From Anthemic Melodies to Layered Harmonies and Textures: A guide to Great Vocal Production


When I heard Bohemian Rhapsody for the first time I was blown away by the vocal production. Freddie Mercury truly was a genius when it came to layering and producing vocals. Similarly, if you haven’t seen the Classic Albums clip of Michael McDonald discussing his vocals on Peg by Steely Dan, do yourself a favor and check this out. Great vocal production is a unique ability to take a great song and make it a classic. What would “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” be without the choir? Vocal production not only has the potential to elevate a song but it can also tell you what genre you’re listening to. If you hear a vocal chop intro like on Troye Sivan’s My My My!, you’re most likely about to hear a 2010s pop song. If you hear a dark, layered intro like the one on Billie Eilish’s “when the party’s over,” you’re probably in for something more alternative and moody. Great vocal production is essential to great overall song production. Throughout this article, I will discuss the creative aspects of vocal production, i.e. parts, arrangements, and balance, but I will incorporate some aspects of mic’ing and mixing techniques as well. For more on the technical aspects of vocal recording, check out “6 Tips to Record Amazing Vocals at Home.”

Now let’s dive deep into what elements are needed to create a great vocal production.


Every great, vocally driven song starts with a compelling lead vocal track. From heavy rock to pop, Nine Inch Nails to Beyonce, it’s all about a great lead vocal. And while you can’t take a mediocre melody and make it great with production, you can take a compelling melody and elevate it with great production. When approaching your lead vocal track, think about emotion first, technique second. You want your listener to FEEL what you’re feeling or to be able to connect with a story that is powerful to them, even if its different from the one you are telling with your song. Emotion beats technical perfection every time but the goal is to find the perfect balance of both. When I am producing a vocalist, I always start by having them sing the song we are working on all the way through at least once if not two or three times. This gives both the singer and me the opportunity to understand the story arc of the lyrics and melody. This will inform many of our creative choices as we record and we will be able to reference the energy of each section as we jump back and forth between sections during recording. Once we have gone through the song a few times, we will typically go section by section, starting with the verses first and then the choruses. This allows the singer to work on the lower energy sections first and work their way up to the choruses and bridge. One important thing to be mindful of here is to reference the energy of the “scratch vocal” or first takes you recorded when the singer sang all the way through the song. This way you can make sure that the energy of the vocal track is moving up and down appropriately throughout the song. This probably seems obvious but I can’t tell you how many times I have recorded the second verse right after the first verse and later realized that the energy of the second verse was way too low after the first chorus. There are many schools of thought when it comes to how many takes to record of a particular part. I tend to keep it under 10 takes per section. My general rule of thumb is that, if the singer is well-rehearsed, we’ll most likely get our keeper take within the first 3-5 times through a given section. This is not a hard and fast rule, of course, but it can be beneficial to step away and come back another day or time if you aren’t getting what you want within 10 takes. This process is very personal, however, so trust your gut and get the input of your collaborators.


Doubling your lead vocal and often many of your background vocals can be an incredibly effective tool for adding depth, energy, and dimension to your vocal production. I have a few rules of thumb that are good starting points for doubles.

  1. Start with doubling the chorus. Typically this is the highest energy section of the song so layer it up!
  2. If you have a pre-chorus, try doubles here, too. You may want to just accent certain lines within the pre-chorus, so experiment with your approach.
  3. If the lyric is a “we” or “us” lyric, try doubling it. If the lyric is a “me” or “I” lyric, try leaving it as a single take. Think about your listener at all times and what emotions you’re communicating.

I most often do two doubles for any lines that I am doubling. This way I can pan them hard left and right and create a bigger sound. If you don’t have time to record doubles or if the singer you are working with (which may be yourself!) is having trouble matching the phrasing or pitch of the lead vocal, try using a chorus plugin or a doubler plugin to create the effect of multiple voices on a part. I will often do this when I need a super tight, consistent sound that has very little pitch or timing variance to it. Check out Native Instruments Mod Pack for a great chorus effect. Keep in mind what genre you are working in, too. If its pop or country, you’re most likely going to want very tight, clean doubles. If you’re working on indie, alternative, hip hop or singer-songwriter music, you may want your doubles to be a little looser so that you can hear the different takes a bit more. In addition to these techniques, try moving back from the mic for your doubles or even using a different mic if you want your doubles to really sound different from your lead track. As with all things, trust your ears. These subtle choices will help define your sound and the overall vibe of your song.


A great rule of thumb with harmonies is to start with the chorus and then tackle verses and a bridge, if you have one. If you’re in a major key, start with a major third above and a fifth below the main melody and see how that sounds. From there, try octaves above and below as well as a 5th above. If you’re going for a Bohemian Rhapsody sound, experiment with 6ths and major seconds. The only limit is your creativity. Harmonies can play a huge role in making your track sound “produced” so make sure you plan for time to experiment and try lots of ideas. If the 3rd above and 5th below sound too choral or too happy, try finding a one-note part that fits with the whole melody. If none of these ideas work, try using a harmonizer plug-in of some kind to assist you in the discovery of parts. Native Instruments just released a cool option called “The Mouth.” Once you have a chorus harmony that you love, listen through your verses for phrases or words that may be worthy of emphasizing. Let your influences be your guide here and use your favorite songs as a reference point. If you’re in a band and you have other great singers in the project, have them sing the harmonies to help represent the different personalities and people in the band. If the artist you’re working with is a solo artist, think twice before having someone else sing the harmonies as it will bring a distinctly different character to the sound. An artist like Bahamas for instance always has two female background singers with him and that is a major part of his sound. On the contrary, an artist like Beyonce almost always sings the bulk of her harmonies to maintain the character of her voice throughout her songs.


One of my absolute favorite things to do when producing vocals is to create pads and textures with the singer that will typically be heavily affected or processed to create unique and different sounds. At the beginning of this video, you’ll hear how I created a vocal pad by layering several notes on top of each other, copying and pasting them over and over and adding a side-chained compressor to them. I start by finding a combination of notes that are in the key of the song but that don’t necessarily follow the chord progression. You can create vocal layers that follow the chord progression like in this video. When creating pads and textures, try oohs, ahhs and hums to start. These sounds will typically stay out of the way of the lead vocal and, when processed with cool effects, will start to sound more like a synth than a vocal. When it comes to effects on your vocal pads, don’t be shy. Try lots of reverb, delay, distortion, chorus, phase or whatever else you can think of. The more unique these parts sound, the better! Another fun trick to try is to create your vocal pads and textures over the chorus section of your song and then copy and paste the parts to the beginning of the song as an intro. Make sure your tracks are grouped together so you can edit them and move them around your arrangement easily.


Vocal chops and rhythmic hooks have become a major part of almost every genre of music over the past few years. Look no further than “I Took A Pill In Ibiza” to hear what I’m talking about. Let’s look at a couple ways to create a hooky, memorable vocal chop.

Method #1- manually editing and chopping an audio region. A great way to do this is by taking your existing lead vocal track and cutting it up into different pieces that you can loop or drag and drop. A big component of the “chop” sound is to cut off your audio region somewhere in the middle of a word or note, then repeat the phrase or loop it.

Method #2 that I use often is chopping up words, phrases, and notes from my lead vocal, exporting them to a folder and then dropping them into NI Kontakt 6 and using it as a sampler. Once I have my vocal samples loaded into Kontakt, I can play them with a midi keyboard or drum pad and create new melodies and parts. This is especially helpful when trying to come up with a rhythmic hook.


Finally, let's talk about mixing and processing our vocal tracks. We’ll look at this process through the lens of a mainstream, pop-oriented track. First, let’s talk about panning. I always start with my lead vocal track right down the middle. From there, I’ll usually pan my doubles hard left and right, and if I have double of my harmonies, I’ll either pan them hard left and right or something like 50% to each side. Once I have that basic balance, I’ll experiment with my pads, textures, and chops. The goal is to maintain a balanced sound across the stereo field. So, if you pan something 20% to the left, you’ll most likely want something panned 20% to the right to balance it out. I also try to maintain the balance from left to right of high vocal parts and low vocal parts. I find that panning a low part to the left and a high part to the right, for instance, will create a sound that is out of balance. A great way to counteract this is to either keep those parts closer to the middle of the stereo field or to double them so I have one of each that I can pan to each side. Again, this is an issue of taste and creativity so don’t hold hard and fast to these ideas, just use them as a starting point. Once I have my levels and balance set, I’ll set up my busses for effects. I always start with four stereo busses for vocals that I can mix and match to taste; slap delay (super short delay), long delay, room reverb, and plate reverb. Depending on the song, I may change one or more of these to a chamber reverb or a modulating delay or something else, but typically I start with these four effects. I use the short delay to get some space around my vocals, the long delay to add repeats to certain phrases or words and the two reverbs to add overall space and dimension. Applying these effects will be entirely up to your taste but a general guideline is to keep things drier in the verses and wetter in the choruses.

The sky’s the limit with vocal production, so see how far your creativity can take you! Feel free to share your discoveries and any questions below!

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