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Why might a classical music CD contain over a hundred edits? Can't the performers get it right?

A professional orchestra can give a note-perfect concert performance every night of the week. But when they are recording, suddenly things get a lot more difficult...

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Even in the days of analog tape it was common to see an edit pass through every thirty seconds or so in a classical music recording. And editing classical music on analog tape was fiendishly difficult. Now that hard disk editing systems make it possible to join anything to anything (almost), then anything goes in the world of classical music editing...

But there has to be a reason for this. Surely classical music performers should be able to get the notes right?

Well yes they can. A pianist for example can play a fast and difficult sonata consisting of thousands of notes, and get every note right every time.

A violinist however, no matter how good, will always have slight tuning 'irregularities' from time to time. Combinations of instruments compound the problem. And how can an orchestra of sixty or more players possibly get every note spot on?

The fact is though that, in a concert, classical musicians can give performances that fully satisfy the expectations of their audiences. Translate this to a recording where the same performance will be heard again and again will be a different matter.

Any irregularity in a performance, that might be perceived as 'texture' by the audience, will be magnified through repeated listening. You'll wait on the edge of your seat for that one moment of hesitant intonation that you know is coming at bar 543. And it will totally spoil the experience for you, condemning that CD to stay on the shelf for evermore.

So the act of recording classical music raises the threshold for adequate performance standards. Every note of every instrument has to be played to a level of quality that will stand the test of repeated listening.

So it is common practice to record several takes of each logical section of music (not necessarily an entire movement) and select one as a 'master' take. After that, any deficiencies in the master take are rectified by patching in sections of other takes, down to very precise details.

On top of that however is the requirement for the assembled whole to sound like a musical performance, and not a patched up job. A high degree of musical intelligence, as well as technical skill, is necessary to achieve this.

In the end, the result is hopefully musically satisfying, and listenable over and over again.

Whether there is some element of 'cheating' involved is a moral decision, although it has to be said that labels that have tried to stand on the holy ground of 'we shall not edit' have tended not to prosper.

By the way - anyone recognize the tape recorder in the photo?

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By David Mellor Monday April 3, 2006
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