Audio Editing

Long-form Audio Editing ~ the options.

Maxwell Steer © 1995

Landing at Bombay airport in a monsoon felt less like flying than being a pea in the brain of Peter McNeely when he met Mike Tyson. An invisible glove would come smashing out of the white swirling mist and biff the plane with a force that literally made it groan. Then from nowhere another hand wrenched the tail sideways before flicking away like an insect to smack down 30 metres below, leaving your stomach feeling like a runaway weather balloon. Normally I'd be happy to pass up an airline meal, but this was one occasion when I tried to keep it to myself.

Then, just as suddenly, we were below cloud level, skimming over the fertile chaos of a city where the respect paid to planning regulations is like Madonna's idea of the sanctity of marriage, to land right on the tip of the runway as if the pilot had made the approach by sight.

In fact the object of my journey was Bangalore, about 400 kms inland where, I discovered, monsoons rarely penetrate. From there it was a short ride to the ashram of Sai Baba, a 70 year old Hindu with a following which now numbers millions around the world, I had a commission from BBC Radio to make a documentary about his supposedly miraculous powers.

To record my piece I'd chosen a Sony TCD-D10, despite some trepidation about using a rotary head recorder in high humidity levels. I was keen, if at all possible, to keep the whole production digital - principally for reasons of quality, but also because I wanted to explore the option of editing an extended documentary on a hard disk editing system.

The TCD-D10 performed impeccably, capturing with binaural clarity the hurly-burly of Indian life in town, countryside and ashram, except when knocked onto a marble floor but some nimble electronic engineers in Bangalore fixed it in a few hours even tho they'd never seen a DAT recorder before.

Everything else went like clockwork (so much more reliable than digital electronics) and I came home with a sack of tapes absolutely fizzing with high energy sounds - a conversation about esoteric philosophy recorded during a death-defying drive along dirt roads - a religious festival attended by 14,000 - a snake charmer whose cobra made a bid for freedom by climbing up into the chassis of a Morris Ambassador É and a fascinating 'musical conversation' with an eminent sitar player who within the same breath sang, talked and performed, which eventually became a separate programme for the BBC World Service.

The Sai Baba documentary suffered a frustrating year of BBC politics and bureaucracy, when it emerged that Radio 4 intended to 'save up' all Indian material for the anniversary of Independence. In 1997! Eventually the Ethnic Minorities Unit of BBC Local Radio agreed to commission the post-production as a 60 minute programme for networking on BBC Local Radio.

Digital Audio Editing - the options

The practical issues raised by editing a documentary programme of 60 minutes are exponentially different from editing items of 5, 10 or even 20 minutes. For this reason AudioMedia have asked me to take a snapshot of the present situation as I experienced it and apply some criteria to the bewildering range of options available for audio editing inside and outside the BBC.

The editing of short-form pieces has several defining characteristics: the turnaround is usually fast, the subject is reasonably unambiguous and the material is usually consists of a limited number of components. For a programme of 30+' the issues are far more complex. Not only is the amount of raw audio much larger but the opportunities and pitfalls are correspondingly greater. One has to build in a time-allowance for 'creative doubt'. To speak straightforwardly: in short-form pieces the priority is to get it done on time, in long-form pieces the priority is to 'excavate' or demonstrate what is unique or noteworthy within your subject.

I shall returns to the creative issues later. First an overview of the options - which have left me excited but not satisfied!

Digital audio editing (DAE) and computer-based DAE (C-DAE) are such a fast moving areas that any statement you make is likely to be out of date within months, if not weeks. Had I started editing in 1994 the options would have been radically different, and with the rapid development of portable hard disk (HD) media I would expect the whole picture to be altering again in early 1996. However even if the configuration of certain types of hardware changes the underlying issues will remain the same.

Until I was confronted by this specific issue this summer I had no idea how far the BBC's DAE facilities had developed. Currently, BBC Radio supports Akai, Audiofile, Augan, DAR, DAVE, D-Cart, Fairlight, Pro Tools, SADiE and Sonic Solutions recording/editing systems. Different systems find favour with different departments, reflecting specialised production needs. It's hard to discover accurate figures about how many of each system the BBC operates because while central technical operations maintain editor editing facilities, each producing department buys producer editing equipment semi-autonomously. Moreover the size and geographical structure of the BBC means that people in different regions know very little about each other.

What made it even more confusing is that producers and editors who were expert in one system tended to be less well informed about alternative systems. Distinguishing between correct and incorrect information while on a learning curve of 85 degrees is extremely hard, so if there are errors I apologise!

Taking the systems alphabetically, the Akai DR8 and new DD1500 are at present used mainly by Drama and Light Entertainment, where the primary requirement is to record a stereo mix and playlist-edit with a little subsequent 'sweetening'. Akai's removable magneto-optical (MO) storage media makes it straightforward to port between machines. For instance when recording The News Quiz the 8 track DR8 is used, in the words of a studio manager, as 'an enhanced stereo recorder'. Only 2 tracks are normally used in the new Broadcasting House (BH) Radio Theatre, and 50' of material is easily edited down to 30' by porting it on MO to the DD1500 where the more sophisticated edit controller is used to set edit points and sweeten overlaps and patched-in laughs. Though even a 'straightforward' programme like The News Quiz may average 250 edits each. BH currently has two DR8s in the Radio Theatre, and a dedicated DD1500 digital production suite (DPS) in the 5th floor editing area.

The BBC also recently commissioned a new Fairlight MFX3 DPS, with 2x 2Gb MO drives (allowing 6 stereo hrs), and 8i/24o connections to a Soundcraft DC2000 automated desk allowing full SMPTE control of all studio devices including a Sony 7030 DAT. The Fairlight DPS is in constant use by producers of all national networks. One recent project was a R1 social action campaign where 46 different bulletins were originated from a flexible template that allowed them to retain a common identity. A R2 producer who has now made five one hour documentaries on it says "it's just bloody perfect", but she adds "you do have to do all your editing before you get there and be absolutely certain about what you want, otherwise you'll get lost in what it can do."

Audiofile, Augan and DAR being dedicated hardware, are currently somewhat out of favour for radio applications as lacking the flexibility, portability and expandability now available in other formats.

Top of the pops for music and complex documentary production is Sonic Solutions, which the BBC runs on Mac Quadra 950s and PowerMac 7100s. They're used in conjunction with Prism AD/DA and 2.4GB TyreStor memory arrays which enable instant and compatible portability anywhere on the BBC's system. The principal advantages of Sonic Solutions is that it can load and dump as a background function, with playlist editing available a mere 12" after loading has commenced. This feature alone saves literally days of operating time and makes it ideal for handling common broadcasting situations like defered relays of live performances, trailer-making, &c. Producers now also use them as desktop programs within their production offices.

The current configuration is based on SSP cards which have 4 channel physical i/o with as many virtual tracks as the editor wishes. BBC editors are aware of the criticisms leveled at the technical limitations imposed by disk access speeds (as both outgoing and incoming audio demands separate look up facilities) but say that if simultaneous edits on different tracks are staggered by a few micro-seconds the results are satisfactory. They resport 'excellent results' from MediaNetting two Sonics for larger productions. The BBC intends to explore USP cards allowing faster disc access when they become available.

Within the commercial production world it's fair to say that there considerable reservations about Sonic whose price:performance ratio is felt to be inferior to rival systems such as Pro Tools. Within the BBC, always a law unto itself, a decision was initially taken to offer only Sonics in editing suites but in response to producer demand there will shortly both Pro Tools & SADiE DPSs in BH. A number of producers are already using Pro Tools as a desktop program, particularly Radio 1's Mark Goodier. R4 Features producers appreciate the program's precision and range of facilities.

Pause for Breath!

Though the above systems are the available DAE options for arts documentary, drama and music, it should be remembered that analog tape remains overwhelmingly the most popular editing method in 85-90% of all projects, even where the recording is originated on DAT.

Since my brief is to consider the implications of DAE vs analog for productions of 45-60 minutes I shall come back to the differences in creative methods demanded by the two methods later on. But first let me just touch on 3 further options favoured by News & Current Affairs (NCA) for whom different parameters apply. The productions to be edited are rarely longer than 20 minutes, and since the emphasis is principally on the information content,¾sthetic criteria are a lower consideration than practicality.

Current Affairs producers (as opposed to News producers) are showing an overwhelming preference for SADiE. The BBC being an IBM PC networked organisation, SADiE has the practical advantage of running on desktop and laptop PCs. Upwards of 100 systems are thought to be in operation throughout the BBC. However SADiE's load/dump time remains a drawback for News, and for this reason News production remains firmly on tape at this stage.

There's always an exception however! And for BBC Local Radio the exception is DAVE 2000 (Digital Audio Voice Editing), a cheap monophonic PC desktop system with a sampling rate of 22.05kHz - soon, I gather, to be stereo - which is replacing Sonifex Carts for short news items, idents and sound beds.

While researching DAE generally I discovered that BBC NCA (Radio) has installed two D-Cart digital audio news handling networks. Although not of strict relevance to my project it's significant in terms of DAE nonetheless. Developed by ABC News of Australia D-Cart is the audio equivalent of BASYS, the electronic news data-handling system and is designed to complement it. The system operates from a central server with multiple terminals. The BBC currently has two, a 36 terminal system at their Millbank Parliamentary studios which records all the proceedings of both Houses, and a 70 terminal system in the Newsroom at BH.

Each server has 50 hours hard disk space - not much considering the amount of news that is handled - but the hard disks are programmed to 'auto-purge' files after 36 hours, and the sys-op constantly performs additional 'manual purges' whenever possible. (It should have a little poker-work sign over the main-frame with the Bible verse 'Purge me with hyssop and I shall be clean'!) As a rule radio news items will be posted onto D-Cart after editing. Occasionally a late-breaking story (eg a court hearing) will be posted unedited onto D-Cart by the reporter via a land-line or radio link allowing the news producer of the day to select sound-bites right up to the moment of transmission. "We've come to rely on it for news summaries," says Sound Operations Manager Andrew Latham, "it's only once given us any problem, and that was after a memory upgrade."

Another small nugget of information for independent producers. The R3 & R4 Continuity (the departments responsible for on-air transmission) were described to me as "DAT friendly environments". R1 Continuity was said to be "getting used to DAT reluctantly" as a result of using Independents, but R2 Continuity are "quite unhappy" about broadcasting off anything except 1/4" owing to DAT's "inflexibility". I merely report the views expressed to me without comment!

Analog vs Digital - the argument

But the boggling range of options doesn't stop there!

The primary difference between editing documentary and music lies in continuity. Normally a musical structure is normally conceived and recorded as a continuum. (At all events that had been the methodology before Frank Zappa discovered Synclavier's late lamented Direct to Disc system!) Like Drama or Light Entertainment production, music starts at one point in time and finishes n minutes later.

The editing of an audio documentary is a completely different process. The name of the game here is non-linearity, with material coming from many sources and needing to be rough-cut together to establish an overall narrative before being fine-cut to meet editorial and duration requirements. This often involves 'shrinking' a programme - a process unique to speech radio. For in audio you can reduce interviews literally on a word by word or phrase by phrase basis, in a way that no other medium allows. On film you can't cut a redundant phrase or a stumble out of the middle of sentences unless you've got cutaways or 'noddies' to justify it, and then you can only once in a segment without it looking painfully obvious.

In radio, and especially with C-DAE, the only constraints on what can be cut or rearranged are those of time and personal morality. Provided the speaker doesn't slur their words together and material is well enough recorded you can edit your audio with the ease and flexibility of a word processing. With the Fairlight in particular it is possible, if time-consuming, to create perfectly convincing sentences that the speaker never uttered. Frequently, whole segments may need to be taken out or re-ordered at a late stage in production.

'Honey, I shrunk the interviewee.' In my programme one contributor had important things to say, but would go off on terrible rambles in the middle of his sentences. Mercifully, provided nothing else caught his fancy, he would eventually wander back and finish them. (Which not everybody does!) I found that by cutting out the peregrinations I could reduce him first from 26' to 8'52', then by reordering his sentences further savings brought it down to 5', and finally by ruthlessly trimming to the very sinew of his thought he ended up as a tense, dynamic 3'48'. Even tho I thought that was 'final' length, on Pro Tools I could accurately identify and remove every remaining stumble, cough and 'okay?', even where they were slurred into words, so that the m'man ended up coming across as an incisive and brilliant communicator.

It will be immediately clear that DAT is a hopeless medium for this process. Until very recently 4" analog tape remained the only viable medium because the characteristics of physical editing allow the insertion of new material at any point in the programme which the inflexibility of a cassette-based recording doesn't permit. Moreover analog tape is uniquely adapted to the editorial procedures which have grown up around it.

If we're talking hi-tech then plainly DAE and C-DAE should be in their element here, but for long-form the limitation imposed by HD space is a significant barrier. (One producer I consulted told me of working from 47 reels of archive tape, 22 reels of interviews and 14 music sources!) Anybody who uses computers regularly will know that you run out of memory alarmingly fast, no matter how much is installed. A 2 gigabyte drive will give you roughly 32 stereo hours of stereo, but this is only about 20% of the raw audio that might normally be under consideration in a 60 minute documentary.

Ian Sylvester of DAT Hire kindly explained a couple of techniques for maximising your HD memory: upload your audio in large blocks and retain in that form wherever possible: when satisfied with a section perform a destructive edit by copying to new tracks as an integrated whole and erasing the original instead of playlisting from the complete raw audio on HD. As you will still have your original recordings you've 'lost' nothing, and you can of course 'track-bounce' within the program as much and as often as you like without loss of quality.

What became clear during my researches was that almost no BBC producer actually uses DAE for editing editing. For one reason it's too expensive. The BBC's C-DAE workstations aren't available for internal hire without an editor, and the BBC's current internal charge rate for editor editing is £60 per hour, whether on analog or DAE. But even if the budget could stand it HD space is still painfully inadequate. Therefore what producers are tending to do is to fine-edit on analog or to dub-edit whole takes on DAT in their offices, and then to treat C-DAE as a substitute for a conventional studio mix.

For my programme I have recorded 50 hours of tape, and altho I pre-selected my 'raw audio' to just under 12 hours I felt that it would be a serious creative drawback not to be able to have the full range of material within the same physical format. It's really vital to have all the material accessible in the same format so that you can compare alternatives without interrupting the intuitive compositional process by having to perform technical functions like copying or uploading. Especially since sods' law states that if you spend 15-20' transferring an alternative segment you then prefer what was there before, and you've wasted half an hour.

At audio fairs you see the demonstrators of various C-DAE programs 'create' something glitzy, banal and product-oriented in 20' flat, but when you're rather unglamorously hacking away at an interview for several hours, trying to separate a nugget of 'meaning' from the pyrites of waffle there's something very reassuring about being able to see the physical size of your reels shrinking before your eyes!

Number Crunching

In order to help myself reach a decision I drew up a chart of the available options:

* assuming 2 machines + edit controller
Availability of systems ¥¥¥¥ ¥¥¥¥¥ ¥¥
Ease of operation ¥¥¥¥ ¥¥¥¥¥ ¥¥¥
Economy ¥¥¥ ¥¥¥¥¥ ¥¥
Technical quality ¥¥¥¥¥¥ ¥¥¥¥¥ ¥¥¥¥¥¥
Programme storage capacity ¥¥¥¥¥ ¥¥¥¥¥ ¥
How flexible for rough assembly ¥¥¥ ¥¥¥¥¥ ¥¥¥¥¥
How good for speech editing ¥ ¥¥¥¥¥ ¥¥¥¥¥¥
How suitable for fine editing ¥ ¥¥¥¥¥ ¥¥¥¥¥¥
Ease of replacing/reordering sections ¥ ¥¥¥¥¥ ¥¥¥¥¥¥
Can output unaided as mixed master ¥¥ ¥¥¥¥¥
Score 30 45 42
¥/¥¥=inadequate, ¥¥¥=tolerable, ¥¥¥¥/¥¥¥¥¥= adequate, ¥¥¥¥¥¥= exceptional

Then I costed out the options, assuming 10 days editing (where equipment is rented this normally allows 14 days use.)

Price Comparison

External prices (+VAT) The best quote I got was from Dreamhire: The BBC prices come roughly as follows:
1. £1250 buys you a 14 day self-op ANALOG edit with 1 Studer, 30 reels of tape and a DAT, plus a day of digital mixing. + £350 for second Studer. 1. N/A
2. £1650 buys you a 14 days self-op ANALOG edit with 1 Studer, 30 reels of tape and a DAT, plus a 2 SM studio day for mixing. + £350 for second Studer. 2. £2100. Second m/c +£600
3. £2500 is the cheapest option for remaining fully DIGITAL giving 7 days pre-editing on 2 DATs with 4 days in a digital suite, including additional HD memory. 3. N/A
4. £6000. Top of the range 10 day all DIGITAL editor edit on Sonic or Fairlight (This option isn't currently available as a self-op) 4. £1650 (Pro Tools II/Quadra 650 with 6Gb (allowing 10.5 hours) + DAT

A further consideration concentrated my mind. Because I ended up completing the production as an independent I had a strong incentive to find the most economical approach to post-production that was consistent with broadcast quality.

I did seriously consider renting a ProTools and editing the production at home. But what finally swung me back towards tape editing was the simple expediency. For one thing I live in Wiltshire, which is a long way from civilisation, and apart from involving two journeys to collect and return the equipment, if anything were to malfunction it would have required a further trip, which I was sufficiently busy not to welcome. Moreover it would have committed me to working non-stop on the production for a fortnight, which would not have fitted in ideally with other freelance work.

In fact another option presented itself which seemed, after all my labyrinthine explorations of the BBC, to represent the common sense choice. By chance the local BBC station, Wiltshire Sound, has a news studio only 14 miles away in Salisbury. Luckily for me the Orwellian writ of 'Producer Choice' doesn't extend to such remote outposts and since therefore producers do actually have a genuine choice, and since my production was for the Local Radio Network John Gripton and his team were kind enough to exercise that choice by inviting me to use their studio whenever at times when they didn't require it. Being a News operation they're principally equipped for tape, and so the choice was really made for me.

As a result I was able to afford the luxury of 19 days editing the production and days between sessions allowed time for reflection. I performed the final mix by renting a Pro Tools setup for one (tho it ended up as two) days at the BBC's GLR studios in London. This was a real delight, and I have to record my gratitude to the impeccable professionalism of Steve & Graham at Dreamhire who provided tec support of a very high order with a kind of enthusiasm I'd almost forgotten existed. This enabled me to achieve a very high quality finish, balancing levels, and nipping in some sexy little crossfades between scenes that were much more stylish than one could have hoped to achieve with a studio mix.

My one reservation about Pro Tools, which I understand applies to all the other C-DAE programs except Logic Audio, is the absence of EQ automation. The omission of one of the basic requirements of radio programme mixing seems an extraordinary oversight. In Pro Tools' case you couldn't even activate/bypass preset EQ settings 'on the fly' since touching the display window during record or playback automatically halts the transport. The only alternative - setting up a pair of dedicated tracks for each EQ setting quickly leads to a shortage of (virtual) 'real estate' or screen space, especially since there is no user-settable window-sizing as found in Logic or graphics programs. As someone familiar with both Logic and Cubase I was seriously underwhelmed by the kludgy locator-memory setting process, and the absence of a cycle option worthy the name.

Conclusions - the red leader

Being as committed a hi-teccy as anyone, I have a sense that the brotherhood will feel I've betrayed the cause of digits by 'crossing the tracks' - if you'll allow the phrase. 'You should,' I hear them say, 'you should have wrestled to remain true to your digital aspirations.' Indeed. I don't deny it. But let's be candid, one generation of tape isn't the quality issue in broadcasting that it would be for a CD. Once it's gone back into the digital domain and acquired that subtle sharpness that A-D quantisation brings I would defy anyone to tell the difference over the air.

Having reviewed the options and followed the path I did, I feel certain that my compromise produced the best result I could have obtained. Certainly I should have liked to have done the entire post-production on C-DAE but at this stage it didn't really appear practical. In a year's time, thanks to portable HD media, it probably will be. And by then, let's hope, I'll have other programmes to edit.

I am grateful to BBC SMs Philip Ashley, Ian Dyer, Liz Isherwood, Paul Newis and John Whitehall for taking considerable time to review the many options available.

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