A vocal double is when you record the lead vocal, then record another take (or several) of the same parts. It’s a pretty standard practice in modern music production that has stuck around for decades. But should you be using this technique on your own vocals? Let’s find out.
- Should I Double My Lead Vocals?
- Benefits of Vocal Doubling
- When to Use Doubles
- Masking a Bland Performance
- Dependent on Genre and Style
- How Should I Add Vocal Doubles?
- Tips for Fitting Doubles in the Mix
Should I Double My Lead Vocals?
The use of vocal doubles is entirely preference and depends on the style of music. For pop and rock music, I would recommend that you double the chorus parts at least. For rap and indie folk, it’s not really as necessary. But, even in those genres, there are advantages to adding vocal doubles at certain points in the track.
Let’s look at the benefits so you can make an informed decision on your next mix.
Benefits of Vocal Doubling
Doubles of vocals can improve a song in the following way:
- Thicken the lead to give it more presence in the mix,
- Add more texture or character to the lyrics, and
- Mask a bland performance or hides flaws
We’ll look at each of these points in more detail.
When to Use Doubles
Doubles are most effective when used sparingly in a song. That could mean one of two things:
- Doubles are added in an obvious way to only certain sections; or
- Doubles are added throughout the track but much quieter and subtle
If you go the first route, then the best place to add them is the chorus to dynamically differentiate it from the verses. The next spot to add doubles will usually be on a specific line of verse that you want to carry more weight. For example, the last line in a stanza or just a specific lyric you especially like.
Using this approach, the extra voices are clearly meant to fill up the track and give it more energy.
But the second approach is far more nuanced. Doubles are not always added just to beef up the chorus lines. Sometimes, the entire track is vocal doubled to add a different texture to the lyrics. Then those extra takes are mixed much quieter, sometimes to the point that you barely notice them, save for a word or two.
The idea behind this technique is that you sing the words in a slightly different way for the extra takes and use them to introduce another character to the sonic space of the vocals. For example, you may record a double where the words are almost whispered, or sung very gravelly, etc. The point is that the double isn’t stepping on the lead track’s toes, it’s hanging out in the background to make the song sound more interesting.
Masking a Bland Performance
This shouldn’t be a secret, but vocal doubling can save a track if the singer is not that good. I say this from experience because I’m not the best singer.
A problem with beginner vocalists is often that they lack breath support. As a result, their vocals sound thin. Having them double the lead track is a quick way to compensate for the lackluster vocal tone that the singer may be currently stuck with.
Elliott Smith, Kurt Cobain, John Lennon, Ozzy Osbourne, and Isaac Brock all used this trick because they weren’t exactly phenomenal singers. And it worked in all their cases. But some genres are more forgiving than others, so again…the type of music you make matters if going this way.
Dependent on Genre and Style
The demands of the specific song at hand will determine when and how to double the lead. Songs that need more excitement can benefit from obvious doubles or even gang vocals. On the other hand, a stripped-down acoustic track may sound overworked if you have a lot of voices polished into the mix over a single guitar. The tonal quality of those doubles matter two. Even acoustic songs still sound great if you double the lead line, but an octave higher.
Even within the same genre, one artist may use the technique extensively and conspicuously while another singer never sings the same line twice. Lil Peep was known for his many tightly-sung vocal doubles. Billie Eilish songs feature a thick mix of many vocal layers of different tones and dynamics. Elliott Smith and Phoebe Bridgers both used quieter whisper doubles to beef up the softness of the main lead.
How Should I Add Vocal Doubles?
Here are a few common techniques for recording and mixing in doubles:
Big Chorus Group
When people think of vocal doubling, this is usually what they have in mind. Record the chorus sections again with a few different inflections. Different takes can have a different character: shouty, heavy on the vibrato, throaty, or even slightly off pitch.
Whispers in the Back
Record the second take in a whisper tone. It could be a precise take on key or one with a monotone delivery. Try either and see which works best for your track. Mix this whisper track in underneath the lead to add an intimate character.
Double the lead but, this time around, sing it with some vocal fry. It may come out a bit monotone, but that’s okay. The lead will still lead the listener’s ears melodically. The effect will add grit to the lyrics and give a raspy or “tortured soul” feel to the words.
Record a double that is an octave higher than the lead. For male singers, this usually means using your falsetto voice.
Natural Chorus Effect
The actual sound of a chorus effect is very obviously fake. No one would mistake an effect pedal or plugin that provides chorus as actually being a group of people singing. It has it’s place but can sound too digital. Instead, you can record very tight dubs of your lead with the same tonal character.
Slightly Off Key
Ozzy Osbourne has a signature vocal sound where he sings one take off-key (or maybe that’s the main take and he finally gets in key after a few more?). At any rate, it makes for an interest effect on the voice.
In the Other Room
Record one or two doubles but ramp up the reverb and delay to make them sound more distant. Or you can get farther away from the mic and allow more of the natural room ambiance into the recording.
Tips for Fitting Doubles in the Mix
Here are a few tips that will help you to sit those vocal doubles properly into the song’s full mix.
Be more assertive with the EQ on doubles. You don’t want the extra takes to steal sonic space from the lead. That could lead to muddy-sounding vocals. Instead, try a combination of lo-pass and hi-pass filters on the double. Yes, it may pick up an “old telephone” vibe, but that’s okay. Too much high-end information no the double(s) can over-emphasize “S” sounds that will make the track to sibilant.
I highly recommend that you adjust the high-pass filter to taste; it really depends on the dominant frequencies of the singer’s voice. For the lo-pass filter, you want to cut out as much of the room rumble as you can. Start around 150 Hz and work your EQ knob around until it sounds right.
Stereo Spread and Panning
If you only have one double take of the vocals, consider using a stereo imaging plugin to spread that take out over the stereo space. This will give your lead more breathing room at center where you need it; it will also make the words sound wider and bigger. But always check your mix in mono before you export the song, to check for any phase cancellation.
If you have two doubles plus the lead vocals, then I recommend that you pan one of your doubles hard left and the other hard right. Same effect, but because they are separate recordings there is less risk of phase cancellation issues.
A double should usually be quieter in the mix compared to the center lead. This is more important for subtle double techniques as opposed to a big gang sound on the choruses.
Lastly, you can apply more generous reverb, echo, and delay onto your doubles than you would with the lead. This will have the same effect of widening the vocal parts and creating distance between the extra takes and the lead.
Vocal doubling has been a mainstay of music production since at least the 1970s and I doubt it’s going away. This technique comes in a variety of flavors, but it’s generally used to intensify the presence of the vocals in a mix.
If you have the time to experiment, try a few different doubling methods for your next songs and A/B test them in a mix. You may find that one approach works better for your voice and your style than any others.
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