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Background Vocals: Attack of the Clones

When multi-tracking was invented, it was a miracle to artists. It not only allowed clearer recordings, but it allowed artists to bring ideas they had in their head to life. A surreal world was able to be created. One which could never exist in real life. You simply have to listen to Sgt. Pepper to hear some of these liberties on display.

Orphan Black

This began the revolution of recording at home. Doing everything yourself like Stevie wonder or Paul MacCartney. One of the most obvious surreal effects used by this new fangled technology is singing with yourself.

People have used multi-tracking to do everything from doubling their vocal (John Lennon) to creating a huge choir (Freddy Mercury). Psychologically, hearing clones singing creates a cool effect.

Clone Wars

These days, I feel like my ears are growing tired of hearing the same voice cloned. Often, artists see cloning as a way to cut expenses. Why hire another singer when they already sing?

Sometimes ego rears its ugly head and doesn’t want anyone else to sing. There is the overwhelming feeling of “I can do it.” But, like with many things, just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Or … shouldn’t.

Unbiased Judgement

I ask that you remove insecurity from the conversation. Realize that it’s not about skill, but about placement in the song. You must do what’s best for your song.

Here’s my thoughts on this. Sometimes, things that are at the same frequency start building up. I’ve had experiences where all the overdubs were cut with the same guitar. In playback, they start to cancel each other out.

When you switch guitars or amps, they each have a different imprint. Enough so, that by nature, the sonic DNA will distinguish each one.

Voices are no different. I find this to be the case especially with harmony lines. When there’s a simple 2-3 part harmony, I always prefer to have different voices. Often the artist still composes the parts. However, the performance is combined.

Lights On Broadway

When I hear a recording, I want to have a visual of each character. On records that an artist plays everything, it can sometimes feel a little like The Matrix. On occasion, this is the point. And it can be a great effect.

Manhattan 1/8 Bedroom Sublet

Space is important. The more sounds are duplicated, the more of a hollow wall gets built.

Think of the great vocal groups of all time. What would the Beatles sound like if Paul wasn’t singing harmony? It was their blend that was magic. What about the Four Tops? The Bee Gees?

You’ll find that when you have other vocalists singing harmonies, they sit better back in the mix. That’s because you can distinguish each part or singer more clearly than clones. More texture, more subtle variation.

Tweeny Bop

There’s a fair amount of discipline and selflessness that’s involved in this. You have to let your music grow up. Your song will eventually be the teenager who is embarrassed when you drop them off at school.

You can’t be on their first date with them. You have to let them mature. Part of that process is knowing when others can help take your song to the next level. Not because of skill, but because of how the music will be received.


Talent Show

We all want to show off and prove what we can do. There are moments for that. I’m suggesting that you don’t do this at the expense of your art.

When I record with Abby Ahmad, I play drums, bass and electric guitars. I’m not saying it’s never appropriate (obviously). When I record Fife & Drom, we bring in a different person for every instrument.


I’m always trying to tap into the project and know how to pair the process with the desired end result.

Some albums get recorded with everyone in the same room. Some get overdubbed one at a time.

In your career as a producer, you’re going to have to assess various projects. You’ll have to decide its life course. You’ll have to discuss the life plan with the artist as well. It’s often the case that they’re unaware of these recording/production subtleties.

Arranged Marriage

How does it play out? I usually make a plan in pre-production. I know what the best route of travel will be. I’m listening to the songs and imagining how they’ll be received.

Is this a Broadway play? Is this a Hollywood movie? There are characters in a song. You should be thinking about who each character is and how they fit into the story.

This technique can also help you from adding too much. It’s hard to get a good reading of the main character if there are 100 actors standing in front of them on stage, right?

Ask yourself when you start itching with the “add me’s,” who is this character? Do they need to be there? There are subconscious characters in songs. Either in the lyrics or in the people playing the parts.

Think about the theremin part in Good Vibrations. It’s more than a part. It’s a supporting role.

Harmony vocals are very much a character/characters. Consider how you use them in your play … I mean song. It carries more impact than you think.

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Mark Marshall

Mark Marshall

Mark Marshall is a producer, songwriter, session musician and instructor based in NYC. More at

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