Because most desktop audio applications offer an unlimited number of virtual tracks, recordists can keep every take of an artist's performance. All the parts, from rehearsals and warm-up passes to the final “magic” take, can be stored, edited, and then cobbled together into a perfect composite take. Virtual tracks, called playlists in Pro Tools, facilitate the job of organizing those takes. Whether you like to keep a clean track list with multiple takes hidden underneath the main audio track, or you prefer to use what I call the WYSIWYG method — keeping subsequent takes visible and lined up vertically in their own tracks — a number of techniques can make the job of comping easier.
Before you start recording, set up your session to facilitate a smooth workflow. That will help you move quickly between takes for recording and playback, and cause the least amount of distraction to the artist you're recording. If you prefer the “clean” type of track organization, this is relatively easy. Once your input track is set up with the proper recording level (and any chosen dynamics or effects processing), it becomes the repository for all new recording and the sole playback track for a given part. After recording Take 1, you simply add a new virtual track for Take 2. Take 1 will reside in either the Playlist or the Takes menu (depending on your audio application), and Take 2 will be ready to record with the same settings as Take 1. Subsequent takes will also reside in the window, underneath the current playback take in chronological order (see Fig. 1). One advantage of this method is that you can audition different takes in a particular section by flipping between virtual tracks without navigating to the Play Enable and Mute buttons. The disadvantage is that the artist's mic will be “off the air” during playback, because the playback audio track is also the input track. When punching in on an existing take, duplicate a playlist so that the previous material isn't lost underneath the new recording.
Using the WYSIWYG method, with all takes lined up vertically, is more involved but allows for a smooth workflow once you get rolling. I set up 12 to 16 audio tracks, all bused to one aux track; that lets the aux track provide my “master” fader for all takes. I mute all the audio tracks except the topmost one in the window, making it my input/record track. The other audio tracks are for playback only. As a take is recorded, it is dragged down to the next available (muted) audio track in chronological order, ready to be auditioned by unmuting. There is no need to disable Record on one track or enable Record on another, which helps keep your session moving. All takes will have a similar playback sound because they are being routed through the same aux fader, and you can easily identify takes by their position in the Tracks window (see Fig. 2). As you listen to a playback, the artist stays “on-the air,” because the record track stays in input mode. Problems can occur when two tracks are left unmuted simultaneously (impossible with the other method). Also, if you're not careful when dragging, audio can get shifted in time accidentally. (Hint: in Pro Tools, holding the Control button while dragging keeps audio correctly time aligned.) That method keeps artists and producers happy; because they can see the work accruing, they can work quickly yet feel confident that nothing important is getting lost.
As with all digital audio files, file naming is crucial and should be addressed before recording. Labeling for the virtual track method is straightforward, because most sequencers label new takes with the name of the previous take followed by a numeric suffix. Usually when you ask for a new take, a dialog box appears asking you to name it. On a vocal session, I name my first take Vocal.01; therefore, when I ask for a new take, the DAW automatically names it Vocal.02, and I can dismiss the dialog box by pressing the Enter key. That makes for a faster workflow and avoids making a producer or singer wait around while you type in a name. Each take of audio will get its label from the track name, enabling you to keep tabs on it once the comping begins.
Labeling for the WYSIWYG method is slightly less elegant and more time-consuming, since you must type names for each audio track. I name the input track as before, then name the first playback track Vocal Take 1. Before closing the naming dialog box, I copy that text (without the numeral 1) so that I can quickly paste it (using keyboard shortcuts) into the next dialog box without retyping. Often, after the audio is recorded and placed on the appropriate playback track, I will rename the audio file to correspond with its playback number, Vocal_01, Vocal_02, and so on. That becomes helpful later in the comping process when assembling audio.
Cut, Copy, Comp
With the clean method, cobbling a final comp track from virtual tracks involves highlighting takes, copying them, selecting a new comp track, and pasting. One disadvantage, however, is that you can't know if the takes line up rhythmically until after they have been pasted. Unless the timing of the performances is identical, you may have to slide takes around until they line up. You can always edge-edit a clip until the performance makes sense. With the WYSIWYG method, however, you would be able to see timing discrepancies before pasting. Another advantage to the WYSIWYG method is that it is easier to trace the origins of the audio on your comp track. By separating an audio region before copying it to a comp track, you can create a visual reference to that audio, clearly indicating that one piece of audio came from Take 1, another came from Take 5, and so on, by seeing the separation of the regions (see Fig. 3). Of course, good labeling of the audio files can provide the same function in both methods and is ultimately more accurate, although the files may be more difficult to reference quickly because the fonts are often small and hard to read.
Working with a grid or tempo map is advantageous when moving musical material from one point in the song to another. Copying a certain number of bars and pasting them later in a tune is easy, but what if your region doesn't begin on the bar line? Most sequencers allow you to view the region definition or “spot” of the original audio. By “spotting” the audio to a similar point in another bar, you can be certain that the timing will be accurate. For example, if I separate a region at bar 33|1|233, I can the paste it to bar 41|1|233 and know that it will feel right. In Pro Tools, you can always click on the audio in Spot mode to get a dialog box telling you where the region is now and where it originated. (Be sure to deselect Autospot Regions in the menu or the audio will jump to its original spot.) If your sequencer doesn't have that time-stamp feature, copy and paste the audio by bar line, and then edge-edit it to fit.
The final frontier of creating a decent comp track is crossfading between the individual regions. Use as small an area as possible to crossfade, so as not to interrupt the performance or create a region that sounds doubled. I use an “equal gain” or linear crossfade whenever possible to avoid that doubling. Be conscious of breaths and lip noises, and listen often in Solo mode to ensure that the comp track sounds like one performance, not a patchwork of takes. Usually, the breath before a phrase should come from the audio that follows it, but sometimes you need to use the breath from the preceding phrase. I have even pasted breaths from completely different phrases (or takes) to make a vocal sound natural. If you need to alter a piece of audio (its tuning or gain for example), select a region that's slightly larger than the target audio that needs altering, so that you will have ample room to create crossfades to and from the unaltered region.
Ultimately, we all learn to use our DAWs in a somewhat customized mode. But with unlimited virtual tracks and a few audio tricks, making a “supercomp” track can be easy for everyone.
Dave Darlington was the composer for HBO's series Oz. He won a Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Jazz Album, 2003, for his mixing on Wayne Shorter's Alegria. His new solo LP, D>Tour, is available from Templar Records. For more information, visitdavedarlington.com.