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The Art of Comping: Creating Master Performances

This post focuses on the technique of comping, or creating a composite performance from various elements of multiple performances.

It used to be that in order to get a recording of a performance the performers had to run straight through the material.  But ever since the invention of overdubbing people have been changing the way music is made and performed for recordings.  In the analog days, tape was cut a spliced together to create edits in the material.  Now this process is even easier with computers.  A standard practice for many producers is ‘comping’, or the creation of a track that incorporates the best sections of multiple performances.  This is in contrast to another common technique called ‘punching’, where a performance is overwritten for a while with new recording passes until the desired performance is captured (at which point the recording continues with the material already on tape).

Modern Comping

A good amount of software on the market has integrated some sort of comping workflow into its interfaces.  Pro Tools has playlists, which allow multiple takes to be stored on one track.  Cubase has ‘lanes’, which do basically the same thing but display the takes side-by-side.

As a result of the differences between software packages, the actual point-and-click methods of accomplishing comping will vary.  The general concept, however, remains the same.  Even software that does not have some sort of multiple take feature can provide comping functionality simple by creating many tracks for your various performances, cutting and pasting the material onto the new ‘master’ take.

My Comping Strategy

If I decide that comping is the right technique for a given performer (a choice I don’t make all that often, actually), I usually take a few passes (like two or three) of the material all the way through.  At this point, I listen to the performances and slice out obvious blunders.  Then, I listen for ‘nailed-it’ portions of the takes and I drag those to the master track right way.  Then, I compare the rest of the material side-by-side, listening for pitch, dynamics, tone, and other qualities that need to match up with the qualities I desire in the master track.  I choose the strongest sections and drag those down until I have as much of my master track as I can get.  At this point, if the track doesn’t have all the needed material, I can start punching in specific problems sections until I have satisfied the need for all the material.

Finally, I make crossfades between the edits to reduce the evidence of the splicing.  Usually short 20ms-50ms fades are fine for preventing clicks where samples don’t line up, but sometimes longer fades sound better musically.

If I plan on taking that track anywhere and I’m totally satisfied with the result, I’ll often bounce the entire track down to a solid, continuous audio file.  Sometimes this is regrettable because the edits are destroyed, so if you don’t plan on sharing the file, it may be best to leave your comp track as-is.

Things to Consider

The technique of comping is extremely common in the pop world, especially in heavily vocal-oriented, producer-driven music such as pop RnB.  It’s less common in some of the more raw formats such as rock, where some imperfections impart a certain honesty that is desireable.

6 Responses to :
The Art of Comping: Creating Master Performances

  1. Joga Luce says:

    Zappa was very fond of comping, splicing live and studio things together and recording as much separate data as possible. Pretty incredible results for the technological limits of the day.

  2. Dan Connor says:

    Joga – I know! One of my favorite Zappa tunes is Yo Mama where he did that, I believe. Oh, and thanks to you I increased the contrast in the comment field from the insane default for this template. Hope it helped.

  3. Kristie says:

    Hah, I can’t read what I’m writing when I type in comments either. It looks to be black text on a dark dark grey background lol. Suppose I could have mentioned it weeks ago…..

    I think, it’s actually worse now, did you make the background darker?


  4. Kristie says:

    Oh, never mind, I just refreshed your page and now it’s come right. :D Ignore me, just being blonde ;)

  5. Keith Handy says:

    You mean it’s possible to record tracks without doing this?? ;)

    One thing I like about “comping”, which I haven’t heard it called before (assuming in this case it’s short for compositing?), is that it takes a lot of pressure off me while actually performing, because I can’t really “ruin” a take. I can try to hit difficult notes, etc. — and if I hit them, great, and if not, who cares. :)

  6. Keith Handy says:

    P.S. I like to get my compositing taken care of immediately after recording the takes, so I can delete the mediocre stuff before it gets a chance to feel like it has any historical significance.

    Yes, I realize it’s arrogant to feel like my mediocre takes become “historically significant”. That’s why I try to get rid of them as quickly as possible.

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