Searching For The Perfect Comp

While recording the last, We Came As Strangers album, our bass player Tim Harries coined a marvellous phrase about the modern recording process, which was that the producer Owen was looking for ‘the perfect comp’ rather than ‘the perfect take’.

I was explaining this to some students at a workshop recently and was surprised to hear that most of them were not familiar with the process of ‘comping’ in a recording process, so I thought we might explore what it is, how it’s done and the pros and cons of the process and the ‘art’.

The term ‘comping’ is short for compiling and is selecting sections from various takes and making them into a single track, not to be confused with jazz ‘comping’ which is short for accompaniment. These comps would normally appear to the listener as one person playing a take, and usually, the engineer and producer would try to hide any editing or joining of takes that have been done. 

It would be fair to think that this kind of editing was part of the computer generation, but I first experienced it as a teenager recording to tape. The singer sang four or five takes of the song, and then the engineer carefully timed muting and unmuting the tracks to select the best parts of each performance into one great vocal track.

My first feeling was that this kind of editing was ‘cheating’, but there was no doubt in this case that the comped vocal was in fact much better than any of the individual takes and that the listener would never know. Should the singer have gone back and sung it over and over until it was ‘perfect’? There are certainly a finite number of takes a singer can do in one sitting before the voice gets tired. And isn’t it all about expressing a feeling anyway? There was one verse that was really great, expressive and powerful, but one held note was pretty flat. The engineer managed to mute the main track for that one note and unmute another at precisely the right time, and the problem was solved. Had that not been possible, then the singer would have had to do it again and perhaps never captured that same vibe again. But maybe it would have been fine with the slightly flat note?

It’s something that is worth giving some thought too if you are getting into recording. It’s very trendy these days to record to tape which makes comping a lot more difficult to do - although it’s not unheard of these days to record to tape, dump the tracks into Pro Tools for some comping (and even pitch correction) and then put it back to tape! And while tape certainly has a certain retro-cool sound, the idea of laying down music to tape is usually to capture a performance as a whole, warts and all.

Recording ‘live’ and aiming for a perfect take has some interesting ramifications that can impact on the music a number of ways, some positive and some negative. I found that when recording in a live situation, especially with the whole band playing at once, that I’m a little less likely to really push out and explore crazy ideas unless I’m confident they’re going to work… but that also seems to make me listen to my ‘musical mind’ more and try to ‘hear in advance’ how it’s going to work, which I think is better. Other times when the whole band has been exploring together, it’s taken me on fascinating musical journeys that I would have never taken on my own playing take after take.

That said, I really enjoy working out parts and will often spend a few hours playing a part over and over and exploring different ideas, sounds, effects and guitars and very often I’ll record them all and comp my favourite bits along the way! Sometimes I’ll keep the bits and layer them up, and other times I might learn and replay the comp and play it again and get a perfect take of the comped part!

Comping for guitarists often comes up when it comes to solos, and speaking personally, most of the favourite solos that I’ve recorded myself have been single takes – however, there has almost always been a journey behind them. 

I remember really struggling to record a solo I was happy with for a song called Freefall (from The We Came As Strangers album Eyedom). The song was modern and wanted something a bit outside and crazy but still rock n roll and after spending an afternoon trying different guitars and effects, slides, ebow and getting myself more and more frustrated I took a break and tried to ‘imagine’ a solo in my mind. A Rage Against The Machine style thing appeared, so I grabbed by Whammy pedal, set up a tone I liked, hit record and gave it all I could and nailed it in one take.

Which leads me to think about many of the great recordings that were done without comping (as far as I’m aware) and how it got to be that most records made these days use tools like this and why ‘back in the good old days’ they didn’t seem to need it. I’m thinking out loud here at 30,000 feet and realizing that perhaps back then guitar players just played guitar… these days the vast majority of guitar players I know are doing a lot more than just playing; teaching, social media promo, recording and production, maybe filming and video editing, web site maintenance and probably accounting too! Back in the day, people sold more records, made more money (perhaps?) and had other people to deal with the periphery tasks and could just spend their days playing and creating. Maybe. 

Or maybe it was because bands played live more and spent more time preparing to go to the studio – used to be a lot more expensive to record and it wasn’t like these days where everyone has a home studio – so musicians worked harder. I’ve heard stories from older friends saying they would work on a song for a few weeks trying to nail the parts before even thinking about recording it!

Or perhaps it’s just a time thing? If I’m doing a session for someone, it will be a lot faster to comp a few takes together than play it over and over until I get it down in one. Or maybe I’m just lazy?

There are extremes, of course, I have a great producer friend who played the guitar on a number of chart hits but could hardly play. He’d slowly get his fingers around a chord and strum it a few times and then comp them into a track, it was background parts in predominantly electronic pop, but still, it worked and made music that a lot of people liked. Oh the ethical dilemma, more on that another time I think…

So next time you’re recording yourself, try doing a few takes and comping them together and see how you feel about it (if you’re not already!). It’s interesting food for thought, and it’s worth taking note of how you ‘feel’ about individual takes and the energy they have vs the comped track which might be ‘better’. Happy trails to you!

Food For Thought