The Thankless Job of Vocal Comping
By Frank Gryner (as published in Recording Magazine)
Okay, so you’ve just siphoned every last discernable noise from your singer’s mouth onto your hard drive and you have several complete, top-to-bottom vocal tracks to show for it. What’s next? Well, now comes the underappreciated task of vocal comping—when you edit the best moments from each of these takes and ‘compile’ a master vocal track
Comping at the Bit
Whether you’ve just recorded the world’s greatest singer, or the queen of karaoke night for the hearing impaired, the resulting vocal comp will always be better than any one of the original takes by itself...that is, if you know what you’re doing. And here’s the catch: if you do a good job with this, any evidence of what you’re about to do will be undetectable in the end. This is the epitome of all that is unglamorous in music, but very necessary for the best possible presentation of the most important element in the mix. I’ve yet to work on a major-label record that didn’t involve vocal comping to arrive at the finished product. It is a time-proven way to represent the best of your vocalist’s ability. This is not the time or the place for indecisiveness, ADD or, for that matter, OCD. So let’s take our medication, our near-to-perfect pitch, our ear for good performance, and build the perfect vocal.
No Singers Allowed
Before diving into this often thankless job, I recommend making your surroundings as ‘comp-friendly’ and free from distraction as possible. It’s generally not a good idea to subject a singer to any process that can be viewed as painfully inhumane for them. Having just depleted most of their charisma in the recording of these tracks, singers generally don’t take kindly to the syllable-by-syllable critique that you’re about to serve up. In this ego-shattering game of elimination, you’ll be monitoring a dry vocal a phrase at a time, cranked up twice as loud as it will be in the final mix. Comping by committee usually results in nobody being happy, so sequester yourself from the talent and let the deliberation begin. First of all, determine the technical process that will allow you to pull lines, phrases, words and possibly even syllables from the source tracks to create your master comp track. You’ll need to be able to audition each vocal track in context with the instrumentation to distinguish which vocal fragment works the best and compile these segments onto a new track. Having paid attention and taken notes on the performances as they were recorded, you can start in by listening, phrase by phrase, to each vocal track (e.g. first phrase of the first verse, take 1; same phrase, take 2, and so on).
A Practical Use for Discrimination
Before you know it, you’ll be making instantaneous evaluations based on the best balance of five criteria: timing, tuning, tone, attitude and context. Though it’s an over-simplification, the phrase that scores the highest in all categories wins this sonic beauty pageant. As you make these decisions, bounce or copy over the winning piece into the master vocal track, being careful to listen back for glitches, bad edits or inconsistencies that may lead to another choice or a different edit point. Over time, this process will feel less like an SAT test and more like a creative vehicle where the series of decisions you make can mean the success or the failure of the song. Basically, piece by piece, you’re looking for reasons to eliminate tracks and narrow down your choices until only the very best remain. Let’s take a closer look at the criteria that make up this five-way balancing act. Again, the idea is to make a split-second evaluation of each vocal segment. But, for a better understanding why we gravitate toward one track and reject another, I think it’s worth dissecting the DNA of a great vocal performance:
• Timing contributes greatly to the overall feel of a vocal performance. Bear in mind that you’re not always looking for the best meter or the most rhythmically accurate vocal phrase, but the one that feels the best over the track. Also look for the one that transitions best from the previous phrase with a viable exit strategy into the following line.
• Tuning is one of the less subjective elements in the anatomy of a great vocal. Pitch seems to be the yardstick by which armchair American Idol judges everywhere rate vocal ability. There are always exceptions to the rule, and intonation isn’t the only consideration, though it is an important one. It may be an indication of greater problems if you find yourself comping strictly for pitch. Possible suspects: your tone-deaf singer, the key of the song, or a problematic cue mix while recording...let’s hope for the latter.
• Tone , the sonic quality of a vocal, does play a significant role in what ultimately makes the cut into the master comp. While a well-executed breathy whisper or a powerful, even-tempered scream may impress its way into your “keeper” pile, any number of sonic atrocities may secure a vocal fragment’s place in the proverbial rejection box. Thin, boomy, extra-sibilant, or harsh-sounding phrases may quickly find themselves curbside along with your other pitchy and grooveless recyclables.
• Attitude can make up for a lot that could be lacking in the other areas. I find that cutting in tracks with a more animated personality can really play well in the final vocal track. Signature vocal quirks and imperfections can define a singer’s style despite the fact that a lot of these may exhibit poor timing, tuning and tone. It’s important to recognize these unique attributes and integrate them tastefully into the comp. The last thing you want to do is to play it too safe and arrive at a sterile, clinical vocal track by effectively ‘comping out’ all the good stuff.
• Context , the fifth criterion, has the power to qualify the other four: the context in which a phrase is employed may be the determining factor in whether it is invited to the party or callously left behind. The tone, timing, tuning and attitude must fit in context with the instrumentation and the other vocals you’ve selected, both dynamically and stylistically.
Remember What You're Fighting For
This kind of judgment can be difficult without a good overview of the entire song. It really does help to understand what the song is about, so pay particular attention to the lyrics. Spending too much time zoomed in on individual phrases or words can hinder your ability to determine the appropriate context of the vocal segment in question. I find that periodic listens from the top of the song with the vocal slightly sunk back in the mix can help me keep the proper perspective. Also, try a different listening position during this playback. Sometimes hearing the track from across the room is all you need to evaluate if you’re on the right path as far as context is concerned. For example, it may become apparent that the choices you made in the first pre-chorus may be too aggressive so early in the song, or a phrase may jump out as disjointed or unnatural. At this point you can make suitable substitutions and continue on.
Now that these criteria have become imbedded in your thought process, you’re better equipped to play god and determine the fate of each of these vocal moments more efficiently. After your first pass-through as the host of this vocal showdown, you’ll most likely want to take your newly acquired super powers on another run-through, replacing a word or two that may be improved upon.
And the lesson is... Being the unsung hero of the ultimate vocal comp isn’t only its own reward. You’ll find that this process trains you to listen more critically when you cut vocals in the future. You’ll know how to better guide your singer toward higher-quality vocal performances in fewer takes, knowing your ability to part them out like this afterwards. There’s something to be said for going the extra mile to get the best possible vocal, even if it’s just to satisfy your perfectionist tendencies. Whatever your motivation, you’ve done your part to make the listening experience more compelling for more people, which has to make you—well, okay, I’ll say it—a happy comper.