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Through every stage of the recording process it is imperative that the editing music work be addressed as soon after recording as possible. Editing, left undone will compromise any future overdubbing and ultimately, compromise the song. The process of editing is one that is fraught with critical decisions. Over-editing can lead to cold, lifeless performances. Under-editing can leave your song sounding unfocussed and sloppy. In this article I want to address the editing process and how to make the best decisions for your music productions.
Before we take a closer look at the editing process, let’s start by defining what editing is. Computer technology and software development has blown the doors open for what is possible when when it comes to editing music. Today, we are doing things with audio that was inconceivable a mere 20 years ago. To put this all in perspective, let’s start with a little history…
The concept of editing was not even an option to the audio engineer until the 50’s when analog tape entered the recording industry. From 1908 until the mid 50’s, all recordings were literally cut directly to lacquer. A lacquer is a softer version of the vinyl disc. A lacquer was used to record a performance and later to create the stampers that physically pressed vinyl discs for commercial release. A lacquer disc was good for one recording. No editing! At this point all recordings were mono, and musicians performed in the same recording space together. No room for mistakes.
Analog tape ushered in the world of editing music. If the first half of one take was great and the second half of another take was great, the two performances could be spliced together with a razor blade and some splicing tape. These simple rough edits changed the recording process, because difficult to perform sections of a song could be recorded over and over until a suitable take was achieved. That take could then be edited into the rest of the song. The Beatles were famous for this type of editing work in the studio under the brilliant guidance of Sir George Martin.
As analog tape recording technology developed, the ability to punch in on a performance would also redefine the way performances were recorded on multitrack tape machines. If a vocalist had difficulty singing a particular lyric or melody, the line could be rerecorded over and over again on the same track until the desired result was achieved. By the 70’s, this was a standard production procedure.
As track counts increased, it was common to record many vocal performances of the same song on different tracks and selectively choose the best performances, section by section, line by line, word by word, and syllable by syllable. Using a process called bouncing, the best of the best could be recorded onto another track and serve as the “compiled” master take, called a “comp” for short.
In the 80’s, sampling started to take over as the preferred method for editing music. If a performance in the first chorus of a song was better than the subsequent choruses, the part could easily be sampled, or recorded to another tape machine, and “flown in” to the other choruses. This greatly simplified the recording process for background vocals that were difficult to perform and require many tracks to capture. Rather than having the vocalists record every section of the song with the same part, it was much easier to record it well, once, and then “fly” it to the other sections of the song where it was needed.
In the late 80’s and early 90’s digital recording technology forever changed the quality and detail of editing music. Once a sample was loaded, it could also be adapted in terms of pitch and timing. Although many of the tools used were crude by today’s standards and had very little input in terms of visual editing, they were quite effective if the editor had good ears. Digital processing, eliminated many of the physical and technical issues associated with analog processing technology.
Enter computers… Once professional audio recording with personal computers, entered the recording studio for real in the mid 90’s, the world of editing music non destructively was born. The biggest issue of all tape based recording was that it was all destructive. Once you hit record, there was no undo button to get you back where you were. I often blame the lack of hair on my head on the destructive recording I did throughout the 80’s and 90’s!
The ability to save and store a virtual infinite number of performances, takes, and overdubs allowed them to be edited in a way never possible. Multiple takes could easily be copied, pasted and moved around at will without ever affecting the original recorded performance. Each kick and snare hit of a drum performance could be perfectly matched up to a click if desired. The delicate timing of a guitar solo could be moved around with incredible accuracy until the perfect feeling was achieved.
Throughout most of the history of professional recording, pitch and timing were always subject to the ability of the performer. If you listen closely to many of the great artists of the 50’s and 60’s and 70’s you may be horrified to find how “off ” pitch many of the vocal performances were by comparison to today’s standards.
Singing perfectly in pitch is not the deciding factor in the quality of an artist. The era of multitrack recording, overdubbing and editing music led many down artists down the trail of trying to “perfect” their performances. This led to torturous sessions where parts were sometimes recorded over and over hundreds of times. Although sampling technology allowed some of this to be less work for the artist, the time consuming and tedious work just shifted to the producer and engineer.
In 1997, a processor created by Antares, called Auto-Tune, forever changed the way people recorded vocals. The difficulties of recording in the studio and having perfect pitch while monitoring through headphones was alleviated. The producer could focus more on the performance and attitude rather than the pitch being perfect. Once the best performance was achieved, the pitch could be corrected to taste with a minimum of effort.
Although I have avoided it to this point, editing music must be defined as any process that alters the original performance. This includes, but is not limited to, splicing, punching, flying, comping, sampling, pitch correction, stretching and compressing, cut-copy-pasting, and any other method used to alter the tempo, timing and pitch of a performance.
The process of editing music has raised ethical questions in the minds of many artists and consumers. Many feel that if you cannot actually perform your song in a live setting with the same quality of performance as the recording, then you are merely a product of technology and not a true artist. It’s important to note that the vast majority of these artists do not record live to stereo. They all use some form of editing technology. It’s all a matter of where you draw the line…
Many artists, today, use editing technology to create art that stretches the boundaries of what is possible in acoustic only recordings. They are creating something new that can be as compelling and artful as any acoustically recorded performance. To summarily dismiss these artists because they are not “natural” amounts to a form of prohibition of the art of music. Any restriction on any art form is completely unacceptable.
For those that disagree, let me be clear. Do what you do, the way you want to do it, nobody’s stopping you… If you create something that is worth while, people will buy it and you will have a career. Never blame technology for lack of sales or success, use what technology suits the type of music you make and take responsibility for the quality of your own work.
There is not one single method of recording and editing music that will work with every artist and every situation. There are many factors that lead down the trail of making the best decisions. The amount of editing necessary will be based on many factors that have more to do with the ability of the artist to perform well in a recording studio situation than it does the level of their talent.
When entering any kind of recording situation, you never really know what you are going to get. A maze of issues can arise including inadequate monitoring, uncomfortable recording environment, psychological issues, physical issues, equipment issues, time issues, etc… The ability to minimize and control the effect of these problems in the studio will go a long way in determining how much editing work is necessary.
In my personal experience, preparation, communication and making the artist comfortable are my priorities. A producer or engineer cannot control how and artist will respond to a recording situation. They have very limited control over the artist’s abilities. They do, however, have control in adapting the recording environment to give the artist whatever they need to feel comfortable. Very few artists perform better in stressful, encumbered situations.
Always put the artist in the best situation to succeed. Make sure they are comfortable with everything before you begin recording. Keep a close eye and notice if they are feeling stressed or uncomfortable. Address it immediately before it takes over the session. Never accept mediocre performances with the idea that you can edit it into something. When editing music, there are only so many factors under your control. Attitude, energy and feeling cannot be edited into a performance consistently.
Before you start editing, take a good listen through the song, section by section and make sure that you have enough of what you need to start the editing music process. If you find a particular section of the song is weak by comparison to the others. It may be worth recording a few extra takes with a more concentrated effort in that area if the attention is needed. Once you have a performer in the right frame of mind, it is better to capture them with as many takes as you can. It is much more difficult to come back a day or a week later and capture the exact same feel.
The amount of work editing music you will do is dependent on the quality of the performances you have captured. The better the performances, the less editing work will be necessary. If you focus on the quality of performances first then the editing work will be a breeze. All the editing work that follows should take on the 3 step process that follows. Depending on how well the recording stage went, it may not be necessary to do all 3 steps. It is a process, that will keep you from diving in too deep, too quickly.
The 3 steps for editing music outlined here can be approached in 2 basic ways. One way is to work section by section with each step going as deep as is necessary. The other is to address the song as a whole and work each step in the context of the big picture. I prefer the later approach, because it helps to prevent you from going down the rabbit hole of over-editing and keeps the song in perspective.
The following process will be explained using the example of editing a vocal performance. Because vocal editing typically requires the most attention, the example should be easy to understand. If understood, the same process can easily be66 followed using any instrument or performance when editing music.
Step 1: General Editing
General editing work involves determining what works best on a global basis. If you have 3 vocal performances, start by determining which of the 3 is best overall. That will be the take you build the rest of the editing work off of. Now determine if there are better performances for sections of the song in the other takes. It may be that the 2nd take has a better bridge section performance than the best overall take.
Continue this process, section by section till you have the, overall, best of the best performances. Once you are done, listen to the general edits you have made to determine if the performance sounds coherent and believable. You may need to match levels between edits so your decisions are not swayed by technical differences. Take note of sections that need more detailed work before continuing on to the next stage of the editing music process.
To help you with the assessment process, it may be worth making a spreadsheet that has the lyrics in one column and a separate column for each take. Click here for an example copy. Write out the lyric line by line in the first column and use the columns to the right for each take.
You can use a grading system (A, B, C, D), a numbered system (1-10), check and x, or whatever system works for you. I prefer simple check marks for what works and an X for unusable lines. With the right artist, I sometimes do this as I am recording. This way I can see quickly if a certain line or section of the song needs more work before deciding to edit.
Step 2: Medium Editing
Only enter this stage of the editing music process if there are lingering issues with the General Editing step. Through the course of making the general edits you find that there are certain sections, phrases or words that need a bit more attention. If you have made notes about each section take them out and start addressing them one by one.
Start by grabbing whole phrases if possible. Look for attitude and feel instead of perfect pitch when gauging the quality of a performance. A little pitch correction on an otherwise good performance will sound much better than a perfectly pitched average performance. If you need to steal a word of two from another take, make sure that the timing and feel of the edit sounds natural.
Remember that you can copy and paste the same performances from later or earlier sections of the song. This is necessary if none of the existing performances in that section of the song work. Make sure that the timing and melody are the same or at least work. Use the previous performance as a gauge when matching up the timing.
I always try to avoid using the same exact performance in more than one section if possible. Sometimes it is better to grab an alternate performance from another section if there is a good one available. This way you can keep the subtle differences that occur from one section to the next. This will add a sense that the song is more of a “live” performance.
Step 3: Fine Editing
Before you start to get into the detailed fine editing music process, it is worth a fresh listen to the overall song. When you listen, focus on the whole song and not on the vocal part. Listening to the same part over and over can start to take you into the world of minutia and away from what is most important, the overall feeling. Too many musicians, engineers and producers get so caught up in the small details, they forget that that larger picture is also being effected.
The end result of this behavior can turn a vibrant performance into a plastic surgery case where everything sounds perfect, but somehow seems wrong. Remember that part of the music experience are the subtle “imperfections” that make the song believable. Once you have assessed this situation, you can then turn to the finer details that trim everything out just so.
Pick your spots. Start with the most obvious problem areas and work from there. Try to avoid the, “start from the beginning” approach where you edit the crap out of everything. It;s important to keep the perspective of the whole song in mind. Certain songs may require this type of “bully” editing as part of the driving message of the song. If you have a hip hop track that’s all about being the greatest ever, heavy editing may be a necessary part of achieving that effect.
There are no hard and fast rules when editing music. The best advice I can give to you here is to always keep the message of the song in mind when deciding the extent of the editing work. Try to capture in the recording as close to the desired effect as possible, even if the desired effect is unnatural. There is a method to recording vocals that makes the T-Pain/Cher effect work more effectively. If you are unsure, record a short section and try to edit it to see if the desired effect can be achieved. Keep working at it until you discover the best approach before recording the whole song.
Finally, always try to edit while the material is most fresh in your head. Even if the edits are rough, general edits, they may save you hours of time later trying to reacquaint yourself with the performances. The vocal comp sheet can also be a great guide for you if you need to do the edits later. You may have a completely different perspective the next day and hate everything, but at least you finished what you thought was good that day…
Now that the approach for editing music is laid out, you may find that you will be doing much less work and getting better results. Although the editing music process is mostly associated with cleanup of the recording and overdub phases, it also finds its way into the next phase of the music production process, Mixing. The process of mixing may reveal many flaws that were not as apparent during the recording phase. As each part comes into focus, so do the leftover issues. Of all the stages of the music production process, mixing is by far the most difficult. Click below to discover some simple secrets to making the mixing experience, less frustrating and more fruitful
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