Quite often, even a professional singer cannot perform a song perfectly from the first take. Producers focus on various tricks to capture flawless vocals while recording. Sure, recording techniques are important, otherwise, nothing can fix problems in the mix. But for some projects, it is not enough to just record vocals and jump straight into the mixing stage. Mixing is, of course, a very fascinating process, but there is one more equally important process - editing.
Well or poorly recorded vocals, in any case, editing is the process that brings you closer to your goal - professionally sounding vocals. Here are some vocal editing techniques for bringing the recorded takes to perfection.
Organizing and Comping
So, you have a project with recorded vocals, and probably looking at a large number of tracks, you ask yourself where to start. If you have more than one single track with a recording, it means that splitting the recorded material into groups and channels will not be excessive. Dividing the recorded vocals into specific parts of the song (intro, verse, chorus, bridge, etc.) will make the task easier and save some time in the future.
One of the most important vocal editing techniques is comping. Having several recorded takes of the vocalist performance, it is possible to choose the most successful parts and put them together into one great performance. Even if the singer delivered amazing performance on the first or second take, you will be glad to have some options. When you will listen to the recording, there is a chance that you will notice some imperfections you would like to improve. So if you have several takes, you can choose different pieces and “glue” them together.
There may be different approaches to comping stage, but in general, you just choose the best moments of the recording and copy them to a new track. But make sure you won’t delete anything important and will be able to go back, because you can change your mind. Also, make sure you have song lyrics so that there is no confusion.
For some producers, it won’t seem unnatural, but it is a normal procedure, especially in pop music production. You don’t need to go very far and use comping technique for every word, but putting best takes together will definitely improve the overall vocal.
When you have comped vocal parts, it’s time to get rid of background noise and make sure that there are no unwanted sounds and clicks. Noise can be caused by anything. Starting from the sound from the headphone output, ending with the noise of the computer.
There are a few techniques that can help to get rid of this unwanted noise. If you don’t hear any timing issues, then at this editing step you just need to do cross-fading between the vocal parts you’ve chosen at the comping stage. Cutting out all silent parts and any strange sounds between singing will improve the sound. But don’t go too far, as it is quite simple to turn a good recording to unnatural and weird one. Be careful, and don’t cut out all the breaths, even if you think they aren’t needed. People want to hear a human singing, not a robot.
Vocal editing means that you have to make clean cuts and avoid clicks between vocal clips. There are two options that can help to avoid those clicks. You can use small fades at the beginning and the end of each clip cut or short crossfades between the joint clips. The second possibility is to cut the clips at the point where the sound wave is crossing the center line - at its Zero. This way, cuts at these points won’t make any sound, but it is more time-consuming.
You could also treat some timing issues at this step if there are takes where singer came in earlier or later.
During the cutting stage, you probably noticed that some vocal pieces can be louder than others. Controlling the dynamics can be quite difficult, especially when it comes to vocals. Every word should be audible, and overall vocal track should be consistent.
In the editing stage, this is usually done with volume automation. Loud parts can be manually lowered in volume, and quiet parts can be raised. In your DAW, you can do this with the fader or gain automation, depending on the possibilities. It is better to use gain automation or to adjust the gain of the individual vocal clips. This way, the level going into plugins will be consistent. Usually, the normal vocal level is around -18 dB, so that you will get enough volume and avoid over compression using plugins. It is a musical way to spend some time and do the gain automation rather than hard compression.
There is another editing technique that helps to make vocals sound thicker and more powerful - vocal doubling. It involves combining two or more vocal tracks with the same part to get a richer tone. You could ask a singer to sing at least two full takes of the song while recording, so you’ll have a natural doubling effect. But it can be also done at the editing stage, by duplicating vocal part and delaying it by 15-20 milliseconds. Or you can double the song parts that are repeated (like Choruses) and rearrange them throughout the song.
The goal of doubling or double tracking is to duplicate a vocal recording without making the exact same copy. You want to make doubled part sound a bit different than the main one, as two identical vocal sections will just result in the volume increase. This way you will get polished and commercial vocal sound.
Even when the best vocal parts are chosen, there can still be imperfections. Sometimes you will need to correct vocal pitch to fix some out of pitch notes. It is recommended to correct these notes manually, but sometimes you don’t even need any expensive plugin help.
Flex Pitch in Logic, Elastic Audio in Pro Tools, or similar techniques that are built in you DAW are the solution. You can use your DAW functions to correct the pitch of vocal clip. For example, in Ableton Live it is done very fast, using the Transpose button to transpose the clip’s audio up or down in pitch. Of course, using pitch correction plugins is more time saving, but it is possible to do it manually and get a more natural result.
You should now have your perfect edited vocal tracks prepared for the mixing stage. It will be more convenient to export vocals to a new track or to make a new group.
Editing is not the most exciting part of the production process, because you have to spend much time to put vocal takes together and polish them. But you will notice that mixing will be much easier with edited vocals. :)