Recording Background Vocals

John Legend

Lesson time 11:46 min

With the lead vocal tracks recorded, John turns to composing and recording the background vocals for “Free.” Learn how to create the dynamic sound of a choir as John layers his vocals.

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Topics include: Recording Ad-Libs


[PIANO PLAYING] JOHN LEGEND: So when you're thinking about, how do I use background vocals to make this recording sound better? A lot of what you're thinking about is, where do you need extra depth? Where do you need extra color? And when I'm arranging these vocals I'm thinking, well what would I have had my choir do when I was directing the music at my church? And so, I'm thinking of some of those elements. We used counter melodies, we used having people sing the same notes together, having people sing the same words together, but harmonize with each other. We would build up the arrangement when we wanted it to be at its climax. So, all of these techniques that we would use in our church choir or in a a cappella group, are the kind of techniques I want to use when I'm building the backing vocals. And I don't like to make too many backing vocals to disturb from the lead vocal, to over complicate things and to get too busy. But if you use backing vocals in the right way, you can really enhance the recording and it makes everything you say sound more emphatic, or more inspiring, or more powerful, based on when you use those vocals to enhance the lead vocal. So now I've done all of my lead vocals, except for the ad lib's that will be on top of the backing vocals during the vamp. So I want to record those backing vocals first before I do the remaining lead ad lib's. And then I'll combine the whole thing and make it into a final vocal recording. So how do I build these backing vocals? This is where my gospel choir and a cappella group training comes in handy. I have ideas for how to build these arrangements. Have ideas for what's worked in the past for me, and one of the things I want to do is have like a chant. I've done it in songs like Glory (SINGING) Glory, glory. And this song I'm going to do (SINGING) Free, free, free. OK so we're going to do that first. [MUSIC - JOHN LEGEND] (SINGING) Free, free, free, free, free. Free, free, free, free, free, free, free, free, free. So I recorded one layer of that. But if I wanted to sound like a choir, and sometimes I actually bring a choir in but sometimes I'm like I could do all these myself. And I just stacked my voice on one track, on top of another, on top of another, on top of another. So a lot of times I'll do four in one voice. So it sounds like four people are singing the same note. So I'll do a stack of what I just sang [MUSIC - JOHN LEGEND] Free, free. (SINGING) Free, free, free, free, free. [PIANO PLAYING] (SINGING) Free, free, free, free, free. One little trick, when you're recording backing vocals sometimes it's better to take one ear off so you can hear your live voice, the voice that you're singing at that moment in your naked ear. And then you can hear everything that's been recorded before that in your other ear. So for me I like to take one ear off, record the backing vocals so...

About the Instructor

When 12-time Grammy winner John Legend released “Free” in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine, he called it a prayer for peace. Now the recipient of the first-ever Recording Academy Global Impact Award teaches you how he wrote and recorded the song—and his process for creating hits like “All of Me” and “Glory.” Layer melodies and lyrics, develop your musical point of view, and make music that makes the moment.

Featured Masterclass Instructor

John Legend

John Legend, the EGOT-winning music icon and coach on “The Voice,” teaches you his process for creating music with impact.

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