Learn how the professionals select and seamlessly edit vocal takes
A flawless, one-take vocal performance has become increasingly rare these days.
But that's not a problem, this is why every modern DAW allows all of us producers and engineers to meticulously edit together any number of takes into one perfect performance.
Vocal comping is the art of both selecting and then combining multiple takes of any vocal or instrument into a single, ultimate take.
In this tutorial, Grammy winner Fab Dupont walks you through the entire comping process and shows you how to:
- Balance technical perfection with artistic expression, maintaining the "feel" of a track while also maximizing the precision of the performance
- Sort through of dozens of takes without losing track the best ones
- Know when to pick a winner and move on with life instead of endlessly deliberating between nearly identical options
- Nudge and drag out edit points to create seamless and imperceivable comps
- Quickly assemble comps using the tools at hand, in this case Avid's Pro Tools playlist view and promote button/shortcuts
Whether you're a Pro Tools, Logic, Cubase or Studio One user, learning how to effectively comp vocals together is an essential skill every engineer and producer needs to master.
Download the exercise files to practice comping the same vocal tracks Fab used in the tutorial. Inside the .zip file you'll find the Pro Tools session file as well as the consolidated wav files to practice comping with any DAW
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- 00:00 - Start
- 00:40 - What Is Vocal Comping
- 01:51 - The Playlist View
- 04:15 - The Solo Workflow
- 05:15 - Comping In Context
- 06:29 - Comping Step By Step
- 07:21 - The Four Basic Concepts
- 09:53 - Keeping Track Of Takes
- 10:14 - Rating and Sorting Takes
- 11:21 - Vocal Comping Workflow
- 16:09 - Phrase By Phrase
- 19:22 - Removing A Click
- 23:57 - Performance Enhancing
- 24:19 - The Goal of Vocal Comping
- 26:12 - Editing Breath
- 27:45 - Listening In Context
- 28:57 - Doubling The Vocal
Good morning children. Today we're going to comp vocals.
Oh joy! Actually, it's kind of fun.
You take a verse, 30 takes of it, and you make one take out of that.
Then the Chorus, and 40 takes of that, then the bridge, 50 takes of that.
And then other chorus which is the same as the previous but not really, and you have 30 takes of that.
It's sounds like fun, right? No, but it is fun because in the end you have a really great take.
Let me show you how.
Before we go into it let's discuss what is vocal comping.
Vocal comping is probably the most important process in the art of making a record in pop music today.
Why is that? Because you're looking for absolute perfection in each and every single moment of the song for each and every instrument.
I'm gonna show you on vocals but this works for every instrument.
Because of the excitement and all the good will of a recording session often, you listen to a whole take and you feel so good, right? And then you look at it really intently and there's like 5 places where's it's like...
It's good for any other band but maybe not for this band, that's so good.
So you have to cover your basses and record a little more.
And what do you do with all that, you comp it.
That's what we're gonna do now.
Make sure the singer is not in the room when you do this.
Why? They can't stand it.
Even the best ones, they can't stand it.
Don't try, you're not different than anybody else.
You will not make the singer feel OK about being scrutinized word by word, syllable by syllable. Just don't do it.
Wait him go to the bathroom, grocery shopping, clothes shopping, hangout with her boyfriend, girlfriend.
Whatever, just do it when you're alone.
Today we're gonna use Pro Tools because of the main thing about it, that's contained in the name... Tools.
You could do this in Logic, Cubase or Studio One.
The process and the way it's handled are different but the principals are exactly the same.
In Pro Tools you have a system called playlist.
Let me show you that.
Playlists are a really wonderful system, instead of recording your different passes of vocals, you know...
when you sing the same verse 30 times as discussed before, instead of recording them in separate tracks you record them on the same track, but, you layer.
So your first take is all the way in the back.
Like a deck of cards, so your first take is your first card.
And then your second take is your second card, all the way up to the top.
And if you wanna listen to the first take, you gotta get rid of all the cards in front of it.
And then you listen to that take, and then the second take, third take...
Etc, etc. Until the top take.
In Pro Tools, at this track height, you can click on this triangle, and you get the list of all playlists available for this track.
So this is my vocal track, And these are all my playlists for my vocal track.
You'll see that I have 33 layers or playlists and then and an extra 3 playlists, named differently because they were different things.
If I wanted to do a little last minute vocal recording I would make a new playlist, and call it ' VOX NEW LAST MINUTE'.
And now, here's a brand new fresh track. But it's not a track.
It's a playlist and it's right here.
Now, on playlist number one, which is the first one ever recorded...
There it is, my first vocal.
And then if I go to the second one.
There it is. I did just the verse and then I stopped her, maybe she made mistake or maybe I didn’t like the vibe, or maybe I felt that we should concentrate on the verse.
Here's the third one. And so on and so forth for the whole song.
Pro Tools has a new feature for the last couple versions that's kind of nice.
It's called Playlists. Isn't that amazing? Switching from the waveform view to the playlist view allows you to display all those playlists that are hidden inside that track so you can have a Birdseye view of what you did.
You'll notice that you have a color scheme.
The color scheme is very handy, you'll see it in a minute.
So you can still choose which playlist is the main one.
That playlist on top there, is the most important one because that's the one that plays.
Right now I'm listening to this entire thing but all I'm hearing is this top playlist.
If you press the solo button.
Now, it can be confusing because there's also a solo button here on the main track.
So, which is which? Think of it this way...
This is a solo button for the track, and this a solo button for the playlist within the context of the track.
So, if you press this solo, all you hear is vocal.
Because you're soloing the track.
But if you press this solo here, what you're gonna hear is this playlist, within the context of the song because the track is not soloed.
You have a solo for the track, same solo you've been using forever, and then you have a solo just for the playlist within the context of the track, which itself, can be soloed or not.
So why bother, why all this? Well, because comping is a very tedious process, and whatever automation or help you can get from the DAW will make your day a little bit less bad.
It is very important for you as a music producer or mixer, or whatever you call yourself, that you master this solo track and solo playlist work-flow.
And have it part of your work-flow because the number one mistake that people make is comping vocals in solo.
Meaning, not listening to the band.
Unless your comping vocals for and a Capella band, it's not a good idea because when you remove the solo at the end of the comping session you're guaranteed for it to suck.
Because the whole point is to have a vocal that works for the song in context of the band.
And in solo you won't do that.
You'll just look at little details that will not matter in the context of the song and you'll miss the vibe, the pocket, and the tuning.
So, only use solo track in very critical manners.
But when you're comping, make sure you're comping in context.
The way I do it is as such.
I always have the drums, if they're already taken care of, grooving.
If not, I have a click.
And the bass so I have a tone reference.
Make sure your bass is in tune.
So now I have the timing and bass reference from the click or drums and the bass.
And I always comp my vocals against that reference.
Before we get into the philosophical concepts of how to get the most out of a vocal comp let's revise what we've just learned by doing a little of practical training.
You notice that I have no playlist soloed.
Which means I'm listening to the main playlist up here.
Here we go! This is the same thing with playlist 2.
Playlist 9 without the context.
Playlist 2 without the context.
Playlist 2 in context.
OK, now we know.
So how do you think about comping, good question.
Well, the technicalities of it is not that big deal.
You saw the most of it right now.
What's important is your thought process and your musicality behind it.
And that's a problem because you're entering the art form.
And if you marry an art form with a tedious process what happens first is you loose stamina and you loose perspective.
And that means your comp will suck.
So you'll have to be super careful to be extremely efficient because you will loose patience.
So this is how I function.
I have four basic concepts.
I listen to the vocal for vibe.
Is the vibe of the vocal what I was looking for the song? That's totally subjective.
But over nine takes you'll notice that some takes are aggressive, some takes are peaceful, some takes are blase, and they were thinking of something else.
And some takes just draw you in.
So, if you're thinking of something else, or if you're having tax problems, or girlfriend problems then you'll not be able to focus on the fact that this is a really great take because you'll be listening to the same exact vocal, singing the same melody at the same tempo.
Who cares, right? So, you have to make sure that you're super focused on the emotion of the singer, number one.
And then you have to single out whichever takes makes you feel the best emotionally, second.
Make sure that she or he is in tune.
That's the basic stuff.
Number 3, I listen to timing. Timing is everything.
And then four is sound.
Sometimes the singer leans forward.
Leans back, goes to the bathroom, comes back and doesn't stay in the same place.
All these things. Sometimes your gear changes over time.
You do a vocal when you start just before lunch you go have lunch and you come back, even if the singer is exactly in the right place the gear has shifted and the sound is a little different.
If it's warmer, colder, more humid. Everything changes a tiny bit.
Because you're making a record you're basically putting a microphone on top of everything.
And everything is scrutinized so the smallest little details shout out of you.
So now you have a puzzle that you're building based on vibe, tuning, timing, and sound.
You have to make sure, depending on your music style, that you have a good combo of those four things.
And that's your taste so I can't really show you that.
And you can't learn my taste because it will take you as long as it took me to make my taste.
So I trust you have taste, otherwise you wouldn't be here, but make sure you always pay attention to all four things, for every take.
And then, you have to keep track.
Let's talk about keeping track.
There are several ways of keeping track of that 4 piece puzzle.
The traditional way.
The daring way.
And the Pro Tools way, let me show you the Pro Tools way because you can't imagine that.
First, for Pro Tools, you have to turn it on.
Because it's off by default.
And you have to show 'Rating' in 'View', 'Clip', 'Rating'.
And this is rating none.
Pro Tools has a rating from none to five.
None is zero if you will.
And then you have, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.
So say this is the best take in the universe, you right click on it, you go rating, Rocks. And then this maybe, not so rocking.
Say 4, and this just sucks.
So you do that for all the takes, every clip.
And then, they give you fantastic sorting ideas like filter lanes.
'Show only lanes with clip rated five'.
So you only see the best of the best.
Or show only lanes that are better than.
And now I see four and five.
Some of you might think that 1 to 5 might me a little limiting.
No, no. One to five is too much already.
The way I function is. Likey.
And that is already a lot to manage when you have this much stuff.
So now that we have a way to keep track of the respective qualities of the take, We need some sort of a work-flow.
So the first thing I always do is look for the best full song take.
Or, the best long take.
The advantage of that is: A - If you let the singer roll for the whole song that means that, they were doing great.
That may be a good take.
Second, that gives you a home base.
You have one full reference and hopeful because it's a whole take, it has a good vibe and the verses and the choruses grow and breath and there's storytelling going on from verse to chorus and so on and so forth.
So that's what I always do.
I listen to the whole song.
Take by take, on the long takes or the full takes.
Let's do that.
And I can see here that I have one big take on one and one big take on 4. Let's start there.
I don't have to hit solo on the main take because it's on the main playlist and the main playlist plays by default if there are no playlist soloed.
So. First take.
Very interesting. So she made a mistake, she was warming up.
So, I can't use this whole take.
However, she's a great singer and already the first verse is really awesome.
Let's listen to take 4.
Note the unbelievable difference in vibe three takes later.
Let's see how she's doing on take 10.
It's cool but it doesn't have the vibe of take 4.
The agressivity, the energy and because of the arrangement and the song, I feel take 4 is better.
Because it has more 'hummf'.
Now, who's to say that take 9 is not the best. Nobody.
The problem of course is you have 30 takes and you have stuff to do, and you have a record to do and a deadline.
If you have all the time in the world you can listen to every take and go crazy.
However, you will loose perspective.
Come back in one or two hours and completely change your mind about which is best.
The idea is to find something that makes you feel good, puts a smile on your face, doesn't hurt physically because of technical problems, and then run with it. And then if you have a problem, Look for a solution on the other playlist, otherwise you'll be here for days.
So I like 4. I'm gonna use that. How do I do that? Well, if you remember, my main playlist is now occupied by take 1.
I don't wanna crush that because I might wanna use that.
So what I'm gonna do is use the 'Copy Selection to new Playlist'.
And I'm gonna call that 'Vox Comp'.
And I'm not gonna be cocky, and I know there might be versions so I'm gonna call it 1.0.
So now what just happened is take 4 is being duplicated and sent to the new main playlist and take 1 which was at the top, on the main playlist, is now on the lower playlist, which is right here.
The benefit of that, now you can see it. You see the red here? And the red here? Now you know that this playlist and this playlist are the same.
Isn't that practical? This is gonna become even more practical to have colors in a minute.
Now I know that if I play this, because there are no playlist solos, I'm gonna hear playlist 4 because I just promoted it to the main playlist.
It sounds like this.
Cool, so now we have a home base.
It happens to be playlist 4, it could be playlist 712.
It doesn't matter, it's just a home base.
Now I'm gonna list to this playlist, which is officially at this point, my record.
And see if there's something I can make better.
'I'd say them over and again and make them loud as thunder' is not necessarily as fantastic as she could have done it.
Do we have better? I'm gonna position myself right at the phrase I wanna scrutinize.
I kind of like the end of that one.
And then I'm gonna either click on playlists or use the Pro Tools key command, ; or p to go up and down.
And solo the other playlist in that same spot.
That's not gonna work.
This is playlist 3.
This 4, we listened to that on the main playlist already.
I like the shine that happens on 5.
I don't know if it's gonna gel with 4 but I like the feature of it.
Maybe I'm gonna separate it.
In this case I'm showing you really scholarly so you can have an idea but I'm gonna rate that 4.
Then go down 1, listen to number 6.
Not the best.
Don't forget the perspective, we're trying to beat 4 which is this, when I remove the solo.
See? Four is still the best so far.
That's incredibly in tune.
So we like 9.
And we like whatever else we liked before. Five? Is either this.
Or the source.
I like the balance at 'I'd say them'...
On the source.
But I think that the rest is better on five.
So what does one do? Well, one looks into it...
And then promotes the part that one likes to the main playlist so you can use this menu.
Right click, 'Copy selection to main playlist', or you can use the shortcut Cntrl+Option+V.
Now, when you're listening to it you have to make sure there are no solos enabled otherwise you won't be listening to the edit you just created.
So, it's edited from two takes that are 20 minutes away but the tone is close enough so it feels good.
But you do have a click. So what are the options? Change the in point.
What happens if you move the in point to the word before? So, the word after.
I don't like the end.
So, I'm gonna keep it where it was, and I'm gonna give it a little bit of a fade.
Now you can finesse this the best you can and get rid of the click.
What you could do is select this and move it a little bit.
So that the junction points work better together.
Right now the problem is there is a friction there, something is not working.
If you move this one a little bit or this one a little bit, it might work.
I like the timing of this.
This one, I have a little leeway.
What if I move it 100 samples to the left.
Much better transition.
And all did was move this little insert right here 100 samples to the left.
And it didn’t change the time enough to make it a problem.
Check it out with the click and the bass.
100 samples is a good value to start nudging stuff around.
You can hear and feel 100 samples.
Below, depending on what you had for breakfast you might change your mind from listen to listen.
However, 100 samples is good.
With 100 samples nudge left or right you can really re-groove a word or a whole performance by massaging the time so it feels musical.
Let's move on.
Hear that? Hummm, not her best performance.
Griming, I like it.
Uhh... Good energy.
Five is nice.
Six she decided not to sing.
Uhh. I like the 'loud' on this. Nine.
Let's play the original for reference.
The energy is awesome but I don't think she's in tune.
Because she's very on top of her pitch.
I really like 9 and 5.
So how about...
'Loud as' from 9...
And 'sunder' from 5.
And that's the hip-hop remix.
Let's listen to the edit.
It may or may not work.
Don't forget to remove the solos on the playlist.
If you're not sure you can opt+click...
on one solo here...
And you're sure there's no solo in the playlist.
We have to fix the little transition in here but I like the pitch and I like the energy.
You noticed that maybe this is a little softer than this.
What to do? Well, you have clip gain.
So just like you were able to move the time left and right you can also change the gain of one clip.
Two dB is a little obscene but 1 dB is cool.
Let's find a spot.
Right, see? This is the problem.
How's this? Not bad.
Just like she's singing in one take.
I know some of you might be thinking, because I've heard it before.
'Wow, that is really bad!' 'Machines... You can fix bad performances with machines.' 'She should have sung that thing in one take'.
That's not how it works.
That's not reality.
When you wanna make something that's absolutely perfect, this is how it's done, and this is how it's been done forever.
Since has been trickery available, trickery has been used. Why? Not because the singer is not rocking.
Just because they wanna it to be really great.
Let's make a philosophical side-note about that.
If you have ever been to really great concert, you've had this feeling that the guys on stage can do no wrong.
They seem perfectly on, everybody rocks.
There are no mistakes, it's like super natural, right? And you're seating in the crowd tell yourself, 'Wow, that is amazing!' And you want that to come out of the record.
If you've been lucky enough to be at the concert, that was taped, and you get to listen to the unedited concert tape, you will then see a difference in the perspective.
It's happened to me quite a bit...
It's never as good when you listen to the recording as it was when you were in the room. Why? It's the same performance.
Your perception of the concert is tainted by the physical presence of the performers.
You like the singer, he's cute, she's cute.
You like the bass player, you know.
The lights are awesome, the sound is amazing.
The person you are at the concert with makes you feel good about life.
Those things taint the perception of the music.
When you listen to the recording on your iPod at night, none of that happens, unless of course the person you were at concert with is with you.
But that's a different story.
The difference between being live with the presence of the performer at an event and listening to the an actual perfect recording of that event is such a difference thing that when you listen to the recording you start hearing the mistakes that you did not hear when you were at the concert.
And that is why in my opinion as a music producer, we tune, and comp and edit records.
Most performers are not necessarily aware of the goal.
The goal is to make sure that the listening experience in your home as the listener is as strong, perfect and intense as if the performer was in the room with you.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Let's talk about breath.
Here's an example.
Hear that? There are two breaths because I was sloppy as to where I cut in between those two segments.
So, I like to attach the breath of the upcoming segment to its segment.
There's a quality of tone to every breath and you tell if you have a breath from somewhere that's glued onto something else.
So let's keep it this way.
It could be a little better.
See? Let's try that.
Here even more. I'm just gonna remove this out of the way.
More on breaths.
Once I start compressing this... Let me show you.
I'll use a compressor and I'll entirely uncivilized with it.
Let's see, let's pick one.
Obscene one, like this guy.
Maybe not that obscene.
Here how much louder the breath is? These are ridiculous settings though.
Here we go. Without.
Here how much louder the breath is? There's nothing written in any book that I've read that you can't do this. Separate the breath, lower the gain of the breath so that it's not affected by the compressor as much.
It's very time consuming but it's less distracting for the listener and also it let's you compress more with less artifacts.
What's not to like? Now if you remember, at the beginning, I discussed perspective we've been looking at one word or two at a time.
We haven't listened to the whole verse at once.
So I'm gonna remove the solo, and we're gonna listen to what we've done and see if it makes sense musically, withing the context of the song.
Notice that, in the context, the 'Loud as thunder', that we just edited in blue here, ahmmm, sucks. See if it works better if it's louder.
Notice how different the sound is? That's a problem.
So, we picked it because we liked it but in the context, with perspective, it doesn't work. I'll have to pick another one.
This process repeated by 200, Verse, Chorus, Bridge, Chorus, multiplied by all the background vocals is what you call, vocal comping.
Here's a couple extra tricks to keep you busy for the next 12 years.
I took the liberty to import the actual comp from the record.
Not to compare but to show you another trick here.
You'll see that we make complete different choices except for this one little chunk here.
So, that confirms the fact that, your comping is gonna be based on how you feel at that moment, which means that you have to do it in passes.
You do a first pass, let it seat.
Come back, let it seat.
Come back and then you come to something great.
So, we see here that we're using completely different takes throughout the whole comp. And it sounds like this.
I wanna remove the obnoxious compressor and listen to what we did.
Your mileage may vary. It's a question of taste.
However, here's what we can do.
I can use this as my main, the record take, I'm gonna color it green.
For good, the track.
The clips here keep their color so I can keep track of which playlist they come from.
One of the great advantages of tracking the vocal several times if the singer is gonna sing it the same time every time, is you have a built-in doubled vocal.
What do you mean? Well, if you singer is gonna sing it exactly the same several times, you take the main take, you comp it, and then whatever you don't use for the comp you can use for the double.
It's so nice. Let me show you.
I'll go back to playlist and I'm gonna make sure that that part here is not the same, because if it's the same is gonna sound mono and weird.
So we liked five. Let's just select five.
I'll use this little thing here to promote it.
There you go.
Now, if we change this, now we have 2 takes that are completely different.
You'll notice that none of the colors overlap.
And it sounds like this with the two of them together.
That's not how you set up successful double for sound.
A double will be quieter, often thinner and probably a little different sounding than the lead.
Let's do that, I'm gonna lower...
the double, I'm gonna high pass it.
Because, high pass everything.
There you go.
So you hear a few little discrepancies in the timing.
Also you hear some discrepancies in the tuning.
What most people do is they slap Auto-tune on the double and...
Double without the singer.
This the vocal without the double.
You've hear that sound before.
So as I said, when you have big timing discrepancies you have to fix it. Like for example here.
She just sings it differently.
We have to look for and find the take where she sings it the same way. Maybe this one would work.
And then, often you have little things where, you know...
This one is a little behind. You can select the double.
Separate it into a separate region.
And move it so that the timing matches the timing of the lead.
Still a little bit behind.
And it sounds like this.
And if you think that would be time-consuming.
You'd be right but you gotta suffer to be beautiful.
In summary, the process you just saw, which works for vocals, bass, guitars and tenor kazoos, is the way you have to present your listener with the absolute best stuff you've got.
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- Avid Pro Tools
- Antares Autotune
- Sonnox EQ
- Bomb Factory BF76
Fab Dupont is a Grammy winning NYC based record producer, mixing/mastering engineer and co-founder of pureMix.net.
Fab has been playing, writing, producing and mixing music both live and in studios all over the world. He's worked in cities like Paris, Boston, Brussels, Stockholm, London and New York just to name a few.
He has his own studio called FLUX Studios in the East Village of New York City.
Fab has been nominated for Grammys 6 times, including two Latin Grammys and has received many other accolades around the world, including Victoires de la Musique, South African Music awards, Pan African Music Awards and US independent music awards.
Toots And The Maytals
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