Today's multitrack software packages give us endless flexibility to manipulate the audio we've recorded, but the possibilities can be confusing to begin with. We introduce the tools of the audio editor's trade...
The introduction of magnetic tape revolutionised the world of recording in more ways than one. Not only did it offer unprecedented audio fidelity, but for the first time, recorded sound became malleable. Once a performance had been captured to tape, it could be changed. Additional instruments could be overdubbed, the signal could be processed electronically, and, perhaps most radically, it became possible to modify the performance itself. By physically slicing the tape and joining sections together, a new 'performance' could be pieced together from fragments or multiple 'takes'.
Tape editing soon became a fact of life in almost every recording situation. There are web sites that catalogue in frightening detail the way in which the Beatles' records were assembled; it was, equally, commonplace for classical recordings to be cut together by taking the best sections from numerous separate performances. And those of a more experimental mind soon discovered more overtly creative applications for editing: short fragments of tape could be spliced together to make repeating loops, sound collages and so forth.
Fast forward to the present day, where most of us are now working with so‑called digital audio workstation software on computers. If tape made recorded sound plastic, the DAW positively liquifies it. The editing tools at our disposal in any audio recording program are vastly more flexible and powerful than the humble razor blade. The flip side of this is that because these new possibilities are available, we are expected to use them — sometimes to the detriment of the music. It's all too easy for DAW projects to degenerate into a mess of badly executed and poorly thought‑out edits that sound bad, slow the system down and sabotage the 'feel' of the performance.
In this article, then, I'll be looking at the 'why' and the 'how' of editing within a modern DAW system. I'll explain the terminology of audio editing, examine the reasons for doing it, and how to do it in ways that enhance rather than detract from your music. For those who are already au fait with the basics of audio editing in a multitrack DAW, meanwhile, the article on page 108 will look at specific, practical uses to which it can be put, from tidying up your projects to advanced and creative effects.
Because tape is a physical medium, editing tape is a 'destructive' process. Once you've cut a piece of tape, it stays cut. And if you cut in the wrong place, you've got a problem. Editing audio in a digital audio workstation, by contrast, is usually a 'non‑destructive' process. In other words, false moves can be undone, and even if you screw something up beyond all recognition, the system should retain a copy of the original recording that you can revert to.
Different DAWs work in slightly different ways, but the principle is as follows. Audio files are recorded to your hard drive, and represented within in your software's main window as horizontal bars, usually with waveforms that allow you to visualise their audio content. Depending on which DAW you're using, these bars are typically referred to using expressions such as 'regions' (the term I'll use in this article), 'events' or 'objects', and they can be manipulated in a dizzying variety of ways, most of which we'll come to later.
The key point here is that when we use the available tools to do something to one of these regions, the original audio files on our hard drive remain unaffected. For example, when we make a region shorter, no audio is lost from the file to which that region refers; the edited region simply corresponds to a segment of that file, rather than to the whole thing. Likewise, if we decide to duplicate or split a region, we won't usually end up with two files on the hard drive, but two regions that refer back to the same original.
Other editing actions can actually alter the sound of a section of audio, for instance by changing its level or time‑stretching it. In these cases, again, the DAW does not modify the original file; instead, it either applies the processing in real time on playback, or creates a copy of the affected section and applies the changes to that, keeping the source audio sacrosanct in case we need to return to it.