The Darkside forum is a multifaceted place where conversations range from in-depth music based discussions to the comparative sizes of the Backstreet Boys’ nipples (I get to take personal credit for that one!). In fact, it’s one of the only places on the internet where I’ve ever seen such layered discussions on the Boys’ musicality. We have the benefit of having contributors that are particularly adept at pulling apart the harmonies and melodies we’ve come to know and love. It is our hope that we can bring some of that discussion to the forefront here on the blog. Luckily, one of our resident music gurus, DanTheMan, has agreed to help us out in this particular area!
Some of you may know Dan from his flawless harmony breakdowns, which can all be found on his YouTube page. If you’re interested in hearing the Boys’ music in a completely new way, be sure to check out his work. We put together a few questions we thought would be the most interesting to dissect with his expertise and hope you appreciate the effort Dan put into his responses as much as we do.
What got you interested in creating Youtube videos that broke down the Boys’ harmonies?
Well actually it all started when my brother downloaded this computer program called Mixcraft by accident somehow and we figured out that you could lay down individual track recordings. So we ended up practicing harmony on it. Before we were limited to only doing 2 piece harmonies together, and at that point in time we really got heavy into harmonies, that was like maybe 4 or 5 years ago. I think the first song we were really impressed by was Nsync’s I Drive Myself Crazy to piece down. The harmonies where so fat! So we tried practicing that and figuring it out. Which the funny thing is I remember my bro and I laying down the vocals and they were all so wrong haha! But being huge BSB fans we had to look into that. I really wanted to figure out the harmonies to I Want It That Way which was and is still one of my favorite songs of all time. So going through loads of live and the actual track trying to piece it together, there was one performance where I could hear Kevin super loud and it clicked! With harmonies it’s all about practice and listening. Eventually it makes sense. There is a limit to what sounds you can make in an arrangement that will flow or sound good.
There was a good while where I did not share my recordings with anyone. I never showed anyone that I sang and did this kind of stuff as my pastime. I would only show one person for a while who was a friend of a friend who I rarely see, which is really weird eh!? But we talked a lot online and she’s in a choir and she loved One Direction. I talked to her a lot about BSB and Nsync because I found the old school groups were better haha! Anyway, she mentioned making a YouTube channel, where I put covers and stuff like that. But I thought it’d be cool to show people how to do the harmonies of harmony songs such as the Backstreet Boys. Listening out for harmonies can be really tricky! My bro and I often have to work together when the song is particularly challenging.
Which of the Boys vocal range is the most impressive to you and why?
I would say all of them have decent range but Brian and AJ have great ranges. Brian and AJ do some nice high notes I think. Like for In a World Like This, Brian went all out. Howie is good because he’s a countertenor.
What songs have the Boys changed the most in terms of the harmony part each Boy covers?
Well this is an interesting question. Not too much has changed regarding who does what, but with time some arrangements have changed a little bit on how vocals are performed. Either they forgot or for simplicity’s sake do it different – I’ll share some examples off the top of my head. Biggest example: I Want It That Way. Howie used to do this really high falsetto note that followed the melody. Like he does in other songs like As Long As You Love Me, but he ended up changing to a higher harmony that follows over Brian. Other examples would be very technical, such as Back to Your Heart. There is a section where vocals are supposed to remain straight but they move the vocal up or down. There are a few songs like that. Safest Place to Hide is an example of performing it quite differently than the track. It’s clear you can hear vocals flowing differently. I guess when it comes to arrangement they can’t remember each one on point. Or they want to change it up. Often they perform it a little bit differently than the original tracks. Generally, it’s not the case if the song just came out and it’s fresh. Notice often you see clips of them trying to figure songs out all over again. I mean, it has been 20 years!
[There are] times where they swapped roles. In a World Like This is an example. Kevin is doing the higher note than AJ. Notice every performance the struggle on his face doing a higher note, which Kevin does not do a lot of. On I Still Howie is doing lower notes instead of high notes. For Safest Place to Hide’s live version, Nick likes to do the lowest notes. On Show Me the Meaning of Being Lonely Nick does lower notes, too. Nick actually goes up and down now and then, but not very often. Due to Brian’s vocal issues he doesn’t do much melody in choruses anymore, unless it’s high. Brian seems to be able to pull off higher vocals decently. Or if the song is soft enough to falsetto most of it, like Trust Me.
Which studio recording do you think is the most complex in terms of vocal arrangement?
Well the Backstreet Boys’ most impressive arrangement is a pretty unknown song to the public. I didn’t even know about it until someone from [The Darkside Forum] told me about it. Thanks a lot! I had no idea about it haha! The best arrangement that I have found so far is definitely Movin’ On. My bro has been trying to piece it together. He did a cover of it on his channel but he still has some figuring out to do. It’s actually a cool one! The beginning of the song itself is amazing. How it’s arranged is pretty rare. It has these dissonant harmonies that work. And the thing is it’s challenging to fit it in sections of a song and make it work nice. You have to kind of be specific when you do it. If you watch my videos, when I say ‘finding the openings of harmony’ that you could maybe potentially slide in, they took upon themselves to do it now and then in this song.
The beginning is a perfect five piece and created a bit of complex opening which brings off that you’re getting into a big arrangement. Also they respectfully have their individual tones for the most part, like Kevin down on the bass playing around with that style of vocals, which is unique. There are a couple of uncertainties I have to figure out still. There is simple percussion and, by the sounds of it, there is some beat boxing. But it’s pretty complex, people going in and out of vocals and sheesh, when it gets confusing you know its complex! I only wish they’d do more of this. Go back to their roots and pick up sick harms!!!!
Though if I had to point out some [other] very nice ones, I’d say Shape of My Heart and Drowning. These two songs have wacky melodies, where vocals have to make up for the funky melody which often leaves openings of extra vocals if wanted. Show Me the Meaning of Being Lonely is a big one too, with a big bass lines.
Which live performance do you think is the most complex in terms of vocal arrangement?
Well for this hands down it’s the acapella medley from 2000. Which – it’s amazing. Just listen. They took some songs and made them bigger. For those naysayers of the Backstreet Boys, check that out. You can hear they really put effort in that whole thing, and I’m so proud they actually took initiative to perform it a lot. Fulfilling all parts when they can! It’s beautiful. I hope and pray they do more of that in the future. What a great way to spice things up, [especially] now when groups like the Pentatonix and others are getting hot.
On more recent albums, it’s been my personal feeling that they’ve had less complex harmonies than they did in their earlier releases – am I imagining things?
No, you are not! Well this newest album (In a World Like This) isn’t very complicated for the most part, lacking backing vocals and such. Their harmonies stayed simple. The biggest song is In a World Like This, harmony wise. A good few of them are just three piece vocal harmonies, which is the style of the album. It screamed more of a singer song writer feel, but I’d expect more from a harmony group. I always said it felt like more focus was on song than arrangements. Let’s say they use Brian as an excuse…which I think is invalid since Brian is not completely useless. I mean, they recorded a whole album with him!
I also feel time has gone on so long they feel maybe less of a need to go about stretching [themselves] in those areas. Which I’m not saying is the case but I think they should definitely take it into consideration. I remember some songs back in the day were almost all backing vocals. Which they would perform too!
Since the whole point of acapella is to show, ‘hey we sing stuff!’ and [it had] a strong hold on their beginnings, they should have one [song in that style] on there. What a great way to end an album, especially with the significance of being together for two decades. I think the biggest way you can prove yourself as a vocal group is doing that type of thing which they did back in the day. Why stop? Yeah, I know they do that five second bit of Safest Place to Hide live… I think they should take that and stretch it. I know they can do some great stuff, just sometimes they like to keep it simple. I understand not all songs can take the extra leaps, but BSB CAN and HAS done it, just listen out for it. But not to worry, they have all the opportunities to do so. I saw a video where Kevin talked about doing some more acapella stuff in the future, which I am totally down for! Show these new groups how it’s done!
For the newer albums without Kevin? I am ashamed to say I don’t pay much attention to those at all. The Unsuspecting Sunday Afternoon piece in the [Unbreakable] intro was pretty sick. But a good deal of the songs were.. I don’t know, not my type of songs. But they did release some nice stuff like Helpless When She Smiles, which I think is a really cool arrangement and I have yet to do video on that. Some pieces of it are pure four pieces that flowed nicely which is impressive and pretty tricky actually! But I’m hoping for bigger and better in years to come – bring it on boys! It’s great to know my favorite group is still doing it. Grew up on this stuff [from] 1999-2015! Woohoo!
If you could have any input on the next album in terms of how they approach their vocal arrangements, what would it be?
I know they want to push forward in their sound. But I’d take a listen to the older stuff and try to bring back that old harmonized Backstreet Boys feel. I’d have more bass vocals. I think BSB could use more of it. Cause you can really bring a full sound and have nice rhythm to it. Bring back the intense backing vocals. Even simpler songs from back then had backing vocals sometimes. Think about I’ll Never Break Your Heart. It’s not too crazy, but the amount of backing vocals involved is very nice. And impressive, at that! It really plays out that this is a vocal group. Take a look at One Direction – no offense to One Direction fans but they never stretch out to throw out nice background pieces to fill in gaps.
I know it sounds annoying but I’m all for throwing an acapella in there. My dream song for them is all of them writing a heartfelt song. And piece together an acapella arrangement by themselves and put it on the album. If we think about it, he guys haven’t recorded acapella tracks, whereas some of their competition from back in the day has – 98 Degrees, Nsync, and Boyz II Men. Which are groups I love, but as the bestselling pop group of all time I think should go ahead and do it!
Once again, thank you Dan for participating in this Q&A. Be sure to check out his YouTube channel – particularly that I Want It That Way tutorial. I’d also encourage all of you to read the description for even more insight from Dan! If any of you have any follow-up questions for Dan or vocal related questions you’d like us to explore further here on the blog, feel free to post a comment below or visit the TDS forum!