South Sound Sidekick: Ctrl. Z and how I learned to love reading wave forms

By Volcano Staff on April 19, 2013

South Sound Sidekick series offers advice from experts living in the, well, South Sound. It posts every Friday. Today, Christopher Gray, graduate of the The Evergreen State College Audio in Media program and Tom Foote's Literary Journalism Program - and a current DJ at KAOS FM - has advice for finding your way around the audio editing program Audacity.

Christopher Gray writes,

First of all ... relax.  You're probably in a semi-dark room all ready, so you're off to a good start. You're probably working on less than the recommended dose of sleep for an average four-day period, have horrific soda breath and have the outward appearance of and the same methodical obsessive ennui as Ted Kaczynski. While this particular article is intended for the audio DIY'er using open-source Audacity, it really applies to anyone editing anything.  While some editing software can set you back upward of $800 and come with built-in locks that enable it pointless to try and use with other software platforms - I'm looking at you, M-Audio - they all share one attribute, the lovely "non-destructive" status.  What this means is that while you're into your 79th hour of editing the tastiest mix of that one golden, delicious track and you accidentally have hovered and highlighted the most blistering drum section and then, while moving to brush a harmless mosquito off the keyboard, you hit DELETE. Do not panic.  Resist the urge to scream and pull out fistfuls of hair ... simply click command z, and take one step back in the chain of actions you thought you just destroyed. 

Command Z is freedom. Command Z allows you to take a complete dump up the raging solo action on "Layla," and it's still intact in all nine over-the-top coked-out overdubs, laying in neatly arranged stacks of session files buried deep within your computer. In fact, everything you do when you open an editing suite is placed into little suitcases of digital information in bits, samples and pixels.  If you're like me, you're hitting that command S often, constantly updating your saved information. You can find a list of shortcut keys (for Audacity) on its website.

The easiest way to get comfortable using any editing software is to do it with someone else's material. After you've downloaded the most current edition of Audacity, opened it and sit staring at the very rudimentary interface, go into your file menu and hover over IMPORT AUDIO.  Choose a tune you're very familiar with and if you're looking to do some actual voice editing. Anything heavily peppered with F-bombs works as a way to learn how to read waveform signatures. Once your track has finished importing, set up the window specific to you. By dragging down on the lower portion of the bottom of the stereo track, you'll fatten it up, making the form easier to read. Go ahead and fill the entire screen with that sucker. Now, just hit the space bar and listen. This is great because this isn't at all meant for the basement recording guru, this is intended for anyone who's interested in the process ... could be you have some music you're trying to make friendly for a wider audience and are worried there might be a couple people who aren't as savvy as you who think "ass" is a terribly offensive word. This is a tool that anyone can use. It's free to all and anyone ... ANYONE with a computer can do this. Headphones are recommended, as you're going to be listening to the same piece of music and the same tiny little sections over and over until you've accomplished your editing goals. You're probably going to experience ear fatigue, and, at some point, you're probably going to be looking at the interface and not really knowing what you're looking at - that usually indicates it's time for a break. 

SO, you've gotten your tracks all loaded and are ready to edit some language. In the lower portion of the editing window, there are three time markers. The one on the right shows actual playtime as you click stop and start. The one to the left indicates the actual point in the track where you've dropped a marker - a reference point. It might be a good idea to have a small notepad handy to jot down time markers specific to what you want to edit. Before hitting play, click command 1 a couple times to magnify the track out so it's a little easier to read (command 3 zooms out). When you hear the first word you want to edit, using your mouse, drop a marker as close to the spot in the song where the "offensive" language lives. Start it again and keep moving your marker closer and closer until you're just about on top of that word. NOW, mark where the time is on that left time window and in the top, right corner of the toolbars, you'll see a little magnifier icon. You can zoom in and out as the track is playing and once you've isolated and you think you know what that word looks like in waveform, STOP. I'm gonna use fuck as an example for two reasons; it's the most edited word in music and it's easy to fingerprint. The leading edge to the word is blunt, as you're sounding out an F; it's a sharp sound. Not as sharp as a B, but more so than an S, as in SHIT. While this might sound (no pun intended) insane, you don't have the luxury of subtitles so you're going to have to learn to read a waveform like those little peaks and valleys are letters and the same goes with the actual music. Those sharp peaks could represent the 1 and the 4 of a kick drum or a snare crack ... very useful to know what those look like in editing music. 

ANYWAY ... back to the fuck. Once you've isolated it, drag your cursor over and highlight that little, tiny chunk of waveform and then, in your effects column, you can choose to reverse the word, throw a heavy WAH effect on it or, simply click command L, and just silence that section altogether. The best part is that if you do something you want to undo, your fingers should be hovering over COMMAND Z to reverse any action. The object is to isolate that word so tight that it's almost as if it were never there in the first place. Give it a shot. Use this tune! I downloaded it straight off soundcloud. It's a great tune, got some great beats and it's a shame not to share stuff like this just because of R rated lyrics that can just be lifted out with the right touch. Happy editing and good luck!  

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