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There are many reasons a person might be wondering how to mix choir vocals. Maybe you are working on a mix with background vocals that go beyond simple melody-harmony, and verges on Bohemian Rhapsody-style chants or silky Beach Boys-level arrangements. Perhaps you recorded a large choir, or a small barber shop quartet or a capella group, and you want to produce the recording for release. Or maybe you just want to broaden your skills as a producer and engineer.
There’s no doubt that vocals are an important part of music. In fact, I would personally argue that they are the most important element, in almost any situation. Non-musicians instantly relate to the vocals more than any other part of music. Vocals communicate meaning on multiple levels- words and poetry as well as musical pitch and timbre. So it’s no wonder that amazing music can be made with just voices alone. Adding layers of background vocals to your music can add a level of life and complexity that’s hard to beat.
Just recently, I was listening to Queen’s “Somebody To Love.” I have always appreciated what a complex and layered arrangement it has. Yet I only just realized that most of the song employs just piano, bass, and drums, with a few guitar melodies. The instruments mostly provide a pulse and a foundation. Almost all of the actual musicality come from the interplay of the soulful lead vocals and the complex harmonies.
So if you are working with any kind of vocal-rich music, read on for some tips.
How To Mix A Full Choir Performance
Are you working on a mix of a large choir that was recorded by one or two overhead microphones in a good-sounding performance space? I would take a less-is-more approach. A medium or large choir tends to do a lot of the “mixing” before the sound ever reaches the mic. The singers listen to each other, they blend their tones and control their dynamics accordingly. Also, the space they are singing in probably has its own reverberation. There’s no need to compete with it by adding your own reverb. Essentially, treat this as a mixed recording that you just need to master. Reference any choir recordings you have on hand that sound good to your ears. Apply minimal compression (if any) and employ an EQ or dynamic EQ to sweeten or brighten the overall sound if necessary. Overall, aim to match the sound of a reference recording, using minimal processing.
Mixing Room Mics
If you have multiple mic sources (for example, overhead and room mics) start by getting the overhead’s track sounding good using the above guidelines. Add in a touch of the room, but treat it like adding reverb in general- if it’s noticeable, it’s probably too much. It should be enough that it doesn’t draw attention to itself, but that its absence is noticeable. Just like with typical reverb, you may want to duck low and low-mid frequencies if the recording is muddy in places. You also may want to try compressing the room track a bit. But maintain the less-is-more approach. Many classical recordings are barely processed, relying on the player’s dynamics and tones, and on the natural acoustics of their recording space.
Mixing Handheld Mics
What if there are soloists with handheld mics? The approach to mixing those tracks in with the main track could vary depending on the style. If the approach is more classical, then the mixing should be in keeping with the rest of the performance. First try automating the volume if there are any sections of singing that are noticeably louder or softer overall. Try adding some compression, but less than you typically would for vocals. But in more classical contexts, the singer should be doing a lot of the projection and volume control already, so once again… less is more.
Is the style more pop, gospel, or modern in general? Then you may want to mix any solo vocalists with an approach similar to vocals in other genres of music. You may find yourself using volume automation, heavy compression, a de-esser… It depends so much on the vocalist and the context that it’s hard to generalize. The important consideration, though, is that the vocalist still sounds like they are in the same “space” as the rest of the choir. The vocals should be less “in-front” or “in-your-face” compared to the rest of the choir, than in other genres.
Mixing a small a capella group or barber shop quartet can be more complicated… I will return to that subject later.
How to Mix A Choir Section Into A Song
Now for a very different challenge- to add thick backing vocal harmonies into a song for a choir effect. Think of the Beach Boys with their lush harmonies that carried their pop songs. Queen was well-known for their theatrical backing vocals. More recently, Fun. used powerful backup vocals in their hit “Some Nights.”
For this section, I am going to assume you are recording in a more traditional studio or home studio, and you are recording vocal tracks close-mic’d, one-at-a-time. Incidentally, you might be surprised how easy it is to create a great space to record vocals at home. Since vocals can be time-consuming and self-conscious to record, this is a great option.
There are many ways to approach mixing choir vocals in this situation. I will use the Beach Boys and Queen once again to suggest a couple of approaches to tracking. The Beach Boys had five vocalists, and each had their own range that was their specialty in the band. Each member would record just their own part (bass, baritone, tenor, falsetto) but would record several takes of the part layered together in order to “thicken” the sound.
Queen, on the other hand, had four vocalists, but took a different approach. If a harmony had three parts, the vocalists would all sing the low harmony, then all sing the mid, then all sing the high. This is why their harmonies had such a unique characteristic sound.
Tracking Choir Vocals Solo
I personally often record choir sections for my own songs, or for songs I produce for clients. Since I do it solo, I sing each part multiple times and layer them together. Sometimes I sing each part two or three times, and sometimes as many as five or six.
If I am also singing the lead vocals, I make sure to vary my vocal tone between the lead and harmony sections, so the resulting recording does not sound like a dozen of the same person. Listen to Billy Joel’s “For The Longest Time”- every single vocal part in that a cappella-style recording is Joel himself, yet it sounds like a varied group of singers. Singing technique plays a big part.
Once the takes are all recorded, it’s almost always a good idea to expand the soundstage with panning. If I have five takes of the same part, I will often hard-pan two takes to the left and right, pan another two left and right by about 33%, and keep the final one in the center. This panning adds an incredible amount of perceived size and life to the vocals! A useful note: panning a track by about 30% in either direction is perceived as being panned “halfway” between center and hard-pan.
Don’t be afraid to have your backup vocals surprisingly loud. In all of the examples I mentioned- Beach Boys, Queen, and Fun.- the backup vocals are almost as loud as the lead, right behind them in the mix, and in front of the other instruments. Keep in mind that in this case, the overall volume of the song will drop when the backup vocals are not present, so consider gain-staging with this in mind. Maybe the other instruments should come up in the mix whenever backup vocals are not present.
Most DAWs have a feature for flex-editing, though it may have other names like “flex marker” or “stretch marker.” If you want your choir section to really “punch” like in “Some Nights” you may want to use this very powerful feature to edit all of the takes so that the syllables and voicings line up perfectly. This can make a huge difference! But if you are looking for a looser, “crowd” or “gang” style vocal, you may want to leave the timing rough.
Once your tracking is done, you will want to use compression, EQ, and reverb, just like with any other track. But since backup vocals are unique, there are some unique approaches to keep in mind.
You can choose to compress the tracks individually, compress the tracks together as a bus, or a combination thereof. Compressing the tracks individually gives a more full, layered sound. It’s easier to hear and appreciate everything that’s going on, and the section will definitely sound huge and thick. The examples I’ve been referencing (Beach Boys, Queen, Fun.) were definitely all compressed individually. Compressing the tracks as a bus will give a more organic, natural sound. This could be good in more folk or acoustic type settings, like the backup-vocal-shout sections that can sometimes be heard in Lumineers or Mumford & Sons recordings. The approach here will depend on context and intended effect, so use trial-and-error to get the sound you like.
When applying EQ, it’s usually appropriate to EQ the entire bus together after compression. I typically find myself cutting the highest and lowest frequencies. Lowering everything below 800 Hz will cancel out the proximity effect, and make the singers sound like they are still behind the lead vocalist and not competing for the “front.” Cutting the highest frequencies, like 10k-20k Hz, prevents the singers’ syllable pronunciation from competing with the lead vocalist.
Depending on context, experiment with the 1000-2500 Hz range to get the “presence” of the choir section right, and with the 2500-5000 Hz range to get them to sit right with any other instruments playing in the song.
(To go on a tangent about this, I noticed something else recently while listening to “Somebody To Love.” In the very beginning, after Freddy sings “Can…” solo, the rest of the band sings “…Anybody find me somebody to love.” While they sing this, the piano plays too, but the piano has been EQ’d pretty severely so that almost all of its brilliance is cut out, and only the fundamental frequencies are audible. Immediately following this section, the piano plays a solo introduction lick, but the EQ changes dramatically, so that it is far more brilliant and present. This example illustrates the kinds of considerations you can make when mixing a choir section into a song like this. Don’t be afraid to get dramatic with EQ automation in order to highlight different instruments at different times!)
There are many approaches to reverb on backing vocals, depending on context. A good default is to put reverb on the whole backup vocal bus. Use similar settings to the lead vocal, but “wetter” in order to make the backup vocals feel like they are behind the lead in space. But again, experiment to see what suits your artistic statement. I have heard great choir vocals that were drowned in reverb, or that were totally dry. Another rule of thumb: backup parts that employ “oohs” and “aahs” are more for texture than for singing words. They can probably handle wetter reverb, whereas backup parts where actual words are sung should be kept drier, at risk of becoming unintelligible.
Mixing Small Choir Ensembles
Finally, for smaller a cappella groups and barbershop groups. I left this section for last, because it is surprisingly hard to generalize. Depending on the style, you may want to use an approach more similar to mixing a full choir, or more like mixing a backup vocal section in a modern song- except without any other instruments. I have heard a capella recordings that were clearly recorded with room mics, where the natural reverb and the singers’ ears were used to full effect. I have also heard recordings that were clearly done by layering in individual close-mic’d vocal performances. If you find yourself tasked with this, I would recommend asking the group to show you some recordings they like the sound of, and then use any combination of techniques I have laid out here to achieve it.
So There You Have It!
With these tips, you should be on your way to mixing choir vocals in a variety of different contexts! And don’t be afraid to try out professional mixing services. They can be surprisingly inexpensive, and it can be a great way to compare your mix to a professional’s, and to learn by example. Happy producing! Keep working hard, and feel the joy of the music!
Robert is a freelance audio engineer and the lead writer for Range of Sounds. Robert has had a lifelong obsession with dissecting and understanding music and is a self-taught composer, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, singer, and recording engineer.