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Guide to Electronic Music Techniques


Last month I gave a general rundown of tape techniques for 'musique concrete' and suggested a few experiments. Now I would like to expand on one of the areas that often gives people the most trouble. There is nothing terrifyingly difficult about editing, but it can seem daunting until you've had a bit of practice.

If you're going to do much tape work then it's worth getting yourself the right sort of kit for it. While there are various fancy splicing machines on the market, there is no substitute for the good old EMI block. If you can't get one anywhere else, you can get the ¼" tape splicing block by post from Turnkey Ltd., (Contact Details) for £3.80 including post and packing. Turnkey also supply splicing tape, leader tape, china-graph pencils and single-edge razor blades, all of which you will need (don't try to use ordinary razor blades if you value your fingers!). You will also find a ruler useful.

Having got your kit assembled, how do you go about it? Let us take a specific example. Suppose you have recorded a number of sounds in succession (it doesn't matter what they are for the moment) and you want to isolate two of them and then join them together. It is always a good idea to record sounds at the highest available speed as it makes editing much easier — a quarter inch of tape lasts 1/15th second at 3¾ inches per second (which can be quite a lot), 1/30th second at 7½ and 1/60th second at 15; 1/10th second (a significant amount) takes up 1½ inches at 15, ¾ inch at 7½ and ⅜ inch at 3¾ — little bits of tape are less terrifyingly little at higher speeds!

Particularly when starting, try and keep the lengths of tape as large as possible by selecting higher speeds. First, you will need to get the tape in contact with the playback head without engaging the capstan. The arrangements for this vary on different machines and I discussed this in last month's article. Get the tape in approximately the right position for the beginning of the sound you want and, grasping a spool in each hand and keeping the tape fairly taught across the heads, rock it back and forth, and if you have chosen the right spot you should hear the sound starting and stopping. For your first attempts, use a sound with a very clear attack (e.g. a percussive sound, piano or guitar) and move onto the trickier ones when you have a bit more experience. You will find it easier to locate the sound if you keep the tape moving quickly in each direction and try to get the attack in the middle of the swing. Start with a wide swing from side to side and gradually narrow it down, keeping the movements quick and the attack in the centre of the swing, and gradually "home in" on the sound until you have it exactly on the head. You will find that you need to practice a bit to get the hang of it, but after a little while it will become quite easy.

When you think you have found the sound and the tape is at rest with the attack exactly on the head, carefully mark the back of the tape with your chinagraph pencil.

Make sure you know which is the playback head and mark the tape exactly in the middle of the head. If it is difficult to get at the head itself, find another fixed point (a tape guide, for example) that is more accessible, measure the exact distance from the head and make a mark on your splicing block exactly the same distance from the cutting guide; when you put the tape into the block, put the mark on the tape in line with the mark on the block and your cut will be in the right place. When you've marked the tape, run it back and forth a few more times to make sure you've got the right spot and then move on and do the same thing at the end of the sound.

Don't make each cut as you find the correct spot, as it is difficult to find the next one with one end of the tape loose. When you have found both ends you can make the two cuts at once and splice the main tape back together. It is a good idea to gently pull the tape clear of the deck before cutting (the Revox B77 has a block mounted for this purpose on its deck). Always keep your hands clean when handling tape as moisture and grease can affect reproduction.

Figure 1. Tape head arrangement.

If you have an EMI block you will see that there are three cutting guides, at 45°, 60° and 90° to the direction of the tape (see Figure 1(a)) For general use the 45° guide is the one to use, the others will be useful occasionally when you are working with very small bits of tape or very sharp transitions from one sound to another. When cutting the tape, don't push the razor blade down on to the tape, but rather, holding it at a slight angle and making sure it is in line with the guide, slide it gently across the tape and you will get a clean cut (Figure 1(b)). When making a splice put the two ends of tape into the block and gently butt them up together so that there is no gap between them but no overlap either; cut off about an inch of splicing tape and, making sure it is not overlapping the edges of the tape and that the join is in the middle of the splicing tape, press it firmly onto the back of the tape (always make sure the tape is in the block oxide-side down) then gently pull the tape out of the block. Take the piece you have cut out, lay in on a clean surface, and mark it with the chinagraph so that you know (a) which sound it is, and (b) which direction it goes in, otherwise the only way to find out is to splice it into another tape and play it, but this is obviously time consuming. Now go on to find your second sound in the same way.

If you are extracting a whole series of sounds and the rest is 'rubbish' (e.g. silence or the pieces of tape containing clicks from switching the tape recorder in and out of record mode) you can go through and make all the marks, then go back and cut them all out afterwards, but do make some mark to show which are the parts you want, otherwise you can end up with a beautifully edited tape of silence and a pile of sounds in the rubbish bin!

And that brings up another point — wherever possible make a copy of your original material to edit, and keep the 'master' (i.e. your original tape), so if you make a hash of it you won't have to re-record the material. Also, if you want to use the same material again in a different way, you've still got it.

Having extracted your two sounds, you can join them together. In order to play them you will need to put 'leader' tape at the beginning and end. Make sure you use enough — it is annoying to have the tape come off the spool and have to be re-threaded every time you rewind a tape, and it's not that expensive. I always allow at least six or seven feet. If you want a silence between the two sounds you can put in another piece of leader. As there is a direct relationship between the length of a piece of tape and the time it takes to play it, you can easily calculate the right length, measure it and cut it. Table 1 is a handy chart to help with this.

Table 1. Chart of time vs. length of tape in inches.
(Click image for higher resolution version)

All this may seem rather long-winded just to join two sounds to one another! Editing seems a bit like that at first; you spend what seems like hours producing two seconds of sound that you're not very happy with and wonder if it's all worth it, but if you persevere and don't get discouraged if you make a few mistakes, or your tapes fall apart, or you're not sure if that's what you wanted anyway, you'll find it suddenly gets much easier. Like most skills it has to be practised — you develop a rhythm and many of the awkward aspects become automatic — before you know it you've developed a very useful and powerful technique for manipulating sounds.

A final hint. It always pays to be well organised. Develop a system that works for you. If you always lay your kit out in the same way you won't spend most of the time hunting for the razor blade; and if you always mark your sections of tape carefully and have a note book handy to keep track of what they all are and what you've done, you'll be less likely to get in a complete muddle and will save yourself a lot of time in the end. There's nothing more aggravating than contemplating a pile of identical lengths of tape and not having the faintest notion what they all are. I know — I've done it! Good luck and have fun. Next month I'll talk about microphone techniques for musique concrete.

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Working with Video

Electronics & Music Maker - Copyright: Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.


Electronics & Music Maker - Jun 1981

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> Hi-Fi

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