Editing is the art of altering a performance. While it might seem counterintuitive and nonmusical to go back and change things, the reality is that no one is perfect every time. The outtakes from movies come to mind. Veteran actors are sometimes unable to keep a straight face or deliver the correct line. It's also very common for a motion picture to be shot out of sequence and reordered later. What you see at the end looks cohesive, but it might not have been shot that way. Music is no different. It's possible to record separate instruments, heavily edit the performance, move sections around, and have it sound perfect—like one straight take.
Some styles of music rely on edits less than others. Classical music is almost never edited. Jazz music is often not edited either, although many artists edit some parts—just not the solos, which are typically left intact. Rock and pop music might be highly edited; in fact, that's usually the case. Oftentimes, parts for rock and pop music are composed on the fly, in studio. If your band or project can get it right the first time, more power to you. For everyone else, welcome to editing!
What Editing Used to Be
Back in the good old days of analog recording, editing involved physically cutting and splicing a new section of tape. Edits were done on a special piece of metal called a splicing block and the cuts were performed with a razor blade … ouch! Editing like that was difficult, to say the least. Finding the exact spot to make the edit and getting the new material to line up perfectly was no small feat.
With multitrack tape, everything got more complicated. Each track occupied a small section of the tape. Making an edit to just one track meant cutting a small window in the tape and pasting in a new one. Edits were used to fix only blaring mistakes and other tragedies. Many engineers would push for a better take rather than perform miracle surgery. Editing was seen as a last resort.
What It Is Now
Editing sure has changed! Digital audio has changed the way we all work, and it's one of the main reasons the home studio is so powerful—we get to edit just like the big boys! Digital audio recording is based on the principal of nonlinear editing. Tracks don't have to be in line together as they are on a tape. A digital audio mix is simply several audio files read at the same time off the disk; they can reside anywhere on the hard disk. This is because the files don't need to be read by the recording machine or computer as if they were sentences. Because of this, they can be edited with great ease.
There are plenty of situations where a simple stereo (left and right) recording will more than suffice. Multitrack recording can put artificial control over a group's sound, balance, and vibe. Before you dive with both feet into the multitrack arena, try a simple stereo microphone setup and see what you think. You might save a lot of time and trouble in the editing department.
For example, suppose you're recording your latest hit. You are laying down the guitar track, and you mess up the melody in the second half of the song. Coincidentally, you played the same melody earlier in the track and you played it perfectly. Do you have to scrap the whole track? Maybe years ago you would have, but not now. Just copy the correct performance from the beginning of the song and move it to the end. Intrigued? Read on.