Adventures In Audio

What is editing, why is it so important?

by David Mellor

In ancient Roman times, 'editor' meant the person in charge of the games in the arena, either the emperor or a local bigwig. So if you found yourself in combat in the arena and you didn't win, the editor was the guy who decided whether you live or die.

And so we move forward to modern times where the editor of a newspaper or magazine decides what gets published and what doesn't. Not so much difference then if you earn your living as a writer.

But editing has different levels and in the world of words it can mean changing an awkwardly used expression for one with more grace and finesse, preferably without changing the meaning. Or it can mean substituting a single word that readers might understand better. Or at the very lowest level, correcting the writer's speling. (See what I did there?)

And so we come to recording. In the early days of audio, recordings were made direct to disc and there was no possibility of editing, other than choosing one take in preference to others. And we still do this now. It's the first thing to consider - is the take any good?

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But then along came magnetic tape and it was possible to edit a recording by cutting the best bits out of the tape and sticking them together. Sometimes we would call this 'splicing' but that's really just the joining together bit.

Now this really was a step forward because it meant that as many takes could be made as could fit into the duration of the session, and the finished recording made up out of the best parts of any or all of the takes. Some would say that this removes the continuity from a performance, but I say that if it removes the wrong notes and fluffs then it must be a good thing.

Surprisingly, editing was also done on disc as far back as the 1940s, by copying from two discs on two players to a recording machine and artfully switching from one to another. It took 30 years for this technology to come back and give us hip hop music.

The problem with editing on magnetic tape was that edits could be audible. It was always wise to cut just before a sudden loud sound, which would disguise the discontinuity of an edit. But try and cut through a French horn solo, or a decaying piano note and the edit would stand out like a sore thumb. So this limited the possibilities of editing. Re-recording using crossfades was a possibility, but it was hard work.

These days we have wonderful digital audio workstations in which anything can be edited virtually any way you like. Changes of tempo or changes of pitch are still problematical - try editing an unaccompanied choir and you will be foxed by the way pitch often drops gradually during a take.

But other than these details it really is possible to edit virtually anything to anything. Sometimes with a little hard work and ingenuity, but usually successfully.

So now it is commonplace to record maybe six or so takes of a vocal and compile, or 'comp' the best bits into one track. And although that was done using multitrack tape, both analogue and digital, it is just *so* easy in the DAW.

This means that the urge towards perfection can come very much closer to achieving satisfaction. Of course, the more capability you have, the more time you can spend. And the more you can permit yourself to worry about things that probably no-one will notice. But that's swings and roundabouts for you.

But perfection is one thing, creativity is another. I don't really believe in perfection because there is always something better, something more imaginative, or something just way out more crazy to achieve.

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And editing can do that. We are in an age where editing can do things to audio that were previously impractical or full-on impossible. And we can go way beyond what mere performance can achieve.

I remember years ago that my students used to hate editing because they considered it repetitive and boring. And maybe it was, but it was an important industry skill.

But now anyone who thinks editing is boring just hasn't seen the possibilities. It is as creative a skill as writing, performing, mixing or anything else that happens during the production process.

That's all for now. Happy editing!

P.S. The Emitape splicing block pictured above was commonly used but really not very good - the tape would keep falling out. The Editall block is the one you want.

Thursday July 5, 2018

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David Mellor

David Mellor

David Mellor is CEO and Course Director of Audio Masterclass. David has designed courses in audio education and training since 1986 and is the publisher and principal writer of Adventures In Audio.

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