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Adapted from an original article of mine for a now defunct magazine, the following post explores the world of DJ/Studio tape editing. Often referred to as ‘bullet editing’, this was an early/mid 80s studio technique which inspired the digital cut-up’s we now hear on contemporary dance music. Easily achieved now in the digital domain, by a multitude of plug-ins and drag ‘n drop samples, this is how it all began..
Editing, now there’s a word.. What do you think of when that’s mentioned? Perhaps, the process used to remove sections of a track to make a radio friendly version (and that’s seemingly gone down from 3.30, to 3.00, to 2 and a half mins. these days.. shows the attention span of the younger gen.. oh, don’t get me started!)..? Well, editing in today’s world of digital audio and in the box mixing is a relatively simple task. It’s just ‘where’ you point your scissor tool that’s the creative part. But, rewind to the mid-Eighties, and editing had another guise. My first real awareness of this now pretty much lost magical art was hearing productions by two specific individuals - Omar Santana (part of the US based Latin Rascals team) and a Swedish/Greek DJ, Sanny Xenokottas. Through the early (’83/’84) singles by hip-hop legend, ‘Mantronix’, Santana’s ‘bullet edit’ style really grabbed my attention. The same with Sanny’s work, highlighted by DJ only remixes on the fledgling DMC label from circa ’84. So, what was bullet editing, and how was it done?
Santana, for example, would have delivered the master of a finished track, recorded onto ‘reel to reel’ tape, one quarter of an inch wide and usually running at 15 i.p.s. (inches per second). This would be loaded on one machine, with it’s audio output connected to a similar tape machine, set to record. If the track was a full vocal version, his job would be to assemble a dub mix, for the more adventurous DJ’s to drop. His remit was not to add keyboards, overdub parts or remix it (as in today’s understanding of that term), but to cut up beats, phrases, do deck stop fx, even create rapid silences and create a new more vibrant and energetic interpretation. This would be achieved by dubbing small or lengthy sections over from the master tape, recorded sequentially to create the phrase he wanted to make. Basing this assumption on how I achieved the same thing, the tape area corresponding to the beginning of the part to be used would be ‘rocked’ back and forwards over the playback head, and the edit point marked on the tape with a white chinagraph pencil. This would released from the machines heads, and placed in an ‘editing block’ and a 90 degree (for beats) cut would be made with a single edged razor-blade. The tape was then gently fed through the fingers to the position of a previously marked edit point, cut again, and the two pieces spliced together with editing tape (a 1/4″ wide specialist ‘clear’ type).
This process would be repeated (a lot!), requiring an incredible amount of patience to accompany the creative vision of how the end sequence should sound. There was a way of making sure that when all the phrase ‘sections’ were spliced together, they maintained the tracks tempo correctly (and indeed that each individual edit ‘slice’ was cut to a tempo friendly length). I have to relate again to how I did this, Omar and Sanny’s way may have been different. I would simply mark the start point of one bar on the tape, then the position of the next actual beat (or quarter note), measure in millimetres the precise length, double check it, then write out the sub division lengths as a [birthday cake] reference: eg – quarter note 50mm, 8th note, 25mm, 16th note (they were the killers!), 12.5mm etc. The same 1/4 note calculation could be used to work out a 3/4 based change if required (though rarely).
Here’s an audio sample of a typical Omar Santana edit sequence..
And that’s how it was done.. It was quite a sight to see the ‘bullet edit’ sequences fly past the heads of an open reel machine – I especially remember seeing an actual Omar Santana original, where he edited up a Tears For Fears track, on a Revox, and when the many, many sequences just flew past the heads, the combined audio and visual experience was a rare and pleasurable one indeed – dance music history for sure! [see footnote] Of course, here and now in the 21st century, there are various software plug-ins that can achieve this beat-mashing effect – Digidesign Transfuser, Sugar Bytes Effectrix and iZotope’s Stutter Edit perhaps of particular note...but ladies and gentlemen, I beg your respect for the pioneer’s methods above, relevant still today!
Footnote: Since writing the original article above, I actually found a cassette recording of Omar Santana’s ‘Shout’ bullet edit remix. So, offering full props to the great man’s talent, here it is for you to check out below.