Backing vocals can make dense, busy mixes better, they can make sparse, simple mixes better, as well. A lot of the magic comes from finding the right panning positions for your backing vocals. Let’s talk panning backing vocals in your mix.
Panning Backing Vocals
There are no wrong or right techniques to panning backing vocals, but I’ll give you a few techniques which always work well.
Make sure you check out my vocal EQ guide, by the way, as you want to make sure ALL vocals in your mix are EQ’d properly.
As a general rule, the farther you pan a backing vocal either to its most extreme position either left or right, the more unattached it will sound from that lead vocal.
It seems an obvious thing to say, but this can be useful depending on how dense or sparse your mix is.
If you have a mix where it’s quiet and there’s not a lot of layering going on, panning something hard left or right is going to be much more noticeable. It can work well, but it’s important to keep that in mind.
Let’s better explain panning backing vocals with each TYPE of backing vocals you might have in your mix.
Panning Vocal Doubles
I think when most people think backing vocals, they’re more thinking about harmonies, or vocals which sing a different part altogether. Let’s not forget vocal doubles which can be used to thicken up your main vocal.
You can use these throughout the song, or you can save them for the chorus to give your lead vocal at the most important point in the song a little extra oomph.
Incidentally, you don’t even need to record vocal doubles if the chorus vocal melody stays the same each time. For a typical song with three choruses, you have two perfectly good doubles to apply to each individual chorus.
I like two additional instances of the lead vocal when I’m doubling, so we’re in effect tripling the vocal.
For vocal doubles and assuming I have two additional vocals to go with my part, I’ll pan them 100%/hard left and right.
A good rule of thumb is to drop them 20dB lower than your lead vocal. This is typically just enough volume so that they’re felt in the mix and missed when you mute them. 9 times out of 10 this is the subtle effect I want.
If I want the listener to know those doubles are there, I’ll turn them up, but usually less or more with doubles.
One last thing which always bears worth mentioning with vocal doubles: get them as tight to the original vocal as possible. The more dissimilar those doubles are, the sloppier that double will typically sound as the effect of that double begins to lose its focus.
Whether it’s a third, fourth, fifth, or octave up or down, harmonies are an easy way to thicken up a vocal while adding some ear candy to your mix.
I typically recommend panning harmonies 10% left or right off center of your lead vocal.
As I mentioned earlier, the farther away from center you pan a second vocal, the less attached it will sound.
If we’re singing a different part altogether (which we’ll get into in a moment), we vary well might want some separation.
The purpose of harmonies is to blend with the lead vocal. Therefore, I want it close to that lead so that it sounds like a cohesive unit.
I want to create a little separation because the lead vocal should have the center all to itself for emphasis and space.
I also pan harmonies slightly off center so that the listener can tell those harmonies are coming from a slightly different spot as this simulates the actual vocalists in the room.
It’s that sweet spot of keeping the harmonies close enough to make a collective unit with the lead, but with just enough separation.
Panning Other Backing Vocals
If it’s a unique part, meaning a part with different timing, melody, and rhythm from the lead vocal, then I’ll typically move these closer to the sides if not all the way.
This is because, typically, you’ll want a unique vocal part to be as far away from the lead as possible so that it doesn’t get in the way. During more complex and busier mixes, this is especially important to keep those vocals from stepping on one another which can lead to a chaotic mess.
I’ll get this in a lot of mixes where the backing vocal is meant to play off of or hold that lead melody.
Every backing vocal part with a unique melody is going to be different, but doubling a part once and panning these hard left and right gives them a really nice stereo effect and keeps them as clean from the lead as possible.
Don’t forget to use reverb on your backing vocals to taste to send them farther back in the mix, utilizing depth as well as width for spacing. This gives the effect that these vocalists are singing from farther back in the room as we get more of those reflections on the vocal.
Most importantly, this creates more of a contrast with the lead vocal and creates a more interesting, dynamic mix when these vocals come in.
Panning Backing Vocals Tips
- Panning backing vocals allows you to create a more interesting stereo image as well as give them and lead each their own spaces in the mix.
- Pan vocal doubles 100% left and right (assuming you’ve got two doubles). Copy and paste your choruses as a shortcut to create these two unique doubles to pan. I usually set these doubles 20dB LOWER than the lead to more feel than hear them.
- Pan harmonies 10% or so off center to keep them tight and blended with the lead while still giving them a little separation.
- Pan unique backing vocals 100% left and right to stay out of the way of the lead for their unique melodies. Adding one double makes for a nice stereo spread.
- Don’t forget to add some reverb to your backing vocals to utilize depth as well as width. This also creates even more of a contrast with the lead.