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. Those 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 added in 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. 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 the tape and splicing a new section of tape. Edits were done on a special block of metal called a splicing block and the cuts were preformed 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, whether it's done via a studio-in-a-box or a computer DAW (digital audio workstation) 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.
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
Just Because You Can …
Just because you have the tools to edit with an amazing degree of accuracy in the digital world does not mean you should. Let's use Band X for an example. You buy Band X's album and you think it sounds great. The CD is well produced, all the instruments sound great, the performance is topnotch — in short, this band is kicking. You purchase concert tickets eagerly anticipating seeing Band X live. The day comes and you head out to the concert. The lights, the stage…Band X takes the stage and sounds horrid. The signer can't sing on pitch at all, and the band is falling apart. You leave the concert very upset. What happened? Did Band X have a bad night? Maybe so, but more likely they might have fallen into the trap of “overproduction.” That is, the band might have recorded their music one track at a time and perfected each track before releasing their CD.
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.
Editing can be a bit of a trap, especially the high-precision computer editing where you can change a single note of a solo you thought was “off.” The result might be a standard you can never replicate live. You want your work to be perfect, and you should try to make it as good as possible, but it's so easy to get carried away. Just because you have these tools doesn't mean you should overuse them. Fact is, a great album isn't a perfect album.