Vocals can be a pretty magical thing on your track. Whether you’re adding a lead soloist or a bunch of awesome background vocals, you gotta get it right. And recording vocals is just the beginning. Then comes the complex part of selecting and editing the best parts of your various takes together. This is what we call vocal comping.
In this how-to guide, I’ll be sharing eight tips for perfect vocal comps every single time.
1. Always label your vocal takes
Let’s be perfectly honest. A flawless performance is a rarity. What you hear on the tracks from your favorite artists are carefully curated and edited vocal comps to create that perfect vocal performance. You’ll want to do the same. But what should you cut? And how? For starters, you could listen to each of your possible takes. But that takes a lot of time. To make this process easier and faster, make note during recording of your favorite takes.
That way, rather than listening to all of the takes, you already have a starting point for ones which you know had a great performance. So find a method for taking notes. Whether it's color-coding your takes during recording based on where they have good material (I'll use different colors to indicate that there's an awesome performance at the beginning of a take vs the end so I know to look there right away), or take actual written notes that you can refer to later.
2. Solo the vocal track when editing
Although your first instinct may be to edit your vocal takes in the context of the full mix, try soloing the vocal instead. You want to hear the voice loud and clear without any distractions to note any unwanted noises—grunts, ambient sounds, or coughs. Even if they’re hard to hear, the noises may be audible on different speaker setups systems or different headphones. Better clean it all up right away, so solo that vocal track and cut out all the unwanted noise!
If there are long sections of no singing, make sure there is actual silence in them. Apply a noise gate to minimize any undesirable low-level sounds between vocal lines. If your audio recording has any sort of background hum, hiss, or buzzing, you'll want to use iZotope's RX Spectral De-noise plug-in to further clean it all up.
3. Align your vocal takes
If you did your job well, all your vocal takes were recorded to a click track, so most likely they’re all in sync with one another. However, occasionally, some phrases may be timed a little bit out of sync, or maybe you were recording a free-form piece with no metronome. In those instances, you’ll want to manually move the different takes around so they roughly align with one another for easy switching and editing between them. Depending on what software you use, DAWS like Pro Tools and Logic have time and pitch modules to help warp your vocal takes into time perfectly. Vocalign can also do this process manually for you. In a pinch, zoom into the front of the waveform on your vocal takes and manually drag the waveforms so they all begin at roughly the same time. Or, cut out the silence from your vocal takes completely if the silence is long enough.
4. Choosing the right vocal comp length
Time to start editing your vocal takes together. Let's say you’re working with four different takes of the entire verse. The dream, of course, would be to have one perfect take of the entire first verse. But, since that's probably not what happened, you'll need to splice together the best of each of the takes to create that perfect verse performance. Try to subdivide the verse into phrases. Find the best performance of each of those phrases within your takes. That way, you're still getting a full, natural performance of each of the phrases before switching to another take.
Of course, you’ll encounter particularly tricky phrases that were much harder to perform. You may have an amazing beginning line to a phrase in take number two, but maybe the singer messed up the lyrics in the second half and stopped singing. You may be tempted to just throw away the take, but don't! Use the first half of the phrase and find a point where you can transition to another take which has a great ending. What you're doing here is further subdividing the phrases into lines you can use.
If you couldn't find a full phrase, and even doing sub-lines wasn't enough, you may need to go down to the word level. If there's one particular word that sounds amazing in one take, but the rest of the phrase is great in another, switch takes for that one word. Finally, if you really do need to go hard-core, you may have to pick out single syllables. This is particularly difficult to make the edits sound natural and good. This should be your last resort and only used once you become comfortable with vocal comping.
So, to recap, when selecting/editing takes together, try to find the longest complete sections possible and work your way down to shorter ones as needed. Full phrases first, then sub-lines, single words, and finally (if it's a must) syllables.
5. Crossfade everything
This is a necessity. Make sure every audio clip has a fade in, fade out, or crossfade. You want to avoid any accidental pops caused by hard beginnings or endings. Depending on the DAW you're using, you may need to create those manually (Pro Tools), whereas others may do that for you automatically as you're creating take comps (Logic Pro X). These (cross-)fades don't need to be lengthy. 10–20 ms should suffice, but use your ears to get the desired clean transitions between the takes.
6. Find moments of silence
As for the exact points where you should transition from one take to another, you'll want to find spaces where creating such a transition is not noticeable. For this reason, places where there is silence in both takes will be your natural best friend. So look for points between phrases/lines/words where there is enough silence for you to create a transition without anyone noticing that you changed takes. Since most phrases end with a breath, those moments of silence are the perfect place to crossfade to another take.
7. Be careful of double breaths
This is where I have to warn you about the dangers of double breaths. When transitioning from one take to another in between two phrases, it's very likely the breaths may be misaligned. If you crossfade in the middle, you'll end up with two breaths and an unnatural sound. Remember when I said it helps to do your edits with the vocal tracks soloed? This is another reason why—to catch any of these mistakes.
Always make sure to preserve as much of the natural breaths as possible. If the breath from the pickup take doesn't line up with the other ones, find the appropriate breath in another take or in another section of the song. Remember to always make sure there is just one breath at the beginning of a phrase.
8. Look for the fricatives
If you can't create a smooth transition between takes in a space of silence between phrases, lines, or words, you may be forced to do it somewhere during the phrase itself. This can be particularly challenging. It's practically impossible to create an unnoticeable transition during an open vowel. So we need to find other places that will help us mask the transition better. For this, you'll want to look for fricatives.
What is a fricative?
Fricatives are consonant sounds produced when air squeezes through blocked passages in your mouth, thus resulting in friction. This all sounds super fancy, but it essentially means that you're looking for sounds that are naturally friction-based. In the English language those are the various sounds generated by "s," "z," "sh," "f," "v," "th," and "h."
Since fricative consonants produce a harsh sound without creating a particular pop (like "b," "d," and "p" do), they are perfect at masking any crossfades being done while they're happening. In the phrase "No one standing in my way," the "s" in "standing" would be the perfect spot to transition between takes. Find a strong fricative in your phrase (like the "s" in the above example) and crossfade from one take to another during that fricative. I promise it will be hard to tell that a change even occurred. Use fricatives to your advantage to hide any internal transitions you need to make.
Creating the perfect vocal comp can take time, but as with anything else, practice makes perfect. And if you put in the extra effort, you'll be able to create vocal comps that sound flawless—making people wonder if by any chance the artist actually did record it all in one perfect take. After all, that should be your goal—to create a comp which presents a gorgeous and inspiring performance. If no one can tell that you ever even touched it, then you've done your job well.