Learning how to edit music skillfully is one of the biggest hurdles new editors have to overcome. There are many challenging aspects of working with music, but one of the most important is knowing how to bring tracks to an effective conclusion.
It’s rare that you’ll find a track that works perfectly, unedited, from beginning to end. Composers create “short”, “alternate”, “60-second” and “30-second” versions of tracks for this reason. Or, there will be a separate file for a shortened “sting” version of a track available. But these don’t always work, and/or aren’t your best option. And sometimes there is only one version of a track. The best music composers know this and construct their songs so that editors can modify them as needed.
What exactly is a sting? When referring to stings, we could be talking about a sound design element or a musical sting. The simplest definition is that a sting is an auditory punctuation that emphasizes a moment in your edit. For the sake of this article, I’m referring to musical stings. A musical sting is the sonic hit that ends a track. Here’s an example of what they look like:
Not every track has one—some just fade out—but most do, and they are incredibly useful tools for bookending scenes, emphasizing thoughts, interview bites, moments, etc.
Stings let the audience know that we’ve learned something important, that something critical has happened. They help arrange your cut from one moment to the next. It’s important to note that some tracks have several stings throughout that can be used to your advantage—but we’re focusing on how to use them to resolve, i.e. end, a piece of your score.
Editing a Track to Fit
There are many techniques for shortening a track, moving a sting, etc. But one of the biggest mistakes editors can make is just slapping on a crossfade. This is sloppy and won’t sound as good as properly resolving your track. I’m going to show you one method for doing that by using your ears and your eyes by looking at your audio waveform.
These sample screenshots are from Avid, but the principles and techniques outlined below can be applied to any NLE. Regardless, doing this with your ears and eyes, by looking at the waveform, speeds everything up—so show that waveform!
In Avid, you have two options for displaying your waveform. One is to open up the “hamburger” and select Audio Data > Waveform. This will display waveforms on all your audio tracks. I have this hot-keyed, but because rendering all that waveform can eat up precious RAM, I prefer to do it track by track as needed by displaying the Track Control Panel, an option you can also find within the “hamburger” menu. Then, as needed, I turn on/off waveform only for the tracks I’m dealing with and save that RAM!
To begin, take a look at this snapshot of my timeline. Track assignments vary from project to project, but for the sake of simplicity, I’ve put interview track on A1 and music on A3 and A4 (also for the sake of simplicity, I didn’t bother to dip the music level underneath the interview audio). The first red arrow indicates where I want to resolve the track, right after the interview bite. The second red arrow indicates the final sting of the track, which I need to move back to the first arrow.
In this example, there already is a hit at the first arrow where I want the track to sting out. But to properly resolve the track there, I need to move the song’s final sting to that point.
As stated above, you shouldn’t just place a crossfade where you want the track to end. This rarely works and can leave lingering beats and musical elements that will muck up the acoustic quality of your cut. It can be very subtle, but the song might sound unfinished, and your audience can catch on to this subconsciously, exposing you to notes that might be avoided by being more artful and technical with your edit. So don’t be lazy and slap on a crossfade! (example shown in the image below.)
Moving Existing Stings
The best way to end this track is to move the real, final sting, carefully crafted by the composer, to where you want it. I’ll outline one way to do that in the steps below.
[*Note that throughout this process I am zooming in and out on the timeline, so the pictures below are from different “vantage points” on the timeline. As you’ll see, zooming in to expose the minute detail in the waveform can be very beneficial in this process.]
First of all, I’m going to add an edit right after the hit where I want the music to end. As you can see, this is at the end of an interview bite on A1, and this will make the music act like a proper punctuation point before moving onto another track that might carry us on with a new section of our story.
Next, I add an edit right before the final hit on the track.
Here’s the track with the arrows pointing to both the edits I’ve added. We’ll be eliminating what’s in between to join the hits into one.
In the picture below, I’ve ‘joined’ the hits. Take a listen below. (The music used in this example is from Extreme Music and is called BEYOND TREASON).
This is a “rough first pass”, and it’s rare that you’ll get it perfect on your first try, but we’ll refine further with our ears and eyes by looking at the waveform.
As I guessed, it wasn’t perfect. By zooming into the waveform, I can easily see why. Notice that the roller coaster ups and downs in the waveform have what look like a flat valley (top) and flat peak (bottom) where I joined the hits. Your ears are the most important factor here, but this is how your eyes can help too. I need to eliminate this so the waveform continues its roller coaster ride thru the track.
In the next image, you’ll see how I’ve corrected this by trimming a tiny bit off of one of the clips. Notice how the roller coaster pattern in the waveform continues thru the edit? And sure enough, it sounds seamless.
Here’s the track now. The track stings out perfectly where I want it to, and I’m ready to move on!
Depending on the track you’re working with, you might need to add a small crossfade to smooth things out, but lots of times, if you’ve done this correctly, it’s unnecessary.
Music is one of the most subjective things you deal with in any project, and there are few hard and fast rules. But by properly resolving your tracks, you will make your edit sound, and more importantly, feel much better overall.
Working with a More Difficult Sting
So now that we’ve properly resolved the track, let’s look at some other helpful ways to work with music.
In the example above, we worked with a track that had a very workable final sting that I could make work with a hit earlier in the song. But sometimes, the final sting of the track is very different than the musical hits that occurred earlier and you might need to create a new sting to edit out of the song when you need to. Here we’ll get a little more advanced, but the technique I’ll outline below is incredibly useful.
Turning a “Hit” Into a “Sting”
Here’s the track I need to create a new sting for. The first arrow indicates where I’m going to make this sting—the final sting indicated by the second arrow doesn’t work here. The final sting is a bell, and the score does a kind of creepy, whispery swell. So they just aren’t compatible.
Here are the steps to make a new sting where I need it. This is an Avid-specific technique (this process is a little different in other NLEs). Once again I’ll be zooming in and out of the timeline throughout the process of turning an existing hit in a track into a proper sting. This involves working with audio mixdowns and audio effects. This technique takes some practice, and not all hits lend themselves to creating solid stings. But experience comes with experimentation.
Add an edit right AFTER the peak of the hit where I want the new sting.
Delete the rest of the track. It’ll now look like this.
Set an IN point just before the peak of the hit. Set an out point 5 seconds further down the timeline (this can vary, but I usually find 5 seconds to work.)
With the IN and OUT points in place, select only the tracks necessary, in this case A3 & A4, and make an Audio Mixdown. How you do this will vary on your version of Avid, but in the new version you can select the Timeline dropdown menu at the top of the project window—Mixdown > Audio Mixdown > To Sequence
You’ll see a window like this, with several options. You want to make sure the sting you’re making, a new file, makes its way to the online edit where the final mix will be done. For the sake of this example, I’m just going to write it as a Dual Mono file to the project drive.
You’ll see the newly created mixdown file dropped into the sequence. Rename it so you can keep track of it. (There’s nothing worse than seeing some ‘untitled’ file in the project.) I’ve renamed it track name_stingbyBH. If you play it, you’ll hear that final hit then SILENCE. So now we need to make that final hit sting out.
Select the mixdown clip and keep the playhead parked on it.
Now we’re going to open up the AudioSuite (found in the Tools dropdown window at the top of the project.)
With the mixdown clip selected in the timeline, add the D-VERB audio effect. As with many audio tools, there are a lot of options. I recommend fiddling around to learn what they all do, but in this case, we’re just going to add the default D-VERB effect. Select Preview to listen. The mixdown clip should sound like a proper sting now. You’ll need to render this effect in your timeline, or click render before closing the audiosuite window.
With the D-VERB effect added you now have a new sting!
But not so fast. There are two more steps before we’re done. We need to create another mixdown to ensure the sting is preserved for the online edit. It’s always best to consult with your post-production supervisors and assistant editors to best understand your offline to online workflow, but typically effects added to audio (like our D-VERB effect here) are stripped from the sequence when they head to the audio mixer for their finishing pass. So if we don’t mix it down, i.e. create a new audio file with the effect applied, there is potential for confusion as the sting we created won’t play without that AVID D-VERB effect applied. They can of course reference the offline edit if necessary, but don’t assume that’ll happen. The best insurance to protect your intentions as the offline editor is to make the sting a real one (not just a clip in your sequence with an effect on it) by mixing it down. Follow the steps I outlined for creating the first mixdown (steps 3-5). I’ve named this final one track name_stingbyBH_FINAL. Once this is done, you can remove the clip with the D-VERB effect.
Now move the final sting straight up, overwriting the cut-off hit you made with your initial edit to the track. Voila! You made your sting and it should look like this now:
For reference, the track before adding the new sting
Note that in shared work environments, creating mixdowns can be a tricky issue as online procedures vary from place to place. Make sure you keep things organized so the online edit team can retrace your steps and find source files as needed. Because you’re making a new file with mixdowns, ensuring others can backtrack to where it came from is important. I typically create a Mixdowns bin for this purpose, and park all my work there with the stings I’ve made labeled as such, i.e. track name_stingbyBH. But more often than not, your online team will know what was done and finesse as needed in the final mix.
I hope these tips and tricks make working with music a little less intimidating and help your edits really sing with those stings.