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Audio editing is the overlooked part of audio production. Granted, it is the most boring part, but it's essential to creating great tracks. You can think of editing like the shower before the dance. Sure, you could skip the shower, jump into your suit and go dancing, but wouldn't you like to be clean?
Editing is like that, cleaning up the tracks before you start mixing them. Because if you start with well-edited tracks, you're only going to make them sound better. If you don't edit them you'll inevitably come across something during mixing that you should have gotten rid of in the first place. Or worse yet, you notice them when you get the track back from mastering. Boring or not, taking the necessary time to edit your tracks just makes everything sound better in the long run.
First Things First
The first thing you need to think about when you're editing a track is if it actually needs any editing. Listen and judge for yourself. Is the track really grooving so you don't need to do anything? That's great. Go have a drink and get ready for mixing.
However, if you start noticing some inconsistencies with the recordings while you're listening then you need to start analyzing what you need to do. Do the regions pop out irregularly? Then you need fades. Do you hear background noise during quiet passages? Then you need to silence those regions. Do you hear clicks and pops in the audio? Then you need to either rerecord or comp the passage with a few different passes.
We'll cover all these problems in the following tutorial, so if you need to make that song groove and sound like a record, read on.
Step 1 - Deleting Silences
First thing to do after you've recorded your instruments is to get rid of the silences. There are three areas to think of: the area before you start recording, the areas between phrases or playing, and finally, the area after the main part. I like to break them down into three, since sometimes one of them gets overlooked.
Take an acoustic guitar part for example. You might have started recording a few seconds before the acoustic guitar has to start playing, so you have noise from the microphone that basically picking up nothing. Get rid of it.
Here you have two acoustic guitars playing. The first one actually starts playing before the second one, but the recording started at the same time. While we have a nice acoustic guitar playing on the first two tracks, we also have noise from the second guitarist that we should get rid of.
It's kind of hard to see in the regions themselves, but there's definitely unwanted noise there that we want to get rid of.
Listen to the first recording:
Listen to the shuffling noise from the second guitar part. It's completely cluttering up the cleanliness of the acoustic guitar part.
Let's delete it.
Now we have only the wanted region playing, making the audio that much cleaner.
Take a listen:
Another aspect of unwanted noise are the parts between phrases. When you're recording, the instrument isn't constantly playing.
Take vocals for example. There might be pauses between lines, or extended waits while there is another instrument soloing for instance.
When you're recording vocals, you don't always skip those parts, but rather just wait to give the singer one fluid moment to sing the song through. But what happens is that during the moments when the singer isn't singing, there might be breaths or lips smacking that are audible in the background, headphone bleed that comes through the mic or any other extraneous noise that can plague the home studio recording.
In order to get a smoother overall recording, you need to delete all those silences between phrases. Because even though they are silences in the production, they aren't really silent. They're just adding extra noise to the overall song. Get rid of them in a few different ways.
If you have a fairly simple production, with clearly visible silences between phrases, then you just select and delete the parts of the regions that have nothing going on in them. And once you've deleted all the supposed silence (read: annoying background noise), then most audio program allow you to create one seamless region from all the parts that are still there.
Take this drum track for instance. There is an extended period of time where the drums aren't playing, but when they were recorded, the drummer needed to keep time on the hi-hat. Now in the finished production we don't want the click of a hi-hat since we have all these other elements going on, not to mention that it's not really in time with the guitar.
Tell me, which one would you prefer. This noisy drum track over this otherwise nice sounding guitar track:
Or an edited region where I've deleted the drums, making the guitar part all the more beautiful?
I thought you did.
Finally, when a song ends you need to delete the parts that go on for longer. Unless you're fading the whole thing out, you might end up with some instruments that have the same problem as before. There will be noise from the players as they put their instrument down, move around or something of the sort.
Like in this example, there is noise from the headphones hitting the strings as the guitarist puts the guitar down. You obviously don't want that in a finished mix.
You should actually cut all the regions at where the song ends. In this instance it would be good to trim and fade out all the regions to where the cymbals of the drum kit die out. That's the end of the song, so you don't need additional seconds of silence. The mastering engineer would delete them anyway.
Now we have a song that ends where it's supposed to end.
Editing out noise and unwanted parts from the background is the backbone of a great mix. You could make everything sound amazing, but if there are always annoying background parts interfering with the enjoyment of the song, it won't matter. Edit the audio so that the mix can shine.
Step 2 – Get Rid of Clicks or Pops
Editing audio can get really tedious. It requires a lot of concentration to pick up every subtle click and pop that you need to get rid of.
Of course, if you get rid of most of the silences to begin with, then you're halfway there. But make sure there aren't any unwanted pops, lip smacks or pops that can get in the way of your great audio. A tiny little click might sound harmless to begin with, or even inaudible. But once you start boosting with EQ and increasing the noise floor and gain with compression, those harmless clicks will inevitably start to annoy you.
Here's an example of a tiny lip smack that needs to be taken care of.
It's as simple as deleting the silence after the vocal phrase, but the hardest part is noticing it to begin with. If you listen to the vocal with everything else going on then it's not really noticeable, but I'm nit-picky enough to care.
No lip smack after deleting:
Step 3 – Do the Fades
A simple mistake to do is to leave all the recorded regions alone after you've recorded them. Depending on the loudness of the region, it might cause a noticeable increase in loudness and you will hear when the region starts, even if the instrument hasn't started playing. You want to leave the listener with the impression that everything is being played at the same time, so breaking that hypothetical “fourth wall” is a big no-no.
Let's go back to the drum track for a little bit. I want to fade out this part but the drummer immediately goes to the hi-hat so I can't fade out the hi-hat quickly enough because I'll kill the cymbals too early. It will sound unnatural so I need a compromise.
You can really hear the fade on the hi-hat here:
If I fade too early, the cymbals get drowned out and the accent is lost. It sounds like somebody came in and ate the last cymbal hit. Not good.
Since I can't get rid of that hi-hat without eating the cymbal I need to compromise a little bit. I'll have the cymbals live until the guitars come back in and then I'll have a really quick fade out. The guitar, bass and vocals coming in will mask the fact that I've faded out all that space that was coming from the drums.
I've changed the fades, so instead of them fading out really quickly, they fade out really slowly until the end, where they fall really quick.
Definitely a compromise, but I can live with it.
Fades really help the smoothness of your audio so you should definitely get familiar with all the different types of fades. They basically fade out quicker or longer depending on which type you choose. Using fades at the beginning and end of every region is a great way to minimize the background noise being audible.
For instance, if you recorded a softly played guitar part that you needed to compress or push up in level to stand out, there is a chance that the background noise from the room is no much louder than before. This means that when the region starts, you'll hear an apparent boost in level before the instrument starts, which can throw the listener off. If you use fades, you can fade into the instrument starting to play, creating a smooth transition without compromising the listening experience.
Step 4 - Comping Tracks
Comping tracks is a great way to create one perfect take out of a few good ones. Comping means recording a few passes of an instrument or a vocal, and then slicing it down into its corresponding passages. That way you can pick and choose the best phrases from all the ones you have at your disposal.
Say that one verse is killer, but one word is a little flat. If you recorded multiple takes of that same verse, chances are you have a separate take that's not flat that you can substitute in. It's the perfect way to get a good singer sounding great.
Step 5 - Comping/Double-Tracking Background Vocals
Another way to use comping is to double-track background vocals. If you recorded enough takes, or even only two really good ones, you can create a different channel and add another layer to your vocals.
First, create a great vocal part from the backing vocals you have. Then you comp a different part from all the other parts, making sure you aren't using the same phrases at the same time. That won't give you a doubled effect. It will only give you more volume. Now, create a second background vocal track and put the second comped vocal there. Now you have a lush backup vocal arrangement without needing to record a bunch of different parts multiple times.
But if you do have a few different harmony parts you can do the same thing. You will end up with a really big backup vocal arrangement that gives your song a nice touch.
Editing doesn't have to be that boring. It can also be creative. It's not only noticing the errors in the audio, and cleaning up the regions where nothing is going on; it's also about creating the opportunity to be creative with the tracks you have. Using correct fades to minimize apparent noise change, and recording enough takes to comp the perfect take is just a small part of great editing. Edit your recordings, you'll end up with such a better final mix.