Creating efficiently compiled tracks in a DAW using multiple audio recordings
One frustrating aspect of recording any audio track is recording a performance that is perfect except for several notes, or a measure here and there. It’s very difficult, even for the best player or vocalist, to perform perfectly every time, and sometimes hardly any of the time. Something as minor as a note held too long or a slight wavering in pitch can spoil an entire performance and can cause the performer to become angry, lose confidence, scatter their focus or just plain get tired of the process. This makes it hard to capture the quality track you desire, in a small number of takes. The more takes a performer is required to track, fatigue will build and the performance from one take to the next can deteriorate rapidly, until it becomes nearly impossible to replicate anything close to the performance required for a good recording.
In analog recording, “mistakes” in an otherwise good track were “fixed” by a process called punching in. This technique, a physical rerecording over the “bad” portion of the original track, was usually used as a last resort by the producer, trying to save a nearly perfect track in the face of a diminishing likelihood of tracking a complete take as good as the one already on tape. The resultant “patched” track was rarely, if ever, totally smooth at the punch in and punch out points and was one of those parameters the analog producer had to compromise for the sake of time and budget in the project.
With the advent of digital recording and editing techniques, getting a perfect track became much easier. Through a process called comping, or compiled tracking, any number of takes of a performance can be recorded and coexist separately inside the project. Once you are satisfied you have enough performances recorded to compile one perfect track you can then begin to choose which parts of which tracks you like best. Then, when you know what you want to keep, you can begin to cut the regions where these top performances are, isolating them into smaller regions. Having discovered and cut these new regions you then create a completely new track and begin to move the preferred segments of the performance onto the new track. This can be done by dragging, cut and paste, or by using a key command, depending on your DAW and/or your preferred method.
Once you have all your pieces of the performance together on one track ideally you have your perfect performance compiled. But there is still one issue to address. Like the Frankenstein monster, the piecing together of tracks has left some ugly seams where the regions meet at the point of the cut. Where the cut was made the waveform may not be right at zero. It can jump instantaneously back to zero at the cut, creating an audible click as the resultant track is played back.
To combat this problem we use a technique called fading. We fadeout and fade in the regions at the edges of the cuts to sort of “smooth out” the seam between the cuts, and eliminate the audible click. On some DAWs this smoothing out can be done without the need for a true fade by automatically making the cut where the waveform is at zero. Other DAWs must make a fade over a selected, normally quite short, portion of the regions surrounding the cut. The zoom feature can help us find the right place to begin and end the fade. When regions overlap, a similar technique, called crossfading, is used. In the crossfade one overlapping region is faded out while the other is faded in, making an almost seamless transition.
Learning and mastering comping together tracks and fading them to eliminate any resulting clicks is an important tool of the editor and one that should be mastered if we want to capture the best performance possible. This is one area where editing in digital audio versus analog audio gives us a distinct advantage, in that we are able to keep our perfect, except for that one measure, track and “fix it” so that we don’t have to toss out the baby with the bath water. Just remember that comping a track can make you sound like a better player than you are, and this can create problems playing the parts in a live concert setting. To my mind, when used sparingly, it can greatly enhance a recording. But, like any tool, try not to use it too much.