Who wouldn’t want Pink Floyd’s backup vocalists at their fingertips?
The tenor of many reviews of EastWest’s Hollywood Backup Singers (HBS) vocal sample player/library is that it’s a worthy, if just-shy-of-ideal substitute for a real trio of backup singers. That is, it’s useful if you lack the budget or time to hire the real thing.
Nonsense. In many respects, HBS may well be a more creatively open-ended, sonically upmarket, and professional tool than hustling a typical BV session. And that goes for composers in the commercial, film, pop, R&B, rock, and even “art music” worlds. Moreover, why see this rather ingenious tool, and others like it, as a replacement for anything? Especially when it’s such a versatile and deep palette in and of itself?
For starters, you’ve got the flexibility of HBS’s smart WordBuilder 2 engine. It allows you to type in phrases (or use preset phrases) that the singers then sing back. (Keep reading for more about the nuances of this process below.) Add in HBS’s deep and SSL-approved signal, effects, and mic/room processing options, and you’re at a sheer technical level that rivals fine NYC jingle rooms.
Further, consider HBS’s ability to generate incredibly complex chords impossible without a full gospel choir—upwards of 30 voices at once. (Cmaj7b9/#11 in glorious three-part harmony, anyone?) What’s more, you have the power, tone, and virtuosity of the three women who sang both the sustained samples and the 588 superb live solo phrases. You have them on call 24 hours a day. And you’ve already paid them.
The Great Gig in the Sky
Let’s start with the HBS singers themselves. Look, good on you if you have easy access and the budget to hire Pink Floyd’s longtime backup singers, Durga and Lorelei McBroom. Kudos if you’ve also got a line on C.C. White, veteran of dates with Al Green, Lenny Kravitz, and Crosby, Stills & Nash. And hey, if you’ve managed to book a date at EastWest Studio 3, where the Beach Boys recorded Pet Sounds, well, awesome for you. (That’s where Doug Rogers and Nick Phoenix produced and engineered these truly top-notch, polished vocal sessions.) Most of us do not, so that’s not even an option that the plug-in is simply a reasonable workaround for.
Most of us have diminished expectations about how realistic a vocal sample library might sound compared to the real thing. (With HBS and most other vocal sample players, that balance shifts considerably with your mod wheel and ADSR chops.) That said, the solo phrases in this collection are quite entirely live. Many are so killer they’ll give you goosebumps. As for the triggered, sustained vocal samples, vocal sounds this good knock the shit out of the results you’d get with many of the backup singers you’d hire. Y’know, in a pandemic. At 4 o’clock in the morning. On a deadline.
The Mechanics of Soul
EastWest’s proprietary Play 6 is the interface through which you work with HBS’s vast library of 87 vocal instruments and 588 solo vocal phrases. Play 6 has three main windows for operating the plug-in or standalone application. Player view offers the most essential controls for editing and shaping sounds while performing in real time or simply making broad sonic strokes. Browser view provides access to both the sound/instrument library and a search engine-cum-attribute-filter called the Database.
Mixer view displays the various channels of voices at work in your patch. It includes the EastWest FX rack, a mini-behemoth boasting an SSL Channel Strip (filter, EQ, compressor, gate/expander), amp simulator, convolution reverb, a tape-style delay, and a distortion circuit. HBS also has an ADT device, that winning organic vocal flange that John Lennon, Pink Floyd, and others used to great effect throughout the ’60s and ’70s—a very nice touch.
The Player view in Play 6’s user interface changes considerably depending on the EastWest title it supports. In HBS, Player view is where you tweak the ADSR and move the microphones around within each mic array: Close, Room, and Rear. (The three close mics used for each singer on the sessions include Neumann U47, Telefunken 251, and Shure SM7.) You can easily mix, mute, pan, and blend the arrays in Player view. Moreover, you get a stereo double effect and a substantial trove of reverb types with quick controls for tweaking pre-delay and reverb amount. Player view also controls Master output, lets you view the keyboard zones available and where your MIDI strokes are landing, and more.
A Closer Look
Switching to the Browser window lays out six folders of instruments. Eighty-seven different patches (aka instruments) are available, including the 12 banks of solo phrases. You have simple vowel or consonant sounds (ah, oo, mm, etc.). Some are paired with expression options from a CC (labelled Exp), and some of those blend in a Leslie effect (LES). Combo sounds allow you to play a pair of vowels and/or consonants on one key, You can toggle them back and forth via the Mod wheel’s position (MOD). (The Xfade folder contains these same pairs in crossfade mode.) A clutch of ten Keyswitch patches designate a lower zone/split of your keyboard to make program changes to the current patch bank.
The twelve Solo Phrase patches lay out the multiple solo phrases for every key in the chromatic scale across your keyboard. The Mod wheel position determines whether you hear the full phrase or an (extremely useful) abbreviated version. Finally, WordBuilder 2’s HBS WB Multi-Sus patch is where the magic of actually assigning words to these singers comes alive.
Word to Your Mother
I highly recommend taking a minute to view EastWest’s video walkthrough of HBS’s WordBuilder function. It explains in detail how you have the option, once you’ve chosen the HBS WB Multi-Sus patch, of choosing from a menu of preset and pre-tailored phrases or creating your own. The preset menus include dozens of text phrases for pop, gospel, or soul: “Feel the Sunshine,” “Go Down Moses,” “I Love That Man,” etc.
The HBS engine pieces together the phonemes of each word in your phrase from the recorded vowel and consonant sounds. So although it’s a composite, it’s a composite of real vocal sounds. Do be aware that these word phrases may not sound convincingly real in isolation. They’re meant to be used in a musical arrangement, preferably, as the manual describes, with a live singer overdubbed on top.
That said, you can make your custom phrases sound close enough to convince just about anyone with a little work on your end. For starters, use the Time Editor to shorten, lengthen or emphasize certain phonemes. Many English vowels and consonants have variations in how we pronounce them. So, dig into the cool Votox and Phonetic alphabet offered in the WordBuilder to tailor each vowel or consonant sound in your phrase to how you intend to have it heard. For example, do you want A as in apple or A as in artist? You may need to be specific. Fear not, intrepid producer. It’s easier than it sounds, and it’s well worth the time it takes.
The Final Cut
Here are a few final tips and suggestions. I find that sprinkling in those solo phrases around your sustained harmony patches greatly helps the ear to perceive the BVs as real. Also, you’ll want to subtly ride your mod wheel at pretty much all times when using the sustained oohs and ahhs and WordBuilder patches. This finesses the dynamics, opens up the lovely natural vibrato of these singers, and replicates the way one’s mouth shape morphs as a note sustains. The Mod wheel is definitely your friend here.
I also recommend tweaking the attack in the Player view’s ADSR up to, say, 125 to 250ms if you’re going for sustained vocal pads while shifting individual notes within the chord. Those retriggered shifts within a chord may sound a little inorganic if the attack is too fast or too high. Don’t ignore your panning and levels options in the Player view’s mic array mixer, either. Panning the close mics down the middle, the rear mics far left, and the room mics hard right, as just one example, really opens up the stereo image.
Most importantly, remember that a sample player like HBS is an instrument in itself. It’s going to be your mastery of that instrument that will determine whether the results match the standards of the extraordinary singers. This goes as much for you exploring HBS’s MIDI control options (even beyond the mod wheel) as for its onboard mixing and signal-processing depth. Even a few solid hours of digging in and learning the ropes of HBS will put you in the producer’s chair for vocal sessions that, frankly, could result in music that no one’s ever heard before.
Many of us have our favorite sources for drums, keys, basses, guitars, and even strings reasonably well dialed. Killer background vocals, though, are a tough and precious commodity to come by. Hollywood Backup Singers could well take the tunes coming out of even a humble project studio into serious big-league territory. Can I get an “Amen”? (Why, yes, I can.)
Supported platforms: Play 6 is compatible with most 64-bit hosts that use VST, AU, or AXX plug-ins, in Windows or macOS. It also runs standalone. For Mac users, Mac OS 10.7 or newer is required. (See website for more details on your DAW’s compatibility.)
Price: $399 (on sale for $159 as of this writing), or available with subscription starting at $19.99/month.