Vocal Cords: Comping on the Fly

If you are someone who tracks vocals using the “Record 30 vocal tracks/comp for three days straight” method, I urge you to stop being owned by your DAW. The first step is admitting you have a problem. It’s easy to get addicted. When I first got a DAW, I over-tracked so much I couldn’t remember the songs I was trying to produce. But, consider this: Back in the olden days, we had few tracks to work with. We came to a project with the knowledge that maybe we could have three tracks (or less) to capture “the” vocal performance. This kept everyone poised for action, and, in many cases, the singer rose to the occasion and nailed the track in one or two takes. Magic happened. We didn’t have the options of tuning software or unlimited tracks from which to comp a brilliant performance.

So what’s the old-school lesson for the DAW age? To try something new that takes less time, and usually gets better results.

The Challenge

When you record a vocal performance 20 times in a row, you end up with takes where one line sounds soft, one sounds clearer, one is tired, one is more intense, and so on. Furthermore, you can only give so much direction before the artist is so exhausted, self-conscious, or so preoccupied by the repetition that singing becomes a cerebral performance. More times than not, a less-than-emotive performance will ultimately bring on the dreaded, “Um, I think maybe we should re-track the vocals” statement. And that statement often triggers something like, “Thank you, producer X—you’re fired!”

The “Comp on the Fly” Solution

Tell the vocalist that you’re going to record three tracks—a rehearsal, a serious take, and a “fun” track. Consider the routing in Figure 1, so you can quickly punch and comp all in the same window. Yes, you are committing yourself to recording a useable vocal in just three takes. So do not spend too much time getting sounds and not recording. Be quick, and get the sound as the vocalist is warming up.

As soon as you have the three takes down, assemble them into one basic comp track (Figure 2). Leave the unused vocal parts alone—you may need to audition them later, or steal a snippet or two from them. Now, audition the single comp track for trouble spots, and punch in to correct anything you don’t like. I sometimes like to punch in an entire line to get the singer in the mood of the song, but if you’ve got a brilliant vocal with just one glitch, then just punch the offending word or phrase.

You have just done what I call “comping on the fly.” It’s all about making the final vocal comp at the vocal session. You’re not faced legions of tracks to sort through and keep you up at night, the energy of the performer is not beaten down by numerous takes, and singers feel like they’ve delivered a more or less “real” performance.

A Word About Crossfades

Well, there’s a little more effort involved in this process, as you want any punches and edits to sound natural. Just “butting up” two edit sections together isn’t always a good move. It’s a fine approach if you don’t hear a pop or a click, but the best option is to administer the art of crossfading. This is that little super thing that smoothes out the editing you do. It’s good practice to crossfade almost every part together, and check your work to ensure you’ve selected the best fade to make the vocal sound seamless—and, sometimes, that might not be a crossfade. (Are you confused yet?) As you can see in Figure 3, I opted for a quick fade in and out because it sounded more natural. Most DAWs let you select and edit the way a fade or crossfade works, and you usually have to listen to them all to know which approach makes the vocal sound its best. If it sounds inhuman to you, change the fade, or where you fade. All vocal transitions should be super smooth, with no pops, snaps, or crackles.

Less is, Um, Frightening

Let’s face it—some producers and engineers, and even artists, may not have the stones to jettison the supposed safety net of having multiple vocal tracks from which to construct comps. All that data makes for a comfy security blanket of options. So if it turns you on to have duct tape holding your eyelids apart while you comp 500 tracks, have at it. I’d rather comp on the fly, finish the vocal session in hours instead of days, and get out of studio to enjoy life.