony. I then carry both MP3’s around with me for a bit so I can learn the harmony. 

3. Record two low and two high harmonies 

When I feel confident with both the high and low harmony parts, I record two sets of each. I sing the entire way through the song in harmony. So, I now have six harmony tracks; four sung and two generated. 

4. Pan and process 

I reduce the volume on the harmonies to about 30% below the lead vocal. I pan the harmony tracks as follows; the generated low nearest the center (probably about 20%) and the generated high one slightly wider to the other side (about 30%). The two sung low harmonies I pan out one to each side slightly wider than the generated one (about 40%) and the two sung high harmonies out wide, one to each side at about 50%. I put some processing on the lead vocal (compression, EQ and reverb) but don’t put any processing on the harmony tracks. 

5. Cut and splice 

I then mute the backing and listen to the vocals and harmonies. If something doesn’t sound great, for example if the timing was off, then I simply cut those harmonies. I usually (but not always) cut the the sung harmonies in pairs. So I will cut either both sung high or both sung low.  In a particular phrase, I will usually fade in and fade out the harmonies so that they appear well after and disappear well before the lead vocal. This is especially important where there is an “ess” at the end of the phrase. 

6. Shape the track 

Although I have put this as a separate step, it usually happens simultaneously with step 5.

I try to shape the track by cutting the harmonies aggressively in the verses and leaving them to build in the choruses. Sometimes, if the timing of a particular harmony take was not great but I still want to keep that harmony in that part of the song, I will copy the phrase from a different track (or even elsewhere in the song). When I paste it I will simply move it back about 5 cents because two identical tracks panned to opposite sides will just sound like a mono signal 

And that is it! If you have any questions or comments I would love to hear them.

2 comments

  • Paul Harvey

    Paul Harvey New Zealand

    As a sound engineer and a recording artist I have used similar methods myself but varied the frequency range and focus depending on the feel I was looking for. It sounds like you have done some real preparation for your tracks which is great to see, just wish some if my clients in the past would have displayed the same discipline. Keep up the good work Joanne

    As a sound engineer and a recording artist I have used similar methods myself but varied the frequency range and focus depending on the feel I was looking for. It sounds like you have done some real preparation for your tracks which is great to see, just wish some if my clients in the past would have displayed the same discipline. Keep up the good work Joanne

  • Joanne Cooper

    Joanne Cooper

    Hey Paul. Thanks for the insights. The good news is that it gets easier and easier the more you do it. Many comment that it sounds like a lot of work but it definitely gets easier and is worth it.

    Hey Paul. Thanks for the insights. The good news is that it gets easier and easier the more you do it. Many comment that it sounds like a lot of work but it definitely gets easier and is worth it.

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