Studio vocals are known for having a crisp, emotive, and almost effortless sound. However, capturing an amazing vocal performance isn't as simple as it may seem. Behind the scenes, skilled engineers are compiling multiple vocal takes into the perfect vocal, an art called vocal comping.
Vocal comping can help your tracks have more stand-out vocal phrases and produce a polished, professional sound. Not sure where to start? Not to worry! Below, we'll dive deep into everything you need to know regarding vocal comping from the technical aspects to the more creative aspects. Let's take a look!
What is Vocal Comping?
Vocals are the heart of a song; so it's important they are as flawless as possible in your song. The term "comping" refers to composite meaning made up of multiple parts. So, we can deduce that vocal comping involves bringing together multiple vocals takes to produce a single, polished vocal performance.
However, vocal comping extends beyond just putting multiple takes of vocals next to each other to achieve strong vocals across an entire song-- As showcased below, vocal comping also involves track clean up, organization, processing, and conscious recording direction to produce a flawless performance.
You may only spend a small portion of your time tracking down the magic moments to build a cohesive vocal across a whole song. Pulling out strong vocal parts requires a keen awareness throughout every stage of the recording process.
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During the Recording Session: How to Get Great Vocal Takes
The art of vocal comping starts with rock-solid recording. Use these tips and tricks to help you support strong vocal takes in your recording session:
Record As Many Full Takes As Possible
When you're recording vocalists, you never quite know what you're going to be dealing with. Some vocalists may be blasé about the quality of their performance and may need your perspective on which parts need re-recording. Other vocalists might be super hyper-focused on re-recording certain words and phrases to the point that their perfectionism can be a hurdle.
In any case, try to direct your vocalist to produce as many full takes as possible. Vocal comps are much more believable when they are made out of a couple of large chunks of takes versus switching recordings after every word.
If you get at least four takes you're decently excited about, you should have enough to move on to the next stage of the process. Should your vocalist insist on redoing specific words, keep in mind it's going to be easier to comp words with a smooth transition that are more or less isolated after a breath or at the end of a phrase as opposed to being in the middle of a section.
Take Notes Throughout Your Recording Session
The best performance will jump out at you as you listen to it. If possible, print out several sheets of the artist's lyrics and label them according to the corresponding vocal take (i.e take 1, take 2, take 3, etc.).
While the artist is recording, quietly take notes on your sheet to mark off excellent sections, or spaces for improvement. Use quick symbols like a star or X so that you can mark easily on the fly. Use these sheets to guide your session, and hang onto them for future comping guidance.
Aim to Record a Wide Variety of Takes
Take advantage of the time you have in your recording session to not only capture those vital main vocals but experiment with your vocalist. Once you have a handful of recordings performed in the way the artist intended, suggest some other deliveries if you have the time.
For instance, maybe you get a take where the artist sings more in head voice, or you may try out some harmonies or ad libs. The more the merrier! You never know what you'll want to use during the comping process.
Track Organization and Clean Up
You went ahead and had an amazing recording session but there is one more step before you get to the actual vocal comp-- organization! While this isn't the sexiest part of being an audio engineer, it will certainly help you on your route to scoring an evocative vocal comp:
To start, make sure your session is effectively organized. Each track should be labeled and kept in chronological order to help you pick and choose between takes. Before you start comping, save the project file separately so that you have your source files to refer back to should you change your mind throughout post production.
Align each vocal so that it sits where it would naturally go with the instrumental. Make sure the audio files aren't warped in any way and that you are using studio headphones or monitors to reflect your mix.
Once you have all of your takes in place, it's time for some basic clean up. Run through your tracks and take out any plosives, unnecessary breaths, or any other sound that takes away from the perfect performance. You may have to put cross fades at edit points between two clips to ensure a smooth transition.
Other clean up tasks may including using an equalizer to emphasize or diminish certain frequencies or using pitch correction. Some engineers may prefer to clean up tracks after all the takes have been comped, so you'll have to decide what works best for you.
Comping Vocals in 5 Steps
Now that you've prepped your session, you're ready to start comping vocals! Here are the five steps to successfully building out a killer vocal comp:
1. Clarify Your End Goal
You'll want to define your goals or speak with your vocalist regarding the goals of the vocal performance. Are you fine sacrificing more imperfection for more emotional content? Or are you looking for the most technically accurate performance possible? Identifying these goal posts proactively will make it much easier for you to make decisions while making music.
2. Solo Your Vocal Tracks
Take each vocal track, and solo it, phrase by phrase, before moving onto the next track. It's helpful to have a rating system where you can for instance, give take 1 five stars for section one and take 2 three stars.
Have a separate open track that you can use to compile sections on. In the above example, you'll notice that take 1 has a stronger section, so you'll use that take and pull it onto your open comp track to build your vocal comp.
3. Build a Vocal Comp
Continue this process until you've reached the end of your song. Solo each vocal take by section, mark your initial reaction, and then commit your chosen comp to the designated track. You may have to go back and forth between takes to hear differences, especially if a line was performed fairly differently from one track to another.
4. Try it In Context
Achieving a great vocal comp isn't just about picking the best representation of your featured singers. You also need your comp to have a polished, cohesive end result; meaning that it's important to listen to your comps in context. Once you've finished working through your song, go back and listen carefully to the transition from one passage to another. The transition should feel smooth and natural-- if not, you may have to go back to the drawing board.
It's also a good idea to listen to your comped vocal in context with the instrumental as much as possible. What sounds good solo might not hold the same weight when played with the rest of the instrumentation.
5. Adjust, Compile, and Commit
You've tried your vocal comp in context of the full mix and you're feeling pretty confident-- go ahead and commit! Most DAWs have a "compile" or "consolidate" feature that allows you to combine individual pieces of audio into one solid track, turning eight takes into one stellar vocal comp.
From here, you can clearly notice any inconsistencies in the waveform level and adjust amplitude as needed, or add further processing. You're now ready to work on the other portions of your song.
Vocal Comping FAQs
Use these commonly asked questions and answers to help you build better vocals:
What is vocal comping?
Vocal comping is a process where audio engineers compile several takes of vocals in order to create one solid vocal performance. The key is to balance technical perfection while still capturing the emotional content of the vocal.
What is a comp in audio?
Comp stands for "composite track". The act of "comping vocals", therefore, refers to taking the best sections of multiple takes of vocals and combining them into a single, strong vocal performance.
Does FL Studio have comping?
All DAWs, FL Studio included, have the ability to make audio edits sound natural and cohesive, making them perfectly viable tools for vocal comping. The comping process may vary slightly from one digital audio workstation to the next, but generally speaking, the steps behind it remain the same.
How Do I Comp Vocals?
To comp vocals properly, you want to start by acquiring the cleanest recordings of the singer's voice as possible. From there, you can make basic edits like cleaning out unnecessary breaths and breaks and pitch correction. Finally, you can combine the best vocal take sections into a single comped vocal to build a polished vocal performance.
You won't always receive a perfect vocal take, but any skilled engineer should know how to take multiple vocals and combine them into an impactful vocal performance. Enjoy using these tips, tricks, and processes to produce expertly comped vocals.