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Vocal Comping & Editing

Piecing Together The Perfect Performance By Mike Senior
Published December 2021

Montage of female vocalist and audio edit waveforms.

To transform multiple takes into truly great vocal tracks, you might need to look further than your DAW’s built‑in comping tools.

One of the only production techniques common to pretty much every hit record nowadays is vocal comping: the process of recording several takes of your lead vocalist and then editing together a master performance from all the best bits. However, I’ve found that project‑studio recordists often don’t make the most of this technique. In this article, I’ll explain my approach to assembling the best possible composite performance from multiple takes.

Take On Me

At the risk of illuminating the blindingly obvious, the most important part of the comping process is the takes themselves. On the one hand, you want enough takes so you get great raw material for each and every phrase; but on the other you want to avoid collecting so many takes that it takes ages to wade through them at the editing stage. My first suggestion is to choose a fixed number of tracks for vocal takes (somewhere between four and eight strikes a good balance), and to check back over those takes as you record, replacing any that seem obviously weaker than the rest. It’s not uncommon that singers need a couple of takes to warm up and really inhabit the part, so those initial passes can often be jettisoned, for instance.

Now, I realise that many DAWs actually have a dedicated take‑stacking facility built into them, allowing you to manage multiple takes within a single track, so why not take advantage of that? Well, although such functions can usefully streamline the editing process, at the tracking stage I find they encourage you to just build up masses of takes indiscriminately, because they usually don’t make it easy to restrict your total take count by going back and rerecording over specific sections of previous takes. So I’d advise against using take stacking while tracking, in order to avoid making a rod for your own back at the editing stage.

A second tip for helping the comping process, especially with less experienced singers, is to work on the song in sections, rather than just doing a series of full‑song takes. A singer’s voice will inevitably tire as the tracking session progresses, so working in sections avoids your having to edit together fresh‑voiced and fatigued‑voice versions of the same phrase. Also, be careful with the first vocal entry of each section you record, because some singers may have difficulty hitting it as accurately (or with as much emotional intensity) as subsequent phrases, simply because they’re approaching it from a standing start. A nifty trick here is to get the singer to sing the beginning of the first phrase a couple of times during the run‑up to the proper entry, because it’s easy to remove those false starts at the edit.

The goal of the tracking stage is to get enough great takes to let you splice together a stellar final performance. Exactly which pieces of each take you choose may be something you decide in the moment while tracking, or as a separate process once the singer’s gone home. Either way, it’s not a bad idea to start your comp of each section from your favourite full‑section take, patching up any weak points from other takes as necessary. This usually seems to give a smoother and more musical end result than adopting a purely patchwork approach right from the outset.

That said, it’s still worth listening through to all the takes at least once while editing, just to make sure you don’t miss any unrepeatable golden moments during otherwise unpromising takes. Those are often the things that listeners remember most of all, so it’s worth ferreting them all out.

Stop In The Name Of Consonants

It’s not enough just to identify all the best take sections, though. You also have to manage the technicalities of stitching them together into a seamless‑sounding master take. After all, the ultimate purpose of comping is to make it sound like the singer just naturally nailed a single perfect performance, so it’s vital that clunky‑sounding edits don’t undermine the illusion. With this in mind,...

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