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The Subtle Craft of Music Editing

Edit Tip: The Subtle Craft of Music Editing

Music editing is a challenging craft that many editors tend to neglect. Historically, editors have had the luxury of worrying only about editing temp music and leaving the real scoring work to a professional composer or music editor.

However, with the increase in opportunities to create lower-budget films and online content, there are many projects that go from start to finish with a skeleton crew. We as editors often find ourselves wearing many additional hats – one of them being that of a music editor.

Today we’re going to answer two primary questions when it comes to music editing.

The “why” and the “how“.

Why are music edits needed — what function do they serve / what is the objective of the edit?

How does one technically approach the edit — what are the cutting best practices / the do’s and dont’s?

Why Edit Your Music?

When deciding why and where to edit the music in a cut, consider the following two points:

1 – The function of music editing is to control the pacing and intensity of a piece. 

Look at the illustration below:

Music Editing Scene Intensity

You can see that we have a scene containing a bit of an emotional peak in the picture (top track – pink area) surrounded by areas of lower intensity (top track – teal area). Simply cutting in some production music will likely not time out to correctly mirror the right intensity at the right moment in the scene.

This is an instance where you may need to adjust your music and “upcut” or edit the cue to reach its peaks and valleys at the appropriate time in your scene, depending on the emotions you’re trying to convey.

2 – The shorter the piece, the more music editing will be required.

This may seem a bit counter-intuitive, but it’s very true. Think about it.

Short-form Music Editing

With a longer form piece, such as a film scene or section of documentary content, the intensity and emotion change more gradually. Additionally, there is simply more time to fill. It’s not unthinkable that you’d be able to play one piece of underscore music under your scene and let it resolve itself relatively naturally.

However, in shorter form pieces such as teaser trailers or promo spots, the journey within the piece gets compressed. You need to guide the viewer through a wide range of ideas and emotions in a very short amount of time. Therefore, you’ll need to edit your music quite a bit more to match these rapid changes of state.

How to Edit Your Music?

Let’s start out with a quick look at how NOT to approach your music editing…

Don’t lean too heavily on cross-dissolves between cues to make your transitions.

This is not professional music editing. It’s sloppy, muddy and lazy.

Music Editing Cross Dissolves

Pro Tip: Fades and long cross-dissolves have their place in the audio world occasionally, but typically they’re just an excuse not to make a precise editorial judgment call of where your edit should go.

If you’re looking to really gain control over your music, you’ll need to work at the beat and measure level.

Look at the music cue below:

Music Editing Beats and Measures

This is an example of a cue you might use during a high-intensity action section of your cut.

You can see that we’ve got a nice variety of tempos and intensities in the cue, with a calmer open, a steady middle and a driving back-end that leads to a climax.

You can also see that we’ve identified the key beats, pick-ups, stops and transitional moments using markers.

So how do we use this information to edit the cue?

Music Editing Up-cutting a Cue

PROBLEM: Let’s say you have this 1:00 piece of music. It needs to end around the :35 mark in order to work correctly in your cut. How are you going to cut down this music without it sounding hacked up and strange?

SOLUTION: Use your marked beats and measures to make frame-accurate cuts on the transition points between these various sections in the cue. This will allow you to rearrange the cue and compress the time needed for the music to reach its resolution.

Now the music works perfectly with your cut.

The craft of music editing is one that deserves many more hours of discussion and demonstration to truly understand.

I hope this short Edit Tip has given you at least a bit of insight into the high-level techniques and approaches you can use to gain full control over the soundtrack in your next cut.

Are there any editing topics you’d like us to discuss? Any specific problems you could use help with?

Let us know in the comments below.

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