Vocal layers are the backbone of countless hit songs. They’re often used to create an emotional lift to parts of a song, but these layers are also just plain ol’ ear candy.
Here are the 5 industry-standard vocal layers added to recordings:
A double is a layer that duplicates a previously recorded part. For example, after recording your lead vocal, you could record the same part all over again on a separate audio track, thus creating a “double.” Most producers record a lead vocal plus two doubles, one to pan hard left and another to pan hard right. (Learn more about panning here.)
This layer has an interesting thickening effect on music recordings. The sound of it is similar to two voices singing in unison. Listen for vocal doubles in the pre-chorus of Alicia Keys’ “Un-thinkable.” The science behind doubling is that no two takes of a voice are ever perfectly identical, so when two, or more, recordings of the same part are played together it creates a cool audio effect.
Octave doubles are a common variation of this vocal layer. A producer may have a singer record a lower or higher version of the lead vocal. This is not considered a harmony because it is the same pitches as the lead vocal part. Though different than a standard same-octave double, octave doubles have a similar thickening effect.
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A harmony is a layer that follows the melody of the lead vocal, typically at a third or sixth above or below the melody. Vocal harmony is the most obvious vocal layer of many iconic hits, such as the multi-part harmony at the beginning of “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen. In modern music, Billie Eilish is known for her vocal layers (aka vocal stacks).
Harmonies are very frequently doubled. For example, many producers record a harmony part to pan to the left and then record the same harmony part all over again to pan to the right.
Many singers feel insecure about harmonies because they can’t automatically sing them without first working out the part. I’d like to encourage you to use whatever tool works for you. If using a piano to figure out harmonies works for you, then by all means do it!
3. Vocal Pads
Vocal pads are layers of voices that are used to create long-sustained chords. Often sung with hums or single vowel sounds, these are the most unnoticed vocal layers in music. Have you ever noticed the vocal pads in the background of the pre-chorus of “Love on Top” by Beyonce? Or the vocal pads on “Let’s Stay Together” by Al Green in the B-section of the verses?
This layer could be created by singing the same chords played by the piano or guitar in the accompaniment. Vocal pads can be very simple chords or complex extended chords. The only guiding rule is that pads are supposed to have a relatively long sustain and should be legato when moving from one chord to another.
4. Call & Response
Call-and-response is when background vocals respond to the “call” of the lead vocal. Think of Verse 1 in Bruno Mars’ “24k Magic” where Bruno sings “Pop pop it’s showtime” to which the background singers respond with the word “Showtime!”
Call-and-response comes in many different shapes and sizes. Although we’re talking about vocal layers, another form of this layer is to make the “call” with the voice and then “respond” with another instrument.
5. Ad Libs
An Ad Lib is a layer where the lead vocal sings over a section, such as the final chorus of a song, and sings an extra part. Think of the last chorus of “The One that Got Away” by Katy Perry; Katy singing the chorus almost becomes a background vocal as an additional recording of Katy sings over the chorus with extra melodies.
Ad-libs typically have little structure or repetitiveness, in part to create the impression of improvisation. This layer has the effect of “driving the song home” when used at the end of a song. Ad-libs in general create a feeling of heightened emotion.
Now that you know about the 5 Industry Standard Vocal layers, I’d like to give you some homework: Start listening for vocal layers when you listen to music and start to write your own!
Benny Meza is a Master Associate at Brett Manning Studios in Nashville, TN. He’s taught over 7,000 vocal lessons and has worked with clients from Warner Music, RCA, Universal Music Group, and many others.
Book a Skype or In-Person lesson with Benny today!