Josh had called me to ask for help with his backing singers; they were both strong singers in their own right but were struggling to create a united sound as a backing duo.
Most singer songwriters will want to feature some background vocals in their recorded work but few appreciate the skills required. The result can be an awkward blend of sounds that don’t match well. The art of blending requires a highly focused awareness of intensity levels, rhythmic detail, phonetic shapes and ‘feel’.
As we warmed up I noted initially that Sophie produced a harsh glottal onset and Daphne produced aspirate onset.
Harsh glottal onset is produced when the singer applies closure and notable effort to the glottis on sound; it can be an effective and edgy quality but can tire a singer if used without technique.
Aspirate onset is produced when breath is passing through the vocal cords before the muscles move to make sound – it can be a beautiful sound if controlled well.
Whilst a variation on background vocalists’ qualities should be an asset, this differential was problematic because neither of the singers were aware of how to control these qualities.
Sophie’s voice was overpowering and Daphne was straining to be heard so their vocal energies were in opposition to each other.
The teaching of onset control can take many months to perfect for a long-term solution and we didn’t have that sort of time so I had to think about working for immediate effect!
Solution 1: Hold Hands
Initially I did some specific warm up exercises to reduce tension – including some tongue stretches and some effortless and balanced onset on repeated ‘eh eh eh’ notes on the scale.
Then I asked the singers to face each other and hold hands.
As they sang through sections of song, they looked closely at each other’s mouths to familiarize themselves with breath patterns, mouth shape and length of note; they played a game of finding the middle ground between them – so as to reach a united sound. They were both bright and responsive and the results were very rewarding for them (and Josh!)
Solution 2: The Choice Of An Emotion
I instructed them to decide on a shared attitude towards the lead singer (Josh) and his song message; this could be surprise, empathy, shared frustrations etc.; they worked this into their delivery along with a much tighter approach to time and volume.
They wrote out their song without lead vocals; this only took five minutes but was incredibly useful as it afforded them both a new confidence in where and how to ‘come in’.
The results were very successful and the songs took on a new energy as harmonies and the sense of the backing lyric became clear.
Background vocalists are real artists in their own right; the narrative and energy they bring to their ‘song’ can and should have the capacity to alter mood and dynamic of the lead singer’s delivery. Very often background singers are unrecognised for the massive contribution they make to any performance, live or recorded, and it is this lack of recognition that can in turn reduce inexperienced singers’ awareness of skills required for the job.