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Audio tips for geeks

Some skill with a WAV editor can turn you into an instant remastering engineer.

When compact discs were introduced, it didn’t take sharp-eared listeners long to figure out that CD issues of previously released albums weren’t what they should be. The reason was that, at least at first, almost all of them were made from master tapes created for vinyl, which has an inherently lower dynamic-range capacity. Thus, early CDs of old albums sounded muffled and one-dimensional, making listeners wish they could have a crack at remastering their old favorites.

Thanks to modern technology, they now do. WAV file editors have steadily gotten cheaper and easier to use, and these days, fixing something that’s always bugged you about that favorite song has never been simpler. It has one chorus too many? Snip it out. It shouldn’t have a cold ending? Fade it out. It sounds too dry? Add some reverb. It was mastered quieter than a mouse? Pump up the volume. Here are a few more tips and tricks for spicing up your favorite songs.

Move it on over

Until the late ’60s, recording was limited to four tracks and engineers were eager to demonstrate the wide range of stereo sound. That means a lot of classic recordings of the era have discrete information on the left and right channels, which can make for annoying listening on headphones. A way to remedy this without cramming everything into one channel is to force the two channels to share information. Once you’ve extracted the song in question, make a copy of it. Increase the volume on the first copy as much as you can without clipping the signal. Then take the lower-volume copy and paste the right-channel information into the left channel of the higher-volume copy, and vice-versa. Now that drum track that used to sound like an itch in your right ear is spread out some, without overtaking the left channel.

Instant karaoke

The acronym OOPS should bring a smile to the faces of audio geeks. It means out-of-phase stereo, and it’s a trick we used to pull by fiddling with the wires on our phonograph cartridges back in the day. It’s accomplished by reversing the polarity of one of the two stereo signals, thus cancelling any audio information common to both–i.e., the music in the middle–and mixing the resulting channels into a mono signal. Guess what’s almost always mixed in the center of the sound spectrum? The lead vocal. Suddenly you have an a cappela mix to sing to, or to just hear the instrumentation more clearly.

Killing a pet peeve

Sometimes there’s a technical glitch in a favorite song that becomes impossible to ignore over time. An example is Led Zeppelin’s “Dancing Days”–fantastic record, but it has an audible tape dropout in the first couple of seconds that’s driven me nuts since the first time I heard it. Finally, nearly 30 years later, I did something about it. The riff that opens the song is repeated after the first verse, so I copied a short snippet of it, and using a steady hand and the paste-to-mix command of my WAV editor, covered up the glitch at the top of the song so convincingly that it left a Zep-loving friend whistling in admiration. If you’re compulsive, creative, and persistent enough, any similar imperfection can be vanquished.

Instant DJ

When making mix CDs, I love the wonderful, often accidental juxtapositions that can be created between two adjacent songs. That effect can be heightened by cross-fading the two. Just cut the last several seconds of one and, again using the handy paste-to-mix command, mush it together with the beginning of the next track. If you’re really clever, you can even synch the tempos of the two songs. But be sure that when you’re burning the CD, your burner is set so there’s no space between tunes.

Successful pitch

You might have a favorite rare record or performance that was copied from a tape running at too slow a speed, making the singer sound like Alvin Chipmunk. Fortunately, any good WAV editor will let you speed up or slow down a track along with raising or lowering the pitch, or do either independently. When doing this, it might help to have a pitch pipe handy and to know what key the song is in, so that you can tell when your singer is finally hitting the right notes.

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