Audio Editing And Mixing
Audio editing has played an important role in record production since razor
blade first touched tape, as it were. That said, modern computer-based modalities comprise an entirely new and crucial genus of that aesthetic species. So
crucial has this new genus become to record production in general, in fact, that
few working recordists would blink if I suggested to them that modern record
production is defined or characterized almost entirely by it. Indeed, production
styles are no longer marked by the amount of audio editing they encompass, as
they once were, simply because every style of professional music production
now entails the same high degree of editing. Those who know what to listen
for can hear audio editing permeate every musical nook-and-cranny of modern record production, regardless of genre. And yet, despite the tremendous
growth in research on record production in the last few decades, very little
research focuses directly on this crucial new musical competency.
What follows is meant to address two of the lacunae I identify above. It
provides a broad description of audio editing as a musical competency in
and of itself, and it elucidates its position within—and with regards to—
modern record production at large. An overview of common editing techniques
is then provided, and musical examples supplement the discussion to help
readers hear those techniques in action. These audio examples can be downloaded at http://ww.hepworth-hodgson.com, and it is strongly recommended
that readers audition each example precisely where indicated in the text.
The manner of explanation modeled below would best be considered
a methodological hybrid, mixing ethnographic interview techniques with
traditional musicological analysis. It is my firm contention that, to truly
understand modern professional production practices, a methodological
broadening is required that allows practitioners themselves to speak in
academic contexts. And I believe the hybrid below models one among
many possible such ‘broadenings’. I chose a series of questions, in a particular sequence that I felt addressed the lacunae comprising the primary
subject of this chapter. And I sought the expertise of Alastair Sims, one
of Canada’s most successful audio editing engineers currently at work,
to provide those answers.1
Sims and I spoke for a few hours, a transcript
of our conversation was made and edited, and then Sims was given the
transcript to approve and edit further however he saw fit. I identified areas
where I thought listening examples might help concretize some of the concepts and techniques Sims discussed, and Sims provided them in turn. The
Download and Listen tracks are listed later in the chapter and are available
on www.routledge.com/9781138218734 and www.hodgsonhepworth.com.
It is ultimately our hope that, in doing all this, we have provided analysts
with a useful toolbox that will help them hear audio editing permeate the
modern recorded soundscape completely. In turn, the musical role that
audio editing plays in modern record production should clearly emerge to
the analytic fore.
Editing In/and Record Production
Digital editing is a relatively new—and, thus, relatively
unknown—process. How would you define what you do, in
the broadest possible sense?
The easiest way to explain what I do is to say that I make musicians sound
‘right’ for the track. In other words, I make recorded material sound ‘on time’
and ‘in tune’. For instance, one of the simplest types of editing, if a musician
flubbed a note, I might replace it with a note from a different take, or with a
note from later within the same take, so the performance sounds ‘right’. The
three main aspects of editing are timing (rhythm), tuning (pitch) and timbre.
When you’re handed a session file from the control room,
what judgment calls do the producer(s) and engineer(s)
assume you will make without needing to tell you? Are you
usually given explicit instructions each time you’re given a
file, or are there certain tasks that one can assume the audio
editor should do regardless of project particulars?
When I’m working with a producer, at the beginning of the project we’ll discuss the editing needs for the whole project in general terms. For instance,
whether I’ll be simply cleaning the tracks or completely quantizing and tuning
the song(s). After this point, I generally know what needs to happen to every
file I’m given. I’ll get a session file which is already comped, so it’s just one
‘playlist’ I’m working on (‘playlist’ is the name given to a single composite
track in Pro Tools). At this point, my options are limited anyway, so there’s
really no need to give me special instructions. I’m not expected to choose different takes, to create a comped track, for instance. It’s more about cleaning up
a performance or track. For example, a take may have the attitude or feel that
the producer and band want to capture, but the musician played out of time and
stomped their foot loudly during the recording. Happy with the performance,
keeping in mind that they know what I can ‘fix’ in editing, the producer will
then send the track to me. They know that when they get the track back, the
performance will sound ‘tighter’ and the undesirable sounds will be gone
How long does editing usually take?
That depends on the instructions I receive at the beginning of the project,
and of course on the material I’m given. If the production only requires me
to clean up noise and fix blatant mistakes, for example, one bad drum fill
in a song, it might only take thirty minutes for an entire song. However, if
the producer wants a fully quantized and tuned performance, it can take
substantially longer. Completely quantizing an easy guitar part—perhaps a
guitar strumming whole notes, for example—I can be done in about fifteen
to thirty minutes. Eighth-note or sixteenth-note ‘power chord’ guitar or
bass parts (think punk rock) can take a lot longer to edit, upwards of a day
to fully quantize. Drums generally take half of a day to a full day if there
are some difficult edits to make.
Is it safe to say that nearly every Top 40 song these
days is subject to editing in some form or another?
Yes, there is almost guaranteed to be editing on all recordings at some level.
Famous musicians can generally perform quite well—they’re famous for
a reason. But there will still be some editing on their songs, even with
virtuoso musicians. Almost every track, on every record, has some editing,
whether it be as small as comping together takes or cleaning noise or as
large as quantizing and tuning an entire song. This may sound jaded, but
that’s just the nature of the beast nowadays.
How did you first discover audio editing?
I was referred to an editing position in a production team by a former
employer and mentor, so I discovered the role while receiving ‘job skills
training’, as it were. Normally, the career path for someone who does editing has a standard route, very similar to other positions in the recording
industry (assistant engineer, studio intern). You’re hired on as an unpaid
assistant, similar to an intern. The people employing you expect you to
show up, say nothing and don’t mess anything up. It may sound harsh, but
they need to see if they can trust you before they give you any responsibility. They want to know that you won’t say stupid things around clients
or share sensitive information, because as an editor you will be listening
to and possibly fixing very intimate aspects of a recording. Then you get
given a task and, if you do a good job, you get given another, and so on,
until you are an indispensable member of the production team.
When I started working with Gavin Brown in Toronto, there were two
other editors already working there. He, the engineer and the other two
editors made it clear that they did not want any input from me. They just
wanted me to sit and observe their work, to learn what they do and how
they do it. The first assignment they gave me was editing bass for a songwriting demo from Gavin [Brown]. I don’t know if it ever got sent to the
artist, but it was essentially a test to see if I could run Pro Tools and do
some basic editing in the DAW. Looking back, if I did that first task now
it would only take me about thirty minutes to edit. But back then it took
me about three days! I was nervous and so I questioned everything I did.
I’d think I was finished, and the other editors would come and listen to my
work, and find more and more mistakes. It was brutal!
What types of technical concerns do editing engineers
One of the most important aspects in editing is to be able to find the exact
beginning of a sound. That might sound simple, but it’s very much an art
in and of itself. With guitar, for example, the beginning of a guitar tone
is not necessarily when the pick first scrapes the strings on a guitar, even
though you’d intuitively think it was. For the performer, yes, that is where
the note begins. But for the editing engineer, we are concerned with where
the tone, and pitch, and sustain information builds to a sufficient point that
it ‘sounds like’ a note at mix level. So you have to be able to hear like an
editing engineer before you can even begin to edit. Finding the beginning
of notes, and knowing how to ‘smooth’ your edits so they aren’t audible,
correcting pitch are the main technical concerns. Another facet of being an
editor that never really gets discussed is that you are generally considered
the computer guy. Whether that means you are also the Pro Tools op (operator) for the session or just the guy that they come to when the session
keeps crashing or won’t allow a certain function to operate properly, you’ll
be the guy they’ll call. So having in-depth knowledge of the software and
programs being used as well as of computers themselves is invaluable.
Can you elaborate a bit? Maybe provide some concrete
examples of types of edits you might make on a track?
Let’s focus on timing first, taking a musical performance and adjusting the
rhythm of individual notes or longer passages (see Figure 6.1). If a musician
played a note before the beat, and I move it back onto the beat, there will
silence left over between where the cut was made and where the note was
moved to (see Figure 6.2), as well as clicks at the cut points (see Figure 6.3).
Normally, when working in a clip/region-based DAW, you pull the
beginning of the second clip back to meet the end of the first (see Figure 6.4), and place a crossfade there, roughly five to eight milliseconds’
duration, or more, as a starting point (see Figures 6.5 and 6.6). The shorter
the crossfade the better, as a general rule. Occasionally, this process will
cause some audio to repeat itself (see Figure 6.7) which can be addressed
by adjusting the length of the crossfade (see Figure 6.8). Sometimes,
though, the fade needs to happen earlier into the note.
Failing these options, you might see if the same note is played somewhere else in the song, and use it in place of the problem note. You might
also use time compression or expansion to smooth edits, digitally lengthening a note to fill the gap. You might say there are three primary ways to
approach editing timing. Each one of these approaches—(i) using fades,
(ii) replacing notes and (iii) time compression and expansion—are essential techniques or tools for us and can be applied whether you are quantizing to a grid or nudging notes manually.
Pitch correction and tuning is another aspect of editing, usually a little
more automated than timing. You would generally use a plug-in (Melodyne,
Auto-Tune) to achieve the edited result. Just like timing, pitch correction
can be applied to the whole track or simply a few off notes depending on
the desired aesthetic for the song.
Musicians are sometimes very suspicious of editing,
especially if they have very little experience with modern
recording workflows. How do you address such concerns?
I’ve never encountered someone who said, “No! You can’t auto-tune me!”
The majority of people that I work with, whether professional or amateurs,
tend to say, “Oh, you can do that? That’s awesome! That saves time . . .That
makes me sound better . . .”
Why do practice rooms exist on music campuses? Why do musicians
spend hours and hours practicing? It’s because they want to be perfect, or
as close to perfect as they can get, when they perform. Drummers practice
to a metronome, to learn to play on time. String players tune their instruments, and practice their intonation, for example, so that they sound perfectly in tune, and they spend lifetimes perfecting their tone. So why would
anyone get frustrated when I add one more small layer of production to
help them achieve the vision of their sound? I edit with the aesthetic aims
of the recording at large in mind, after all. It’s not like I change pitches
around on performers to what I like instead, or needlessly quantize an
already amazing piece of music or take of a song. Editing engineers do
their very best to ‘serve the performance’, the same way producers do their
very best to ‘serve the song’.
In the past, musicians were required to record in extended
takes with minor overdubs. How has editing changed this,
in your experience?
The process of recording is still very much like this. The majority of material
is captured in long takes, with small overdubs throughout if needed. The difference is that musicians don’t need to feel pressure from this anymore. Faced
with a difficult passage or solo that they can’t get in one take, there are many
ways to capture it. Be it using multiple takes and comping them together, or
punching in a number of times, or maybe even punching in every single note
or chord. It doesn’t matter now how you do it now, because with the use of
editing in DAWs, it has not only made it fast and easy but sound transparent.
What would you say is the main incentive for hiring an
editing engineer for a recording session?
There are many, but two come immediately to mind. The main reason to hire
an editor has to do with budgetary concerns. A band can rent out a studio for
two months and get near-perfect takes through grueling punching and repetition, or they can spend two weeks recording, get the tracks 85% ‘correct’,
and hire someone to edit the remaining 15%. The latter is a far more efficient
process, compared to the way recording sessions were done before. And it’s
only getting more efficient. During the early days of editing and comping,
you would record all of your material and then spend a couple of weeks editing it into shape after. Now we do editing and tracking at more or less the
same time. You can have entirely finished songs ready to be mixed now, by
the time you’ve torn down and are leaving the studio. That said, though, you
can’t rely on editing as a crutch during tracking. What you record has to be
as good as possible, and as close to the final product as you can get without
editing, so artist morale stays high and ideas keep flowing in sessions.
Editors also fulfill an aesthetic function, however. Popular music now has
a particular sound to it that comes from electronic music (drum machines,
sequencers), and people expect records to sound that way (whether they realize it or not). Katy Perry, for instance, would not benefit from a ‘live off
the floor’ early-1970s Black Sabbath production mentality, right? In fact, a
majority of listeners likely interpret that sort of editing (or lack thereof) as
‘bad’ production. So editing is really a production tool now, used to achieve
that ‘shiny pop perfection’ sound that people come to expect from radio hits.
How important is the equipment you use for editing?
I have a hierarchy that I visualize when trying to explain how important certain
aspects are to the recording process, and it moves from source to destination
Gear is important. But it is by no means top of my list. Everything starts
with the song, the player and the instruments you record. If any one step in
the chain is faulty, it cannot be fixed by the next tool in the chain. A great
song, or an amazing player, can make up for a bad microphone, for example, but a bad song cannot be fixed by a good microphone or preamp or
editing for that matter. So you have to follow the chain, and get each step
‘right’ before moving on to the next one.
You have worked with some of the most successful
recording acts in the world. What have you learned from
working with them?
Most of the successful people I work with are uncompromising about
quality. This suits me just fine because, in editing, the point is to make
everything sound ‘perfect’. So I learned from those artists to never compromise. Ask yourself, “Is it perfect?” If it isn’t, you have to make it
perfect. And you should have this attitude at every stage of production,
even when you’re recording a demo. In fact, I once sent a demo to someone who was financing a project to show them the progress, and while it
was still very much a songwriting demo, they sent it around to interested
management, promoters, record labels and so on. So I was happy that
I’d done my very best to make it sound as good as possible at that early
stage in the process. Not focusing on the fact it was a demo, simply
focusing on making the best I could regardless if it was the first time it
When editing, you can crossfade, find a note elsewhere in the song
and replace it. You can use time compression and expansion and pitchcorrection software. You still even have the option to re-record the part!
You should be able to find a way to make a recording ‘right’, it may just
take a little longer than you hope, but punching in every single chord can
sound great, and is done surprisingly often. You can apply this ethos to
songwriting, engineering . . . anything. If you’re not getting the sound you
want, then you change it. It’s that simple.
You mentioned earlier that the main aspects of editing are
timing, tuning but also timbre. Can you explain this?
The timbre or tone aspect of editing is an interesting one; this is where
you start adding to the attitude and performance more. Taking part of the
performance that has more attitude or more of a quality that you want
and moving it to other parts of the song. For example in a guitar take, the
first chorus, the guitar player was really laying into the guitar, therefore
hitting the amp harder giving a more distorted, edgy sound. In the second
chorus, though, he was relaxing and playing smoother, perhaps improving
the timing and tuning of the chorus but taking away the energy. Now take
the edited (timed and tuned) first chorus and paste it to the other choruses
so they maintain the tone and energy of the first and you’ve just edited the
tone or timbre of a track.
Editing In/and Mixing
Is editing now a required tool in the modern mix engineer’s
arsenal? Do mix engineers need to know how to ‘tune’ and
‘time’ tracks the same way tracking engineers know how to
use, say, a compressor?
I would say yes, editing is definitely a required tool in the modern mix
engineer’s arsenal, especially now that mixing is so often done via the
Internet. You can get sent a session file from across the world, and anything
could be wrong with it. And you need to send back something that is great.
So, as a mixer, you’re the last line of defense before the talent and audience
hears the track; it’s on you to make it right. If there’s a fill that’s out of time,
or one word with tuning issues on it, then you need to fix it. There are certainly times when you’re told that they have edited everything, and it is as
good as they can get it. Being able to take it that much further if there are
still tuning issues or timing issues is incredibly important. So editing can
certainly impact and be a part of mixing. It doesn’t matter if you, as the
mixer, are going back and tuning and timing yourself, or hiring an assistant
to help you with the editing. As long as the impact of editing on a finished
mix is known, that’s the most important part.
This all said, I wouldn’t say that editing is expected in mixing. The
mixer’s job is to balance instruments and tracks in a song as well as to
shape the overall tone to fit the final vision of the project. This makes
them one of the last stages of ‘quality control’, so it does often happen
that mistakes are found and need to be rectified by the mixer. Often the
new balance they are creating will reveal or boost a flaw in the track,
which is there because the engineer/producer/artist was working in a
poor listening environment.
How does editing ramify later, during mixing?
Some things are hard to mix when they’re unedited. When you have a bass
and kick drum that don’t line up, it can be a hassle to get them to work
together in a way that is usable at mix level. Pulling them together, ‘timing’
them, so they align to grid, makes my job way easier when I’m mixing,
because doing this makes the track sound ‘tighter’ and adds more punch to
the low end in general.
Do you find that editing is such an integral and expected
part of tracking now that, even before you get session files
to mix, the material is already mostly edited?
The way much of music is written and performed now via samplers,
sequencers, MIDI and loops means that a lot of mix elements are
already ‘edited’ even before they’re flown into the arrange window.
You shape the tone and quantize a MIDI part, and it’s done. What this
means, though, is that when you don’t have something that’s edited like
that MIDI part—like a live vocal or guitar—it could sound ‘off’ next
to that MIDI track, and you’ll need to address that with the kind of
editing I do. One of the best places to hear this is on a metal/hardcore
guitar track. When the notes end is almost as important as when the
note starts in this genre, so having a very edited and clean guitar track
it vital. (‘Physical Education’ by Animals as Leaders or ‘Lost in the
Static’ by After the Burial) You get a really rhythmic sound on those
tracks, more than you do with rhythm guitars in a lot of other genres.
And, thanks to editing, those guitar parts are almost robotically precise! This is a crucial element of the genre, in fact. If you don’t edit the
guitar parts, the track sounds ‘wrong’ to interested listeners. And you
just wouldn’t have been able to achieve this level of precision in mixing
before. You would have had to play around with gates, and expanders,
and do a lot of punching in. Humans just can’t achieve this level of
precision on their own. So, yeah, editing changes not only how tracking
happens but also how songwriting, production and mixing happens,
insofar as you can conceive and achieve a wide variety of sounds that
you couldn’t before digital editing became commonplace.
So is editing post-production or production, then?
Editing was first viewed as a post-production tool, separate from all
other processes. Now editing has expanded into every part of the production process. It can be used as a tool that works in the background,
which you don’t even hear but you still know is there. Like compressors which used to be used to manage only level and dynamic contour, now they’re used to produce truly creative sounds, like the famous
drum sound in ‘When the Levee Breaks’ by Led Zeppelin or side-chain
pumping you hear in electronic music. The same transition has been
(and is) happening with editing—take Auto-Tune, for example. Engineers used to use Auto-Tune primarily to fix a note or two when it was
first available. Then Cher came along, with her song ‘Believe’, and all
of a sudden Auto-Tune becomes a texture in and of itself. The later
an example of editing playing a role is you’d have to call ‘production’
rather than ‘post-production’
How do you know how much you’re expected to edit,
then, when you’ve only been hired to mix a track? That is,
how much editing is tacitly expected when handed the mix
I would say the best way to know what kind of editing is required would be
listening to the reference tracks sent to you by the artist or producer. They
have a vision in mind and will usually talk about other songs or bands
they’re looking to sound like. Listening to those tracks you should be able
to get an idea for what you’ll need to do to achieve that sound. The tough
part is when they have a very different productions style (i.e., no editing
and very loose) from the reference tracks they’ve passed along. When this
happens, you have to figure out if the budget as well as the schedule will
allow for editing. If they sent me a session file, and a few hundred dollars,
and said, “Mix it”, then I might fix one or two pitches on the vocals, or
move a drum fill around, but that’s about it. If there’s more money in the
budget, as well as time in the schedule, then I would sit down and edit the
drums, put in drum samples, edit the bass and guitars, tune the vocals, time
the vocals, and then start mixing. All the editing would be done before