As the lone audio engineer for my piano album Airborne, at this point, I’ve done way too much solo piano editing. Am I that bad a pianist? No, but I’m a perfectionist, so I strive to meet impossible standards—especially since I have such a strong idea of how my own compositions should sound.
Even so, editing is much more than finding flawless takes and putting in crossfades to piece them together—it’s about maximizing musicality through artistic and technical choices. While I don’t purport that putting together twenty different segments into one track is as good as playing a perfect take straight through, I will go so far as to say that, when edited well, the difference between a composited track and a one-take track can be minute. However, with any kind of solo instrument recording, making edits is playing with fire if you don’t know what you’re doing. And with piano recordings, their many inherent challenges only pour on gasoline. Even so, by following some simple rules, I’ve found one can safely edit a piano recording:
1) First, ask yourself, do I truly need to edit this?
The less editing and processing you do on an acoustic recording, the less time and effort required. If you’re not sure if you should edit something out, save yourself the trouble and don’t. The goal shouldn’t be perfection, but expression. It’s better to have an emotional track than one that’s robotic and totally accurate. With acoustic styles, it has to sound “real” and believable—like you’re sitting in the audience, transported by the sound of the performance. So to me, it has to be about the feel. If I find a take that deviates slightly from my score or that has some other “mistake,” if it sounds good and adds to the expressiveness, I leave it alone.
2) Document, document, document! Did I say to use proper documentation?
If you’re going to record twenty takes, you’d better not leave them all labeled with a generic “Audio __” and without indications of the contents. While I’m recording, I keep notes about different takes: Take 3 had nice tone, but there was a mistake in measure 37… Take 6 was accurate, but the first verse wasn’t very expressive… Take 7 had good runs, but not much else going for it… So in a way, I really start making my composited track before I slice a single clip. It sure beats having to listen to two hours of recordings without a clue which takes are best.
Unfortunately, sometimes takes I thought sounded great after I recorded them end up being terrible when I listen later, so it’s not always that simple. To remedy this, before I start editing, I make a list of all the different sections of the song. Then, as I listen back, I make even more notes about different takes. Most of the time, I just write things like, “Verse 1: Take 4 good,” or, “Section B: Take 9 okay.” Sometimes, as I’m listening, I hear one take that stands out as clearly the best, but a lot of the time, it’s harder to discern, so documentation helps me narrow down which takes to choose from.
3) Just because two takes are mistake-free, that doesn’t mean it’ll work to put them together.
Even with the advanced capabilities of today’s DAWs, don’t assume that any two takes can be edited together cohesively. Be sure to keep the tone and dynamics consistent across an edit. While it may be possible to use workarounds to help blend takes together, don’t make “fixing” your first instinct. Instead, ask yourself if it wouldn’t be better to find a different combination of takes—especially if you have several alternatives that sound at least almost as good on their own. In the end, swapping in a slightly less-perfect take can sound best if it makes a transition more smooth on the whole.
4) When you do make an edit, be sure to do it on a zero crossing at the start of a transient.
This is true no matter what kind of recording you’re editing. What’s a zero crossing, you say? In audio, it’s a point at every half cycle of a sound wave where the voltage is equal to zero. We want to make an edit on a zero crossing because this will allow you to make an edit without any unwanted noise being emitted; if you don’t edit at a zero crossing, you’ll usually hear a click or a pop. Never let an unwanted noise from a bad edit stay in your piano recording.
Unfortunately, you can’t just pick any zero crossing to edit on, and you can’t always easily find the “right” one, either. Try your best to find a zero crossing right before a transient. Sometimes, when looking at waveforms, it’s not obvious where one chord ends and another begins, but this is where the fade tool comes in handy. By applying a short crossfade at your zero crossing edit, you can transition more smoothly between two takes.
5) Watch out for phase issues when crossfading.
Often, adjacent takes at your edit point will have similar waveforms. So if you don’t line up the takes properly and then apply a crossfade, you can get some phase cancellation as one take blends into the other. If you cut the end of one take after the positive phase of the sound wave, then don’t make the beginning of the following clip start positive, too, as the two takes would be out of phase (i.e., it won’t sound good).
6) Be wary of making an edit while the piano’s sustain pedal is being used.
This is especially true when there are a lot of low notes. Although crossfading eliminates clicks and pops from poor edits, don’t assume it makes every transition seamless. On the piano, pressing the sustain pedal causes the notes to all blend together. Trying to make a natural-sounding edit during a sustained passage is extremely difficult, if not impossible in some instances. In order for an edit in this situation to work the two takes would have to have the sustained notes sounded at nearly identical volumes. Otherwise, you’ll hear a sudden change in levels, which draws unwanted attention to your edit. For this reason, I try to make my edits only at places where I change the pedal, if at all possible.
In the days of analog recording, editing on such a fine level of detail was impossible in most cases, so I suppose getting a perfect take (or at least a take you could learn to live with) was the only option. As a product of the digital age, my dilemma is, how much should I need to use these new editing technologies, especially on such a raw, acoustic project? Should I be able to play a take straight through and be happy with it?
But perhaps it’s not a matter of should, but a matter of making the best of what I have and where I am now. To me, good digital editing is as much of an art as creating good music. However, acoustic piano recordings should never be patchwork quilt-making—they must be a woven tapestry appearing as without a single seem. Master weavers create garments with no evidence of where they re-threaded; so must master audio engineers blend takes into a single, seamless recording.