More often than not, the lead vocal is the track that contains the most emotional content of the song. With repeated attempts at recording the vocal, you run the risk of losing that emotion and “magic”. So while it’s ideal for the singer to nail the perfect take in one or two tries, a good engineer knows how to respond the other 90 per cent of the time.
The answer is to compile the best elements of a few different takes into a single, composite performance where each line, each phrase and even each syllable is sung just the way you want. This process is called “comping”. It’s done on nearly every record you hear, even the ones you’re convinced are single, complete takes.
Tip: If the singer is hesitant to record this way, claiming “artistic integrity”, remind them that they’re free to sing the song through from top to bottom, without interruption. Meanwhile, just switch tracks while you’re winding back to the top after each take. (Make sure you’re only sending the current take to the headphone mix – it can be very disconcerting for a singer to begin a song and hear two voices coming out of his mouth.)
In this digital age of virtually unlimited available tracks, it’s tempting to record 5 or even 10 different takes before comping the vocal. But using that many can really overwhelm you and confuse the process. Try utilizing two or three tracks instead. Starting with your first take, tell the singer it’s only a practice take for the purpose of further level adjustment (when in fact you’ve already adjusted everything and are ready to go). This is useful for anxious singers, taking the “pressure” off them.
After two or three takes, stop if you have terrific performances overall. If not, go back to the track with the least inspired take and record over it. Hopefully, you have gained the singer’s trust by now and don’t need to inform them of these details. Continue with this process until you feel that, within those two or three tracks, you have the makings of a great performance.
When you’re ready to start comping, draw lines on the lyric sheet so you can make little notes (check marks, yes, no, good, bad, maybe) on each line of each take. Involve the singer in this process only if they insist – the more they analyze their own performance, the less they’re likely to respond with an inspired, heartfelt one. Once you have usable takes for each line, bounce the winners onto a fresh track (you can also bounce certain lines from “alternate” takes into one take that just needs a few fixes).
Tip: After you have a comped vocal, get away from it for a while (dinner break, TV break, whatever). Then listen to it with fresh ears, and with the singer, to see if you still need to fix something.
This article has been reprinted from the Studio Buddy software. Written by acclaimed producers/engineers Michael Laskow and Alex Reed, Studio Buddy gives hints and tricks on various recording techniques. To download a free copy, go to www.studiobuddy.com.