My first recording, along with my first attempts at editing, in my home studio was a portion of a piano transcription of Handel’s Largo from his opera Xerxes.
When the recording “red light” comes on, it’s only natural to feel ‘nervous’ , just like you would feel performing the music in front of a live audience. You’re thinking: “This is it. What I record into the digital audio file is permanent. I’ve got to “get it” just the way I want, so that listeners will hear and enjoy a good musical performance.”
This is why it is necessary to have done all the hard work of practicing the piece to a sufficient level of technical mastery beforehand. And then, take a lot of time (perhaps years) to allow your playing to develop and mature the musical ideas you wish to convey. Now, you can concentrate on the interpretation and musicality of the piece while recording the performance. A good warm-up on your instrument before hitting the record button is also highly recommended !
It is unreasonable, however, to expect to be able to “lay down” your very best performance in a single complete “take” . It is very comforting to know that you can, and will, use some editing of the recording, during the recording session as well as afterwards, to put together a performance you are happy with. I’ll review some of the more commonly used editing techniques a bit later. But I want to give you now some excellent thoughts about the philosophy of editing expressed by the pianist Paul Cantrell on his website:
An aside on the philosophy of splicing: I'm skeptical of classical recordings with hundreds of splices that are pieced together entirely in the studio — it works well when the studio is part of the compositional process, but when the purpose of such splicing is obsessively perfectionist correction of live playing, it is dangerous. It can lead to a clinically perfect but spiritless recording without the organic expressiveness that makes music magical. However, neither am I in the camp that decries splicing as some kind of hoodwink or moral failing; recordings are recordings, not live performances, and a musician's job is to work their medium's full potential to produce the best possible experience. So, when I splice, I try to strike a balance between correcting really conspicuous mistakes that disturb the flow of the music, and preserving that flow in its natural form.
In short: splices are artistic decisions, and must be treated as an aspect of musical performance, not as cosmetic surgery. End of aside.
Editing occurs during the recording process as well as in the post production phase. In Classical music, especially from the Romantic and subsequent periods, there are continuously changing tempi and a wide dynamic range in a piece – the music flows with rhythmic and expressive freedom. In contrast, multitrack recordings of contemporary music typically use a “click track” that keeps the time, like a metronome, and allows for overdubbing parts. (Click tracks can be programmed to have tempo changes within the song, but not in the “rubato” sense.) The use of a click track also greatly facilitates editing a recording through the techniques of “comping” (compositing), “punching in” (replacing a few notes or a phrase) and slip editing (aligning notes between tracks). In Classical music, editing a recording can be done using a form of comping – splicing together good takes of sections of the piece. But given the natural and emotional flow of the music, there exist only a few points in a piece where two sections can be joined successfully. Two such points are discussed below. The waveforms shown are from the recording of the Handel Largo.
1. Crossfading over silence
This is a good point, especially if it is a substantial break between sections. But "silence" is not without sound during rests. A piano keeps reverberating even if the pedal is up, especially if it has aliquot resonance (undamped sympathetically vibrating strings). And there's always sound from room reverberation. Therefore, it’s important to match up the low-level waveforms and to crossfade the volume between the two clips, as shown below. Some trial and error in splicing is always necessary here, in order to avoid hearing any small clicks or pops and any noticeable changes in background reverberation.
2. Splicing just before a conspicuous attack
This is a point in the music when there is a large dynamic change – a much louder note suddenly occurs. Preferably, this dynamic change is accompanied by a change in tempo. (If there is no tempo change, then it is important for the performer to match the tempo as best as possible between the two musical sections.) Again, some trial and error in splicing is necessary, in order to avoid hearing any small clicks or pops and to assure that the transition sounds natural.
Here are some parting wise words from pianist Paul Cantrell on recording and editing:
We pianists are far less consistent in tempo and dynamics than we believe — especially when starting in the middle of a passage. What we play depends on what we've been playing, and the sort of momentum we've built up. For both these reasons, when you have a mistake you want to correct or a passage you want to redo, it works far better to start well in advance of the passage in question. Work your way into it; never start playing on the exact note you want to splice — even if it's easier to start there, even if it's the start of a new section, and even if there's a rest before it. Back up and work your way in. You'll save yourself a bunch of heartache later!
So, how did I do in my recording and editing of Handel’s Largo ? Well, to be fair, it was my first effort in my home music studio, and it was a good opportunity to experiment with and get familiar with my PreSonus Studio One digital audio workstation. The recording contains three splices – two were satisfactory, and one was not ! I’m sure you’ll hear the “bad” splice if you listen closely to the recording. With a lot of practice under my belt since that recording, I have, fortunately, improved my editing skills. In the next post, we'll look at a few more editing techniques that can come in handy.