How To Comp The Perfect Vocal
Getting the perfect vocal take is no small task. The singer needs to be spot on with their performance – perfectly in tune and pocketed. They need to have the right tone and energy for the lyrics and the music. They’ve got to be restrained at times and willing to go all in at other parts of the song. Worst of all – they’ve got to do this from the very first note to the last…
Or do they?
Vocal comping in a modern music post-production technique used to take the best parts of multiple takes and combine them into one, solid vocal performance. Thanks to the innovations of digital recording, nobody needs to sit around splicing tape together from different tracking sessions – they’re going into their DAW, cutting everything up & bubbling the best delivery of lines, words & sometimes even syllables to the primary track that will go on to the mixing stage.
With so much control over your vocals, how do you comp a perfect take together without wasting a ton of time on it?
Start Making Decisions During Tracking
If you’re fortunate enough to be in the recording session for the vocals, you’ll get a head start on comping your vocals together that engineers and producers receiving fully tracked sessions don’t.
Listen critically to each and every take that’s recorded, taking notes about each one and highlighting where you might want to grab a piece from. If you’re running the session, try to keep your naming of each take tied to the notes you’re taking for easier reference. There’s nothing worse than having to do it all over again after tracking because you can’t figure out which notes go with which take.
While we’re in the recording session, we need to keep our singer’s limitations in mind (and our own sanity as well). I can’t tell you how many times the sessions I’ve worked on got the best vocal comp from just the first handful of takes. There’s no reason to make a singer record something over and over again just for variety.
Get what you need and move on.
Your singer will appreciate this too, as vocal fatigue can seriously affect their performances as you get later into tracking. As their voice gradually wears down from singing the same lines over and over again, their confidence erodes that the next take is going to be “the one”.
Stick with capturing only what you think you’ll need to comp together a great vocal and let some of your signal processing pick up minor adjustments like a slightly early or mildly out-of-tune note.
Don’t Comp In Solo
A little bit of isolation can go a long way if you’re trying to make sure you don’t cut off a note or breath in a vocal performance, but the comping decisions themselves should never be made in solo.
When auditing takes – listening back to each performance – always do so in the context of the song. You’ll want to listen for how the vocal interacts with the rest of the instrumentation.
This approach helps limit common mix issues like notes masking one another and even reduces the need for heavy processing in the mix. By comping in context, you’re essentially picking the performance that will be the easiest to mix at the same time.
Create Your Comping Workflow
Comping can seem like a huge to-do when you think about all of the takes across all of the vocal tracks in your session. Modern producers often comp dozens of vocal tracks in every session they work on, so it can be helpful to watch them work and learn their process. So much of their success from comping these tracks comes from their workflow.
Start with your lead vocal. By comping your lead vocal first, you’re getting the lion’s share of the work out of the way and setting a baseline that all other comps should align with. Just like your harmonies, doubles, backgrounds, and ad-libs should all be reinforcing your lead vocal in a mix; their comped performances can provide that same support.
A well-comped set of vocals will be easier to glue together in the mix – reacting more evenly with compression and other dynamic processes.
As your workflow gets more and more defined, try to stick to the same order as you go. Work on each track from the start of the song to the end before moving on to the next one so you can hear how each track rises and falls as the song rises and falls. You don’t just want the best take for each song section – you want them to flow naturally between each part of your song too.
What To Do With Your Comped Vocal
Once you’ve got a comped vocal that you’re proud of, apply pitch correction as needed and print everything down for your mix. Any choppy edits should be smoothed out with fades or moved forward or back to fit more naturally. The end result should be a single, solid take that nobody would ever know was pieced together from multiple performances.
A great comped vocal is one that’s ready for all kinds of vocal production tricks and a massive presence in the final mix session. To see what you can do with a well-comped vocal, make sure you pick up the Ultimate Vocal Producer’s Handbook for a complete guide.