One of Queen’s biggest trademarks is their vocal harmony. Try to think of a Queen song where you can’t find any polyphony. Quite hard, isn’t it? You need to be a hardcore fan to know the song ‘Spread your wings’. This song is known for being the very first song without Queen’s vocal harmony. The song, written by Queen’s bassist, John Deacon, was published in 1977 on ‘News of the world’. Mind you, that was their sixth album already!
Amongst other things, because of their incomparable polyphony, they were able to discern themselves from the countless other rock bands of the 70s. It became a trademark with which they are still able to inspire other bands. Why don’t you listen to The Darkness for a minute.
The secret of Queen's vocal harmony sound
But what makes Queen’s vocal harmony so different from The Beatles’ harmony for instance?
Queen had a very specific way of writing and recording their vocal harmonies, which is why you can immediately recognize it. The key to their sound lies in a studio technique that’s called ‘Multitracking’.
Multitracking consist of making a recording and then playing that recording only to make a new recording (a dub) on top of it. That way you can record layer after layer and keep creating more sound. Three singers can put countless vocals on one line and sound like a gigantic choir.
In this digital era it’s become very easy to do, but in the 70s everything was still recorded on tape. If you listen to songs like Bohemian Rhapsody, in which about 180 dubs were recorded, which had to be spliced manually, one can hardly control one’s anxiety.
So how did it all go down exactly?
You had three strong singers in Queen: Brian May (guitarist), Roger Taylor (drummer) and of course Freddie Mercury himself. A song like ‘Somebody to love’ is at times a 9-part vocal arrangement. This is how the gents did it: Freddie, Brian and Roger dove into the recording booth as a trio and not all separately, as one normally does. When all three sung together, they’d have a great blend in the voices, which they wanted to capture. Together they’d sing the lead vocal. Initially not in harmony, but all three sang exactly the same line (in unison). Once they’ve done that successfully, they played the recording and ‘dubbed’ exactly the same lead vocal on top of that. Now they’d have a track on which you hear the lead vocal sung by six voices (three from the first take and another three from the dub). Once they’d have done that, they would repeat the proces one final time. For now we have nine voices singing one single melody.
Subsequently came the first harmony. For this line they’d undergo the exact same process as for the lead vocal. Once they’d have completed the process for the first harmony, they’d have 18 voices for a 2-part arrangement. I mentioned earlier that ‘Somebody to love’ is a 9-part vocal arrangement at times. If we do the math, we find that on said moments you hear 81 voices sing. It’s only three singers, but by the process recording the same line three times, by three singers at the same time, we get to hear 81 voices.
Why didn't they just use auto-tune?
Auto-tune is a piece of software with which one can alter an out of tune note to make it sound pitch perfect. Digital make-up, so to speak. You don’t have to be a great singer to sing with perfect pitch nowadays. Auto-tune lends a hand. Even amazingly talented singers are forced into auto-tune. It’s not even a taboo anymore. Nowadays everything has to be recorded in record time, which leaves no space for organic recordings. If the energy is right, the wrong notes will be fixed!
If you listen to recording from the 60s, 70s and 80s, you can hear a large number of little mistakes, a misplaced word, a little under the notes. It has a certain charme which cannot be tolerated anymore. You can be very sure that 99% of what you hear on the radio of contemporary recordings has been ‘auto-tuned’. If you’d listen to the separate takes of a Queen recording session, you’d hear it’s far from perfect. Quite the contrary, some pieces are notably sloppy. But even that contributes to that living, dynamic, almost magical sound of a Queen recording.
Why didn’t they use auto-tune? Auto-tune was published around 1997, when Freddie had already left us six years earlier. If you’d try to record a Queen arrangement with auto-tune, you’d never be able to make it sound like Queen, because it’s all too perfect. So it’s a good thing that ‘monstrosity’ hadn’t been invented yet or we might have never known the pleasure of enjoying that fantastic polyphony that made Queen the icons they are today.
Do you care to read about that legendary guitar sound and that illustrious Red Special? Read all about it right here and learn how to sound like Brian May yourself.