Do you edit your recordings?

Once everything has been recorded, before you start mixing, do you edit the audio? Do you fix things? Do you think it’s cheating? Do you think it’s stupid NOT to do it? I’m going to give you my take on it, but be sure to let me know your opinion in the comments section below.

What is Editing?

An audio editor is much like a book editor. He takes the original audio file and adds or removes bits and pieces to make it better.

An audio editor at a radio station will take a spoken-word commercial that’s 34 seconds long and trim it down until it fits into a 30-second spot. A book editor will read the manuscript and suggest that certain parts be taken out…or certain parts be stretched out.

With regard to music production and recording, editing involves any changes made to the audio between the recording phase and the mixing phase. This can involve normalizing audio files, correcting timing issues, removing unwanted sections, or even changing the actual performance itself.

Editing is not just a digital thing. Back in the “analog days,” engineers would regularly cut and splice tape between two different takes.

Is it cheating?

One could argue that the musician’s performance should remain untouched. If the performance wasn’t perfect, that’s okay. That’s reality. That’s how the musician really sounds.

Others like to take a good performance and “touch it up” here and there to make it even better. A prime example? AutoTune.

Some people rant and rave against AutoTune. They write things in the liner notes like “AutoTune was not used anywhere on the album.” Others swear by AutoTune.

First, let me make a point here. You should be recording good musicians. No amount of editing tools or software or magic voodoo will make a crappy musician sound good. Let’s just assume we’re talking about good musicians and good performances.

So…is it cheating to take a good performance and try to improve it? Is it wrong to “pocket” the drums so they’re a bit tighter and more in sync with the click track? Is it wrong to pocket the bass, making it “lock in” with the kick drum? Guitars? Keys? Background vocals?

I can’t tell you if it’s cheating or not. But let me tell you what I think.

I’m creating a product.

When I’m working on a recording project, the end result (most likely) is a finished CD or album. I’m producing something that’s going to have my name on it. I want it to sound as good as possible. That’s why I work with good musicians.

However, what if there are mistakes in the audio? What if the bass comes in a little too soon in a few spots?

Well, I ask myself, what would be best for the song? Would it sound better if the bass was playing WITH the kick drum rather than a few milliseconds BEFORE?

My answer? Yes.

What’s best for the song? That’s what I ask myself. What will make this product I’m creating sound its best?

In my opinion, all these editing tools are just that…tools. Just like in any other industry, I use the tools I have at my disposal to make the best product I can. That means I almost always pocket the drums, then the bass, then the guitars and other rhythm instruments.

Even an amazing performance can stand a little tweaking here and there. I’m not talking about changing the performance entirely. I’m simply trying to enhance the performance. Chances are every change I make is EXACTLY what the musician was trying to do, but didn’t.

At a live show, the band can be REALLY tight, and it sounds great. On a recording however, the little sloppy parts are MUCH more noticeable…so I fix them.

So…like I said, I’m creating a product. I’d much rather listen to a song that sounds amazing and doesn’t have any distracting parts. It doesn’t have to be perfect, and you should never overdo any editing. You’re simply allowing the song to be the focus, rather than the individual components. Again…it’s all about the song.

Come Back Tomorrow

Perhaps you’re still not sold. Or maybe you’d just like to hear exactly what I’m talking about. I’ll be posting some audio examples tomorrow, and you can decide for yourself.

HSC Production Club Update

Editing is one of the topics I cover in depth in the HSC Production Club. I’ll be accepting new members next week, then the doors will close again for 12 weeks. If you’ve been wanting to join, or if you don’t know much about the Production Club, you can check it out here and sign up to the interest list. It’s a 12-week training course where I walk you through the recording process from start to finish. It’s a blast. More to come soon.

  • Joe R.

    I agree, Live is live…. Studio is studio.

    I like how Joe referred to a song or CD as a product. If I was purchasing a new vehicle I would expect the tires to be lined up, and the timing to be set correctly, not to mention tuned up! (I guess that’s a part of timing on a vehicle)

    We all expect a good product when we purchase something, so why would I not want to offer a good product to the people investing in my CD. If I have to Pocket this and/or remove that to make the song better, then I owe it to the listener to do it. After all, when the CD is released, it is finished, no going back to tweak anything, at that point it is eternal.

    I do use auto tune on all vocals and even the bass guitar. Most of the time I can not tell anything is flat or sharp, but the auto tune finds those little areas I cant hear.

    At the end of the day, listeners are not going to say “ hey he cheated!” They are going to say “this sounds good, or this sounds bad”

  • To me any new technology, be it auto-tune or sample accurate editing, is merely another tool to be used or not used as the situation dictates.

    The separation between live and recorded music is pretty vast. As Dave said, once a note is played live, it’s gone. The live performance carries with it the energy of the crowd, the venue and all sorts of other factors. A recorded piece makes up for the lack of that energy by focusing purely on performances and technical wizardry. They are completely different animals.

    Some projects demand a lot of tweaking to be competitive in their genre. Other styles of music aren’t as focused on perfection. Nickelback will continue to push out “perfect” tracks because that’s what their fans and competitors expect. Jazz…. not so much.

  • Kevin Hilman

    I agree that editing is A-okay in our recordings. As one poster mentioned, there is a difference between a live performance and a recording. The music I record in my home is supposed to represent the ideal performance of my compositions.
    I carefully go through my tracks and make adjustments where needed because I can always find at least a few points where my timing was less than perfect.

  • There’s nothing wrong with tidying things up. However, as the technology gets more advanced it’s easier and easier to take things too far. Personally I like music that has a bit of roughness to it; if it’s too perfect I think it ends up sounding less human and it becomes boring.

  • Fact of the matter is editing is how most engineers get their foot in the door. I spent years where the majority of my work was tuning vocals and timing up drummers. It was awful but it paid the bills and eventually it lead to more satisfying work. If you are wanting to make a go at doing engineering full time you HAVE to start at the bottom. What is the bottom? Editing.

    I hear people (even engineers) say that they don’t believe in editing and it has ruined music. I don’t buy it. If you want to be a cook you have to learn how to peal a potato. Same thing. You have to be good at and willing to do the things that those higher up the ladder don’t want to do. Fact of the matter is that the public as listeners are now trained to hear “perfect” or close to it. If you don’t put something out there that holds up to everything else… it will sound different. “Cheap” is the word that comes to most people’s mind.

    For me the point in editing is making a great performance even better. Left to my own devices I do less editing to a song than many others would. This actually got me MORE editing work. Restraint in editing is something that must be learned. Taste in editing is something that can’t be learned.

    These days I don’t like editing. I still do it. I just charge close to double what I do for everything else. Steve… you need to be honest with your clients (ugg… I hate that word) and lay it out for them in advance. Tell them what they can expect from you and what you expect from them. If they don’t want to pay for something… it is simple. Don’t do it.

  • I’m a big believer in editing as long as it’s just involving pocketing or maybe removing an errant sound etc. I’m okay w/ vocal tuning if 90% of the vocal is already good. Like Joe says, if the performance is subpar and playing just isn’t good then it’s not worth all the editing effort. When you think about most recordings being 2-3 minute tidbits of “okay acoustic track 2, you’re on in 1-2-3, go!”…layer-by-layer, track-by-track….with multitracking there’s almost no excuse because it’s very easy to rehearse that part to a science. Live recording in a studio is different, everyone should be in the pocket at the time they “roll tape” or it ain’t worth it.

    But I’m also a fan of niche indie Lo-Fi sounds too…recordings that tried to stand-apart and be a 180 from the ultra-clean perfect sound of studios. I like music recorded in places where there’s just a computer/tape and preamps, and a slightly higher noise-floor. Love that stuff. Instead of the “Bridge of the Enterprise” gear-laden studios, it has an organic feel. Editing/Mixing should never be used to remove that element, if it’s good and pure.

  • I’m all for editing tracks to get the final product the best it can be … to a point.

    To Steven’s point, yes, there are definitely clients who expect you to produce diamonds from turds, but that’s where you have to figure out whether or not you’re going to ask them for some more for editing or just bit the bullet and do it “on the house” … keeping note of the situation for future reference.

    I’ve come across a lot of folks who think like Joe states: you shouldn’t touch the original performance. But, in the end, when they’re getting that recording, they’re expecting something that’s tight and spot-on.

    One thing I think some people lose perspective on is that there’s a big difference between a live performance and a recording. With a recording, you can keep going back and listening – mistakes, miscues and all – it’s a bit more “permanent”. Whereas with live music, once a note has been played … it’s gone.

    If an artist is trying to put their best foot forward with a professional recording, I’d tend to believe that they’d want to have something that represents the best performance.

    On the other hand, they could spend the time and money on practicing… 😉

    • Exactly. The whole point is that editing isn’t meant to make crappy musicians sound good. It’s simply a way to “polish” an already-good performance.

    • aLf

      Yeah, as Dave said, it´s a huge different between a live performance and a recording. Live is live and the “live feeling” + the loudness 🙂 in that case is essential.

      But a recording is a thing, that you´ll often listen to and therefore it have to be as perfect as possible, I think.

      And when the customer or the fans purchased the music, they have, in my opinion, the right of a product, with less mistakes .

      Editing is for me a part of the production.

  • Steven

    The issue with massive amounts of editing is that, for me, it creates an unrealistic expectation from most clients. They expect their crappy performances to be magically turned into something great. I guess you will have guys who can edit very quickly and accurately and that’s fine, but for me, it’s just not viable in a business sense. It takes too much time. I would rather concentrate on the sonics and have a less than perfectly tuned, timed performance that SOUNDS great. Recordings are about ‘character’ and in my experience, that never comes from time stretching, tuning and quantized performances.

    Ironically, the prevalence of editing in modern music means more artists have the desire to record. This is great, although they’re still unwilling to pay by the hr for it, so you have more business that involves excruciating hrs of editing.

    In short, I guess you had better be good at editing if you hope to retain clients, but the clients should learn to play before coming to the studio. These days there’s no prestige to performing in such an environment.

    Editing is really useful but should only be used to fix a performance worth keeping.

    • Great points, Steven. Although I think the issue of artists not wanting to pay for recording doesn’t really have anything to do with editing. If they’re hesitant to pay for ANYTHING, then of course they’ll be hesitant to pay extra for editing. I think that just all comes back to how you negotiate the deal to begin with.

      • Steven

        The point I’m trying to make is that the editing has become part of the overall ‘recording’ process. The client arrives, spends the day playing their best and then the editing begins when they leave, but they still expect to pay for just the session time. ie they don’t feel they should pay for the editing.

        But yes, it does depend on how you negotiate the deal to begin with.

        • I guess that’s the cunundrum (sp?) isn’t it? Joe probably has a better and more eloquent response, but there are some things you can do to minimize the “bleeding” (doing unpaid work).

          When I start a job, I like to establish with the client what it’s going to take to get them a great product. Give them a clear understanding of what’s involved in the process. If it’s recording, editing and mixing, then lay it out – let them know that it’s all part of the process and your time. Also give them rough estimates of what it takes you on average to finish a song of xx length with xx musicians trying to produce xx product AND what that could equate to in cost.

          I do a lot of composing and although I don’t come across it much anymore, I used to get these directors that would expect days of work for a “copy of the film and credit” – or some small portion of illusive receipts. That was fine when I was starting out and trying to establish a catalogue of credits, but there was a point at which I made a conscious effort to draw a line and politely refuse clients who were not willing to compensate.

          If they’re looking for a professional product from a professional, then they should expect to pay appropriately. It’s the whole axiom – you get what you pay for…