Mark Scudder

Vocal Recording Crash Course: Comping

For those of you who don't watch a lot of musicians record music, the vocal sessions especially may be a little strange to watch. In the next few posts I'll tell you about the process so it will be a little easier to keep up with the sessions.  Vocal sessions continue Monday, May 28th at 1:00pm EDT and will be live-streamed continuously until they're done.  Join me on my LiveStream Channel to watch, chat, and interact.  For more information on the sessions and schedule, check this post.

First, let's deal with a prevalent myth: Vocalists come in, sing the song once all the way through, and vocals are recorded for that song.

This is not always true.  In fact it's not even true half the time, even for vocalists much more talented than me (which is to say, talented).  There are a lot of reasons this doesn't happen.  A song may be new and not road-tested.  The vocalist may not be entirely comfortable with it.  It may just be a hard part.  For non-professional, non-touring vocalists like myself, sometimes even performing it at a bunch of live shows still leaves room for improvement.  In my case, my lifelong problems with anxiety make it especially difficult to sing without over-thinking, which leads to mistakes, and physical manifestations like the involuntary tightening of the throat.

Vocalists will record multiple takes while recording. Sometimes they'll get it right and have three or four good takes to choose from.  Sometimes they'll record dozens of takes and have to literally cut a different word out of every take.

The process of reviewing takes and cutting the best parts out of each to create the best performance possible is called "comping."  Creating a "comp" requires listening to each take (I do it a line at a time), and selecting the best performance for each line, or word, or - during those really tough parts - syllable.  Recording software (called a Digital Audio Workstation, or "DAW" in common parlance) is advanced enough these days to make it simple to comp a performance.

Comping is not just limited to vocals, but to any audio recording. Comping has been a part of the process for everything I've recorded.  What a relief it is to cover one or two mistakes in a 6-minute acoustic guitar part with another take!  Back in the old days, performers used to "punch in" with a correction - meaning the first performance was played up to the mistake, and then destroyed - that is, recorded over on the same stretch of tape - with the performer playing the part again.  Comping nowadays is non-destructive and much more anxiety-free - unless, of course, you get anxious hearing yourself singing badly during most of the takes! It's all about finding the problems and fixing them.

After a comp is done, a largely misunderstood but justifiably criticized process takes place - pitch correction.  I'll cover that in the next post.