Adding Flanger to Backing Vocals w/ Jimmy Douglass




When it comes to mixing background vocals, you have many creative options, particularly in genres that are not entirely organic. You’ll see an excellent example of that in this excerpt from “Start To Finish - Ill Factor Episode 13: Mixing With Jimmy Douglass Part 3,” where Jimmy processes the pre-chorus background vocals from the Jared Evan song, “Light Shine Through,” with compression, de-essing, reverb and flanging.

Template to the Wind

Early on, Jimmy talks about how even though it might be faster always to use the same mixing template in Pro Tools, he prefers to start with a blank slate and create his setup based on the song. It’s slower, he admits, but he likes to work this way. And let’s face it, with Jimmy’s track record, he can work however he wants.

In the excerpt, you see him create a bus for the background vocals, which is almost always a good idea. Background vocal arrangements typically consist of several parts that get doubled, many times over. As a result, you end up working with a large number of tracks, and it’s much more efficient to control and process them from a stereo bus rather than individually.

Jimmy routes the background vocals through an aux bus so that he can process them together.

You could create a track group and a VCA to control them simultaneously, but the only way to process them in one place is through an aux bus. In this case, Jimmy is working with six tracks of background vocals.

After setting up the group, he inserts a UAD dbx 160 compressor across the vocal bus. He explains that he’s mainly going for glue, rather than to make the background vocals sound compressed. The “glue” comes from a couple of factors. First, they’re all going through the same compressor, which has a distinctive sound that they all get imbued with. Second, the compression helps even out the parts from a dynamics standpoint.

On the Flange

Next up, Jimmy says he wants to add an effect to the background vocals. He decides on a flanger and opens up a UAD MXR Flanger-Doubler plugin, which is an accurate emulation of the distinctive, blue, 1970s hardware processor of the same name.

After experimenting with it, he opens a different flanger, the Softube Fix Flanger plugin, which also comes from a late 1970s hardware unit, this one created by Paul Wolff, a well-known gear designer at the time. (Perhaps the ’70s should be considered the “golden age of flangers”?)

He experiments with each flanger alone and together. He then bypasses both for the moment.

The flanger settings Jimmy uses for the UAD MXR Flanger-Doubler and the Softube Fix Flanger

That’s an Order?

The vocals have some moderate sibilance going on. So Jimmy opens up an Avid Dyn-3 De-Esser plugin. He sets its frequency to 7kHz. He adjusts the Range parameter, which controls the maximum gain reduction at the selected (sibilant) frequency to -7.9dB. If you set the range too high, you can get too much de-essing, which sounds very unnatural.

The Avid Dyn 3 De-esser settings.

Jimmy brings up the question of where to put the de-esser in the signal order on the aux track. He points out how it makes sense in theory to de-ess before you compress, so that the compressor doesn’t accentuate the sibilance. However, he believes it’s a case-by-case determination. After trying it both ways, he decides to leave the de-esser at the end of the chain.

Next, you see Jimmy pushing up an aux send. He’s bringing the reverb up a bit, using Valhalla Vintage Verb. He observes that the reverb makes the vocals sound “round and wonderful.”

Finally, he decides to go with the Fix Flanger and leaves the MXR bypassed.

Into the Pan

Another way to impact the background vocals is through panning. You have a lot of options, especially when you’re dealing with multiple layers of harmony tracks. Typically, you’ll want to pan the tracks so that you’re balancing the frequencies on the left and right sides. In other words, an equal blend of the various harmony parts on to either side.

But you can subtly change the feel of the background vocal mix by purposely separating frequencies. That is, you could pan the low parts to the outside, the high parts to the inside and the middle parts in between. Or you could do it the other way around.

Here are some examples from a background vocal arrangement with eight parts. In order to focus on the harmonies only, the lead vocal is muted. The tracks include a low part that’s doubling the melody, a harmony starting on a major third, a harmony starting on a perfect fifth and a melody double that’s up an octave.

First, here they are fully panned left and right, with the parts balanced so that one of each is panned to each side.

Background vocals panned with the frequencies balanced in the stereo spectrum.

This time, the high parts get panned closer to center and the low parts toward the outsides.

Background vocals panned with the higher parts toward the center and the lower toward the outside.

In this example, the low parts get panned closer to center with the high parts to the outsides.

Background vocals panned with the lower parts toward the center and the higher parts toward the outside.

One more cool thing if you’re working in Pro Tools or Cubase or another DAW that gives you individual left and right panners on a stereo channel. If you’re mixing background vocals through a bus, you can start with everything panned hard left and right, but then use the bus channel’s panners to experiment with bringing the backing vocals closer to the center. It’s a lot quicker than having to re-pan each individual track.

You can use the stereo controls on the vocal bus to experiment with tightening up the stereo image.

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