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Carry On Comping

Audio engineering can be an endlessly rewarding and satisfying occupation. I love the challenge of figuring out the best way to mic up an instrument. I live for the nervous excitement when the band troops back into the control room and you press Play on the take they’ve just laid down. I genuinely enjoy the process of building a mix and hearing each source take its place in a web of sound. But vocal comping, frankly, can take a hike!

Sam Inglis, SOS Editor In Chief.Sam Inglis, SOS Editor In Chief.Photo: JG HardingNow I’ll admit that my aversion to comping stems from the fact that I usually have to practise it on my own voice. If there’s anything in the world of music more dispiriting than being repeatedly confronted with your inadequacies as a singer, I’ve not come across it yet. And whereas other fiddly tasks at least leave you basking in the satisfaction of a job well done, comping your own voice just leaves you feeling like a fraud.

A big part of the problem is one of self‑discipline. On a rational level, I know that what I should really do is record three or four takes, comp the best bits from those, identify any problem areas that remain and do more takes that focus just on those areas. But when I’m actually recording, adrenaline takes over and I end up doing 15 or 20 takes of the entire song. Which, invariably, turns out to mean 15 or 20 adequate takes of the easy bits, and the same number of fluffed attempts at the more challenging parts.

Something else that always baffles me about the comping process is how judgements you make during tracking can seem so wrong in the cold light of day. Many times I’ve taken off my headphones thinking I’ve nailed a part, or told the talent ‘That’s definitely the one!’, only to end up using nothing whatsoever from the supposedly killer take in the final comp.

Comping is tedious, frustrating, annoying and depressing, and that’s on a good day!

In short, comping is tedious, frustrating, annoying and depressing, and that’s on a good day! On a bad day, it can rival tuning vocals or exporting stems as an activity guaranteed to leave you chewing the studio furniture. But comping is an intrinsic part of modern record production. It’s something we all have to do, so it makes sense to develop strategies for doing it as quickly and as effectively as possible.

For this month’s cover feature, we asked Mike Senior to get down on paper the lessons he’s learned through a lifetime of vocal editing, and I think his article has something to offer even the most experienced engineer. Even Mike can’t make comping fun, but if you follow his advice, you’ll find it less painful, and you’ll get better results faster. Leaving you with more time for fun pastimes like tuning vocals and exporting stems...

Sam Inglis Editor In Chief