Hyped up, overproduced girl pop. Love it or hate, but you can’t deny the amazing vocal sounds these producers and engineers come up with. It obviously all starts with “the talent” but there is more to the vocal sound than you think. A quick listen on the radio won’t educate you on the depth of these vocal productions. This article will give you a few examples and tips you can take away from the songs of Katy Perry, Lady Gaga and Ke$ha.
Pop song structure is simple by design. Tight verses and catchy choruses are created for mass consumption and record-sale stardom. But production arrangements are often very complex, even if it’s hidden in the simplicity of the song structure.
I bet that you wouldn’t be able to pick out every little nuance from every little instrument in any modern pop song in only one listen. While doing research for articles such as these I listen to these songs over and over and every time I discover something new.
This is especially true when it comes to the vocal parts.
Obviously, the vocals in these songs are the most important part. They are always front and center and the absolute key to the song’s success.
But it isn’t just the simple one-vocal lead that makes the song so interesting. It’s what the producers and mixing engineers do to the vocals that creates so much extra interest in the production.
Many modern pop songs follow the same type of vocal arrangement. The production sets the mood by starting off with a sparse vocal production. Usually the vocal is quite naked in the beginning compared to the end of the song. This acts as a great way to add onto the vocal, build interest and add dynamics.
Don’t throw all of your backing vocals, effects and harmonies into the first few phrases of the verse. You have to take the listener on a journey and feed him one cool vocal breadcrumb at a time. The first verse usually starts with the lead vocal only, singing a strong melody to get you hooked on what’s to come. Harmonies or vocal doubles starts showing up in the second verse with the party going crazy in the chorus.
A good way to make the chorus even bigger than the verses is not only to add extra vocal parts, but also change up the reverbs and delays. If you’re going for the typical tight verse and big chorus you can mix up the vocal by having a tight slap delay or a short plate in the verse and then a bigger hall reverb in the chorus. You don’t necessarily need to add a big reverb to the main vocal, you could add it to a double and bury it in the mix to create the illusion of a bigger space around the lead vocal.
I’ll talk about three case studies of a great vocal production, using Katy Perry’s powerful backing vocals, Lady Gaga’s tight rhythm and Ke$ha’s crazy effects.
Katy Perry’s Backing Vocals
Katy Perry has a really strong voice and is really good at harmonizing with herself. In “Wide Awake,” her harmonies are especially interesting, with the backing vocal doubling her line with only a few phrases harmonized here and there. This gives the melody added depth at various intervals, keeping the listener engaged since the production is always changing back and forth from a simple doubled vocal to a pretty harmony.
Another aspect of “Wide Awake” that I think is cool is the use of the “I’m Wide Awake” phrase in lieu of an instrument. I can see the production having started off as a simple chord strum and then changed to this vocal motif to create an interesting vocal backdrop to the verse.
It’s also very prominent in the bridge where Katy is singing a different melody with the “wide awake” motif contrasting in the background. This helps to connect the different parts of the song by combining contrast and familiarity at the same time.
Lady Gaga’s Rhythm
Lady Gaga’s rhythm in “Bad Romance” is really a showcase in how much the performance matters. The synth arrangement in the verses is tight and is made to sound pretty simple, although I doubt it actually is. But the tight, quantized synth and the four to the floor drum pattern gives Lady Gaga the perfect backdrop to riff her vocals in such a groovy and rhythmic way.
“Bad Romance” is also a showcase in how to make a chorus feel bigger by piling on extra reverb and depth on the backing vocals.
Another good trick I learned while looking at Lady Gaga’s production was mixing engineer Robert Orton’s vocal delay tricks in “Just Dance”. He sends the vocal to multiple delays that all have their separate aux channel. That way he can process each individual delay differently.
Not only does this give the vocal some very nice depth by combing half, quarter and eight notes but by processing each delay with different processors such as compression, distortion, tape emulation etc, he adds a completely different dimension to each effect.
Try that out next time you’re working with vocal delays. A little bit of processing on each delay can add a completely different type of depth to your vocal sound.
Ke$ha’s shtick are her crazy vocal effects. She’s almost like a deranged guitar player that likes to pile on every type of modulation to her sound. She has a cool sound that’s just enhanced by all the tape-stops and pitch warps.
This is evident in almost all of her songs, but nowhere as spectacularly as the bridge of “We R Who We R.” In the bridge there is some heavy editing to create that choppy, sample’esque type of effect. I can’t say this would work for any type of production, but it works for Ke$ha and she owns it.
“We R Who We R” is a great example of how to create a whole breakdown section by using the same vocal phrase, editing it in a bunch of different, weird ways and then adding it on top of a sparse breakdown arrangement to connect to the bridge and subsequent chorus.
If you want to do this sort of crazy editing to your vocals, use a separate audio track for all the extra processing. That way you can control the effects easily while preserving the original, “normal” vocal sound.
MusicRadar has a good article on how to create the typical, tape-stop, slow-down, warped pitch vocal sound that’s in most of Ke$ha’s songs.
I would recommend, especially if you don’t listen to this kind of music regularly, to sit down and listen to a different perspective. It’s always a good idea to get out of your comfort zone and get ideas from somewhere new. And if you get the production idea for a sick new metal song from a Katy Perry album, I won’t tell anybody. I promise.