Listen to modern successful chart recordings, particularly pop and R&B. Notice the complexity of the background vocals (backing vocals) – often twenty or more layers, sometimes with intricate counterpoint.
The main feature about background vocals is that they should not attract attention, but support the lead vocal. So quite often you can listen to a track and not be aware of them. But they are in fact a key component of modern production style.
But laying down twenty tracks of background vocals is a significant piece of work. It can take literally days. So how can it be made easier, both in terms of arrangement and actual recording?
The trick is not to record background vocals for the entire duration of the song, but to break the song down into musical phrases or lines. Not even verses or choruses – just take four or eight bars at a time.
Now, with the aid of your DAW and versatile recording software, highlight a musical phrase. It helps if it is a precise number of bars, and even better if it is four bars or eight bars because that is how most music is constructed.
Now set this so that it loops, and you can record as you loop. Sometimes the boundaries of the selection will not be at the beginnings of bars, but as long as the selection is four bars or eight bars, the loop will sound smooth and not jerky or discontinuous.
Now you can rehearse the first line of background over and over until your singer finds something that fits in. And you can record it over and over – Pro Tools will record as many takes as you like without stopping. Then when you have a good take, simply hit stop. You can use that take, or select an earlier take that was better.
Now switch to a new track and use the same loop to rehearse and record the second line of background. Repeat this process until the backgrounds are as rich and complex as you like. (Hint – richness and complexity are better achieved if you have more than one singer).
Once you have that, you can move on to the next line.
A great advantage of working in this way is in the timing. Getting multitracked background vocals to line up precisely was always a major problem in the past. But the rehearsal period working on a very short section of the song allows the singer to home in very quickly on the correct timing, almost without thinking.
It will still take you a day to record backgrounds for an R&B track, but it will be a day well spent, and with a good singer the result can be very professional indeed.