Editing: it separates the pros from the amateurs. A mix with chopped-off breaths, sudden silences, and sonic imperfections is far from polished.
Editing might not be the most fun part of the process. Indeed, it is the task often assigned to assistants. But the fruits of editing are innately rewarding: they result in a more pleasurable mixing experience, one where the focus is on the music alone.
The process doesn’t have to be painful—especially if you have a handy-dandy checklist, such as the one we’re about to provide.
1. Organize your tracks
Minimize all on-screen clutter. You must never wonder, “where is that tambourine part anyway?” Such musings take your head out of the mix.
To that end, your first job is organizational: lay out all your tracks in an order that makes sense to you.
For instance, here’s how I arranged a recent mix:
Now, I have my own way of doing things: I always put my instrument busses up top, followed by the basses, the percussion, the chordal instruments, the lead instruments, and finally, the vocals. Since I always have a set order, I know where everything all the time.
2. Coordinate your tracks
Name your tracks, and then color-coordinate them in a codified system. Make sure you employ that system throughout all of your sessions.
Here’s an example:
Note how I have my tracks colored: it’s like this in every mix, regardless of the DAW. Because I have a codified system, I always know where everything is.
Next, route your tracks to your desired destinations. If you make use of submixes (drum bus, instrument bus, etc.), make sure each track outputs to the right destination. Don’t forget your effects tracks; these must also lead to the appropriate submix.
When you handle the routing now, you’ll make life easier during the mix. You’ll know that if you soloed the drum bus, you’re only soloing the drum bus—you’ll sidestep any issues later on.
3. Play the rough mix against your session
Now that you’ve organized your session, play a verse from the rough mix the producer supplied, followed by a verse from within your session. Compare the two, listening for obvious differences.
Maybe you notice a shaker in your session—but it’s not in the rough. Maybe the reverse is true: you’re missing a big stack of background vocals prevalent in the rough mix.
Once you conduct this check using REFERENCE, you’ll know how to proceed. You’re either good to go, or it’s time to call the producer.
If you must wait on a new track or a new rough mix, you’ve already got the session ready to go. All you have to do is drop in the missing part and move on.
4. Strip the silence out of every region
I’ve rarely seen a track that plays all the way through from start to finish; even drum loops often drop out for the sake of variety. In every track, there will usually be silence.
You must strip away this silence. Why? Because often you’ll find noise in the silence.
Perhaps the vocal houses bleed from the headphones. Maybe the guitar has low-level amplifier hiss when the instrument is not playing.
When we EQ, compress, and automate our tracks, these silences will grow far too loud. They may bedevil us late in the mixing process: we may cycle through a section over and over again, wondering which track holds that loud, annoying “pop!”.
It’s not the bass, it’s not the guitar—it’s that supposedly “silent” vocal!
Any time you see prolonged silence in a track, separate it into its own region, make sure it doesn’t have intended sound, and then delete it.
5. Apply fades to all regions
It is not enough to edit—you must also conceal all traces of an edit. Do this through judicious use of fades.
Apply a fade to the beginning of every region, and also to the end. For two regions that touch each other, apply a crossfade.
Applying fades here will mitigate errant noise during the mix. As we pile on processing, an unfaded region can sometimes “pop” into play with an unmusical noise; we don’t want this to happen—it may result in hours of needles search.
In Pro Tools, applying fades easily done with the life-saving focus keys. Other DAWs like Logic requires a bit more mousing, but the job is still easy enough.
6. Check every track for sonic imperfections
This is a slow step, but it’s necessary to fight off sloppiness.
Any region may exhibit sonic issues: a vocal may harbor a wanton breath; a drummer might hit a snare, hi-hat, or tom mic by accident. You must listen to each track for sonic imperfections, and fix what you can.
How? Separating/muting blighted regions is one way to fix issues. Most unnatural breaths, for example, can be dispatched in this manner.
However, make sure you apply fades when creating/muting problematic issues into regions. You always want to cover your tracks.
If you’ve got an issue that can’t be fixed with a fade—say a horrid click in the bass, or a clipped synth note—you may need forensic software to address the problem.
Some DAWs, like WaveLab, ship with suitable software. Some companies, such as Waves and iZotope, make software that dispatches these issues to land of wind and ghosts.
Whatever software you use, now is the time to go at it. De-click, de-plosive, and de-crackle as subtly as you can.
7. Group the tracks that need grouping
When confronted with an electric bass part, you often have an amped track presented alongside a clean D.I. These tracks will eventually need to be grouped—either for volume or for editing purposes—so set up your groupings now.
The same must be done for any acoustic, multi-miked drums in a pop or rock production. Unless otherwise directed, you will need to edit these drums, correcting sloppy moments or subbing sonic imperfections with better hits.
Grouping drums for editing becomes essential: if you don’t, suddenly the drums will sound out of whack during the edited region; you can’t just nudge the snare to the right when repositioning it—you have to move the whole kit!
You can always toggle your groups on and off when dealing with a specific region. But set up your groups now, so you may proceed with alacrity and aplomb!
8. Listen to the session for obvious timing issues
This is another check-step: listen to the track, and note any timing imperfections.
Is the bass dragging? Was that vocal entrance too early? Did the drummer rush the transition from the chorus into the second verse?
Merely note what you find here, writing it down in a text document or a notepad.
9. Edit instruments for time and feel
Those notes you just took? Now it’s time to address them. It’s as simple as that.
Except it isn’t.
This step is inherently musical. If you play an instrument, you’re well served, for you’re acting as a musician here: if something is sloppily played, it’s on you to get it grooving.
You must pay attention to the feel of the tune—you must try to serve the song’s interests.
It’s difficult to put this into words; it cannot be taught so much as learned. The one thing I can tell you this process has nothing to do with lining up regions to the grid!
Lining things to the grid is a quick way to drain the humanity out of a section. Here’s an example of a drum part and a bass part played exactly in time.
Sounds sort of dull, doesn’t it? Now, if that bass part rushes just ahead of the grid, it can feel more anticipatory, and exhibit a tense, useful energy. Observe:
If it lags behind, it can feel relaxed, swung, groovy. Observe:
Go too far in either direction and it’s only sloppy.
You must develop an inner sense of timing to get this right. Also, you must consult with your producer or artist first: if they want it messy, you must leave it messy!
For a bass part spread out amongst multiple tracks, this is where grouping becomes your best friend: split the regions of one grouped track, and you’ll find you’ve split both tracks. Now you can move each of them with one click of the mouse.
Same goes for drums: often a drummer rushes after executing a fill, and you may need to nudge their groove forwards in time (also known as “behind the beat”) to make it feel more relaxed.
Guess what? You’ll have to use crossfades to make sure this sounds natural. Pay special attention to how the cymbals sound after you crossfade—they often expose the edit!
10. Explore in-depth lead/vocal editing
Now, move on to the star of the show—the lead instrument, the feature sound. More often than not, this will be your lead vocal.
You’ve already spot-checked the track for sonic imperfections. You’ve positioned it for feel and groove.
Now, you’re looking for deeper issues that distract from vocal performance. These are unpleasantly harsh and sudden issues (plosives, for example), background noise problems, and any glaring pitch deficiencies.
Honestly, editing vocals is a subject worthy of its own article (how do you choose the best comp, for instance?), but these tips should get you going for now:
Start with plosives: these can be edited either with cuts and crossfades, or with software like iZotope RX.
Next, move on to de-noising. You’ll find lots of great algorithms from Sonnox, Waves, and iZotope to handle noise.
When judging how much noise-reduction to employ, it can be useful to monitor the resulting vocal through a compressor—one set more aggressively than you’d usually use.
Why? Because the harsher effects of denoising (the weird whooshy artifacts we call “space monkeys”) are more pronounced after compression. If you put on the compressor now, you’re less likely to over-process the vocal.
You don’t have to use this compressor in your final mix. Think of it as another check-step.
You also might want to separate any overly-sibilated sound into its own region, as demonstrated below in this screenshot:
Note how the waveforms of these separated regions are more packed in, less diffuse than the other waveforms. This tightly packed football of a sound is what sibilance looks like.
Gain them down by as many decibels as necessary, always using your ear as a judge.
If you handle these overly-sibilated sections now, you won’t have to de-ess so aggressively later on.
When all that is finished, it’s time to tune up any obvious bum notes. Sure, you may AutoTune or Melodyne for effect later, but for any really sour notes, it’s nice to get them out of the way now.
Even the best singers are sometimes pitchy—but not usually on prolonged held notes. No, you’ll likely find the offender in the run up to a longer note, a quickly passing, out-of-tune syllable.
These should be pitched to satisfaction now, in whatever program you use.
These are the steps, and they are in order for a reason. They build your session to a place where it’s ready to be mixed without left-brained, forensic interference.
Doubtlessly we can think of other operations to toss into the editing stage—some people consider phase-aligning multi-miked instruments part of the editing phase; others lump the initial balancing act (also known as the static mix) into the fray.
I left these out to keep the process as simple as possible: a ten-step checklist is easy to manage. Give it a go and see the results for yourself—you’ll be glad you did.