Sound Field


Do You Know How Much Classical Music Is Edited?

When we think of editing in music, we might think of quantizing lining up rhythm in an R&B song or autotune fixing the vocals of a pop singer. Many people don’t realize that editing exists in classical recordings as well.

AIRED: July 07, 2021 | 0:16:57

- When you think of editing in music,

you might imagine auto-tuning the vocals of a pop singer

or modifying the rhythm of the drums.

Many people don't realize

that editing exists in classical recordings as well.

- For example, watch these two clips

of concert pianist Krystian Zimerman

playing Chopin's "Ballade No. 1."

Can you find evidence of an edit?

(piano playing)

It's not in what you heard, but what you saw.

Notice the change in the bench he's sitting on,

implying that there were multiple takes.

(upbeat music)

Many listeners have been surprised to discover

that this performance wasn't recorded in a single take.

And one commenter wrote,

"Since the chair was a dead giveaway,

I wonder how many clips were actually used

to make this recording."

- Now listen to this track and see if you can find

any evidence of edits.

♪ Boy yeah right, yeah right, yeah right ♪

♪ Boy yeah right, yeah right, yeah right ♪

♪ Free something that's erased ♪

- [Narrator] In that clip,

everything from the auto-tune vocals

to the electronic drum kit is heavily processed.

But people are less critical of the editing

in electronic music.

- So why is there a double standard

and how much editing is acceptable in classical music?

(piano playing)

First of all, why do musicians edit their recordings?

There are two distinct reasons why musicians edit.

Number one, to erase mistakes and strive for perfection,

and number two, for stylistic choices.

For example, auto-tune, which adjusts the pitch

of a recording to correct out of tune singing

is an example of editing to erase mistakes.

But sometimes, auto-tune is used

for the other type of editing

and is entirely a stylistic choice.

♪ I got money in the bank ♪

♪ Shawty, what you think 'bout that? ♪

♪ I'll be in the gray Cadillac ♪

♪ We in the bed ♪

Because this is somewhat of a subject of topic,

we invited a group of respected classical musicians

to discuss their opinions on editing.

So the basis of what we want to talk about today is

everything in relation to editing

in the context of classical music.

- I love being on panels because I feel like I learn

from everybody so much

and probably won't learn anything from me

but I will have a wonderful time hearing what all

of you have to say.

- Before we dive into the debate

on when editing goes too far,

let's cover the history

on how we got here in the first place.

In 1877, Thomas Edison created the first

reliable recording device, the phonograph.

Over the next 60 years,

music was stored on disks and wax cylinders

and couldn't be edited.

Errors were prevalent

because musicians had to record each piece in one take.

For example, listen for the mistake in Alfred Cortot's

1933 recording of a Chopin etude.

(piano playing)

- Even without the ability to edit,

some classical musicians were critical of recording.

After one 1932 studio session,

pianist Arthur Schnabel said

that recording music was a surrender to evil,

a betrayal of life in which the human being,

the original, is forgotten.

In the 1940s,

the development of magnetic tape allowed musicians

to splice together different takes of the same piece.

This is around the time

that pianist Glenn Gould enters the picture.

Unlike some, Gould fully embraced recording.

He even retired from public performances

at the young age of 32 to focus on recording full time.

He thought recordings were the future of classical music

and claimed that the concert is dead.

But not everyone was as excited about the ability

to splice together different takes.

With each new innovation,

there is a period of resistance followed by acceptance.

Just like Schnabel criticized recording before,

other musicians shared their criticisms of editing.

Here's a book I discovered called

"Recording the Classical Guitar"

and it says Andres Segovia didn't like performances

to be spliced.

He always felt guilty when there was a certain amount

of splicing because he felt he should have been able

to play the pieces note perfect the first time.

Then it says here by the mid 1960s,

this attitude towards splicing began

to change as artists and producers recognized

that recorded performances were not obliged

to serve as reflections of live performance,

a development which coincided with a dramatic increase

in the facilities of studio technology for editing sound.

Just an open question to start off with.

How much editing do you think is an okay amount?

Is there such a thing in your personal practice

and your experience as a musician?

- My opinion on this topic is that, you know,

minor adjustments to just erase that little pimple

without changing the shape of, you know

all the other features on your face

- I mean, if I had my way there would be zero editing.

I mean, I have edited my stuff for sure, anyway,

but it's sort of like the effect of, sort of,

Instagram on photos.

That kind of playing can't be replicated live.

And that's also what we're expecting

because that's what we hear.

- It's a slippery slope when you try

to make something so perfect,

and then when somebody comes to your concert,

they're like, "Ooh," you know.

It didn't sound like that on the recording.

I think at some point you will have to figure out

what the line is for you personally.

I don't think you should be playing all 88 keys

and then just putting together a Beethoven sonata

from those tones.

I mean I think that's ridiculous but that's an extreme.

- Since the 1980s, digital recording methods

have taken over the music industry

- What is the process

of editing such a thing

for string musicians?

- In terms of what can be edited,

it could be timing, it could be intonation,

It can be sound quality.

It can be even placing in different notes,

bar by bar, note by note.

I mean, free master

and then you put it to this program called Melodine

and then it's polyphonic intonation algorithm.

Then you can adjust each note.

- The thing you have to make sure of,

the producer that you work with

knows what kind of performer you are

on stage and what kind of rendition you're trying

to get on the disc

so that that trust between, I think, the artist

and the producer is very important.

- Some advancements have been made,

but editing remains minimal

and splicing is still the primary tool.

Why is that?

Well, classical music usually isn't tied to a rhythmic grid

and the tempo is often bent.

For example, listen to the slight tempo changes

in Johannes Brahms's Hungarian Rhapsody Number Five.

(classical music plays)

Subtle shifts in tempo and phrasing make it impractical

to record and edit parts separately.

As a result, it's easier to run larger chunks

as a full ensemble and then use splicing

to get rid of mistakes.

So if editing happens less in classical music

than in pop music, why is it controversial?

- One reason is that pop music is often recorded first

and then performed later.

Classical music is flipped.

It was initially written to be performed

but is now also recorded.

For the audience, the classical recording is secondary

and it's just a representation of what they would hear

if they saw the performance live.

That means editing out mistakes made

inaccurately enhance the performance actual ability.

For example, one editor

on the Audio Asylum music board claimed he knew

of a classical album that had as many as 900 edits

or once every four to five seconds.

- I've helped produce albums which have

over a thousand of edits,

classic ones.

So there is this wide range, you know

five edits for one person and thousands for another, so.

- Even more dishonest is the practice

of editing quote, unquote, live concerts.

Often they are multiple live performances stitched together,

dress rehearsals

and additional audience free recording sessions.

Sometimes whole movements from a classical music CD

were never even performed live.

So how does editing affect music listeners?

Around 50% of people who stream classical music

listen to it in the background.

However, serious listeners might dislike

that current recording methods

capture a limited volume range.

This is fine for pop music

but classical music usually has wider dynamic swings.

Listen for how the quiet French horn transforms

into the massive coral theme in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony

in a matter of seconds.

(classical music plays)

Naxos, the largest classical music label

has considered using different forms of audio compression

to better capture the dynamic range of classical music.

- What about aspiring classical musicians?

In classical music,

there is a culture around reaching unattainable perfection.

With the advancement in editing technology,

that standard has been raised even higher.

Mental health is a common issue among young musicians.

One recent study found that one-third

of Spanish music students have used substances

to cope with performance anxiety.

An increased standard of perfection puts more

and more pressure on an already competitive field of study.

- And I don't think it's affecting our industry positively

because it's changing what is normal,

'cause again the most normal thing

is to put on a recording, not go to a concert.

That's an event for everybody.

- On the other hand, the prevalence

of high quality recordings allows music students to learn

from the greatest performers

with the click of a button.

Compare this to the 20 year old JS Bach,

who traveled 250 miles on foot,

to listen to the brilliant organist Dieterich Buxtehude.

The expectation for mistake free recordings

also puts a lot of pressure on recording musicians.

It's rumored that pianist Krystian Zimerman took 76 takes

of Liszt's B minor Sonata before he was satisfied.

However, editing allows artists

to better capture their vision for a composition.

Glenn Gould likened himself to a film producer,

meticulously combining his takes into unique interpretation.

Maybe transparency is key.

By openly sharing the extent of their edits,

classical musicians can embrace the new opportunities

of modern editing.

At the same time, they acknowledge

that the recording has less mistakes

than what they would realistically create

in a public performance.

- I think it's also good to remind, at least myself, right?

Our main audience is not some studio class at Julliard.

It's the general public.

When we put out things and we have really tiny mistakes,

it's like sometimes I'm like, "Oh, we made a tiny mistake.

Everybody will know about it."

That's just not true.

Our main audience is the general public.

- As technology improves, editing in classical music

may become more sophisticated.

One composer wrote a piece that was faster

than one Boston ensemble could humanly perform.

So he had the orchestra record the piece at half tempo

and later doubled the speed with editing software.

The final recording was convincing enough

that a New York ensemble couldn't tell

that edits had been made.

- Some may argue that with editing like this

we cut out the imperfections that make art human.

With AI generated art,

the human element is removed completely.

Some AI art pieces are very convincing.

Recently editors at The Archive

at Duke University Literary Journal

accepted an AI generated poem.

Or consider this AI generated piece that mimics Bach.

In one survey, 50% of people,

most of whom were classical music enthusiasts,

couldn't tell the difference between the Bach and the AI.

(classical music playing)

Another advancement in editing technology are VSTs

or virtual instruments.

These virtual instruments aren't commonly used

in classical music today

but maybe there'll be more accepted in the future.

Some VSTs sounds so realistic that it's hard

to tell them apart from real instruments.

And to put this to the test,

Arthur and I faced off in a quiz

to see who could guess which instruments were real

and which were virtual.


- Let's, let's, let's start with Piano G chord.

- I'm playing mine. (piano chord plays)

- They both sound fake.

Okay, I'm ready, I'm ready.

Are you ready? - Here we go.

- [Both] One, two, three.

- Okay. I think we on the same page.

- Oh we got it right. - Good, good, good, good.

- Drums one and two.

(drums playing)

- When I get this wrong, Imma be ashamed

that you can't tell what's a real drum like.

- I hear this shh sound that is just way to perfect

- The China cymbal, yeah the China.

- Okay, lets do this.

One, two, three. - Two, three.


(cheering) (laughing)

I knew I was gonna get that wrong, that's crazy.

- Let's see orchestra.

(orchestral music)

- Naw, it's like...

- This might be a trap.

- I'm analyzing, hold on a second.

- Two, three.

What? Wait, no way. (laughing)

This is the absolute nonsense.

I quit.

This is so, what?

- Should we do cymbal one, cymbal two?

- Yes. - I think this one

might be low key easy.

(cymbals clanging) (chuckling)

At this point I'm literally like, swinging in the dark.

I do not know.

- I want to know.

Okay, two, three.

- Okay, what we on?

This is the first time we agree.

- We got it wrong.

No way, why?



- This game is cheating.

- No, no, let's do piano, piano.

- All right, all right, hey, no pressure.

No pressure, but you're making history here.

(piano playing)

Aw, come on, come on.

- Why is it "Fur Elise?"

- Right? Right?


This one was easy.

- Two, Three.

One real, no.


- What?

- Nori, I got drums wrong.

You got orchestra, classical music wrong.

What are we doing?

(sad music)

So, Nori, what made you want to do an episode

on editing in classical music?

What really pushed your button

to make this whole episode go?

- What's interesting to me is that if you're recording,

you're in a completely different environment

and you're performing in a different way.

First of all, you're entitled to do many takes.

You're not just gonna go in there,

play one take and then leave.

- And keep it.

- That in and of itself is editing

because you're doing, I dunno,

10, 20, 30, 40 takes, whatever it is,

then that's a form of editing already.

So if we're doing that,

and it's a completely different form of art,

why be so shy about other edits?

But at the same time, I recognize that this process

has some consequences as well

because now we're pushing what perfection is.

So later on, when you're on the stage,

you have two standards that you're up against,

the recorded standard and the stage standard.

And that kind of plays with your head

and I feel like that's an interesting,

yet at times, disturbing part of being a musician

in the studio or on stage.

So that's why I was drawn to this episode.


A huge shout out to The Cliburn,

whose mission is to advance classical piano music

throughout the world

for partnering with us on this video.


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