Or, how to turn a nice tune into a work of art.
One of the things that really makes a professionally produced record stand out from a run-of-the-mill demo is the vocal arrangement. While there are always exceptions to any rule, in general a modern pop or R&B record will have some combination of the following components…
Harmonies follow the main vocal identically in terms of lyrics and delivery, but will be pitched typically a third or a fifth higher or lower (sometimes both) than the main vocal. This gives the effect of a choir singing the same song.
Harmonies most typically occur in the chorus and bridge, to give extra emotion to the most important parts of the track, but occasionally can be used through the verse to give extra lift to key phrases.
You might also want to experiment with harmony in the pre-chorus – you could add a single line here, and two or more in the chorus, to enable the song to lift from one section to another.
If you want to get really clever, you can write a second melody to play off against the first. The simplest way to do this is with ooh’s and aah’s, as these are unlikely to interfere with the main vocal, however some vocal arrangers are skilled enough to weave a second lyric against the first.
This opens up several interesting possibilities from a songwriting perspective – either forming an internal dialogue for the song’s main character, or reinforcing the central theme, or introducing an alternative character in a duet.
Shouts, Grunts and Whispers
Not all vocal arranging has to involve singing – there are many other ways to make sounds with your mouth. Particularly in a quiet bridge, having the lead whispered under the main vocal can introduce a real sense of intimacy into a vocal performance.
In a more robust song, having a crowd of individuals shouting “hey hey hey” in time with the chorus, or “oooooh” during the lead in to a vocal is a well tried and tested pop-rock vocal technique.
Ad Libs and Solos
Once you’ve recorded all the main vocals, it’s often fun to blow of a bit of steam recording a couple of lines of ad libs and solos. Ad libs are the little interjections, sometimes sung, sometimes spoken, that appear dotted as one-off occurrences. Solos are when the vocalist really lets off some steam and just goes for it, usually in the final chorus.
When you feel like you’ve got the track finished, just go through it a couple more times singing or saying whatever pops into your head. Once you’ve done, you can either cut out all the bits you don’t like yourself, or leave it to your producer to figure out what works and what doesn’t 🙂
This is more of a recording technique than an arrangement technique, however it’s worth noting for completeness. Double-tracking is the practice of recording a vocal line more than once. This allows the mix engineer to pan multiple copies hard left and right, giving the vocal width.
Lead vocals are often tracked 3 times, giving the main vocal a strong centre, with additional left and right copies for width.
Harmonies and other backing vocals are often tracked twice, so that they can sit “around” the lead vocal in the final mix.