Focus Track: Backing Vocals
There is no question that the lead vocals are the most important piece of the worship team musical pie, but what about the backing vocals? How do they fit in? What is their role? Are the backing vocals just a duplication of the lead vocals, or do they have their own, unique slice of the musical pie? Let’s talk about it!
If you are a backing vocalist, or a Worship Leader who is trying to figure out how to best incorporate backing vocals into the Worship Team, here are some helpful tips to keep in mind (appearing in no particular order).
The fundamental frequencies for backing vocals are exactly the same as the fundamental frequencies for lead vocals. This should be obvious, but we don’t always think about it that way, which can actually become problematic. The fundamental frequencies for the typical male voice range from 85 to 180Hz. The female voice ranges from 165 to 255Hz. However, because the backing vocals should be considered as an instrument that is meant to enhance the lead vocals, it is generally a good idea to actually lower the fundamental frequencies of the backing vocals and accentuate their harmonics upwards of 1kHz (and higher). Remember that backing vocals are not the same as multiple lead vocals. You really want to tuck the backing vocals behind the lead vocals, while still letting them shine through in the upper frequencies. As with the lead vocals, sound men should always use a low-cut or hi-pass filter on the backing vocals. In fact, I personally tend to run the low-cut or hi-pass filter pretty aggressively on backing vocals.
The dynamic aspect of the backing vocals is really important. In the typical Worship Team setting, the backing vocals should not be considered “choir” vocals, nor should they be considered “gang” vocals. In a choir, everyone is singing a specific part pretty much all of the time. Every word and note matters. For gang vocals, we are really just trying to make it sound like a bunch of people are singing. The parts don’t really matter. This can be a cool effect, but you don’t really need to add people on the stage in order to pull off this effect… the congregation is already taking care of it.
So how do you accomplish good dynamics as a backing vocalist? The key is to work the mic. I am a firm believer that backing vocalists should sing ALL of the time, but they should not sing into the mic all of the time. The role of the backing vocalist is both audible and visual. The audible side is their musical contribution. Preferably, backing vocals will enhance the music by adding harmony notes to the melody line provided by the lead vocals. (If your backing vocalists are not currently doing this, they are really glorified gang vocalists and they simply need direction and training in harmonizing!)
If your backing vocalists are singing harmony parts, as they should be, then they should NOT be singing into the mic all of the time. Not every line in the song needs harmony. Great backing vocalists will enhance the music by working the mic as they sing. If the line does not require their harmony, they will sing along, but not into the mic. If the line requires a nice, subtle harmony part, they will sing into the mic, but not close to their mouth. If the line requires an obvious harmony part, they will sing with the mic very close to their mouth. By working the mic, they are essentially mixing themselves in and out of the song.
You may be saying to yourself, “Isn’t mixing the backing vocals the sound man’s job?” Well, let me put it this way: If you don’t mix yourself as a backing vocalist, you will basically only ever be noticed when you are too loud. At that point you will be turned down by the sound man. He will more than likely never remember to turn you back up.
The audible role of the backing vocalist is to make a positive musical contribution by adding harmony vocals at the right time at the right volume. The visual role of the backing vocalist is to make a positive impact on the congregation… all of the time. In normal conversation, we all prefer to talk with someone who is excited, happy to see us, inviting, and fully engaged in what is going on. The same is true for church Worship Teams. Ideally, ALL of the Worship Team members would actively engage, invite, smile, and welcome the congregation into this amazing opportunity that we have to become more aware of the presence and glory of God through the act of worship! However, most of the people on stage have other things to think about as they are doing this. The guitarists is holding their instrument in their hands and possibly preparing to push pedals with their feet. The piano / keyboard player is paying attention to the notes at their fingertips, as well as ensuring they have the correct settings engaged. The drummer is using literally every limb of their body to keep the beat. I’m not giving them a free pass -they should still pay attention to their interaction with the congregation. But the backing vocalist is typically standing there with no other distractions. They are in the perfect position to focus on making a positive impact on the congregation. Pray for the people. Model what a heart fully devoted to God looks like. Clap. Dance. Jump. Smile. Worship the LORD Your God with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength! People cannot see your heart, soul, or mind, but they will clearly see whether or not you are worshiping the LORD with all of your strength.
In most situations, the backing vocals remain in the background for the entire musical set. However, there are moments, or specific songs, when a backing vocalist becomes the lead vocalist, or even a second lead vocalist. When this happens, it is imperative that the new roles are clearly assigned and understood. The person who was previously a lead vocalist should now assume the role of backing vocalist, applying all that was highlighted within this article. Similarly, the person who is now stepping into a lead vocalist role should apply all that was highlighted in the “Focus Track: Lead Vocals” article. The sound man, likewise, should adjust the EQ of each vocalist to help them better fit into their role for the moment.
Artwork provided by my good friend, Brooke Gehman, an authentic and wonderful man of God, devoted follower of Christ, and an amazing husband and father. Brooke is a gifted Worship Leader, an incredible artist, and a Potter by trade (check out his website).