A Brief History of Editing

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FIG. A: Engineers have been editing audio since the early days of music production. When an edit point is t the beginning or end of a song, white tape (known as leader tape) is used.

A Brief History of Editing

In theory, digital editing allows us to produce letter-perfect performances. All the techniques discussed in this article are used every day to create audio illusions: releases that are metrically perfect and far beyond the musical capabilities of the band or musicians that purportedly recorded them. But endlessly worrying a musical track to try to perfect it can lead to sterility and a lack of perspective. And all the editing in the world won't make a beginning guitar player sound like Steve Vai. The question is no longer whether we have the capabilities of altering reality in this way, but whether we should do so. The reaction against false perfection has led to a resurgence in the standard recording technique of yesteryear: recording whole bands in a room together with minimal overdubs. This approach is finding mainstream success in the records of such artists as Norah Jones.

At the 2003 AES convention in New York, legendary producer Arif Mardin discussed this phenomenon in his keynote address. In his opinion, digital tools were all too frequently overused to manufacture performances. In effect, this amounts to the "dumbing down" of commercial music in an effort to pander to a supposedly unsophisticated public. Mardin felt that the public is far more perceptive than the commercial-music industries give them credit for, and that Norah Jones's success shows that honest, heartfelt performance is what ultimately counts.

Analog audio editing has been around as long as analog tape itself and is still in widespread use today. The process is fairly straightforward but demands precision for good results. To start with, locate the edit points by shuttling the tape to the desired location. Then disengage the playback motor and manually rock the reels back and forth until you can hear the edit point line up exactly with the playback head. At this point, place a mark on the back side of the tape with a grease pencil and then find the other edit point, repeating the process. Next, slide the tape into an aluminum tape guide (known as an editing block) attached to the recorder. There are narrow grooves in the block at 90- and 45-degree angles. Line up the marked edit point with one of those narrow grooves (typically the 45-degree angle groove, because this creates more of a crossfade effect), and carefully slice the tape with a razor blade.

Spool off the tape you don't want until you come to the next edit point; one more slice there, and the edited material is gone. The two ends of tape that remain are then carefully lined up, abutting each other in the editing block, and are connected with a piece of cellophane tape known as splicing tape. If the edit point is the beginning or end of a song, the tape is not spliced to more recording tape, but rather to white tape known as leader tape (see Fig. A). Leader tape is nonmagnetic and thus creates no sound when passed over the playback head. Its contrasting color makes it easy to visually pick out the beginning and ending of the song on the reel.

This laborious process has been common practice for 50 years and has been used creatively in countless situations. When recording the Beatles' "Strawberry Fields Forever," John Lennon liked the first half of one take and the second half of another take; he asked producer George Martin to splice them together. Unfortunately, the takes were recorded at different tempos and a semitone apart in key. Martin accomplished this nearly impossible feat by gradually slowing down the tape as it approached the edit point. That edit happens at exactly one minute into the song.

A significant limitation of analog editing is that it is an all-tracks-at-once proposition; it is impossible using standard splicing techniques to move one track in time relative to another on the same tape. So if a bass note is late relative to the kick drum, the best option is to punch in and rerecord it. Necessity is, however, the mother of invention. The need to fix tracks after the musicians were not available led to a high-wire proposition of last resort: the infamous "window edit." This technique involves slicing a "window" of tape that corresponds to the location of a physical track lengthwise down the reel of tape for the duration of the edit, then slipping the window in time relative to the rest of the multitrack tape, then taping it back into its new position with splicing tape. Performing this task in the digital world is trivial by comparison.

Using technical innovation to invent new genres of art is nothing new. In the '50s, pioneering composers such as Pierre Schaefer, Pierre Henry, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Edgard Varese sliced up recordings of everyday sounds: door slams, church bells, children playing, and so forth. They then recontextualized those sounds by gluing them back together and presenting them as unified compositions. This early branch of electronic music, known as musique concrete, was the first form of music that could not have existed without audio editing. The impact of musique concrete was utterly profound - echoes of this early work have resonated through virtually all electronic music to the present day.

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