Editing Sound

By Lyssa Rome

Most radio listeners don’t realize how intensively the stories they hear have been edited. That’s because with good editing, stories flow well and sound smooth.

Editing Ethics
The fact that listeners generally don’t think about how what they hear was edited, combined with how easy it is to change sound bites, means we all have the obligation to think about the ethics of editing. Here’s what the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s ethics guide for public radio, Independence and Integrity II has to say about it:

“Audio editing must be faithful to the news event in question while advancing our understanding of the story. Consider, for example, whether eliminating a pause within a soundbite, or making an internal edit, would alter the listener’s perception. Ask yourself whether sources would recognize themselves in their soundbites. Be consistent in your editing.”

Some General Hints and Tips

– Listen as you edit! Headphones are great for picking up details, but remember that most people listen to the radio while they’re driving or cooking dinner. So listen through speakers too. Also, if you’re editing digitally, remember that it doesn’t matter what the sound waves look like, it matters what they sound like.

– Breaths: Breathing is good. If you edit out all the breaths, or don’t maintain a natural rhythm to the breathing, it won’t sound right. Most people breathe between sentences or ideas. Keep in mind that you can switch breaths around – substituting a shorter breath for a longer one, for example, to keep the pace of the actuality. Or a quieter one in place of a really noisy, distracting breath.


Button 1 – Whole cut. Notice background noises: cars, fluorescent lights. I was using a shotgun mic, with my back to the street.


Button 2 – No breaths. Sounds awful. Once listened to a book on tape and I almost had to turn it off because they had inserted pauses for breaths. It made me feel like I couldn’t breathe either.


Button 3Next I took out the phrase “and I’m still doing it” from the middle of the cut. I left the breaths on either side of that phrase – and we’re left with a weird and unnatural double breath.


Button 4I took out the same phrase, but this time I only left half a breath. It only sounds natural if you leave the entire breath in because that’s what people generally do between sentences. They take whole breaths.


Button 5 This is an example of a good edit – I left in a single, whole breath. And it makes the edit unnoticeable.


– Pauses: Pauses are natural too, and they can also help with pacing. But too many pauses and the listener gets bogged down. Remember to use room tone instead of blank space (or virgin tape, if you’re editing analog) when you create pauses. Also, when you mix your story, make sure there’s a little room between your actualities and your tracks – but not too much — otherwise your story will sound too rushed

– Ums/ahs/likes, etc: Filler words and noises are part of everyone’s speech. But if they’re too abundant, they can become annoying and slow the story down. Unless they convey something important — say you’re editing a politician who’s waffling in response to a tough question — it’s usually best to take them out where you can in short news pieces. (The one exception is the President, whose actualities are never internally edited – not that B-Side will ever interview him.) But if you’re putting together a portrait of a teenager, for example, you should leave some in so she still sounds like a real teenager. Keep in mind, though, that in radio a normal number of filler words might be distracting. Leaving a few in will sound natural but won’t stand out.


Teen 1This is a cut Tamara recorded. The girl talks like a teenager. She’s saying something really important about her life, but it’s pretty roundabout and scattered with fillers.


Teen 2To make it sound better, she took out some of those fillers, but left a few in. You get the sense of the way the girl really talks, but you don’t get bogged down in her speech pattern. And – and this is really important — she maintains the content of what the girl said.


– Upcuts: Beware of cutting off the first or last bit of a word. It’s easy to do if you’re relying on the visuals in Protools, especially with sounds like “s” and “f.”


Garment 1I want to cut where he says “garment”.


Garment 2¬† This one’s just right.


Garment 3 The beginning of the next word is still there. It’s not a clean cut.


Garment 4 The end of the last word, “garment” is cut off.


– Digital clicks: Sometimes when editing digitally, there’s a click. It usually happens at the edit, when the sound waves on either side don’t match up, but it can also happen at the beginning or the end of an edit. Don’t leave them there! Transom.org has some good advice on how to get rid of them if you’re using Protools.


PetDigital click at the end


TeenDigital click at the beginning plus two more.


– Smoothing ambience/using room tone If your actualities are hissy or there’s a lot of room tone, your story will sound jumpy, especially if there are studio-recorded (or closet-recorded) tracks in between. It’s important to smooth out the beginning and ending of every cut by adding room tone on to either end and fading in and out. Same goes for loud ambience – if there are cars driving by, or a jackhammer in the background, you can either hold the ambience under your tracks or fade into the ambience rather than starting it at full volume.


Sorry 1 – I was recording at a big church. My minidisk was plugged into the sound the system – you can hear the electric buzz of the sound system.


Sorry 2 In order to minimize that sound and make it less jarring I put fades at the beginning and end of the cut.


Pet 1 This is a much more extreme example. I was recording at a pet cemetery in the Presidio right underneath Doyle Drive. This is the background noise I was contending with – I recorded it at the end of my interview.


Pet 2There are a bunch of ways to deal with this. First, I should have been recording with a shotgun mic. Second, I should have interviewed him somewhere quiet to get the background – or even in his car so the sound would have been there but not so overpowering. The other way to deal with this situation is to write into it. So I tried to set a scene – and tell people why the ambiance was so damn loud. Even though I recorded my voice in the closet, where it was quiet, I mixed the ambiance underneath me to bring the listener into the place.


Pet 3 Here’s a bit of the story – just the guy I was interviewing, then me doing my tracks in the closet, then him. It’s really jumpy. It sounds awful.


Pet 4 This is how I dealt with it. It still isn’t great – I still think it’s distractingly loud, but it works better – it puts me there at the scene and it isn’t jumpy. I added another track underneath me with the volume down much lower, and I even lowered the volume on the big bumps – so it’s a little more even, and I faded everything in and out.


– Levels: It’s important to make sure that your levels match – especially when you’re making internal edits. If a person is quiet at the beginning of a sentence and loud or enthusiastic at the end, it will be hard to take the middle phrase out and still make it sound natural. Also: the tracks and acts should be at around the same volume so listeners don’t have to constantly adjust their radios.

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