How to make a killer edit

Updating a classic track for your DJ set? These pointers will keep you on course.

How to make a killer edit

In recent years, the edits scene has gone into overdrive, progressing the DJ world from the often crude but fun mash-ups of the 2manydjs heyday into an evolution of the 70s disco edit movement. There are 99 terrible edits for every good one, lazily and messily cobbled together and not offering anything that enhances the original.

This guide is to help you put together a killer edit, and ensure yours is in the 1% of gold. Just remember – and this is important – edits should be for your personal use only in DJ sets. It is illegal to release a track containing unlicensed copyrighted material. But if your edit gets some heat, then the label that owns it may be interested in licensing it.

1. Outline your approach

So, you’ve found the track you want to edit. First, ask yourself: why do I want to edit this? What am I trying to achieve?

You may just want to create a more modern dancefloor-friendly version of the track with some chunkier beats. Maybe you want to make it easy to mix with the rest of your set. Maybe you want to add your own parts. Perhaps you want to chop out the naff bits you don’t like. Or maybe all of the above.

Whatever you decide, it’s vital to determine your intent from the start. It’s also worth researching whether someone has already done the job for you and created a suitably reworked edit of the original already.

2. Decide which parts you want to use

First comes the editing process. Get a high-quality, uncompressed file of the original (either buy it or rip from vinyl). Drag it into your DAW. Listen through and make notes of which bits you want to use. Then chop those out and create separate tracks for each loop or section. Edit the samples so they form perfect loops (1-bar, 2-bar, half-bar etc.). You also may be able to find an acapella if you’re editing a vocal track (and you’re very lucky). If there’s no acapella, there are also some clever, complex ways to try and extract vocals from tracks using tools such as Melodyne, RipX: DeepRemix, Audionamix Xtrax Stems and iZotope RX.

3.Time-stretching and quantising

Making Killer Edits - Quantizing

It’s a personal preference, but you may prefer to do this next stage first and then get into the editing process.

Once you have your sample sources, use your DAW’s time-stretching algorithm to get the loops to fit with the project tempo (if it hasn’t been done automatically). Then adjust the beat markers using quantisation options or manually, so no transients are tripping over each other. If you’re editing a track that uses live percussion, it’s a good idea not to completely lock everything to the grid with quantisation. That’s because you will lose all of the natural feel and swing that makes the track groove. You’re looking for a balance here, with kicks being the main thing you’ll want to snap into place, and possibly snares after that. Their loud transients mean that if you’re laying additional beats down, they’ll really clang if they aren’t aligned with your parts.

Some DAWs allow you to extract groove templates from audio files to apply to MIDI regions so you can make your additional parts fit the source material rather than the other way round – but these don’t always work brilliantly.

4. Arrangement

Making Killer Edits - Arrangement

Before you start adding anything else, make a loose layout of how you want the parts from the original to be sequenced. Essentially, this is how you would make an old-school 70s-style reel/tape edit where the process was mostly just a case of extending, removing and rearranging bits of the original with no (or few) additional parts. You may change the arrangement as your edit develops, but it will give you some parameters to start with and help you get a sense of how you want the track to flow.

5. Additional elements

The most common element to add to an edit is drums. Most edits tend to pump the beats up with heavier, modern kicks and other bits of percussion to augment the groove. Try different kicks and hits to see what fits with the original. You probably don’t want it to sound too jarring. When you get to mixing, you’ll be able to make things fit even better, but for now, just try out some things and see what works.

You may want to thicken up the bass groove by overlaying an additional bass layer. This will require figuring out the melody of the original bass groove, or at least some of the key notes. If you’re editing a famous pop song, you might even be able to find the MIDI files online where someone has done the hard work for you.

Use any additional melodies sparingly. Remember not to overcrowd the original but to augment it subtly. This could be a case of adding some piano or keyboard chords or some synth solos.

6. Resampling

Making Killer Edits - Resampling

Creating sampler instruments from the source material can be a great way of adding more flavour to your edit. Take some of the audio and extract it onto a MIDI track so you can play it with a controller keyboard or via the piano roll on your DAW. This will give you a quick and easy way of triggering hits and snippets from the original, like vocal chops and melodic snippets, where multiple elements are layered on a single hit.

You may also want to take specific elements of the original and create sample instruments from those so you can pitch-shift them and use them to create melodic patterns. For this technique, listen out for sustained notes or sections with minimal accompaniment.

7. EQ, filters and sidechaining

Making Killer Edits - Sidechain

Now comes the time to do some fine-tuning to make everything gel together.

If you’re adding beats, the main issues you’ll confront are the bottom end and getting hits to work together. You could sidechain the original to your new kick to make it cut through. Alternatively, you could filter out some of the low frequencies from the original to make your kick and bass sit a bit cleaner. If you decide to roll off some of the lows from the original, there’s probably a middle ground where you keep some of the original’s character and low-mids while blending in the power of your new low-end parts. Sidechaining will allow you to preserve the bottom end of both the original and added parts, but it’s best to experiment to see what works best.

8. Other effects

You may want to stay very close to the original for your edit, or you may wish to embellish things further with some carefully chosen effects. A touch of reverb can add a bit of atmosphere to the original parts and give them a different energy. Sending parts of the original track to a delay bus can also work well, particularly on vocals. Automating a dub-style delay with occasional spikes is another classic remixing technique that can push a track into trippier terrain.

9. Mixing and mastering

You should treat your end product like any of your finished tracks and make sure it’s as polished and professional as possible. Take time to mix it as best you can, testing your final bounce on a range of different audio devices (monitors, headphones, mono speakers, etc.). Once you’re happy with the result, it’s worth paying for a professional mastering job to get your edit sounding as slick as possible. You should be able to make a decent enough rough master on your own in the box or with automated services, but if you want your edit to shine, pro mastering is the way to go.

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