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Studio Correction and Editing Tools - What to Leave In, What to Leave Out
When to nudge, comp, edit, punch and "correct" - and when not to 


by Phil O'Keefe



Modern-day studio software lets us do some amazing feats that would have been much harder - if not unthinkable - back when analog recording was the only game in town. Tools such as Autotune, Beat Detective, VocALign, MIDI and audio quantization, Melodyne, track / clip time "nudging" and editing, comping takes, etc. allow us to manipulate audio in various ways. They can not only serve as corrective tools (to correct some perceived flaw or issue in the original recording) but in some cases, be creative effects.

The studio's modern "correction tools" are somewhat controversial. Many people appreciate what modern software tools allow us to "fix" and manipulate, and enthusiastically embrace the creative opportunities they present, but others feel that the over-reliance on such tools has been detrimental to music, and that they are often used as a crutch or as a substitute for musical talent and skill.

So when and how should you use these tools? Although that's a question I can't answer - you have to come to your own conclusions - here are some tips that may help you along your journey.


What does the client want and expect?

If you're working for a paying client, you owe it to them to do what they want, and to do it to the best of your ability. I think it's always good to give the client the benefit of your experience, and offer the best advice you can regarding what you would recommend under the circumstances, but once the client has made adecision, it's really their call, and it's up to you as the engineer to give them what they want. If you don't, they'll find someone else who will.


Which approach is faster?

If you're on a strict budget in terms of time or money (and time is money in the studio), then you'll need to ask is which approach is going to be more efficient? There's no easy answer because every situation is unique. If you're exceptionally fast at editing, have a good memory and you know exactly which one of the previous takes has the ideal section to drop into a comp(osite) track, it's going to be faster to do the edit - especially if the singer is uncomfortable with doing individual lines as punch-ins, or already worn out from a long day of recording. If the singer is still fresh and is drop-dead consistent, you may be better off having them sing the line (or even the whole song) again instead of doing an edit.


Which approach is more musical?

Like a doctor, I think that our guiding principle should be to first do no harm - always ask yourself, will this make things better? And by "better," I don't mean just from a technical standpoint, but musically better! It does no good to make the pitch or timing perfect if doing so removes the life, vitality, and emotion from the recorded performance. Remember it's almost always better to keep a little humanity in the performance than to over-edit it in search of absolute perfection.

I like to leave in the "cool" mistakes. Not just those serendipitous occasions when some mistakes leads to taking the whole track someplace magical and unexpected, but also more subtle things, like a vocal that cracks or breaks in a unique, cool, or interesting way that adds to the emotion or vibe of the performance. Being able to identify what some might consider mistakes or glitches and leaving them in is a skill you'll have to develop for yourself, but you can start by listening for them on some of your favorite recordings. Chances are that no matter what genres you're into, you'll be able to find some. Get in the habit of listening for them and make a note of them. That way, when you hear similar things when you're working on your own studio projects, you'll be able to identify them and incorporate them in your own music.


Can you hear the correction or edit?

I've worked very hard at learning how to use modern correction tools to make their use as transparent as possible to the end listener. If you can hear the punch-in, or the pitch correction, or the comp edits, it gives it away and ruins the illusion - and multitrack production is all about the illusion of a live performance that never actually occurred.

I make it a habit to listen to the edits and corrections both in the context of the overall mix, as well as soloed out. If I can't hear it in the control room under those circumstances, chances are that the end listener never will either. If I can hear the edits, then the correction gets vetoed and we try something else - either re-recording, a different comp / edit, or whatever.


What about when you don't have a choice?

Sometimes a performance will need either a ton of work to fix, or be replaced entirely. But what do you do when the band or artist really should go home and woodshed and work on learning how to play the part? Do you tell them that? It depends in part on your role - if you're the producer, it's your job to make the call on whether the band is ready to record or not… and if it turns out you were wrong and went into the studio when you thought they were ready but they weren't, you have to make the hard call on whether or not to take the financial hit and call off the session, go home and do some more pre-production and come back later and try again. If you have something else you can be doing with the studio time instead, the decision is easier. If you have to pay for studio time and have nothing else you can use it for, then the call is yours as to whether or not the performances are "close enough" and can be made useable with some judicious editing and correction. Part of what goes into that decision will be stylistic and even audience expectation-dependent - you can do pretty much whatever you want in the pop world, but those same sorts of edits might be completely unacceptable in certain jazz or classical circles, and it would be totally unethical to do that kind of work on the project and then have it released as a "direct to disk" recording.


Are you putting on a play, or making a movie?

I think that live musical performances are more like Broadway plays and theater, whereas albums are a different art form that would be more analogous to a modern film production. Movies aren't expected to convey "reality" in all cases, and there's a freedom there to use creative tools to achieve the desired artistic result - one that is different than a Broadway play. CGI, dialog replacement and other technological "cheats" are commonly used, and the audience doesn't seem to mind. In many ways, I think this is also true for album production, but again, that's more appropriate and accepted in some genres than others, while in some circles anything outside of a live, unaltered recording is considered cheating.

So the question remains: when and how should you use these tools? And that's something I hope we can discuss further. What do you think? Where are the lines, and if you use modern correction tools, when and how are you using them, and for what musical genres? Please click right here to join the discussion in the Studio Trenches forum here on Harmony Central and give us your thoughts on the use of modern studio correction tools! -HC-






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Phil O'Keefe is a multi-instrumentalist, recording engineer / producer and the Senior Editor of Harmony Central. He has engineered, produced and performed on countless recording sessions in a diverse range of styles, with artists such as Alien Ant Farm, Jules Day, Voodoo Glow Skulls, John McGill, Michael Knott and Alexa's Wish. He is a former featured monthly columnist for EQ magazine, and his articles and product reviews have also appeared in Keyboard, Electronic Musician and Guitar Player magazines.  

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