Boy, all of a sudden I feel old and out of touch. When I Googled “razor blade editing” to see if I could find a picture that described the method that we used to edit audio tape back in the day, I was greeted by a bunch of references to laptops and other gaming technologies. Somewhere near the bottom of the page completely overwhelmed by all this other stuff was an article containing a picture that I wanted to show in this story.
Back in the world of 45 RPM records, reel to reel tapes and AM radio, firmly attached near the head cover of every AMPEX 351 reel to reel audio tape recorder in our production studio was an aluminum editing block. These blocks were about four inches long and had a groove on the face that was the perfect width and depth to hold ¼” audio tape. The edit point on the block was defined by a deep groove across the face of the block and the tape groove. This deeper groove was for the razor blade. It looked much like a carpenter’s miter box with a straight razor blade groove and one that was angled at 45 degrees. This is where the real magic in the production studio happened. The production DJ would find the exact place on the audio tape where he or she wanted to begin the edit, mark it with a grease pencil as it sat on the recorder’s playback head, roll the tape forward until the end point of the edit was found, and mark also it with the grease pencil.
Next, the tape would be lifted out of the heads and placed on the edit block and the grease pencil mark placed on the block at the edit point. Then the razor blade was used to cut the tape at the pencil mark. The tape from the left reel would be rolled off until the end point was located and the same thing was done. Finally the two ends were matched in the block and a small strip of translucent white plastic adhesive tape was used to connect the two halves together. Once the razor blade was used to trim off the extra adhesive tape, voila, the edit was done.
The earliest edit blocks had only one razor groove, perpendicular to the tape groove, but some genius figured out that you could eliminate the slightly audible pop by making the edit at 45 degrees instead. After that, only novices used the perpendicular groove. It was slightly harder to match up the 45 degree cuts on the tape. Needless to say, once a piece of tape was edited, it could not be used to record something new. So once the recorded announcement was completed, the edit tape was discarded into the grey metal trash can under the production console. We went through a lot of tape that way.
Once the vocal part of the announcement was completed, it was time to put music under it. There was a large collection of 33 1/3 RPM records in the production library that was designated for production only. These packages were purchased from various companies that provided music licensed for radio or television production. The voice track and the production music was mixed together and recorded onto another reel of tape and that became the “master tape” for that announcement. The master tape was then dubbed onto a cartridge tape which was placed in the on air studio for airplay. We never threw away those master tapes, they were stored either in the production studio or in the sales offices in case the on air cartridge was damaged or lost. This was a good thing too because sometimes a sponsor will ask that we use last year’s commercial long after its on air run was completed.
One had to be very careful when editing not to cut off something that was needed. If that happened, you had to go back and re-record the original piece and start all over again. Usually this followed the utterance of some choice words.
So you might think that making commercials was clean and neat, but the reality was something quite different. There were bits and pieces of tape, wrinkled up paper containing marked up copy, grease pencil smudges and the occasional spot of blood on the hands and equipment. More often than not, I’d emerge from an editing session with a grease pencil stain in my left sideburn from sticking the pencil over my left ear in order to keep track of it. That sucker would roll off a table top or the face of a self standing Ampex 351 in a skinny minute. It was definitely not work to be done in a white shirt.
But alas, like manual film editing, razor blade editing is one of those skills that has been replaced by modern technology. Electronic editors such as Adobe Audition (formerly Cool Edit) and Audacity have replaced the old grease pencil and razor blade. I’ll admit it is faster, cleaner and most importantly has an “undo” function on the pull down menus. You can do so much more with the new stuff but somehow it doesn’t have the satisfaction of doing it “the old fashioned way.” Lord, am I becoming a Luddite! Well, not really.
So, when I sit down at my computer, click on Adobe Audition and begin to work on a spot announcement or a liner, I remember that production room perfume of audio tape, grease pencil and the lubrication of the reel to reel motors of that old Ampex 351. I am glad that there are no smudges of grease pencil, strips of audio tape and the occasional bloody finger to deal with. Change is good! Oh MY!