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Audio Editing Tip: Use Compression & EQ

Posted by Keith Freund On February - 7 - 20103 COMMENTS

Editing is sort of like the breakfast of the production process. Although people don’t covet and fetishize it they way they do mixing (the dinner), it is absolutely essential for a well-balanced diet. You might say mastering is the dessert, but I’m inclined to call it a breath mint that you grab on your way out of the restaurant. Or maybe editing is the house salad and pre-production is breakfast since people skip it when they’re in a hurry even though it’s the most important meal of the day and even though they could at LEAST take a Nutri-Gain bar on their way out the door…


Anyway, here’s what I’m really getting at: you wouldn’t eat breakfast and dinner at the same time, would you? That’s gross. To this end, the absolute top of the top mixers (i.e. the ones that charge $10K/song–there are about 20 of them in the world) make sure all of the editing is done before they begin by having their assistants prep all their sessions.*

And that’s how it should be. Not only is it gross to mix and edit at the same time, but multitasking is actually less productive than doing things one at a time. (My freelancer readers will know what I’m talking about here.**) Technical difficulties are the arch-rival of creativity. They will throw you off track and kill your creative flow. So get rid of them ahead of time. But many times you don’t hear things that need editing until the mixing process has already begun.

So whether you’re a mixing a project yourself or handing it off to a mix engineer, the following technique will save you time and headaches by enabling you to quickly simulate a mix and get all the editing done beforehand:

  1. Before you begin editing, put some compression on each track you’re working on and mess with the settings until you’re really, really hearing the compressor work (try using the fastest release and a ratio of 10:1 or higher).
  2. Boost the treble on your master fader with an EQ plugin. A lot. Particularly the 8 to 13kHz range.

There are two reasons why we often don’t find noises and bad edits until the mixing phase. The first is that these noises are generally very quiet and occur during a section where that particular instrument is not sounding. Since compression effectively makes quiet sections louder, the mixing stage can bring noises to the front of the mix which were previously inaudible. For example:

  • The guitar part hasn’t started yet, but the noise of the guitarist putting his hand on the strings makes it onto the recording.
  • The drummer has stopped playing but he moves and his throne squeaks faintly.
  • While editing vocal takes together, you’ve made an edit in the middle of a breath without realizing.
  • You’ve edited guitar solo takes together and made an edit in the middle of a note without cross-fading, creating a pop.

These noises are often audible only in the very highest frequencies, which is why I’m also advocating a treble boost.

More Editing Tips & Common Mistakes

  • I’ve found that rap producers who work in Pro Tools like to edit and consolidate everything exactly to the downbeats, sometimes for looping purposes but other times it’s just an obsessive compulsive thing. DON’T DO THIS. I know it looks gorgeous and symmetrical and all that, but it’s not worth it. Musicians and samples rarely start and end exactly on a beat, so you’re usually harming the attack of the first note and the decay of the last. And by consolidating those edits, you’re also making it impossible to remedy the problem later by cross-fading.
  • Before you consolidate regions in Pro Tools, cross-fade at every edit or cut point, even if only for a fraction of a second. Pro Tools automatically adds tiny cross-fades on edits during playback that are not preserved when consolidating regions.
  • One of John Mayer’s engineers recommended that instead of cross-fading, you should make cut edits by aligning the two sound files at a zero crossing***. I haven’t found that to be effective most of the time, but it’s something to try if cross-fading isn’t working out.

*This includes pitch correction (in the rock world, Melodyne is the tool of choice, not AutoTune), Vocalign for getting background vocals tight, Beat Detective for drums, and fades. Some mid-level producers do their own editing for creative reasons, or sometimes no editor is listed at all (the band must be perfect!)

**Why multitasking is bad:

***A zero crossing is that middle line on a waveform that represents 0.

Is Beat Detective Killing The Magic?

Posted by Keith Freund On March - 13 - 20092 COMMENTS

Note: Though this article refers to live drum performances, all information below can be applied to MIDI sequencing and quantization.

The music blogosphere is abuzz this month with talk of an informal survey which compares tempo deviations on drum performances of popular rock groups. The following graph shows tempo deviations in the drum performance by John Bonham* on Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven”:


The tempo graphs show little deviation for pop acts like Nickelback, Britney Spears, and late-era Green Day. Some say this exactness contributes to a rigid or lifeless quality of radio rock. On the other end of the spectrum, the tempos of iconic rock bands like the Beatles, Metallica, and Weezer deviate considerably within songs.

The above plays into the notion that the 60s and 70s were the golden age of music—the “what ever happened to all the great rock n’ roll bands???” mentality—the idea that musicianship has been replaced by convenience, the increasingly poor work ethic of each new generation and especially all that new fangled technology.

The article’s author must not be an engineer because he attributes this phenomenon to click tracks which is, to put it bluntly, just plain wrong. Nickelback couldn’t play this closely to a metronome if they wanted to; these tempo deviation graphs cannot tell us whether the band played to a click track or not. The real culprit is editing to The Grid a.k.a. a tempo map, either by hand or using a software add-on like Beat Detective or Elastic Audio. To take it one step further, you could attribute this sound to the advent of the computer. After all, editing work at this level of precision was simply not possible before Protools and other computer-based DAWs in the early 90s.

And yet the argument against technology still standsit is often the human imperfections that make a record great.

One of my favorite examples of desirable “feel” is the performance by legendary bassist Pino Pallidino on D’Angelo’s Voodoo. He drags behind the rest of the band, almost as if the bass itself is hesitating, holding back great emotion or desire until just the right moment, much like people sometimes do in the throes of passion.

On the other hand, going completely au naturale can be dangerous. There are two factors working in favor of editing to a tempo map:

1) You’re not killing the magic if there was no magic there to begin with. Sometimes “feel” is just an optimistic way of saying poor chops.

2) As Phil once posited to me, our ears are so accustomed to music that is perfectly in tune and aligned that to leave out this step could make one’s music sound dated or unprofessional, even to the untrained ear.

As a mix engineer, these are the sorts of nuanced philosophical choices I must concern myself with when it comes time to take a project from good to great. Ethical implications aside, it is possible to quantize or edit live drum tracks in a way which does not kill all of the feel. Phil and I call this Musical Editing (on our Services page).


If the performer has a unique style or feel that I think is worth holding on to, I simply align each downbeat and leave breathing room for all the notes in between (as opposed to editing to every 8th or 16th note). I also depend on references: mention late-era Green Day in your Project Info Submission Form and you can expect your drums to be perfectly on the grid down to the sixteenth note. Mention the Pixies, on the other hand, and your drums may be left untouched.

Call it rigid, call it lifeless, I actually sometimes prefer the sound of aligned and sample-replaced drums. It is sometimes necessary to sacrifice the human element for the clarity and power of perfect drums. On the other hand I do think some bands could benefit from more organic, natural-sounding drum performances (Snow Patrol comes to mind).

What do you think? Are tempo grids killing music?


*From the look of things, I think we may have to make it a requirement to mention John Bonham in every single post from now on.


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