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Cut to Pieces

The evolution of audio editing By Bob Welch
Very few human creations are made in one piece, all at one time. Maybe if it's something simple like pouring a glass of water, but everything else, from houses to computers to oil paintings are put together slowly, one part at a time. The amazing thing that we humans can do is to somehow hold the as yet to be realized end result in our heads. In fact, this envisioning of the future is exactly what distinguishes us from dogs and cockroaches.

Artists in particular are always editing. Michaelangelo sculpted his “Pieta” over many months, shaping the clay, changing his mind, redoing this bit here and that bit here until he had what satisfied him as an artist. Later, the collage painters tried the then new technique of using "found" objects, like old newspapers or rags, to give their work its characteristic pasted up textures. The novelist William Burroughs (from whom Steely Dan took its name) pioneered what he called a "cut-up" technique where he would slice his manuscripts into separate words, throw them in the air, and then use them in the order in which they fell. At the turn of the last century, filmmakers like D.W. Griffith began the technique of taking many different shots and angles of a scene, and then putting them together later in an "editing" studio. Today, the quick edits and crosscuts used on films like The Terminator and on MTV seem normal to us. I guarantee you, though, that someone from the 19th century wouldn't be able to follow the action at all in a modern film. It's way too fast, and your visual cortex has to learn to interpret all those fast cuts.

The world of audio recording lagged behind everybody else until the advent of multitrack recording. And even then, mostly the aim was to give the impression of a seamless product, played all the way through in one sitting. Usually, on most post-Sinatra era recordings this impression is often far from the truth, however.

Many people may think, for instance, that Fleetwood Mac's hits like "Dreams,” "The Chain" and "Go Your Own Way" were just songs played by a pretty good band in the studio. But most of these songs, in their final versions, had lots of edits in them. My top 10 song "Precious Love" from an album called "Three Hearts" must have had well over 50 edits. It took engineer Warren Dewey about three days to complete the mix. I'd walk in the studio and he'd have pieces of tape, unmarked, scotch taped to every mike stand and even the ceiling light fixtures had pieces of tape hanging from them. Warren kept all the various bits and what they were in his head. Warren was doing some 24-track slicing too, not just 2-track edits!

"Precious Love,” as originally recorded on the multitrack, sounded OK but it wasn't exciting enough, didn't build enough, and since we pretty much knew it was a single, it was worth spending the time to try endless variations. Warren flew in all kinds of stuff, from a bass "drop" in the middle break to extra chorus vocals. Then my band and I would go on the road and we'd have to learn these “impossible" arrangements.

Today, this kind of editing is easy on Pro Tools types systems, and some of the younger artists (Beck or Limp Bizkit or some rappers, for example) are editing in a way to sound DELIBERATELY disjointed, “freaking the beats" to the point where no (sane) human could have played them straight through.

I'll bet that if you go forward in time a hundred years, we wouldn't be able to recognize some of what the people of 2100 call music as "music" at all!

If this scares you, and you are young enough, maybe you'd be happier in a more stable and less changeable line of work, because music is on a bullet train to who knows where!

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Related Keywords:audio, recording, multitrack

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  • Cut to Pieces by DMN Editorial at Aug. 03, 2004 11:28 pm gmt (Rec'd 1)

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