In this home recording post, we take a look at the techniques used to create composite vocal tracks, also referred to as “comping” the lead vocal by studio engineers
In an ideal scenario, you or your lead vocalist would nail the perfect studio performance of you new song in one continuous take. After all, you belt out that new song every weekend at gigs and the audience responds enthusiastically each performance. However, once you put that vocal performance under the sonic microscope of the recording process, you’ll undoubtedly hear some elements of the lead vocal that could be improved. Maybe the phrasing is a bit rushed in one part, or a particularly long sustained note tends to lose pitch, or some other problem becomes apparent. Rather than singing the track over and over from top to bottom, doing a number of solid takes of the song on separate tracks, then listening to and selecting the best parts of each take will eventually result in what will become a composite lead vocal track. When done correctly, this technique will give the illusion of a single, seamless performance when placed into the final mix of the song. Often the artist will also use the separate takes to experiment by slightly modifying their level of intensity, vocal placement, rhythms, etc.
Before You Start Recording
Before we get to the nitty-gritty of how to best put together comped vocal tracks, it’s important to note that the choice of vocal mic, mic preamp and recording set up make a significant impact on the sound of your lead vocal tracks. As a general rule, large diaphragm condenser mics make excellent vocal mics, since they generally are more sensitive to the shadings and nuances that the human voice is capable of producing.
For the home studio, there are a number of excellent mics well suited to recording vocals in the under $500 price range (see the link at end of to our “Vocal Mics in the Studio” article). If you’re just starting out in home recording, you probably won’t be ready to invest in a separate mic preamp to enhance the sound of your vocal recordings. As your recording chops progress and your ears become more fine-tuned to the subtleties of recording, you’re likely going to want to invest in a high quality mic pre that will further enhance the warmth and richness of your vocal recordings. It’s important to note that each specific mic and preamp will have its own sonic signature (or lack thereof) so when you’re ready to start shopping for either, it’s essential that you get yourself to a pro audio dealer and listen to the various models in your price range to see which ones best complement your voice. Many pro audio dealers will also let you try out a piece of gear at your home studio if you are a regular customer, which is the absolute best way to insure that any new gear will do what you expect it to at your own home studio.
While it’s beyond the scope of this article to go into the basics of recording vocals, at minimum, make sure your vocalist is comfortable, has plenty of water at hand, can hear the backing tracks clearly if they are overdubbing, and takes breaks throughout the session to avoid blowing out their voice. Personally, I prefer to record vocals flat (meaning no EQ applied during recording) and with no compression or limiting during the tracking. If I want a brighter sound, I’ll try switching to a different mic which I know emphasizes the highs more than the first mic I tried. Once you have a sound, then it’s time to focus on helping guide the vocalist to getting that perfect take – compositely speaking, that is.
Here’s a visual representation of what a composite vocal track might be put together for a particular song.
Of course it goes without saying that you can create a final vocal track using as large or as small a section of a particular vocal track that you like. Many tracks end up being carved up down to the syllable or vowel level, which can be done quite readily using any of the popular digital recording programs available. How small you go depends on your level of attention, your patience, and what you hope to achieve with the finished track. However, it’s not uncommon for the lead vocal track of a pop song to include hundreds of sections, as well as a great deal of riding the gain of the vocal track (more on this in the next section.)
Paul Klingberg on producing a composite vocal
To learn more about vocal comping from an expert, we caught up with veteran engineer Paul Klingberg at his LA-based studio after he had just completed mixing four one-hour TV specials for DirecTV of the 2009 Farm Aid concerts which featured 15 high-profile artists including Neil Young, Wilco, John Mellencamp, and Jason Mraz among others. For many years now, Paul continues to be the go-to guy for the amazing vocal sound of Earth, Wind & Fire collectively, as well as solo albums by Maurice White and Philip Bailey. Also, this February, Jonathan Butler’s new album recorded and mixed by Paul and titled So Strong will be released on Mack Avenue Records.
You’ve been at this for a while now. What’s changed about the way you approach vocals and composite tracking?
Essentially, vocal comping hasn’t really changed in practice since the ‘70s and ‘80s when we would use different tracks on a 16- or 24-track tape to record different sections of a vocal performance and then create a composite track, usually by bouncing the sections we wanted over to a new, final lead vocal track. In fact, back in the day, I had a friend of mine build me my own “comp box” which was essentially a switcher with two rows of eight buttons each and a cable harness to interface it with a studio patch bay. It had a fader right in the middle which allowed me to switch seamlessly between the vocal tracks using a little analog crossfade to smooth out the transition. That box made me a pretty popular engineer among studio vocalists at that time. I used it regularly on my early work with Earth, Wind & Fire.
The practice really isn’t any different today, except of course that with DAW’s like Pro Tools, Logic, etc., we have a graphical interface to see the waveforms as we edit and lots of crossfading options to arrive at a seamless vocal track. Although I primarily work in Pro Tools, it’s a good idea to develop a basic understanding of the various platforms so you can work with whatever [program] the artist is using on a particular record.
For instance, Jonathan Butler’s latest album was done primarily at his home studio and he works in Logic. Jonathan is a very talented singer, so he would sing it straight down, rarely doing more than two takes of any song. We’d just use the best portion of each take to make up the final vocal. With a group like Earth, Wind & Fire, on the other hand, with multiple takes, we’d end up with a big matrix of vocal performances in Pro Tools, allowing nearly endless possibilities for the final vocal track.
Personally, I’d rather not copy and paste the lead vocal track together from any number of earlier takes. Instead, what I prefer to do is record the best sections together onto a new master composite lead vocal track. The producer and I will listen to each section of the song and decide which of the multiple vocal takes offers the best performance. Today, most everyone is using some type of pitch correction software, so I assign that plug-in on each vocal track as an insert. As I get ready to record that section of the vocal to my newly created composite track, I can make whatever tuning adjustments might be needed.
For example, assume I have three complete takes of a lead vocal on three separate tracks, each one a little different. Working in the graphic mode of the pitch correction software, I’ll assign the output of each track to bus 1; then open up a fourth track to record all the sections I want to include in the final vocal recording. The input on this new fourth track will be bus 1’s output. This way, I’m really doing two things at once: I’m making the choices on which individual sections I want to use and I’m fine-tuning them with the pitch correction software. Once I have the sound just right, I’ll print it to the new track, then move on to the next section and repeat the process. This method really helps ensure proper intonation and better continuity, meaning the final composite sounds like a single performance.
When I’m done, I listen critically and confirm that the new lead vocal is the best composite performance given the performances available. That’s what it’s all about with regard to the process; I want to end up with one continuous track from top to bottom.
What pitch correction software do you prefer?
I’ve been using the Antares Auto Tune program for years. It comes in a number of different versions and is a very powerful and flexible solution to tuning problems.
What advice would you give to new artists or those new to recording at home doing vocals?
When I’m mixing an album for a new artist, I often find that there are not enough takes to get the job done. Of course, it depends on how savvy they are about how technology can help them capture a good vocal performance. When you are faced with a tough passage, be sure to do at least three or four takes and then assemble a comp of that section to see if it works as well as you want it.
Remember, more takes equals more options when it comes to creating the master composite vocal track. You can go overboard and have too many choices, but since you have the luxury of time when you’re working at home, do enough takes so you can try out your own composite and be confident it will work.
The other thing is that there is no substitute for working with an experienced audio engineer. Some people are willing to experiment and spend the many, many hours necessary to learn how to get good results recording at home. However, I’ve often been called in to mix an album and find that what has been recorded is just horrible. When your album is playing, no one knows how or where it was recorded, they only judge the recording by its overall quality.
Everything from the choice of the vocal mic and preamp to the space around the vocal (room ambience) becomes part of your sound. Unfortunately, often musicians may stumble trying to simultaneously perfect their music and learn the art of recording. In a case like that, consider working with an experienced engineer at your home studio, as it’s sure to result in a better sounding record. You really do want to end up with an album that will be competitive with the sound of what everyone else is listening to at any given time. Using the proper equipment and when you can, a professional studio, will make an audible difference to anyone listening to your record.
Back to vocal comping, what do you listen for when critiquing the master composite track you’ve just created?
It’s the subtle things that make a difference. I try to put myself in the shoes of a listener hearing the song for the very first time. Especially the dynamics, from loud to soft. And making sure there is midrange clarity so that every little nuance can be heard. I really perfected the techniques I use by working closely with Maurice White (of Earth, Wind & Fire). He would focus on the little trails, the endings of a word or a phrase and have me ride up the volume to wring every last bit of emotion out of the artist’s delivery. I may do it by bringing up the fader, or using some EQ to emphasize a particular frequency, or pump up the vocal with a compressor… whatever it takes to have exceptional clarity. Maurice taught me that really bringing out all these subtleties has an emotional consequence, it makes a real difference.
Engineer Paul Klingberg’s home page.
An article with another veteran engineer, Roger Nichols, on vocal comping.
An informative YouTube tutorial with engineer Ken Lewis on vocal comping.
Keith Hatschek is a regular contributor to Disc Makers Echoes blog and directs the Music Management Program at University of the Pacific. He’s also written two music industry books, How to Get a Job in the Music Industry and The Golden Moment: Recording Secrets from the Pros.
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