Have you ever been singing a song by yourself, and you could just hear the harmonies that were "supposed" to be there but were not? Every time I sing Take It Easy, by The Eagles, I get to the chorus and just have to imagine that I have Don Henley and Timothy B. Schmidt standing beside me. Without the vocal harmonies, the song just doesn't have the same punch, the same magic.
Imagine trying to perform Kansas' Carry On Wayward Son, solo! I don't think so (actually I managed to do it...the intro anyway. Wanna hear it? It's right here: How To Be Your Own Glee Club – Queen Harmony Demo.) The same holds true for Bohemian Rhapsody, by Queen (I have not done that one yet:-P). There are certain songs that just cannot or should not be performed without those magical vocals. So what in the world do you do about it if you're a solo performer?
Well, for live performances, you're pretty much stuck with having to get a few other singers for the harmonies. Actually, depending on how technically savvy you are, there are little machines that can split your voice up and play it back as harmonies, but that's another thing for another article. And trust me, it is a huge pain to get decent results. Yes, I've tried it; no, I don't do it anymore;).
However, you can record yourself singing harmonies with yourself (yourselves?), right now if you want to, with tools you probably have around the home. As long as you have a PC with a sound card, an mp3 player, and some sort of microphone. Those little $4.00 PC mics are just fine to start....no really, I'm serious. If you have the stuff I mentioned, and you want to try this out right now, all you need to do is download the open-source audio program called Audacity. If you want significantly better audio quality, you can use a USB mic like the Samson Q1U for $49. If you already have some experience you could REALLY crank up the quality using a large-diaphragm condenser mic in combination with an audio interface. I used a Rode NT2-A microphone and M-Audio Fast Track interface for the harmony demo recordings.
The reason I said you need an mp3 player is for the headphones or earbuds, not the player itself. Plug those headphones into the green (typically) hole in your PC's soundcard. ("hole" = "jack" if you insist on using technical terms). You may have to unplug the speakers first, which is fine. Then plug the microphone into the pink hole...I mean....jack in the soundcard.
You just need to set up a couple of things in the software before you start. Open Audacity and go to Edit/Preferences to open the Audacity Preferences window. Put a tick in the box next to "Play other tracks while recording new one." Then click "OK." Next, go into the "Sounds and Devices" window from the Control Panel in Windows. The icon looks like a gray speaker. Go to the tab marked "Audio," and in the section called "Sound recording," click on the "volume" button. That will bring up the Windows Mixer." Find the channel that says "Stereo Mix" or "Wav Out" (depends on what soundcard you have), and put a tick in the "Mute" box on that channel. Just close the Windows Mixer and you're ready to rock!
Record the melody by pressing button in audacity with the big red dot on it. An audio "track" will appear as if by magic. Start singing into the microphone. When you're done, click the button in Audacity with the big yellow square (meaning "stop"). Go back to the start of the song by clicking on the button in Audacity with the double purple arrows pointing to the left. Now you can add a harmony by simply pressing the red dot button again and singing along with your recorded voice on the first track. Make sure you listen to the earlier track(s) on headphones while you're recording the new track of singing. THIS IS VITAL because you can't use the speakers or else your microphone will record what's coming out of them as well as your voice. You'll end up with both the first vocal AND your harmony on the second track. This is NOT what you want. Each track must have only one part on it. So when adding tracks, either turn the speakers off, or unplug them and use headphones only.
That's all there is to it. You just sang harmony with yourself and didn't spend a dime! There are lots of things you can do to improve the sound once you're done, such as reduce the noise, pan the voices left and right, etc. If you're interested in learning about those, and tons of other great stuff you can do with that recording-studio-you-didn't-know-you-had, check out our tutorials at the Home Brew Audio website. The first several video tutorials are free, and the subsequent lessons are only $7.00 apiece. Other lessons will show you how to create a voice-over with music behind it, how to create loops, and how to edit audio, do multi-track recording, etc. The tutorial covering the stuff we did in the article is also there, in case you were wondering;).
If you want to see and hear some awesome examples of other cool things you can do in the harmony-singing realm, head on over to our Vocal Harmony Demos page. Cheers!