Updated: Mar 19, 2020
Editing. I think most of us have a love-hate relationship with it. While it can be a huge pain in the ass to do, it can also make or break your final product. So maybe it’s worth doing right.
If you haven’t had to cross that bridge yet, editing is the phase of production that comes after tracking, but before mixing. There’s a lot that goes into it, but the point is essentially to clean up and prepare the tracks so you can get the best mix possible. It’s not really optional either, at least for a professional quality product; it has to be done, whether it’s by you or by someone else.
So why should you do your own editing?
If you can take the time to edit your tracks well, you just saved X dollars you would’ve had to pay someone else. That’s X dollars you can spend on that new piece of gear you’ve been lusting after.
On top of saving money, you’ll make the process so much smoother for your mix engineer, and he/she will thank you for it (and you’ll be thanking them back when you hear the mix).
What do you need to get a great edit?
Above all else, you need a good ear and great familiarity with your DAW. With a bit of practice and persistence, you’ll be churning these out like nobody’s business.
Disclaimer: Everybody will have different specifics about how they edit their tracks. This is meant to be a general guide that covers the essentials, without going into too much detail on each individual process. As a mixing engineer myself, I know I would be ecstatic to receive a song edited with these guidelines.
Onto the good stuff…
General – Stuff to do throughout
Organization – Make it make sense
First step is to get your sh*t together. To make the editing process as quick and as painless as possible, you want to avoid getting lost in your collection of tracks. Often that means renaming, color-coding, placing tracks together by instrument, or all of the above. Just get organized in a way that works for you, and you’ll thank yourself later.
On the same note, this is a great time to get rid of bad takes you know you’re not going to use. Leaving them around just creates unnecessary clutter.
After organizing, you want to get a rough volume balance. Key word here is rough, do NOT spend a lot of time on this, as it will be approached thoroughly in the mixing stage. You just want a general idea of where tracks are supposed to sit, making sure you have plenty of headroom on each track and on the master bus.
Cut out the garbage
As a general rule, you want to cut out dead space, noise, and mic bleed in your tracks. Things get a bit more complicated with vocals and drums, so I’ll address those specifically a bit later. But you probably started recording your fuzzed-up guitar a couple measures before playing and have nothing but noise for a bit. Now’s the time to trim it out.
Here’s a couple of very important points to keep in mind when doing this:
Don’t trim too close. You don’t want to cut out any valuable audio, like transients or any part of a note’s sustain. When in doubt, trim further out.
Fade in, fade out. Anywhere that you trim, you need to create a very small fade on both the start and finish of the newly created audio segment. These can usually be between 10-20ms, just make sure to check with your ears afterwards. This helps to avoid pops or clicks in your files that can be detrimental in the mixing stage.
Listen through your tracks with the metronome on and make sure everything is in time where you want it. The amount of work this involves is obviously dependent on the song, as well as the musicians who recorded, but is often the bulk of the editing process.
The main goal is to still sound natural while keeping the groove of the song. Make sure the whole band hits together when it really matters, and make sure everything else is in the pocket without sounding too robotic. If you quantize, go with something like 80-90% quantization. But always go through after quantizing to manually fix any parts that are really problematic.
Note: Editing drums can be a pretty sizable project on its own, and takes some extra care. Since they were likely recorded with multiple mics, your tracks need to be time-edited together or it’ll get real messy, real fast. (i.e. anything that gets moved needs to be moved in the bleed of the other mics as well). The way this is done depends largely on your DAW, but most have a way you can group the tracks and quantize/edit together.
Vocals are a wild but delicate beast, and they happen to be at the forefront of most songs. Vocal editing takes an intentional and careful hand. If you find yourself struggling here, there’s no shame in getting some help.
Comping is just short for “making a composite.” You’re taking pieces and parts of your different vocal takes to create one lead vocal track (sometimes you’ll create multiple comps, depending on the song). While this may seem easy, sometimes more advanced work is needed like matching volumes and tones of different takes. Depending on your recordings, vocalist, and the song, your approach will vary here. But you definitely don’t want to enter the mixing stage with ten vocal takes.
Adjusting the volume of certain phrases can be very helpful for the mixing process later. Now this is not for perfection, and you’re not here to do the job of a compressor. This is simply to fix certain phrases where the vocalist didn’t sing as loud as the majority of the track, or maybe sang
too loudly. You can add or remove gain to sections of your track, as seen here. You can often identify sections like this by the size of the waveform, but make sure to check with your ears.
Trimming + Breaths
For vocals, you want to be particularly careful cutting out the noise. The same principles apply that I mentioned earlier: don’t remove any valuable information, and create the necessary fades. But with vocals at the front of the mix, any mistakes will be a bit more obvious. And now there’s an extra factor: breaths.
Do you keep them? Do you cut them? The answer is largely stylistic and there isn’t necessarily a right or wrong answer.
If you find a breath that’s obnoxious and distracting from the vocal, go ahead and remove it (then add the fades; always add the fades).
If you’re going for a polished, pop sound from your vocal, lean toward removing more breaths.
If you’re going for a more raw sound, or if the vocal has a more personal, deep-cutting feel to it, certain breaths can enhance that.
Use your ears and trust your gut. Agonizing over whether or not to keep a certain breath will not make or break your song.
Pitch correction can be a huge task, and is a bit beyond the scope of this article. Just know that while it is often done in the editing phase, many engineers will also offer it as a standalone service or as an addition to mixing. So if you don’t know how to do it or if you don’t have the correct tools, don’t sweat it. It’s worth having someone do correctly.
Without going into too much science here, a poor phase alignment of two or more audio tracks can result in phase cancellation which can affect the sound of your tracks, usually in a negative way. Note: This applies to all instruments recorded with multiple mics, not necessarily just drums.
There are a couple of ways to check whether the phases of your tracks are aligned:
Visually – Zoom in to your drum tracks in pairs until you can see the individual peaks and valleys of the waveform. Make sure the peaks and valleys line up between each of the tracks. That’s it!
Using your ears – This usually takes an experienced ear, and is best used in combination with the visual method. You can invert the phase of individual tracks as you listen to them together, and simply choose the phase orientation that sounds best!
If you find that a track is in opposite phase compared to the rest, you can invert it using a simple plugin. In Logic Pro X, for example, the Gain plugin has an invert phase button.
If recorded correctly you shouldn’t have much of an issue with this, but if the phase is off while not exactly opposite, you may need to manually reposition the track. We’re talking about zooming way in here and moving it the tiniest bit to make things match up. Then take a listen and verify everything sounds right.
Don’t go crazy trimming bleed out of your drum tracks. Obviously every drum mic is going to have tons of bleed, but a good mixing engineer can take advantage of this to create a huge, full picture of the full drum sound!
You only need to focus on the toms. Toms have a unique tone and role in the drum sound so in mixing, it’s very helpful to be able to treat them separately from the rest of the kit. If mic’ed individually (hopefully they were), just go ahead and cut out all the bleed where the toms are not being hit. The fades out of each hit are a little bit more flexible here, and can be as short or as long as you believe sounds best. I often add some curve to the fade as well, feel free to experiment and try to get as much of the tom as possible, while minimizing the bleed.
Alright you’re just about finished! Give yourself a pat on the back. The last thing you want to do before shipping em off to your mixing engineer is bounce your tracks. Your engineer may have his/her own specifics here on how they want their files, so make sure you abide by what they tell you. However, here are some general principles to follow:
Bounce in full resolution. You want to bounce your tracks as WAV files in the same quality they were recorded. Often this is 44.1 kHz, 24-bit. Make sure not to apply any normalization or dithering.
Bounce all tracks from the same starting location. This makes sure everything lines up correctly when your mixing engineer imports the files.
If you didn’t understand the massive undertaking that is editing, I hope this helped. It’s daunting and tedious, but hopefully you also see the immense value in it. With good editing, the final product will always sound more polished and more professional.
If you’re looking for a mixing engineer for a future project, request a free quote from me to learn more about how I can take your music to the next level!