Saturday, April 4, 2015

CD Editing Sessions: Where the Magic Happens

James Ginsburg, Cedille Records producer,
demonstrates editing techniques.
Recently, I had the opportunity to sit in on an editing session with Cedille Records’ producer James Ginsburg and engineer Bill Maylone. The session was a demo being held for Bonnie McGrath and Bruce Oltman, who were the winning bidders of an auction item at Cedille’s benefit gala last fall. Ever since I’ve begun having my works professionally recorded, I have been very curious about the editing stage of the CD-making process. In a typical recording session, musicians will lay down track after track of a section of music, then move on to the next section and repeat this arduous process. Ideally, the musicians will cover every bit of music two or more times in order to provide some choices on which bit to select for the final recording. But sometimes the musicians will, for various reasons, record a segment four to six (or more) times. Which has made me wonder for years – how do producers choose which passages to use, and how do engineers patch it all together?

Jim invited me to attend the editing session since the piece they were demonstrating for Bonnie and Bruce was my String Quartet No. 4: Illuminations, which was recently recorded by the Avalon String Quartet for the record label. Jim and Bill explained the process that they go through with each piece that they record. Jim first listens through all of the recorded audio tracks while studying the score, and starts to make choices of which tracks to use for each passage of music. He aims to find the most effective tracks – which has the best beat alignment, or a particularly effective crescendo, or a beautiful tone, and so on. He marks these tracks onto the musical score, so Bill can see where to make the cuts. Sometimes Jim will tinker with splicing the audio tracks in various spots to see if he can find a pleasing mix; if he finds one, he marks the score to let Bill know the edit has been done.
A page of my String Quartet No. 4: Illuminations,
marked up for edits
Once Bill receives Jim’s score, he goes to work splicing the various audio tracks together. Bill makes these splices meld seamlessly from one into another by fading one track out while another fades in (the length of the fade can be adjusted – this can be very short or more gradual). Volume can also be altered to some degree as well, depending on the microphone placement that Bill has given the performers (for instance, in my piece, particular chords played by the entire quartet can get a little boost). Bill creates a seamless transition from one track to another; when he is happy with the results, he repeats this process with the next edit. Once Bill has finished this process for the entire piece, he and Jim adjust the amount of reverb (or echo) and make other final adjustments before they send the audio track onto the composer and performers for their feedback (at which point, they may have to revisit old tracks and repeat this process again, although hopefully to a much lesser extent).

What became apparent over the course of the editing session is that Jim and Bill are just as much artists as those that they record. The work that they do is so specialized, and they both have developed a very finely honed set of skills. These skills allow them to patch tracks together (sometimes consisting of just a second or two of music!) while retaining the musicians’ nuanced gestures and the overall character of the music. They know their software inside and out (ProTools for recording the tracks, SoundBlade for editing and splicing the tracks together) and can coax these programs to produce beautiful results, much like a violinist shaping a melody. They also have lots of patience and focus. This work is highly repetitive in nature and requires one’s listening skills to remain sharp. Jim and Bill exhibit the same care and patience in the editing process as I have seen them exhibit many times in recording sessions. I was particularly impressed with how well Jim and Bill work together – they are a well-established team that has been together from the very first CD they recorded twenty-five years ago for what would eventually become Cedille Records. Their symbiotic working relationship clearly shows in the quality of the music they produce.

As a composer, getting my works professionally recorded is vital, as this is a way to have a polished and permanent audio representation of my music. My appreciation and respect for what Jim, Bill, and all recording producers and engineers do have greatly deepened after experiencing how detailed, painstaking, and thorough their process is. When Jim and Bill work their magic, they bring out the best from the musicians and recorded tracks, and they make my music shine.

From left to right, Cedille donors Bruce Oltman and Bonnie McGrath,
producer James Ginsburg, and engineer Bill Maylone.