The Music Chopping Block

Carving up a music piece can give it new life. You can add bits to other bits to form an entirely new creation. You can define sections to create never-ending loops. Or maybe you just need a different length or feel in the piece. Music editing can do all this and much more.

Grab Your Knife

I’ve mentioned this before, but back in ancient times, we actually edited audio with razor blades and sticky tape. It took a good eye, a good ear and mountains of patience. Today, digital recording and editing make the process seem like child’s play. Back in the day, if you made a mistake, you had to start all over. Today, fixing an error is just an Undo click away. You can even fix something from 30 minutes ago, so no whining about the level of difficulty.

You can do some amazing things in your NLE, but music editing is best left to dedicated audio editing software. If you use Adobe products, Audition is your tool of choice. Sony users will probably want Sound Forge. The Avid crowd will naturally gravitate toward ProTools. Those with Macs might look at Bias Peak. If you don’t have a dedicated audio editing program, there are some free alternatives. Audacity is excellent freeware that offers all the basic editing tools and runs on Windows, Mac and even Linux. Those using Nero to burn discs will find Nero Wave Edit in their toolkits. It takes a slightly different approach to some tasks, but it is more than enough for most music editing. With some practice, you can create perfect edits with any of these products, so find some music, load up the editor and let’s get started.


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Planning the Cut

Buyout music is the obvious choice for most video projects. There are no copyright issues and plenty of variety, and most vendors offer full- and broadcast-length edits of each piece. But what if the supplied versions don’t suit your project? That’s where music editing comes in. Most popular music uses standard verse/chorus/bridge structure, and instrumental music is no exception. Forget that there are no lyrics, and listen closely to the music. You’ll hear repeating sections, themes and hooks. Your first step is to identify and mark the beginning and end of each. This is easy for those with musical training. The rest of us have to listen harder. If your software supports markers, it’s easy to play through the piece and set a marker at each transition. To find the exact starting point, zoom into the region until you find a recognizable drumbeat or other visual clue. Kick drums on the downbeat of measures are perfect places to set markers. If there are no markers in your software, set the cursor at the section starting point and write down the timecode, giving it a simple name like Verse 1 or Chorus 2.

Once this is done, you should be able to go to any of your markers, push the Play button and hear a clean musical start to the section. If it doesn’t sound right, zoom in and fine-tune your markers until you find the perfect groove. Listen through each section by itself as you think about how you want your edit to sound. Some sections will have a lighter feel, while others may be more aggressive. The first verse and chorus may be sparse compared to later versions. Make lots of notes – mental or otherwise – and then go through it again. You need to know the piece inside and out before doing the final edit.

Assembling Ingredients

So far, this has been pretty easy. Now the fun starts. So, what kind of edit do you need? Thematic opens and closes are relatively short, but they don’t have specific length requirements. Broadcast-length cuts must be exact and may take some serious massaging. Musical beds and loops should be fairly clean, without solos or other distracting sounds. Once you’ve determined what the project needs, you can start editing.

Basic editing is simply removing musical chunks you don’t want or need. Start by moving your cursor to the beginning of a section and highlighting one or more sections. Delete the highlighted area and play the remaining audio. If it flows well across the edit, you’ve made a great cut. If not, undo your edit, decide what’s missing and try again, using different segments or starting points, as with video editing. Advanced editing includes mixing and matching different combinations of segments. Depending on your software, it may be easier to save each segment as a separate file, before you start to assemble the puzzle. You can also create loops as bed music. A simple example is to identify a verse and chorus and save this section as a file. Playing this as a loop – or stacking copies end to end on the timeline – will create an endless run of music that’s perfect as an underscore for interviews or scenes with lots of dialog. If the edit is short or gets boring, save an additional verse/chorus section and alternate the two files. When you rearrange a prerecorded piece through editing, your musical options abound.

Save As…

Don’t forget there are other tools in your editing software. EQ and other filters can make your edit punchy and loud or thin and grungy – it’s your choice. If the project needs a 30-second edit and your cut is 31 seconds, just apply some time compression to squeeze it to the exact length. Export the finished product as a 16-bit 48kHz .wav file, and import to the video project. Music editing is a powerful tool that allows you to re-purpose your music library, creating new arrangements and extending the life of your investment. Oh yeah, it’s fun too!

Contributing Editor Hal Robertson has been editing music since the Stone Age, aka 1978.

Side Bar: Do It on the Web

When you’re collaborating on a project or working for a fussy client, it can be difficult and time-consuming to get approval for audio edits. Rather than burn and deliver a CD of every cut, why not leverage the Internet? It’s easy to encode MP3s, and short cuts can be emailed to clients for approval. With a media player, they can use the time counter to reference any changes. If you have a Web site, consider building an exclusive media page for clients, where you can upload their materials and send them a link. They can preview from anywhere, and you’ll look every bit the professional.

The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.