Sunday, September 27, 2015

Razor Blades or Mouse?

There is a lot of controversy in the audiophile world about which recordings produce the best sound; analog or digital. Each has its own advantage but this blog is about something else, does digital audio editing produce better results than editing with grease pencil, razor blade and tape. Having used both methods to produce radio spot announcements, called “spots”, in the industry, I like different aspects of each method.

The old school editor will tell you that the razor blade method on reel to reel tape is best. It works like this. First you find the place where you want to make the edit on the tape by rocking the reels back and forth by hand and listening for the edit point. When you find it, you open the gate over the tape head and carefully mark the point with a grease pencil. Lifting the tape out of the head, you place it in the editing block. The editing block looks like a miter box with two slots in it; one is vertical across the block and the other is diagonal at a 45 degree angle. Usually the diagonal one was used in order to permit a slight blending of sounds. The first tape is removed from the block and the second edit point was located, marked, placed in the block and cut. The first tape then matched up to the second point and then the two ends are taped together with white editing tape. Finally the excess editing tape is trimmed and the edit is complete.

Well, nearly! The edit must now be checked for accuracy by playing it on the reel to reel deck. If you are good or sometimes lucky the results are that you have the perfect edit. If not, you may have a lot of trouble. If you have trimmed the edit point too closely, you have lost part of the audio that you need. This means going back to the drawing board and getting a fresh copy of the sound that was lost. It’s just too bad if you were editing the master copy of that audio.

With digital editing the editor is presented with the waveform of the audio and simply chooses the point on the waveform where he or she wants to make the edit. The unwanted sound is then removed from the waveform. The same is done in a second window for the other sound bite and then the two are matched up in parallel windows one over the other and the combined sound is exported to a final file. The beauty is that if the edit is not perfect, it can be done over and over again until the results are perfect, even if you are using the master recordings.

One of the other old school things that used to drive me nuts was copy writers who always tried to shoehorn 35 seconds of words into a 30 second spot. These were tough as the only real way to accomplish this was to keep trying to voice the spot faster and faster until you get it short enough without making a mistake. That sometimes took a half hour or more.

The definition of kerning is adjusting the spacing between (letters or characters) in a piece of text to be printed. A skilled digital editor can “kern” the waveform of the recorded voice track, shortening breaths and other spaces between words. Most of the time, unless the editor is very skilled, the results sound like the announcer voiced the entire spot without taking a breath.

Of course, there is the extreme case where a time compression routine is applied to the waveform that results in an announcement that is read so fast that it is barely understandable. We usually hear these on parts of the spot that are required by law or regulation.

I can tell you that there is a sense of satisfaction in editing a spot, no matter which of the two methods you are using. The razor blade technique produces a warmer, richer sound due to the nature of analog audio. But the digital, computer driven techniques produce cleaner edits and does it much more efficiently. A good digital editor can generally produce 10 or more edits in the time that it would take the old school editor to do one. I can tell you that the old school method gave me a lot more satisfaction when hearing the finished spot on the air. Oh MY!

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