+ This lesson is excerpted from Kimbra’s Vocal Creativity, Arranging, & Production course. Access this course, plus hundreds more videos and tutorials on production, songwriting, composing, arranging, and mixing, with a Soundfly subscription.
The Grammy Award winning pop disrupter, Kimbra, is able to get some of the most amazing sounds from her voice through experimentation. And she uses those foundational vocal sounds to orchestrate and arrange her songs throughout her creative process.
This is something she talks about in a variety of ways in her exclusive Soundfly course, Kimbra: Vocal Creativity, Arranging, & Production. In this lesson borrowed from the course, we’ll take a look at seven different ways Kimbra uses background vocals in her arrangements with examples of where you can hear these various techniques in her songs.
1. Emphasize Certain Moments
First of all, there’s no rule that says background vocals need to be there for the entirety of a song, or even a section. In fact, writing a part that only comes in every now and then can be a great way to emphasize important moments in a song, keep the listener’s attention, and tastefully add energy to your arrangement.
For example, check out Kimbra’s song “Come Into My Head.” Listen closely from about 1:38 through 2:08 or so. Notice the way the background vocals recapture your ear a little every time they come in?
Of course, there are lots of different things those background vocals can do when they come in. You can have a single voice singing a simple harmony for a full phrase, coming in for just a word or two, a heavily-effected vocal hard-panned to one side while it doubles a guitar line, and so on. Adding shorter background parts in this way adds variety to the arrangement, creating moments that are often surprising without pulling too much attention from the lead vocal.
More examples: “Cameo Lover” (Kimbra): Listen for the word “brother” at around 1:32; “DNA.” (Kendrik Lamar): Additional vocals can be heard right away and they come back periodically throughout the song.
2. Create Vocal Chords
This simple strategy is nearly always a safe bet, and it can add a lot of richness to an arrangement while supporting the lead vocal and helping it shine.
Here, we’re talking about using multiple layers of background vocals to create the sort of accompaniment most often played by a synthesizer pad, piano, or guitar. To show you what that means, let’s take a look at Kimbra’s “Cameo Lover.”
Here’s an excerpt of the synth part that comes in at about 0:35:
Later, in the song, that synth is replaced by a few vocal layers. Here’s what those voices are doing at about 1:13:
If you feel like you’re just about seeing double, it’s because the two parts are incredibly similar. In fact, other than the instrumentation, they’re very nearly identical.
So much about good arranging comes down to finding different ways to support the melody, so the questions of which instruments and timbres to use, and when and where to use them can often be figured out with what sounds best with your lead vocal.
Here’s an obvious hint: Your voice will almost always blend nicely with your voice.
Of course, even within this idea, you have options, including:
- Voices in addition to instruments vs. chords built exclusively out of vocals,
- Adding effects to your vocals, possibly making them sound more like a synth pad,
- Long, sustained vocal pads vs. repeated patterns made up of shorter notes,
- Singing every note in a chord vs. leaving some notes out
Used in a sustained way, this type of background vocal arrangement can be reminiscent of instruments like keyboards, bowed strings, and woodwinds. When used more percussively, it can sound a lot like pizzicato (plucked) strings or mallet instruments (marimbas, vibraphones, etc.), like in “Settle Down” (which we look at below).
+ Read more on Flypaper: “12 Creative Vocal Effects for Bedroom Pop Production.”
3. Find Foundation Through Repetition
Speaking of “Settle Down,” part of the beauty of this song is the way it combines simple ideas to create something intricate and enchanting. Let’s listen:
At the core of the arrangement is a short, percussive vocal idea that gets repeated throughout the majority of the song. Here’s what it looks like:
On its own, it’s a pretty cool idea, but the magic happens when Kimbra starts adding other parts to it, allowing them to interact without getting in each other’s way.
The repeated line even provides the basis for the song’s overall harmony, since the combination of multiple lines in this way often leads to the creation of chords as well.
In traditional music theory, the word “ostinato” is used to describe a repeated melodic and/or rhythmic idea that occurs consistently throughout a piece of music. The ostinato can be present for the entirety of the song, or just a significant portion of it.
Variations on this sort of repetition can be found in many styles of music — from the beautifully balanced minimalism we see in Steve Reich’s work, to the emotionally powerful build of Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero,” to the Afro-Cuban guajeo, or even the present-day concept of a guitar riff.
Because you’re repeating the same idea over and over, this strategy is closely-related to looped vocals, an approach we look at in more detail inside the course.
More examples: “Plain Gold Ring” (Nina Simone): In this classic arrangement, the ostinato begins at about 0:33; “Plain Gold Ring” (Kimbra): In this version of the song, the repeated vocal part starts right away.
4. Fill in the Spaces
Fills and countermelodies are great tools for keeping listeners engaged — particularly in moments when your lead vocal is at rest or has pulled back a bit. A countermelody is a distinct, melodic line that occurs simultaneously with a lead melody.
In some cases, the two parts will start and end at more or less the same time, while in others, they’ll sort of overlap in a call-and-response way.
Think about how an electric guitarist might respond to a singer during the last chorus of an epic pop anthem, or how a horn player might interact with a jazz vocalist, like in the below classic performance by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. Pay attention to how the two featured musicians interact when he’s singing, as well as when he’s playing trumpet.
Essentially, a fill is a musical idea that comes in during moments in a song that the lead part has left unoccupied. You can often find them at the end of phrases or sections.
Fills are a great tool for building energy, and are often used to lead into a new section of a song. They range from simple space fillers to elaborate opportunities to show off. No matter where your fills end up falling along that spectrum, they offer lots of rhythmic potential, so it may help to think like a drummer when you’re working on them!
This Phil Collins recording includes an infamously epic drum fill at about 3:40:
When using vocals to create fills and countermelodies, you may find it helpful to use techniques and effects that alter the timbre of your voice so that your background layers sound less like your lead. As a starting place, think about how you might recreate the sound of some of the instruments we’ve mentioned here!
More examples: “Recovery” (Kimbra): Listen to how that very first melodic idea comes back in later in the song; “Goldmine” (Kimbra): You’ll get a detailed look at this one soon, but feel free to check it out ahead of time!
5. Move in Tandem
This technique is likely the first thing that comes to mind when you hear someone mention “vocal harmonies.” Here, we’re talking about background vocals that harmonize the lead melody and move with it, rather than acting in a rhythmically independent way.
In this case, the background vocals will likely sing the same lyrics as the lead (instead of “oohs” and “ahs,” which might fit the creating chords idea we mentioned above a bit better). You can hear a great example starting at about 1:48 in “Top of the World.”
When thinking about backing vocals in this way, it can be really helpful to have an understanding of “harmonic intervals,” which can be used to make sense of how two notes relate to one another. You can learn more about them in our Modern Pop Vocal Production course.
6. Create an Atmosphere
Kimbra is influenced by ambient music; and one of the ways this manifests is through the textural sounds she often adds to her tracks. She oftren works with vocal samples, often adding effects to make them almost unrecognizable. They can be low growls, or alien sounds, or synthy textures, or tape loops. Some of that occurs in “Goldmine” (which we break down in greater detail inside the course).
You can also use vocal harmonies to establish an atmosphere. Consonant intervals tend to make us feel grounded and secure, while dissonant ones can be very unsettling.
7. Heighten a Mood
Creative vocal parts can also heighten a mood or add energy to a song in a unique and powerful way. For example, check out some of the background vocals from “90s Music.”
There are so many interesting details in this track, but one of our favorites is the way multiple voices say “90s music.” Here, the additional vocals create a sound that’s sort of melodic and yet percussive, and simultaneously, incredibly human and nostalgic. That sound is reminiscent of radio DJs, and adds an energetic familiarity to the overall track.
More examples: “Carolina” (Kimbra): Listen to how the vocals establish a captivating mood during the first 20 seconds or so; “Like They Do On the TV” (Kimbra): At around 3:00, there’s a “ha” part that sounds kind of like a crash cymbal.
Grammy Award winning artist and songwriter, Kimbra opens up her creative process to students for the first time in this comprehensive course with Soundfly. Explore how she finds inspiration, improvises over an idea, pinpoints the focus for a song, and expertly produces compelling tracks with her innovative approaches to singing, arranging, production, and more. Whether you’re an aspiring vocalist yourself or a producer interested in treating the voice as one of many tools in your creative shed, this one-of-a-kind course will help you develop new methods for making compelling music.