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How to Create a Great Vocal Comp

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How to Create a Great Vocal Comp
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Hey folks, Matthew Weiss here — weiss-sound.com, theproaudiofiles.com.

This lesson is going to be about vocal comping. What is vocal comping? Well, it’s when you have multiple takes of a vocal performance, and you take the best part of each take, and you splice them all together, and you create one single take at the end. The word comp stands for composite, we are making a composite of the vocals.

Okay, it’s not the most glamorous topic in the world, I know, but it’s really one of the most crucial steps when it comes to making a really successful song, because we want the absolute best vocal performance any time we’re putting a song out there, and it’s going to be more impactful, even than really the rest of the mix, or most of the production techniques.

The vocal is really 50% of the song, and so we need to get that right. So I’m going to illustrate that here with an example. I’m going to play the original of the vocal take for this hook, and then I’m going to play my comp, which came after the artist decided that he could do a better job performing, and decided to recut.

Alright, here we go.

[music, original vocal hook]

And here is my comp.

[music, hook comped]

So I think right from the get go, just the difference in the overall feel is pretty apparent, and you might even be thinking, “Well gosh, doesn’t the vocal comp sound like it’s maybe a little bit louder than the original?”

Actually, no. I took a lot of effort to make sure that they’re pretty level matched. What you’re hearing is just a stronger vocal delivery, and that is extremely impactful when it comes to getting a huge vocal sound. It really steps beyond the mix, and it really gets down to what you’re actually working with. But that’s not the only thing that’s better about it. There’s so many different things. Really, in every aspect of vocal delivery, we’ve checked off an improvement.

Well, let’s go over those different aspects. What are we even listening for when we’re trying to take the best takes? Well I sort of break it down into four things.

The first one, and I think this is really the most important is the believability. Conviction is not something that you can pitch correct. It’s not something that you can edit with timing, and it’s not something that you can fix tonally with EQ. If I don’t believe the story that the vocalist is delivering, there’s nothing I can really do to fix that. I can help it the best I can, but it just is what it is. So believability is the number one thing that I look for.

The second thing that I look for, which is similar to believability, and kind of an offshoot of it, is personality. That’s more about the actual physical tone and texture of the vocal. So is it gruff? Is it smooth? Is it wobbly? I don’t know. We’re putting adjectives on there, but it’s the personality, and again, that’s something that’s very hard to fix or fake in the editing or mixing process.

Then we have the two things that comprise the actual stickiness of the hook, which is the rhythm and the melody. How articulated is the melody line, and how obvious is the rhythmic pattern? We want our listener to understand what’s being communicated musically so that they can sing along. That is the purpose of a hook 99% of the time.

So if we’re not really catching the melody or we’re not really hearing the pattern fully articulated, it’s going to be really hard to sing along. So with all of those things in mind, focusing on how much you believe the artist, the personality of the delivery, the rhythm and the melody, let’s listen to the original again, and then listen to the comp.

[music, original vocal then comp vocal]

I feel like when I hear the original, I can’t sing it back, and I feel like when I hear the comp, I can. It’s really just a big difference, even though it’s a bunch of subtle differences.

Okay, so now let’s break down the actual process of making a vocal comp. What we’re listening for, how we go about doing it. This is going to be a little bit different if you’re using different DAWs. I know that if you happen to be working in Studio One, which is a DAW I started using really recently, which I really love, this is not called playlisting, this is called layers. I believe it’s also called layers in Logic. Ableton I think you have to use completely separate tracks to do this, but basically, we’re going to take all of the vocal takes and we’re going to group them into one area so that we can work with them.

So here, if we look at this track, this audio track labeled “HK comp,” that stands for Hook comp, right now it is completely open. But underneath are these smaller tracks, and these are my playlists, or in your DAW, maybe it’s called layers or something else.

So here I have the original hook at the top. We’re not going to have to worry about that too much, and then we have our three additional new takes that we’re going to be comping between, which are hook 02, hook 03, hook 04, and then underneath that, I have the finished comp that I did ahead of time before shooting this. We’re going to ignore that as well.

So the first thing that I want to do is I want to go through each take and find what I call my anchor take. The anchor take is the one that just most consistently feels like a great performance. It’s one where if we only had the one take, we could work with that. So let’s play a few bars of each of these new takes and see which one feels like it’s the strongest.

[mix, playing vocal take 1]

Okay, so that one’s not bad. There’s a few things that I like and there’s a few things I don’t like. What I like is that there’s a lot of texture to the vocal, and there’s attitude in there, and I think that both of those things are important for this hook. I also like that the rhythm is pretty well defined.

What I don’t like is I don’t like the way that the delivery is coming through. It feels like the neck is over tensed, and that more of the sound is being pushed into the nose than it really should, and so the whole sound is a little bit small and narrow. So it’s not ideal.

Now, that could be fixed to a degree, so if this is the only thing we’re working with, not bad.

Okay, let’s check out the next one.

[mix, playing vocal take 2]

Okay, so now spring boarding off of all of that, I would say that this is actually a much more winning take in most departments. The only thing I feel like it’s lacking is some of the texture, but the actual vocal delivery is a lot fuller. He’s using his voice in a much more natural way. The rhythm is more articulated, the melody is more articulated, and just the sound and the acting is very believable, so overall, this is a very strong take, and it’s probably going to end up being our anchor. Let’s check out the next one.

[mix, playing vocal take 3]

So right off the bat, I can tell you I don’t like this one as much. It’s going back to the thing where he’s tensing his neck too much when he’s singing. Kind of like how I’m trying to speak right now, where I have a lot of tension on my neck, and it pushes everything into my nose. That’s not really going to translate as well to the final record. Unless he’s doing it very specifically and very stylistically, which in this case, not what is happening.

So I’m going to fly this up to our main track here, and now you can see that this pink guy is up in the main track, and now what I’m going to do is I’m going to go through phrase by phrase, and I’m going to compare each take, and I’m going to see what the best moments of each take individually are for that phrase, and start replacing them.

So let’s start with our first phrase right here.

[music]

Alright. That first phrase. Okay. Let’s go to — let’s start with our anchor take. In fact, I’m actually going to move this up so that we’re always starting from the anchor take, and then comparing the alternate takes.

[music, playing vocal takes]

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Something interesting in that, but let’s listen to the third take real quick.

[music, playing take 3]

Okay. I like what’s happening in hook 2, and I’m going to compare. Listen to the second half of the phrase very specifically.

[mix, playing anchor vocal]

That’s our anchor. Here’s 02.

[mix, playing hook 2]

Notice that the cadence of the second phrase, he leans into the word a little bit more, which gives it a little bit more power and a little bit more dynamic.

[song]

Right? The word, “Say” in particular. “Watch them gas you up just to say they own you.” Listen to the word, “Say.”

Anchor take.

[song, playing anchor vocal, then hook 2]

I really like how he hits the word, “Say” a little bit harder, because I feel like that gives more impact to the feel, and it also creates sort of a mini-hook within the hook, because that pattern gets repeated a lot, so I really want that to be articulated.

So what I’m going to do is I’m going to highlight here, just that second half of the phrase, and I’m going to fly it in. So now what I have is a composite of the hook 03 as the first line, and the hook 02 as the second line.

[mix]

Right? It sounds pretty good. Flows together really nicely, everything is working.

So once I’ve done that, then I’m going to make a few little tweaks just to make it a little smoother. The word, “Up,” I like that he’s putting a little extra dynamic in the word, “Up,” but it’s maybe just a hair too much, so I’m going to back this down maybe about two and a half dB, and this back end phrase I feel is just a little quiet, so I’m going to turn it up, maybe about a dB and a half.

[music]

And then lastly, I’m thinking that maybe the word, “Just” is a little bit on the early side.

[song]

So I have two options with that. I could either shift the word, “Just” over to the right so it comes in a little bit later. I usually do that in 300 sample intervals, so let’s give it one little nudge and see how that feels.

[song]

And you notice that feels a little bit better. It’s a subtle difference, but just listen to how the phrases connect.

[mix]

It’s got a little bit more jump to it now. It really feels like it’s on top of the groove.

The other option that we have is we could take the word, “Just” from the previous side and slide it into place here, and hear how that one feels.

[music]

I’m going to be honest, I actually like that one a little bit better. The word is a little smudgier, but it kind of works for me. I think I’m just going to turn it up a little bit.

Yeah. I dig it. So that process right there of going through each additional take, listening for the tone, the texture, the believability, the personality, the rhythm, the music, keeping an ear out for all of those things, we repeat that process for the entire vocal part, and then we end up getting a finished comp.

Once we’ve done that, we do all of our little edits to make everything flow together really smoothly, and does it take awhile to do this? Well, if you’re just getting into it, yes, it’s going to take you a little bit of time, you’re going to go back and forth, because some takes are better in some ways, and other takes are better in others, and it’s not so cut and dry and crystal clear as to what you want to use, so you have to use a lot of subjective decision making, and it can be a bit of a time consuming process at first.

But if you keep doing it, keep doing it, this vocal comp took me maybe about five minutes to get up here? Just because I’ve done it so often. So start doing it, even if it’s annoying, even if it’s tedious, at the end of the day, when you get the finished result…

[mix]

It ends up being so much easier to mix, and so much easier to make good, and really, you’re just going to get a better result no matter what.

So I really encourage you to get into this, and also I’m going to ask you to do something a little bit differently here. Normally I say, “Hit the like button, hit the subscribe button,” and I’d still like you to do that, but vocal comping is not something that’s going to come up in search engines too often, it’s not something that a lot of people are searching for, because they don’t even necessarily know what the word is, or they don’t realize the importance of it

So what I’d like you to do is if you know somebody who’s in the vocal production world, meaning they’re a recording engineer, tracking engineer, a producer, an artist who self produces, just to check out this video, show them this video, send them the link so that they can see what’s going on, because when I’m working with people like Akon in the studio, or Becky G, or Nicki Minaj, or whoever else it is, this is the process that we go through in order to get an amazing record. We take the best of the best to make the best.

Anyway guys, thank you for checking this out, and I’ll catch you next time.

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Matthew Weiss

Matthew Weiss

Matthew Weiss is the recordist and mixer for multi-platinum artist Akon, and boasts a Grammy nomination for Jazz & Spellemann Award for Best Rock album. Matthew has mixed for a host of star musicians including Akon, SisQo, Ozuna, Sonny Digital, Uri Caine, Dizzee Rascal, Arrested Development and 9th Wonder. Get in touch: Weiss-Sound.com

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