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Doing background vocals yourself? They don't have to sound like they were all done by one person


by Craig Anderton


Back in the days of tape machines with varispeed, it was a fairly common technique to reduce the speed somewhat before recording a vocal, then return to standard speed for playback. This added a slight formant change and a little extra brightness that gave a bit more of a “pop” vocal sound. (Sometimes even master recordings were sped up somewhat to make them sound brighter and tighter.)

Not all DAWs have the equivalent of varispeed, but almost all have decent-sounding pitch transposition/stretching algorithms if you don’t stray too far from the original pitch (Fig. 1). This makes it easy to add variety to backup vocals (especially if one person is singing several parts) by doing the equivalent of the tape varispeed trick.


Fig. 1: Sonar X1 is one of many DAWs that includes pitch transposition as a DSP option.


Here's the step-by-step way to implement this technique.


1  Bounce the tracks to create a premix of the entire tune.

2  Transpose this premix down a half-step without altering duration (ino other words, stretch pitch only).

3  Mute the other tracks so you hear only this premix.

4  Sing your vocal while listening to the premix.

5  After you’re done with the vocal, transpose it up a half-step.

6  Delete the premix, and unmute the other tracks.


Now your vocal will match the track’s standard pitch, but have a different timbre.

It’s even easier to do this technique if you use a fair number of MIDI tracks, as it’s easy to transpose MIDI data. And of course, this technique applies to more than vocals. For a bigger, deeper guitar sound, transpose the premix track up two semitones, play your guitar, then transpose the guitar down two semitones. This technique also works great with doubled guitar parts if you do the pitch-shifting trick with one of the tracks, but not the other.


CraigGuitarVertical.jpgCraig Anderton is Editor Emeritus of Harmony Central. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.

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