Comping Lead Vocals: The Studio Magic
Have you ever wondered how the finished vocals that you hear on a recording can sound so flawless?
Do you stand amazed at the perfect pitch most singers seem to have these days compared to, say, recordings from the ’60’s and ’70’s when the singer occasionally went sharp or flat?
Maybe you’ve already heard about tuning the vocals and other tricks toward perfection, thanks to the age of digital recording.
There’s another tool for optimal finished vocals that I have used when recording my songs. It’s called vocal comping and I want to describe how it works. But first, a few definitions:
- Lead vocals: the recording of the singer singing the song several times, usually toward the end of the recording process.
- Takes: the individual recorded vocal tracks, saved digitally for later use
- Tracks: separate recordings of instruments and voices saved digitally
- Tape: the old medium for recording our first Out of the Grey records in which sound did actually ‘go to tape’ that could hold multiple and separate tracks of recorded information. Now recording is mostly digital/computer-based.
- Tuning: auto-tune is computer software that can correct pitches digitally with minute precision. Sometimes this is used as an effect in itself, creating that robotic, digital vocal sound in pop music.
As I described in my previous blog about singing lead vocals, I usually sing the song from start to finish between 5 and 10 times, after my voice is warmed up. I will warm up somewhat before entering the vocal booth but mostly my voice hits its groove when I sing on the microphone as the engineer works on getting the best sound.
Recently, I recruited my son, Julian, to produce 5 new songs I’ve written. We started recording my lead vocals after he had created instrumental tracks for the songs. He did this by programming some parts using his computer and also by playing and recording keyboard and electric guitar parts. Putting this all together from the song demos I had given him, he made some beautiful music.
The photo above shows us after recording multiple takes of me singing the entire song along with his tracks. (Julian was both producer and recording engineer in this part of the process.)
In singing the leads, I usually perform the song in much the same way for the first several takes. After I feel I’ve gotten what I want from the song, I use the next takes for experimenting. I’ll try changing up the rhythm of a word or phrase, knowing I might want an alternative to the way I initially sing it. Maybe I’ll try a slight melodic change to add flavor and choices for the next phase of the process. Julian will suggest changes as well.
After this, we have a sense of whether or not we’ve recorded what we need for the lead. For example, I know I keep singing that word “things” flat and out of time. I’ll sing it again and he’ll punch me in on just that word, recording only that split second in the midst of the phrase.
As another example, he may tell me that a melody I’m singing doesn’t seem to work with the guitar part. We may go back and try a slightly different melody a few times, finding one that fits. Here’s a 24-second video of us listening in the Dente home studio.
Vocal Comping means compiling all of the recorded vocal tracks to create the best lead vocal on one track. The final performance could come from mostly one track. It may have had a lot of good elements because the singer was in ‘the zone’ on that one particular take. Or the lead vocal could be created from bits and pieces of multiple takes, cut and pasted together with ease on the computer.
Listening through to 5 or more takes plus any extra verses and choruses can be tedious. However, there is usually gold buried in the layers and now it’s time to dig it out. Sometimes the singer is happy to leave and leave the comping up to the producer and engineer. Julian and I decided to do the comping together right after we recorded all of the lead vocals on my song, Butterflies Inside. Listening to the takes line by line, we made quick decisions about whether or not it was a good performance.
Usually, I use a printed lyric sheet to mark up and keep track of what words and lines sounded good on the track we are listening to. This time, however, Julian and I each started with a blank page and blocked out the verses and choruses using columns for 4 or 5 takes in a very loose grid.
As you can see in exhibit A to the left, it’s a shorthand way to listen and make quick decisions. I used X’s to say, “no way, that sounded terrible!” and I used a √ to say, “hey, maybe….” I circled some words I thought were good in the midst of a phrase that was not a keeper.
Sometimes Julian and I agreed perfectly on which track had the best line in this or that part of the lyric. Other times he had an entirely different idea of what was good. He might choose a phrase that I thought less-than-perfect but he wanted to keep it for its tone or its texture.
Julian would cut and paste as we went through the song, comping our favorite performances together. For example, perhaps the first verse used most lines from track one with a few words pasted in from track 5. The chorus may be more pieced together because I sang it inconsistently. Verse 2 saw a good performance all the way through track 4 so that’s a keeper.
He put it all together as we went, using software magic and engineering skills like cut-and-paste and crossfades. The finished lead vocal track became (almost) the polished performance that we hear in our stereo speakers. Next, come the background vocals. More about that later.
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Thanks for listening,
READ NEXT: Singing Background Vocals, Part 1