Comping Basics: Getting the Perfect Vocal Take
How do you capture that perfect vocal take for your project? While you may be one of the lucky few that can easily get a flawless performance out of your musicians, most of us are not so fortunate. One of the most widely used production techniques to get one great final take of just about any performance is to compile a master track of the best bits and pieces from a number of previous takes. This process, known as “comping” (which is short for “compilation”), has become a standard tool of producers and engineers everywhere.
Not surprisingly, many vocalists are fond of comping, since it makes their job fairly easy. After they’ve warmed up, the vocalist is asked to sing their part at least three times; then they are sent home. It’s now the job of the producer and the engineer to comp a master track together from the best parts of all the takes. There are a number of methods for doing this, but they’re all variations on the same theme. Here’s the way it was taught to me by some of the best in the business (and as outlined in one of my books, The Music Producer’s Handbook).
The Classic Comping Method
While it’s true that only as few as two takes are needed to create a comp, the more passes available to choose from, the better — within reason of course. Having too many passes generally gets confusing and takes too much time to sort through. The ideal number of passes seems to be four or five, although many producers will have the vocalist continue to sing the song until they get it almost perfect before moving on to additional passes, in an effort to see if the good take can be beaten. Regardless of how many passes and the quality of the performances, if you take accurate notes while listening to each pass, you’ll find your comp can be finished in no time.
While it’s possible to comp individual words or even syllables, comping by phrase is the easiest. Here’s how to do it:
Get a copy of the lyrics and divide them into clear phrases. If you don’t have the lyrics or you’re comping an instrumental track, just divide each song section into phrases. Along the left-hand side of the page, place a “1” for “first pass” and prepare to make your marks on that line.
Listen carefully during playback, judge what you’re hearing, and make notes with the following evaluation marks after every phrase. Repeat this process for the second pass, the third pass, and so on. Take a look at our sample vocal comp sheet below to get a good idea of what we’re going for.
↑ = sharp ↓ = flat G = good VG = very good X = bad ? = “I can’t decide”
After listening to all of the passes, try to piece together a vocal. Start by listening to all of the "VG" phrases. If a phrase marked "VG" doesn’t sound as good as originally thought (this happens a lot), go to the phrases marked "G" and see if one is acceptable. If none of the "G" phrases work, move on and see if any with a “?” will. If an acceptable take still can't be found, relisten to the passes that you marked with an "X" and see if your mind changes about one considered unacceptable before.
If a phrase still isn't working, try comping by the word or syllable instead, or consider using pitch correction to get what you need. This method works best during recording, since your notes will dictate if there’s a phrase that isn’t up to snuff with the rest of the performance. Then you can just concentrate on that line until you get the performance that’s needed. If you didn’t do this while recording, don’t worry. Just listen to every pass and make your notes, but be prepared to break out the pitch correction if there’s a line or phrase that’s just not as good as what’s around it.
Making Vocal Comp Edits In Your DAW
Most DAWs (digital audio workstations) these days allow for easy comping through the use of lanes, which are basically multiple takes that are stacked within the same audio track. For instance, if using Pro Tools, select the Playlist button in order to reveal the lanes, solo the top track, then solo any of the lower lanes to hear just that lane. Begin the comp edit by adding a new blank lane in the track. Now all you have to do is select the portion of the take or the clip, hit the Up arrow, and the selection will automatically be transferred to the newly created lane. Unsolo the lower lanes to hear just the top lane comp.
I find it’s best to edit your comp while listening to at least some of the drums, as well as an in tune chordal instrument like a keyboard. This ensures that the comp is in tune with the song and also stays in the pocket.
Comping is standard session procedure these days not only on vocals, but tracks of all sorts, so it pays to get good at it. This technique provides great results and saves a lot of time as well. Keep in mind that comping by word or syllable may make the vocal perfect, but it can potentially leave it sounding unnatural as well. Generally speaking, the fewer the edits, the better. Also take into consideration that everything doesn’t have to be technically perfect, but it does have to feel good. As my good friend and legendary producer/engineer Ken Scott often says, “Perfection comes from the soul, not from the head.”