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How to Comp Your Way into a Great Recording

Tips for building a composite or “comped” master take using “best” sections culled from multiple versions of the same performance

Posted in MusicWorld on August 14, 2018 by

Some days things are just happening—you pick up the guitar, you jump in front of the vocal mic, and, there it is, one take, done. Other times, not so good—for whatever reason you struggle to complete a plausible solo break, but in the end it took you about a dozen tries to get there.

Some of those aborted or inferior takes, however, may contain a few moments of real goodness—so much so that upon further review, you realize that it would be ideal if you could have a master that is the sum of all those inspired segments.

To that end, here we explore a number of time-tested techniques for building a stitch-free composite—or “comped”—master for solo guitar, lead vocal or any other overdubbed parts, using choice sections culled from various takes of the same performance.

Check your levels. First things first: to ensure that your comped edits are as clean as possible, keep your recording level uniform throughout—should you suddenly decide to crank your amp around take 3, the volume difference will be immediately apparent to the listener. The same goes for tone—find a sound you like during the initial take, then stick with it for all succeeding performances. If you use stomp boxes or other effects processors, take care not to alter the settings during the comping regimen.

Choose your spots. Once you’ve compiled a modest set of suitable takes, carefully review all the performances and identify “best” passages from each. Make a mark point at the start and end of the designated sections—they don’t have to be precise edits just yet (we’ll get to that in a minute), but be sure to leave enough space on either end so that the edited pieces can overlap if need be.

Make “smart” edits. While you can extract from any part of the take, ideally you’ll want edits that fit together snugly. You may find that quieter passages, or spaces during an instrumental break, for example, tend to weld better than separate sections of a furious guitar overdub. The same goes for vocals—the easiest approach is editing during the pauses, however with a little finesse you can join different passages from the same verse (all you need is a second or two while the singer is taking a breath, for instance).

Match the wavs. Back in the day, engineers performed all slicing and dicing manually, using a razor blade and splicing block to purloin select sections often from multiple spools of tape, then carefully aligning the various strands to form a comped master. While digital requires far less dexterity, optimizing your editing tools can mean the difference between a passable and superior comp job. Knowing your way around a waveform is half the battle—for one thing, be sure to increase the magnification of the part you’re working on (using maximum zoom to make precise cuts down to the millisecond). When extracting from multiple takes, I find it helpful to bring up all of the waveforms simultaneously, if necessary using the mouse to align the start points for each.

Mix master. When it’s time to dub to two track, I find it helpful to make a handful of mixes, with the logic that each pass will improve upon the previous attempt. But while listening back, I may find that I like the guitar sound during the bridge of mix #3, but prefer the vocal presence on an earlier version, and so forth. Not a problem—using the same method above, we can cherry-pick from each mix to construct a final composite mix master. Once again, using your waveform find the beginning and end of each desired passage, make your edits and then merge the individual parts to create a single mix.

Do it live. For those who’d rather avoid wading through countless takes of instrumental breaks, here’s a simpler approach: try cutting three different versions of the same part, using a dedicated record track for each. Locate the “best” parts, then while running the multitrack gradually move the faders up and down in real time, so that the preferred portions enter the mix at the appropriate spots.

As in everything, the key to getting your best recording may be right at your fingertips. By using these tips, your best take won’t be lost.