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7 Steps to Mastering Your Vocal Doubles

A great song needs a great vocal

Vocal doubles are among the secret ingredients used by producers from Sir George Martin to Roy Thomas Baker, from Butch Vig to Rick Rubin. In this post, I’ll show you how to master this super important production technique. 

Are you ready to make your vocals sing like Freddy, rock like Ozzy, or scream like Kurt? Let’s go!

What are vocal doubles?

Doubling a vocal means recording the same vocalist singing the same melody on top of the main vocal take. It adds the so often praised fullness, character, or grit.

The question is: How do you record the best possible vocal double? And how do you apply it in your mix? 

Open your mind, Padawan, and read on…

1) Train doubling vocals with your singer

Doubling vocals comes easy to some, not so easy to others. Asking the vocalist to practice the technique will ensure that she is comfortable when you hit that red record button. Make her sing along to a demo version of the song, and ask her to reproduce every tiny nuance of the main vocal take.

Make your singer record a test double and analyze it with her. You don’t need a fancy home studio for this – even playing the demo on a computer and recording with a cell phone is sufficient.

2) Follow the main take faithfully

A great vocal double follows all nuances of the main take as faithfully as possible. Slight detuning produces the desired chorus/fullness effect, but too much detuning will sound, well… out of tune. Here’s a list of what to pay attention to:

  1. Tuning: Make your vocalist follow the main melody as close as possible. The more he detunes, the more his double will produce a chorus effect. A perfectly in tune double will sound almost like a phaser.
  2. Rhythm: Pay close attention to the position of word endings and beginnings. The consonant positions are crucial – a ‘p’, ‘t,’ or ‘s’ even sung slightly out of time will sound like a slapback echo. Most annoying: too long or too short vowels.
  3. Accentuation and pronunciation: In order to perfectly complement the main take, your vocalist should interpret the phrases in exactly the same way as she did in the main take.
  4. Glides, vibrato, and tremolo: Every singer will naturally use a slightly different tremolo and vibrato on the double. This is exactly what produces the famous ‘fullness’ effect! Pay attention to glides – reproducing these can be tricky, especially if the start and end notes form a larger interval.

3) Comp and edit the main vocal take first

Since you want the vocalist to reproduce every tiny detail, the best scenario is recording on top of an already comped and edited main take.

If studio time is expensive or you simply can’t get the singer in for another session, try at least to do a basic vocal comp and use this as the base.

Be aware that if you need to edit the main take after recording, you will inevitably need to edit the double as well.

4) Make sure the monitor mix is perfect

There are few unbreakable laws in recording music. This is one of them:

Give your artist the monitor mix she wants to hear.

If she is not comfortable with what she is hearing, how is she supposed to give you a good performance? You may want to prepare the monitor mix together in the control room and then copy it to the monitor sends (Pro Tools does this very well).

Apps like Avid Control allow you to use a tablet or even cell phone to control the monitor mix directly in the recording room. Have your singer play around until she finds the necessary balance to give her best.

Bonus tip: Adding a little bit of reverb on the vocal return almost always improves performance!

Don’t forget to decide how many doubles you need to record! I personally like doing 2-3 – this gives really interesting options during mixing! 

5) Use the force of editing

After recording, comp, and edit the vocal doubles just as you did with the main vocals, even though the double generally sits quieter in the mix, you will be amazed at what difference it makes if you make it really perfect.

I recommend editing by hand and avoiding time stretching as much as possible. If you’re running against time, plug-ins like AutoAlign or the Audio Alignment panel in Cubase can work wonders.

6) Get your mix levels right

During the mix, start with the volume of the doubles all the way down and then slowly raise them. About 15dB below the main vocal level, you will start hearing the fullness kicking in. Now adjust to taste. I usually settle around 10dB below the main vocal – higher volumes give a more pronounced effect.

7) Experiment with effects

If you use the same effect chain on main vocals and double, you will already get that much-desired fullness and character of the voice. But there is more…

Experiment with different effects on the vocal doubles. If you recorded more than one, you could even put different effects on each of them and see what this does to your mix. My favorites are distortion or heavy compression (1176 all in!) – your imagination is the limit!

About Norbert Weiher

Norbert is a sound designer, composer, and engineer based in Curitiba, Brazil. If you’ve got questions about this post or want to check out his work, head over to norbertweiher.com.

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At Audio Issues you’ll learn simple and practical audio production tips you can use right away to improve your music from your home recording studio.  Björgvin is the best-selling author of Step By Step Mixing and the founder of Audio Issues. He helps musicians and producers turn amateur demos into professionally produced records they can be proud to release.

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