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Making the Most of... (Part 13)

Your Razor Blade

Steve Howell covers the basics of good splicing practice in preparation for next month's article on creative remixing.

Steve Howell takes us step by step through the process of creative editing.

Sooner or later every engineer will encounter the graceful art of editing. If you were to work as an audio assistant for the BBC, editing would be one of the first techniques you learned and much of your first few years would be spent cutting out the 'urns', 'ahs' and profanities from radio interviews. If, however, you own or run a home or commercial studio, editing may well be the last thing you encounter and when you do, you may greet it with an air of apprehension. However, your misgivings will probably prove unjustified, providing you bear in mind a few elementary principles.

First, though, let's take a look at the tools required for the job.

The Gear

Firstly, you will need an editing block. I advise that you buy a good, professional one, not one of those horrendous BIB editing kits you can get in Boots as the blocks in these have a nasty habit of chewing up your precious tape. A professional block such as an Editall will treat your tape with the respect it deserves and last you for years.

The next requirement is a good supply of single edged razor blades. Don't use your old Gillettes as these can remove parts of your fingers and may also leave bits of stubble on your edits! You should keep your blades demagnetised using your regular tape demagnetiser to avoid generating nasty clicks on tape.

A good supply of high quality, professional splicing tape is essential. Again, don't scrimp and use cheap splicing tape as this has a habit of leaving a gummy residue on your edits causing the tape to 'wow' and 'flutter' as the edit passes the capstan wheel. It can also come apart during fast forward or rewind. Don't use Sellotape or insulating tape. (How about Gaffa tape? -Ed). I kid you not; I've seen it done!

Furthermore, you'll need a good supply of Chinagraph pencils which must be kept sharp. Don't use felt pens as the chemicals sometimes react with the tape and ruin both your edit and your heads. Crayon is also not recommended as they are too hard and can crease tape and scratch heads. These points may seem obvious but I do know less reputable engineers who will gladly whip out their kid's pencil case when they edit.

Figure 1a. Marking the tape for leadering.

Leader Tape

You'll need an assortment of leader tape in various colours. The standard coding is red for the end of the tape and green or blue for the beginning. I like to put white leader in between tracks. Also available is dual-colour leader tape, signifying that your tape is in stereo and you can also purchase leader tape with timing markings on it which can also be useful. It's as well not to use clear leader as this will switch off the tape transport on a Revox because of its special light sensitive switch. This can be useful however, if your master tape is for a theatre production where cues are being fed into the play live and the sound engineer falls asleep in the middle of a cue. At least you can rest assured that the machine won't let a triumphant fanfare cue destroy a sensitive love scene!

Finally, the most expensive item on the list (so far, all this shouldn't have cost more than £30) is a decent stereo tape machine. By that, I mean one that allows easy access to the heads for marking with your chinagraph. Sadly, many of the budget mastering machines don't allow very good access, the Revox A77 and B77 being about the worst, though some firms do offer a flatbed conversion for editing on these models. Having said that, however, it's fair to say that, one way or another, you're sure to sort out a suitable editing procedure. As for vertical or horizontal editing, that is also up to you.

"Editing at 15ips is far easier and also much safer."

The First Cut

So you're now ready to embark on your first bit of editing. This will probably be leadering up a master tape and this is done primarily to remove the bits of unwanted count-ins, talking and general flatulence that exists at the beginning of every recording.

First rewind the tape to the start of the piece and play it up to the first beat or note of the piece. Now put the machine into pause. Hopefully, the tape should still be in contact with the playback head. If it's not, you may have to push the tape lifters so that the tape touches the playback head. Next manually shuffle the spools back and forth whilst monitoring until the very first note is just before the apex of your playback head. If you have to hold the lifters, this can be a bit tricky but not impossible. You are now ready to mark it with your chinagraph.

Making sure that your pencil is sharp, mark the tape on the apex of the playback head. You would be well advised to double check this to make sure that when you actually cut the tape, you're not going to lose anything.

Figure 1b. Cutting the tape.

Figure 1c. Cutting and joining the leader tape.

Figure 1d. Splicing the tape.

Figure 2. Leadering the end of a piece. Note angled cut.

Having done this you're ready to make your incision. Unspool the tape and lay it carefully in your editing block and line up the mark with the 90° cutting point and, using a freshly demagnetised razor blade, cut the tape along that line on the chinagraph mark. Now take your leader tape (colour coded, of course) and cut that also on the 90° mark — some engineers prefer to cut through both the tape and the leader in one operation but it's up to you. Now you must gently push your two tapes together for, however good your block and however sharp your blade, there will always be a minute gap which could manifest itself as a click or thump as it passes the playback head. Alternatively, the splicing tape that sticks the two sections together may well show through the gap and cause the tape to wow or flutter at the edit point. Having ensured that there is no gap, cut a length of splicing tape (about an inch long) and lay it into the groove over the join then lightly press it down to ensure good adhesion. The type of splicing tape I favour comes in ¼" widths and so only needs to be cut to length. It may also be helpful to pre-cut several lengths of splicing tape and lightly stick these onto a convenient piece of clean metal ready for use. Now, carefully remove the whole caboodle from the block, making sure you don't pull it too heavily, risking pulling the joint apart or creasing the edge of your tape on the block. You can now lash up the tape on your machine and listen to your efforts. Providing you've been careful, you'll hear your music come smashing in straight after the leader.

You can now repeat this procedure for the end of the piece but you must be careful not to edit out the last part of a fade or a reverb hangover of a final chord. To be honest, you needn't edit very close to the end of the piece — as long as you edit out any spurious noises that may be there.

The Right Length

If the tape is to form the basis of a master, then calculate the amount of leader tape you need to put between the songs to produce the right length of gap. For what it's worth, I find it best to master all the pieces and then leader them all up in one fell swoop. If you do them one by one, you'll find yourself wasting time by cutting more often than you need to and you'll also be wasting valuable tape, leader and splicing tape. With practice, this whole operation shouldn't take very long at all but it's worth saying that it's not a two minute job so set some time aside. With a leadered tape, you are able to fast forward or rewind to a particular piece on the tape quickly and you can rearrange the running order simply by cutting the leader tape. You can also takeout pieces or insert new ones, if needs be. As for lengths of leader, I find that for demos, short leaders are best as this means that the A & R guy will be constantly bombarded with music; if you leave long gaps between the tracks he may well switch off. For record or cassette releases, leaders of six or seven seconds is usual although there are no hard and fast rules. For TV, film and video work, long leaders are appreciated by the engineers who will be transferring the music. Don't forget to put a nice long length of red leader on the end so that the tape doesn't run off the end directly after the final piece. If your tape is going to be used in another studio or video facility or whatever, record 30 seconds of 1 kHz tone at 0VU at the beginning of the tape for lining up the machines.

You may think all this is a bit pedantic but if you're working for professional clients, they'll expect a colour coded leadered tape with tones so, even if you don't do any other form of editing, leadering is a skill you will have to acquire if you wish to consider yourself a professional. Even if you don't work for other people, leadering is still a useful skill even if only for identifying samples that you may store on tape.

Extended Remixing

There is more to editing than just sticking pretty colours in between your tunes. One obvious further application is extending remixes but, if working with limited track facilities such as 4- or 8-track, deft use of the razor can help you squeeze far more out of your system.

Figure 3. Splicing together two good mixes of two different sections in a piece.

Close, tight drop-ins can help you cram as much onto tape as possible. It's quite possible to have a situation whereby, during mixdown, you may have to make five or more control changes in the split second transition from verse to chorus just for one track alone! Consider, for example, that on track 5, you have a string part during the verse followed instantly by an electric piano part in the chorus. During the verse, you have to add some HF EQ to the strings, a touch of reverb, a long delay echo and pan it to the left. It also has to be quite low in the mix. The chorus electric piano, on the other hand, needs some midrange boosted, and a stereo chorus on it with the clean piano panned to the right and the DDL (acting as a chorus unit) panned to the left. It also has to be brought up in level. So, in the space of a second or less, you have to take down the HF EQ, boost the mid, remove the reverb, change the DDL's settings and bring the fader up. All this apart, the guitar on track 7 needs adjusting, the percussion needs repanning and the backing vocals have to be switched in! So, how are we going to achieve this mammoth task?

"Manually shuffle the spools back and forth whilst monitoring until the very first note is just before the apex of your playback head."

Mix or Edit?

One way round this problem is to actually mix the whole piece in sections and then splice them all together afterwards to make a whole piece. This may sound ridiculous, but it's actually quite a straightforward procedure and, with practice, should soon become second nature to you.

Firstly, master the intro in the usual way, muting or mixing out any unnecessary tracks to keep noise levels down. Master as far as you can before you need to make any changes to the mix and will need to go a few bars into the next section in order to have something to cut out. So, set up a mix and run the tapes until the first few bars of the next section. Now set up a mix of that section, making any changes that may be necessary. In this example, you have to take down the HF EQ, add mid-range boost to the piano, change the DDL to a chorus setting remove the reverb, pan accordingly and boost the level as appropriate. Now, after the mix you have just completed, run the tape from a few bars before the new section and master your chorus (not forgetting, of course, to make any other changes that are needed). Finally rewind and check it. Now we can get on with the serious editing.

Rewind the tape to the first section you mastered. On the first beat of the next section (which, of course, is not properly mixed), put the machine into pause and manually shuffle the spools back and forth, listening for the bass drum (presuming that the piece has drums). You'll hear the bass drum quite clearly as a sort of low frequency 'squelch' as you shuffle the tapes back and forth. Once you have found the attack of the bass drum and it is resting just on the apex of your playback head, mark it with the chinagraph just as you did when you were leadering. It is essential that you double check by repeating the procedure. Having done that, move onto the next section. You'll want to cut on the first beat of the new mix so repeat the above procedure by marking the first bass drum beat of that section. Again, double check and, assuming that all is well, you can cut so lay the tape in your block and line up the first mark with the 90° cutting point on the block and, with a sharp and demagnetised blade, carefully cut the tape. Now line up the second mark with the 90° point and cut that as well. As before, carefully push the two tapes together and join them with a length of splicing tape. All being well, you will hear your perfectly mixed second section.

Again, I find it best to do the whole piece, check it through thoroughly and then edit it all together in one go but you may find it preferable to edit as you go. There are a few things to bear in mind however, when you mix in this way. Perhaps the most important thing is to keep your 'foundation' instruments such as drums, bass and percussion at one level. If these are continually getting louder and softer, you'll lose continuity in the piece, so set your levels for these instruments and leave them, adjusting only the ones that require it. You also have to be careful of setting overall levels. It's no good setting up a mix of one section which rides at 0VU during the first section only to wrap the meters round the end stops during the second section when you bring in the backing vocals so you would be well advised to run through the piece in its entirety just to set an overall level as even a very rough mix will give an idea of what your master levels should be.


Another point to watch is panning when going from one section to another. It can sound strange to pan an instrument left in one section and right in another, though that sort of trick can add some interest to a piece.

The speed of the machine is also very important. Editing at 15ips is far easier and also much safer. Consider a bass drum, for instance. At 15ips it will be recorded on maybe an inch of tape whereas at 7.5ips if will only be on ½" of tape. As a result, a slight mistake at 7.5 could result in a large part of the sound being cut out. If it's the very important attack, the sound will lose its punch. At 15ips a slight slip in cutting won't be so apparent.

Also, always cut on the 90° line for such edits as a 45° or 60° cut may cause some odd stereo shifting. 45° or 60° cuts are better for spoken word editing in gaps in between words as the transition over the splice is smoother. 45° or 60° cuts are also more appropriate when leadering the end of a piece.

Apart from these tips, there's not a lot to worry about. All you have to be careful of is that you cut on the right beat. Only experience will help you here, unfortunately, and so I recommend you practice with a recording of a drum machine or a record in order to familiarise yourself with the sound of such a slowed down bass drum. Within a short time, you'll become more confident. Of course, because you are dealing with the ¼" tape, you cannot do any serious damage. But it's annoying to mess up an edit and have to do the thing again and it can be wasteful of tape.

If you're reading this and are thinking that it sounds very difficult, then let me say that it's far more tricky to explain than it is to actually do. I was petrified when I did my first bit of serious editing but now I don't think about it and sometimes mix and edit sections as short as four bars long.

Whilst you may make a few cock-ups at first, you'll soon be chopping up tape as though you've always done it, and as long as you have the required tools, a bit of patience and are not too worried about wasting a bit of tape every now and then, all will be well.

Series - "Making the Most of..."

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Home & Studio Recording - Copyright: Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.


Home & Studio Recording - May 1986

Donated & scanned by: Mike Gorman


Tape, Vinyl, CD, DAT


Making the Most of...

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11 | Part 12 | Part 13 (Viewing) | Part 14

Feature by Steve Howell

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