Recording Vocals – Vocal Tracking Methods
When using analog tape, the number of tracks is more limited than on modern DAWs. It used to be common practice to record three or four vocal tracks, either in their entirety or with a punch in or two, and then comp or compile a good vocal track from the best parts of each of those tracks to a spare tape track.
When using a modern DAW, it’s possible to use an approach similar to this, or to work on the vocal track more linearly, top to bottom, concentrating on getting each phrase right before moving on to the next, punching in and re-recording on the same track as many times as necessary.
Punching in on analog tape is a destructive process – there is no Command-Z to undo a punch that is too early and accidentally erased the end of the previous phrase! Tape stretches and wears out the more it is stopped, rewound, stopped, played, and cycled – so re-recording or punching in a particular phrase too many times is not good for the tape or its sound. This type of wear and tear is irrelevant when using modern DAWs, and most systems have an “undo” feature in case of an incorrect punch or edit.
Some pros and cons of recording a handful of complete vocal takes, and comping the best parts together to form the vocal performance include:
• Continuity is generally better – phrasing, performance intensity, and style are more consistent throughout the longer takes.
• The process is more comfortable for a performer who is used to singing the song top to bottom, and not jumping in somewhere in the middle.
• There may still be parts of the performance that are less than perfect, despite recording multiple versions.
Some pros and cons of building up a vocal performance on one track, and punching in, making as many edits as necessary include:
• A perfect performance is possible on one track. This means that only one set of processing plug-ins, or one mixer channel is necessary during mixing, and the mix process is more streamlined.
• Depending on the singer, there may be less continuity of phrasing, intensity, and performance style.
• There may be more timbre or tonal differences between different punches, created by inconsistencies in the distance between the singer and the mic.
• If the singer does not know the song intimately enough and cannot deliver convincing performances of isolated smaller phrases, punching may be a slow process.
One good approach for most home and project studio situations is a hybrid, somewhere in-between the two tracking methods described above:
• Record multiple takes, top to bottom, or in large sections.
• Identify which take has the best performance of each part of the song.
• Identify any sections or phrases that are still not ideal, and punch in to replace those on an additional track as necessary. Use plenty of pre-roll and post-roll, so that the singer is confident of their entry, and so that you can spot continuity differences, and fix them immediately.
• Comp the final performance together from these tracks.
Whichever method you use, have a copy of the lyrics on hand so you (or an assistant) can mark off which parts of each take are good, as you are recording. This way, you instantly know which sections you still have to work on. Even if you are building a track a small section at a time, having the singer warm up with a couple of beginning to end run throughs will help them feel comfortable.
Excerpt from Mic It! by Ian Corbett © 2014 Taylor & Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.
About the Author
Dr. Ian Corbett is the coordinator of the Audio Engineering Program, and Professor of Music Technology and Audio Engineering at Kansas City Kansas Community College. He also owns and operates “off-beat-open-hats – recording and sound reinforcement” which specializes in servicing the needs of jazz and classical ensembles in the Kansas City area. Since 2004, he has been a member of the Audio Engineering Society’s Education Committee, and has mentored, presented, and served on panels at local, regional, national, and international AES and other professional events. Ian has also authored articles on audio recording related subjects for Sound On Sound magazine.