Recording Vocals Over a Backing Track Part 3

Page 3 of Tips for adding vocals to a pre-recorded stereo backing track:

(For Page 1 go here)

How to make your vocal sit naturally within a pre-recorded/pre-mixed backing track


  • First, listen (a few times) to the overall “color” (or EQ) of the pre-recorded track, and then approach the EQ of the vocal so it sits believably within the backing track.

A raw (un-processed) lead vocal that has just been added to a pre-recorded and pre-mixed stereo backing track can immediately sound boomy (bass) and can overly dominate or sound 10 feet tall compared to the pre-recorded backing track. So, follow your Home Recording Blueprint regarding the frequencies to target when making your EQ adjustments to a vocal.

This includes, listening carefully to what exactly is “populating” the low end, low mid ranges and the higher EQ’s of the backing track. (The genre/style of the backing track, and therefore the type of instrumentation used on it, is a big factor here.)

Then try to match the vocal EQ to it. Your raw vocal is initially probably going to sound boomy, like an uninvited guest at a party) in comparison to the pre-recorded backing track.

  • Start by rolling off some of the low frequencies that don’t have any business being carried around by a lead vocal. (In your Home Recording Blueprint, it talks about frequencies under 75 hz to roll way down on a lead vocal.
  • Then, start looking and making gradual and small adjustments to the low mid-range all the way up the ladder to the higher frequencies.

** Remember, this is about matching the color of your vocal sound to the pre-made backing track. What you are doing is creating an illusion who’s goal is to make it seem believable that your vocal was part the same recording session as the existing and pre-mxed backing track. The thing you are going for is to remove any sense that your added vocal has been “tacked on” and not part of the same “room” of the backing track.

Tip for remembering and getting comfortable with EQ frequencies – “Forget the numbers… at least at first”

When matching your vocal to someone else’s pre-mixed karaoke type of stereo track I talk a lot about “color” which is a way of thinking about what you are listening to.

Other kinds of words that serve to tell you what “color” something you’re listening to are:

  • “warm”,
  • “boomy”,
  • “crisp”,
  • “fizzy”,
  • “smooth”,
  • “quacky”,
  • boxy” etc.

They all determine the overall “color” of the backing track. Soon you’ll find that you become more comfortable navigating and adjusting EQ when you assign these types of words to your EQ frequencies and controls.

I know, it’s weird, but trust me it is less daunting to your mind to use words (i.e. not numbers) that are not intimidating and have actual creative meaning to you when you are considering EQ adjustments.

It is a memory device – a method of building your ability to automatically reach for the correct EQ controls as you are thinking “boomy” or “quacky”.

So, for me, “boomy” means I’ll be reaching for the 200 hz and below EQ control.

And “quacky” means I’ll be looking between 1 kilohertz (khz) and about 3 kilohertz.

“Boxy” would mean I’ll be reaching for the 400 hz to 800 hz controls for possible adjustments.

I think you’ll find that when you assign your frequency spectrum these words, remembering your actual frequency numbers will be a walk in the park (i.e. like, a lot easier.)

  • So, you’ll be listening to a pre-recorded backing track and notice which EQ frequencies are really well represented. (i.e. low end, mid-ranges and high end, often depending on the genre or style of music.)
  • Then, let’s say the backing track has a fat bottom end, maybe not too much happening in the mid-ranges, and maybe something way up in the top range like a shaker or hi-hat – as may be the case in a hip-hop or dance track.
  • You can then sort of “custom fit” your vocal EQ to sit in the emptier space in the mid-ranges where it doesn’t get muddled up with the stereo backing track’s low end or very high end.
  • To do that, you would roll off almost all the very low end bass off the vocal, (which is almost always the way to go with a vocal anyway) and some of the high ranges, so that in slots in to the nice emptier space in the mid ranges.
  • If you do that along with taking care of volume spikes (with automated track mixing) on certain words and phrases, you will see that you can get a really cool and natural blend happening with your vocal on a pre-recorded karaoke type track.

Continuing on…

  • Listen to the ambience (reverb) of the backing track and choose a reverb for the vocal that sounds like it is part of the same imaginary “room” that the backing track was recorded in. (Is it a “bright” “sparkly” reverb”? Or have they used a darker more muffled reverb/ambience? These are a couple of questions you’ll be looking to answer as you’re listening and then matching, your part to the existing backing track.
  • Always be delicate and gradual when adding reverb. Too much reverb or the wrong type, can sound amateurish.
  • Finally, to match the vocal to a pre-existing stereo backing track, you may need to add some mild compression to the vocal. (** Although, you may not need to compress, if you’ve been particularly successful in automating the volume spikes on your vocal track.) But often, compression is a also part of creating the color/sound you want.

You will be trying to match the style of “container” (compressor) setting that was used on the backing track and make your vocal sound contained (compressed) in the same way. Again, this would be part of the process and your effort to make the vocal sound like it came from the same “session” or room that the backing track was recorded. (In GarageBand and other recording software there is a simple compressor plugin included for each track.)

Let’s listen to a vocal that has been added to an existing pre-mixed backing track by Home Recording Blueprint member, Ella Glasgow


Only Love Cover by Ellla Glasgow

Notice how natural Ella’s vocal sounds with the backing track? How did she get it to slot in and find its own place within a pre-mixed instrument track?

Here are some points to help you know what you are hearing and why it was a successful recording.

  • First, notice that the backing track in this song has a warm, round bottom end that suits this style of production. Ella, has recorded and EQ-ed her vocal in a way that lets the backing track’s bass mostly take care of these lower frequencies. She doesn’t need to have a boomy vocal because the bass is there all through the track cradling her vocal.

    ** In other words, a listener’s ears gives her vocal low-frequncy “credit” – her vocal is “piggy-backing” on the warmth of the bass. So, her vocal and the bass are not in a death match competition for the low frequencies. That’s why the bass is clear and nicely “separate” from the vocal. Each has room to breathe.

  • Second, there’s some nice space on this backing track in the low mid range and mid range frequencies. This is handy, because that’s where the bulk of a human voice’s frequencies live. For vocal warmth, Ella has allowed her vocal to occupy the 200 hz – 700 hz area without too much competition for these frequencies from other instruments. The acoustic guitar has a presence here, but is nicely panned left and right to stay out of the vocal’s way. (Ella’s vocal is nicely placed in the center.)

    So, the lesson here is that panning is also a valuable way to create space between sounds with shared frequencies.

  • Third, did you notice a very useful vocal mixing lesson for us in the backup vocals that were part of this pre-recorded music track? This is a lesson we can use with any of our mixes even when using our own original tracks. Listen to the chorus when it first enters at the 36 second mark of the song…

    Notice how all those backup vocals aren’t competing or crowding the lead vocal? That’s because they have been deliberately EQ-ed to stay out of the way. If we could isolate those backup vocals and listen to them alone, we would hear that they almost entirely occupy the high mid-ranges and high frequencies. Very little is going on below 2 kilohertz.

    Notice how they are just sort of a “fizzy” presence above the lead vocal? That is the sound of a type of effect called an exciter. An exciter adds a type of very high end frequency distortion. It sort of grabs the highest frequencies (where the breath and “Esses” live) and randomly scrambles them creating a pleasing “fizz”, AKA “cover”, on a vocal or group of vocals.

So, the lesson there is that once again, the backup vocals on this song don’t need alot of the warm low-mid frequencies, because the lead vocal has that area nicely covered. Just like we mentioned before, the listener’s ears gives those backup vocals “credit” for those frequencies because the backup vocals are piggy-backing on the lead vocal. Cool. No competition for those frequencies, so the lead vocal and backup vocals get to be nicely separated.

And it works both ways! The lead vocal doesn’t need much (if any) of the “exciter” effect because it gets credit and piggy-backs the exciter (fizziness) that is already present on the backup vocals.

And… a further broad panning of the backup vocals further separates them from the lead vocal.

You will notice this all over the place now that we’ve been talking about it, no matter what style of tune you listen to. In fact, one of the big giveaways that a recording is amateurish in its sound is that the backing vocals are recorded and EQ-ed too similarly to the lead vocal. So what you get is a dense, unclear block of voices. It’s important when mixing, to know which vocal is playing the lead role and which vocals are there strictly for support.

Many things I hear sound like they’ve been recorded as if every little piece of the mix thinks it is the lead part. It makes for exhausting and unpleasant listening if each track is saying “hey, I’m a bongo. Listen to me!” “hey, I’m a plink-plink harp sound, don’t listen to that bongo or vocal. Listen to me!”

This is what good mixing is all about: Mix like you are placing the players on an imaginary stage. Left, right, back, front etc. The pieces of your mix are part of a team and each piece should help create a single understandable vibe/mood for your listeners.

That’s it for now. If you will be using pre-recorded and mixed stereo backing tracks, or even if you perform all the tracks of your songs yourself or with your band, with practice, using the technique of understanding the color, sound and frequencies of tracks recording, mixing and EQ-ing will become faster and become a natural and automatic ability for you. Especially if you follow the Recording Blueprint method. The Blueprint simplifies the recording and mixing process by simplifying how you think about it.


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