Yesterday I gave you some tips for getting a good vocal recording. So what’s the next step after you’ve recorded the vocal?
Some folks may jump right in to mixing, throwing up a bunch of EQs, compressors, reverbs, etc. Mixing is certainly exciting, but don’t leave out the all-important step of comping and editing.
If you follow my advice in the previous article, then you should have 3-5 takes of the lead vocal. This may seem like a foreign concept to some, but one of the benefits of digital recording is that you can, much like in a text document, copy and paste different sections together. Having the singer sing through the song a few times allows you to have options once the singer goes home.
Here’s what I mean. Let’s say that the vocal session goes insanely well. The singer is “feelin’ it,” and he delivers an amazing performance on the first take. He nailed it. End of vocal session.
Then you listen to the track the next day and notice there are a few spots that could be improved. Since you only recorded one take, you’re out of luck. However, if you recorded multiple takes, you can go back through your “archives” and piece together a great performance.
Is it cheating? I don’t think so. The recording engineer is just as much a part of the creative process as the band. Your art is getting a good-sounding recording. Humans are imperfect creatures. We don’t do things perfectly all the time. That’s why it’s nice to be able to comp together a track, taking the best parts from each take in to one great performance.
How do you do it?
Depending on what DAW you’re using, the comping workflow may be a bit different. Logic and Pro Tools actually have a pretty intuitive comping feature that involves simply highlighting the portions of each take that you want to keep. It creates the final “comp” for you.
A lot of times, though, I like to manually comp things together. I’ll record each vocal to a different track (Vox 1, Vox 2, etc.). Then I’ll copy and paste the portions that I want to a new track (Vox). After that, I can make the take tracks inactive and hide them. I don’t delete them…because I may change my mind about one of my comping decisions down the road, and I’ll be able to go back and make any needed adjustments.
At the very basic level, you’ll need to do a bit of editing. If there aren’t any timing issues with the singer’s performance, this will simply involve cross-fading between the different sections you comp’d together. Cross-fading will prevent any of those annoying clicks in the audio.
During the editing phase, you’ll also want to get rid of any unwanted noise on the track. If the singer coughs between verses, you’ll want to get rid of that. It’s not a bad idea to simply strip out all silent parts, deleting all the sections where the singer isn’t singing.
You’ll want to be careful, though, not to go too far. When Pro Tools and DAWs first started becoming mainstream, some engineers went a bit overboard with editing. One engineer in particular edited the vocals for a hit country album, and he removed all of the vocalist’s breath sounds. At first it seemed like a good idea, but as soon as he played it for people, it sounded very unnatural and just plain weird.
The breath sounds are part of the performance, and you should treat them as such. Removing them makes it sound like the singer is holding his breath or something.
When editing a comp’d vocal track, you may have the perfect performance, but one section might be noticeably louder than another. One easy way to fix this immediately is to use a gain plugin and actually level-match between various sections. It’s as simple as bringing one region up or down by 3 dB to make it sound more cohesive. This will keep you from having to over-compress or do a lot of intricate automation runs.
Another part of editing involves correcting any timing issues. This is known around the Nashville area as “pocketing.” If the singer comes in a little bit early, or his timing is a bit off on a few spots, pocketing is the process of editing those parts to get them more in time.
There are entire video series on editing and pocketing, and I won’t go into great detail here. Suffice it to say you’ll be amazed at how just a little bit of pocketing to your tracks can make the musicians sound so much tighter. I’m not talking about making them sound like a robot, without any human feel or emotion. I’m simply referring to subtle nudges here and there. They can dramatically improve the overall feel of the song.
Comping and editing are certainly not the most exciting parts of the recording process. In fact, sometimes you may spend hours putting a good vocal take together. However, it’s time well spent, and it will pay off for you when it comes time to mix.
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