The blueprint for the voice-leading

By determining, alone or together with the vocalist, the voice leading for the harmonies (i.e. the exact notes assigned to each voice) in advance of the recording session, you can speed up the recording process as well as obtaining better results.

Any lead singer worth his salt should be able to improvise not just one vocal harmony but hopefully a whole slew of them, each with a slightly different melody. Combining these, however, would not give you a multi-voice arrangement, unless perhaps, when laying down each successive track, the vocalist could hear the ones already recorded (as well as the lead vocals, of course) in the headphones. Here you should adopt a structured approach and split the work into several stages:

  • Arrange the voice leading, beginning with a rough recording of the second voice, followed by the third, and so on. You don’t need to be too bothered with the performance and intonation at this stage, as these takes are only provisional – all you’re creating is an audio blueprint of the vocal arrangement.
  • Once the blueprint has been drawn up, however, it’s time to begin in earnest laying down the vocal tracks and this time the intonation, timing and expression do need to be as good as possible.
  • The next step is the editing of the different voices

It pays dividends to involve the singer in the creative process as early as the arrangement stage, rather than treating him simply as a performer. On the other hand you need to make sure he doesn’t expend so much of his creative energy and concentration on the arrangement that he is only able to deliver mediocre takes when recording, so in the following paragraphs, a few suggestions as to how to obviate this risk.

The singer as arranger

To avoid frittering away your time (which is the bugbear of any collaborative process), draw up a clearly structured working schedule:

  • As soon as you have finished editing the lead vocal track in Melodyne, route it to the headphones and display its notes in the Note Editor.
  • Record as many variations of the second voice as the singer can come up with. From these, create the best composite track you and he can agree upon.
  • Transfer this comp of the second voice to Melodyne – not with a view to editing its nuances but so as to be able to intervene in the composition itself, wherever necessary, by modifying the melody. You will appreciate the flexibility this allows you as you perform the following steps.
  • Route the lead vocal and the comped second voice to the headphones and record a third voice that fits. Then comp this third voice and also transfer it to Melodyne.
  • Repeat the procedure for a fourth or fifth voice.

It may happen that you have recorded a take for the third voice, say, that in isolation is very catchy but which clashes or collides in one place with the second voice recorded earlier; and that you decide, upon careful consideration, that though it had a nice melody, it is nonetheless this second voice that should, so to speak, yield the right of way.
Rather than vexing the singer by asking him to perform the whole second voice again exactly as before only with one difference, shift the notes of the second and/or third voices about on the screen in Melodyne – ideally, in the presence of the singer – until you discover the best three-way compromise between the melodic interests of each voice and the overall texture. Do the same, if need be, with the fourth and fifth voices.

The phase of the workflow we’ve just outlined could be thought of as the “try-out” or “blueprint” stage: Your main objective is to decide upon the voice leading (i.e. to finalize the vocal arrangement) with Melodyne’s help. You do not, at this stage, need to worry too much about things like intonation, timing and expression, and the singer needs to understand that he is more of a composer/arranger at this stage and less of a performer. If he understands this, he won’t squander his powers of concentration and vocal energy on takes that will soon be thrown away.

Once the Melodyne arrangement of the various voices is finalized, the “blueprint” phase is complete, and the singer becomes again a “mere” performer and begins laying down the definitive harmony tracks one by one – only, this time, technique, intonation and timing are all of importance.

Harmony guidelines for the singer

If the singer is unable or unwilling to participate in the creation of the “audio blueprint” (the rough version) of the arrangement, then you, as vocal producer, may have to do it alone. The questions that arise then are: How best to go about the task of creating the blueprint, and how to present your completed arrangement to the singer, bearing in mind that if he’s not convinced by it, he’s unlikely to give of his best.

One solution would be to play through the parts to him one by one on the piano; another to sing them through to him yourself. Both are unnecessarily abstract. For one thing, “singing back” a part played on the piano is considerably more difficult than doubling an existing vocal melody. As for using your own voice for the blueprint, the result is unlikely to be increased motivation: If your performance is less than inspiring, he’ll be less than inspired; and if you turn out to be by far the better singer, well, that’s not likely to brighten the mood much either.

So, rather than adopting a roundabout route, just make as many copies of the lead vocal track as you need and shift the notes around in Melodyne until you like what you hear. Naturally you can take advantage at this stage of any knowledge of harmonic theory and voice leading skills you might possess, and even try out various alternatives on the piano, just as long as you do not present the final arrangement to the singer in that form. Instead, play back the Melodyne arrangement, in which he will hear himself (apparently) singing the various parts. This will make doubling them far easier from a psychological point of view.