What is production? Part 3: Recording
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When I first started recording I worked with analog tape. Tape, as you may know, is quite a noisy medium. When there is no signal, tape hiss is clearly audible.
So when playing back a freshly made recording, you would first hear tape hiss, and then the music. What you would do therefore is 'top and tail' the recording so that there is no spare tape either at the beginning or the end. I'll consider just the beginning and leave 'tailing' for another day.
The tape hiss at the beginning of the recording is not a pleasant sound, but it is easily edited out. Simply cut the tape before the music starts and attach a piece of leader tape, which has no magnetic coating and is completely silent.
The question is, how close to the start of the music should you cut? And the answer is absolutely as close as possible, without cutting into the music. The start now will be perfectly clean and the tape hiss will be disguised by the wanted signal, right from the first note.
Background noise has not gone away
Although we don't have to worry about tape hiss any more, it is a rare recording that can be made without any background noise at all, even in a professional studio, unless you switch the air conditioning off during a take that requires absolute silence.
So almost any recording that you make will start with background noise. No-one wants to hear this, so it should be cut off. The question again is, how close to the wanted signal do you cut?
Here I have four demonstrations that will show very clearly where the professional standard lies. I recommend that you download the files and import them into your DAW for close auditioning. The recordings are all of speech. They vary in standard in a number of ways, but here I am only concerned with the cleanliness and professionalism of the very beginning...
These examples are all exactly as received by Audio Masterclass. Example 4 is obviously far from professional as a finished piece of work. But what about Example 2? Is that good enough? Or Example 1? That's quite tight. But is it tight enough?
Well listen to these trimmed examples. In each, the audio is trimmed to start exactly on the first speech sound, within a couple of milliseconds...
I think it should be clear now that these examples are all very much better. The start in each case is clean and professional. Even where background noise is audible during the recording, the ear is drawn to it less because it is disguised by the speech.
What if there is no noise?
From the above examples, it is clear that trimming noise from the start of a recording makes a great improvement. But what if there is no noise? Does it matter when the audio starts?
Suppose you have mixed a song. How far into the finished audio file should the music start? Should it start immediately? After half a second? A second? Ten seconds?
The professional answer is that the music should start immediately with no hesitation at all. Immediately.
Now you could say that it wouldn't matter if the audio started half a second or a second into the file. And in audio terms it wouldn't. (Any longer than a second would start to fall into the category of 'dead air', as a radio station would describe such a silent period.)
This is true, but you have to ask yourself the question whether you want people to regard you as professional or not, if they are not already aware of the quality of your work.
Being able to trim the start of a recording correctly is a mark of professionalism. Amateurs don't understand this. If your recording starts half a second late, then you are in effect associating yourself with amateurism. In the highly competitive field of music and audio, that is a place you really don't want to be.
If your recording starts half a second late, anyone listening to it doesn't know whether you intended it so, whether you made a professional decision that it didn't matter, or whether you are an amateur and you are not fully in control of the quality of your output.
Yes of course there are exceptions to any rule. You might for instance want to include a singer's initial breath. In an orchestral recording you might want the listener to become aware of the ambience of the auditorium before the music starts.You might be concerned about people listening to your work on cheap CD players made in the 1980s that sometimes clip the beginnings of tracks. Some web-based media players do the same. A certain client might request it...
There could be lots of reasons why you want the audio to start after a delay. But the key is that you have to want it, and you have to know why you want it. In addition, you have to tell people that you want it, otherwise someone else will trim your work for you, while cursing what they perceive as your amateurism.
The moral: trim close, trim tight and present your work in a professional way.
By the way, you may have read advice that you should leave a 1-second gap at the start of your track for mastering. The reason for this is that mastering engineers are experts, through experience, in topping and tailing. If you trim tight at the start then, even if it is the perfect trim, they can't tell whether they could have done better, and they are deprived of a task that they actually like to perform as an element of their skills. If a seasoned mastering engineer asks you to leave a gap, then you should do exactly that.
P.S. I have no disrespect for amateurs in audio. I'm an amateur cyclist, an amateur cook, an amateur lots of things that I do just for fun. But we are among audio professionals here, and among such people we work to professional standards.