EDIT>Pre-Production? Check. Recording? Check. Now what? Mixing? Bzzzzzz. Wrong. 🙂

There’s an important step that comes between recording that last instrument and starting the mixing process. It’s called editing.

Editing can mean lots of things. Pocketing, cleaning up, comping, tuning, Beat Detective, quantizing, nudging, “flying,” copying & pasting, cutting out entire sections of the song — all of these could be put under the blanket of editing.

Let’s take a look at what editing is why you should make editing a part of your workflow.

What is Editing?

Editing is simply getting the tracks ready to be mixed. It involves comping together all the takes of each track into one, “perfect” take. It involves cleaning up the starts and ends of tracks to prevent any unwanted sounds getting into the mix. It involves getting rid of unwanted noise, like the singer smacking his lips or clearing his throat between phrases.

Editing can also mean pocketing. In other words, it can be the process of “fixing” or “tightening up” the timing of a performance. If the bass player comes in a little early on the downbeat, you can use editing to quickly correct it without dramatically altering the performance.

Editing can also mean tuning. The singer could deliver a fantastic, emotional performance, but a few notes went flat. You can use tuning software to quickly correct the pitch without dramatically altering the performance.

“…without dramatically altering the performance.” <—- That’s the key.

I don’t advocating taking a performance and chopping the life out of it. I view editing as one of the most creative parts of the process. You’re taking a great performance and polishing it.

Why Edit?

You may disagree with me, but a lot of times I’d rather listen to a nice, polished recording than a sloppy one. That’s why I edit.

I’ve never edited a song and had the performer come back and tell me how I ruined the sound. Oftentimes they don’t really notice. They just like what they hear.

You wouldn’t criticize a mix engineer for using EQ on an electric guitar track would you? The guitarist works hard to perfect his tone, but the mix engineer EQ’s it to make it work in the mix. I view editing as the same thing, changing the performance slightly to make it work with the rest of the tracks.

Why Not Edit as You Mix?

When editing a song, I recommend having a couple of dedicated “editing sessions.” It’s tempting to just jump straight into mixing, and just “edit as you go.” But I don’t recommend this.

Why? Because editing is a very surgical, left-brain process. While mixing is a much more creative, right-brain process. If you’re constantly having to switch between “mixing mode” and “editing mode,” you won’t do either very well.

As they say in Nashville, “if you’re fixing, you’re not mixing.” If a track needs to be cleaned up, tuned, or pocketed, simply set aside time to do just that. Once all the editing is done, THEN move on to mixing. I’ve found that this helps me edit much more quickly. I get in a bit of a groove, and I can blow through the editing process fairly quickly.

Is Editing Cheating?

If done properly, I say the answer is no. You’re welcome to disagree (and I’d love to hear your opinion in the comments below). I simply view editing as another great tool in my engineer tool belt. For some songs I may only need to do very little editing. For others, I might need to spend several hours editing. Either way, I only do what makes the song better.

Don’t edit just to edit. If it needs it, go for it. I think you’ll be glad you did.

3 Ways to Learn More

Want to dig in deeper with editing? You can do so one of three ways:

  1. Check out the “related articles” just below this article. I’ve written a lot about editing, and you’ll find some interesting stuff there for free.
  2. Check out my tutorial series Understanding Editing, complete with training videos and practice tracks.
  3. Join the Production Club (time sensitive!) and see exactly how I edit an entire song, in the context of walking through the entire production process from start to finish.
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  • Reid Howland

    Editing is not cheating. I promise you this: every artist/band/whatever that you love, all your favorite albums from the era of tape onward are edited. You do what you have to do to make the record you want and then BS about doing songs in one take in the interview, as it were. Even the early Beatles stuff: splicing the chorus from take 9 onto the verses from take 7, that sort of thing. It’s all about creating an illusion–anything that detracts from the song has to be addressed, or the illusion is blown. That doesn’t mean quantizing to the nth degree, but there’s no reason to live with something, be it a rushed fill or a stray guitar noise, if it’s not helping the tune any. But don’t edit out the super-bitchin’ happy accidents, either; between-take chatter is a wonderful thing, to my mind.

  • Gary Archibeck

    Hey joe and all,

    When you go to editing, do you try to take out every stray transient? I am doing an acoustic project. Every now and again a nail may glance off an E string or a triplet may not land exactly in place. Do you all fix all of those issues? Flex editing and overdubbing can work wonders, but should I take the time? I dont know about you all, but I hear mistakes in my music more often than others. Maybe I’m too sensitive. My wife thinks I’m picky – she rarely hears the things I worry about. How do you all not over-edit? Thanks & blessings – gary

    • Great question, Gary. I try to avoid hyper-editing, where every single transient gets moved. You tend to lose any and all life at that point, and the track sounds robotic.

      I tend to only edit spots where I hear a problem. Small timing issues don’t usually bother me, but it if stands out in my head as SLOPPY, then I’ll fix it.

  • Nathan

    I thought I’d throw in my opinion on this subject. I definitely agree with the idea of not wanting to edit the life out of a song, however, I am really opposed to the idea that one shouldn’t edit something or auto tune something because it is cheating. To me, music and songwriting are a form of expressing something inside of oneself. I understand that music means different things to different people, but to me, music is not much about “entertainment” per se, but about self-expression for both it’s vivid manner of language delivery (lyrics) as well as is it’s unique way of being able to communicate a mood by actually instilling it in someone else. Because of it’s vivid way of being able to communicate ideas and feelings, set moods, I also see it as an incredibly therapeutic endeavor for both artist and listener.

    This digression on my philosophy of music actually does tie in to editing. I feel that in the effort of trying to capture in recorded form the best copy of that song you hear in your head that perfectly expresses your idea and mood, sets the atmosphere you want, editing can be a great tool. To me, I could care less if I found out that an album that I love was heavily edited and that the musicians may not really be able to play that well, because it detracts nothing from the idea that they formed. And no, I realize you cannot completely separate the performance from the idea, the natural way that someone performs something with his hands and fingers and voice are all part of what makes music such a great mode of expression. However, take someone who doesn’t sing in key very well, but has a pretty good tone of voice and a lot of passion. If this guy wants to use music as a mode of expression, I think he’d still get a more genuine and “true-to-the-feeling/idea-that-inspired-the-song” tone in a recording of that song by singing it himself and pitch correcting heavily, than outsourcing that job to another singer who may not be able to relate on such an intimate level with the song, and thus produce a less honest vocal.

    I’m not saying I advocate editing the life out of anything, I am like a lot of the guys who posted before in that I like a very natural recording, editing only those parts that are off enough to detract from the ability of one to receive the message/mood of the song that the writer wanted to send/create. Obviously, the opposite can also be said, that you don’t want to make any edits that detract from the honest “passion” (I get sick of that word, but I can’t think of another) of the writer(s) performing their song.

    So I guess my main idea is, I don’t limit my editing because I feel it’s cheating, but rather I limit it when doing so would take the recording further away from that mood/feeling/idea that the artist desires to express.

    All that said, I do appreciate a great singer or drummer who can play with 100% passion and also hit the note/beat perfect almost every single time, but I don’t feel it is cheating for someone who isn’t on that level to use the tools of editing to enable him to better utilize the wonderful mode of expression that is songwriting and music composition.

  • Unedited tracks usually sound really ameteurish. Even good performers can benefit from a little editing.

  • Zach Drake

    Lucky all of my tracks except for 2 -3 vocal tracks and 2 guitar tracks for my own music is all midi. Midi thankfully edits itself if the Quantization is all set right.

  • Kevin M. Kortsch

    Hi Joe,

    As the tape era guy here, I agree with you that editing is a vital part of the process. Another writer stated they did it when analog tape was the media which is true. You did mention one point that deserves repeating and that is editing simply because you can. When you had to either punch in or redo the entire track using analog, you eventually reach a point where you can’t do it any better and that’s it. In the DAW world, you can edit stuff to your hearts’ content which can result in “editing the life out of a song” (good way to put it). Let’s face it boys and girls, humans simply can’t stay on time all the time. If you want an experiment that will prove it, cue up your favorite older (analog)rock song, listen to it and try and set a metronome (dating myself again) to sync with the music. Rarely will you find a tune that goes more than a minute or so without going out of time.

    Ask anyone who has played out and you can get a story about going out on stage and playing at warp two because everyone is hyped up or whatever. I guess what I’m getting at is don’t edit just because you can. Fix the stuff that detracts from the quality and continuity of the song but don’t go overboard and ruin it.

    Kevin

  • For me, editing is the best part in audio production. I like when everything start at same time, it will create a tight record. Especially if I’m doing metal records.

  • Scot

    I’m still a bit torn on this, Joe – I agree that editing is a critical and crucial part of the whole process and always needs to be done to some degree, but it can be a slippery slope. When it comes to constructing a song from individually recorded parts and overdubs, where there was no group or band performance, there is no collective “gelling” to destroy – it’s a matter of pocketing it all to fit and sit sweetly together. My main point is that a musician, such as a drummer, may get into a real groove but be wavering from the click…I wouldn’t want to necessarily “fix” that, especially if he was the other musicians’ “click” that they played to. I just finished reading “John Bonham, Thunder of Drums” (I’m a drummer and he has always been my all-time drumming idol). In the book, John Paul Jones was asked what he thought Bonzo (John) would think about today’s technology, i.e click tracks, DAW drum editing, sample replacement, etc. John Paul says Bonzo (besides being a human click himself) would never have gone for any of that…can you imagine EDITING him? They all played off each other and “grooved” – I’m sure that if you looked at their individual waveforms against that of a recorded click track at the correct tempo you would see drift, etc. I actually recorded a cover of the Beatles “Ticket To Ride” and compared the original in Pro Tools to a recorded click at tempo (122bpm), and they were all over the place, but the song “sings” – we are human and thus imperfect (especially me), and although music is quite mathematical on paper or on screen, to my ears, natural fluidity makes it “swing”…that’s another much talked about charicteristic of Bonzo from the book: the way he executed his unique timing and dynamics really made the music swing. Of course I realize that the better the musicians and their “tightness”, probably the less issues there would be. Just because we CAN does not mean we SHOULD. I still wrestle with editing my own drum parts, because it wouldn’t be like I actually played it, right? If I quantized something and made it tight, but could not sit down and play it that tightly? The guilt sets in…lol…especially if someone hears it and comments that I play well (but that’s not REALLY me…ug). I believe that the music and bands were so much more pure in Zeppelin’s day – they HAD to be good and get it right – no way to edit tape to do the things that Pro Tools can do today. Led Zep 1 was a live in the studio recording session that took only 15 hours over a period of two weeks – most songs done in one take. Thy had ony been playing together for three weeks before the sessions started. The mixing took another 15 hours – done…all without DAW editing (sorry – lol). You are my top GURU, Joe, and this is not a criticism in any way! I agree mostly with you on this (we are one man bands, so must edit),but still think that something has been lost with the advent of the new tools…just one man’s opinion!

    Scot

  • Dear Joe, as always I’m 100% in agree with you.
    Comping and editing is something that always existed: in the tape era, they just had more work to do that, but all Beatles’ song are edited in some ways, and I love their sound!
    It’s not a question of being spontaneous: a song had to be amazing, and no one cares about what you did to arrive at that results!
    And you can’t transform an horrible take in a nice one just by editing: a singer is good or not.
    I cannot sing: you cane tune me as you want, but if you like good music, it’s better if you don’t listen to me singing! 😉
    People that think that editing is cheating could record live with a couple of mics and without possibility of mixing and mastering!
    All other things we make (also choosing type and position of the microphone) is editing in some ways the truth of the sound that is in the room!
    Ciao,
    Simo 🙂

  • Editing/comping/pitch correction has become just part of the process.

  • Editing is the life blood to great sounding recordings/songs. Without editing alot of music would just sound tossed together and unprofessional. Putting instruments in the pocket as well as vocal doubles/harmonies is/has been an integral part of post production. That along with time stretching makes up the modern music we hear everyday unless its live. Editing for some people is the missing link between an amateur mix and a professional polish.

  • Adam Cole

    I agree wholeheartedly! Editing was probably the biggest gap in my studio knowledge, and after 5 years of music college! Just something people seldom mention or spend any time on whatsoever! Cheers to Joe for the enlightenment. I’m actually knee deep in editing as we speak, if anyone is interested here are 2 links to a song I’m working on. The 1st is unedited in any way, the 2nd is the latest edit mix, it still needs some tightening up in places but its a lot cleaner & crisp…

    http://dl.dropbox.com/u/3110071/Stone%20For%20Stone%20mix%201%20no%20edits.mp3

    http://dl.dropbox.com/u/3110071/Stone%20For%20Stone%20Mix%202%20edits.mp3

    • Antonio Freitas

      Enjoyed the tune. Reminds me of some of the stuff I listened to in my earlier rock days (70’s). I notice there are also additional instruments in the 2nd mix.
      Presently I am really deep into editing some acoustic stuff I recorded for my wife (I was not a musician in this project). I am a perfectionist and it is taking me a ton of editing time for this project. I strive to get the natural feeling and sound of each instrument into the song, as if it had been played by a great musician. In other words, I am trying to lift a good musician’s work into the quality and style of another musician that I did live sound for (I was a live sound engineer for 20+ years) in the past.