Discover the basics on how to edit videos for YouTube, social media, and more.
Video is an important medium for so many applications. People use them to promote businesses, as video resumes, and to create commercials, news reports, music videos, corporate presentations, and more. Videos are also ideal for lessons and instructional material—like my Monday Mix weekly videos on the Full Compass Instagram channel. If your interests lie primarily with audio, the idea of learning how to do video might seem daunting. But…surprise! If you know how to pilot a digital audio recording program like Studio One, Samplitude, Pro Tools, Digital Performer, and the like, you’re more than halfway toward getting into video. Compared to audio, there are far more similarities than differences when editing video.
Getting the Footage
A pro camera is essential for professional productions, but let’s not go there just yet. Higher-end smartphones can take videos that are good enough for interviews and the like. Besides, some videos are more like slide shows with still images, music, and narration. For that, all you need is a decent camera (again, a smartphone can often do the job). There are sources for public domain images, like unsplash.com and pexels.com, and professional stock image providers, like Shutterstock. What’s more, many musicians do “lyric videos” that simply display the lyrics along with the music.
When you get further into videos, you’ll want a quality camera…but it’s not essential to get started.
Tools of the Trade
If you’re on a Mac, you can do a lot with iMovie, and step up to Final Cut Pro X if you require more sophistication. Adobe makes Premiere, a cross-platform editing program. But we’ll base the examples in this article around Magix Vegas Pro for Windows, which was introduced in 1999 as an audio-only DAW but since 2000, has placed ever-increasing emphasis on video. Now on Version 17, Vegas Pro has evolved into a highly sophisticated, professional video production and editing program—yet it remains friendly to audio professionals, because of its initial design origins. In addition to treating video editing very much like audio editing, it also has sophisticated audio capabilities (like being able to run VST3 plug-ins). Even an inexpensive version, like Vegas Movie Studio 16 or Vegas Movie Studio 15 Suite Video Editing Software, can do what most people need for video productions.
Video Editing Compared to Audio Editing
Let’s cover the most important aspects of working with, and editing, video as compared to audio.
File preferences. As with audio projects, you need to decide on the audio’s bit resolution and sample rate (usually 48 kHz for video). An important additional parameter for video is the video’s size. Sizes are fairly standard: square format for Instagram (maximum of 1080 x 1080 pixels; see Fig. 1), and rectangles that fit a 16:9 ratio for YouTube or TV, like 1920 x 1080 pixels. Once you’ve decided on the size, you can crop images and video clips to those settings easily, to make sure they fill the screen. For the other parameters, most of the time the defaults work fine.
Tracks on a timeline. Just like a DAW, you have tracks and a timeline. The only difference is that video clips go into video tracks, while audio clips go into audio tracks (Fig. 2).
Like audio tracks, you can shift video clips along the timeline, cut/paste/copy, crossfade clips, fade in and fade out, “mute” and solo video tracks, and even have clip envelopes. Of course, the functionality is different for video compared to audio; for example, fades or envelopes for audio affect volume, but for video, they affect brightness. Muting essentially makes a track transparent. The bottom line is that if you know how to edit a multitrack audio project, you’re well on your way to knowing how to edit a multitrack video project.
Track hierarchies. One key difference is that in audio, all tracks play back together. In video, the top-most track takes priority for the visuals. For example, suppose you have a video track of walking around a house. If you put a track with text higher than the video track in the track view, you’ll see the text superimposed on the video. But if you place the video above the text, the video will cover the text, so you won’t see the text. When working with audio, you might change the position of tracks to group things logically—like move all the drum tracks next to each other. With video, you’ll shift the position of video tracks to prioritize what you need to see, which will be the lowest-numbered track (i.e., the highest track in the track view).
Masking, picture-in-picture, and opacity. As mentioned, tracks can cover over the tracks below them. However, this aspect of editing video is so important that there are several ways to see multiple video tracks, regardless of their position in the track hierarchy. Opacity simply means making a track more transparent. For example, if you have two tracks of video clips, making the top track more transparent will allow seeing more of the track below it. Picture-in-picture lets you see two video tracks at the same time. A good example is instructional videos, where the main video track shows some operation, while a smaller video image superimposed on top of the main track shows a particular detail of the operation. Masking can isolate a section of a video, so you can see the track below it for any section that’s not masked (Fig. 3). It’s sort of like applying a bandpass filter to an audio track, so you can hear the other frequencies in other audio tracks more easily.
Pan and zoom. In audio, we have panning and ambiance effects, like reverb, to place our sounds in a soundstage. While pan and zoom aren’t exactly the same, they’re similar. Pan moves the view across a video in any direction, while zoom either moves closer to the video or further away. In historical documentaries where there’s no video footage, only still images, pan and zoom add interest to what would otherwise be a static image.
Plug-in effects. Plug-ins aren’t just for audio, but for video as well. Just as there are “vintage” plug-ins for audio like tube sounds, you can make your video look like a 50s TV or newsprint…or add a glow to images. Adjusting brightness and contrast is like using EQ on audio, and saturation is like adding an “exciter” or dynamic range maximizer to audio. Many of the effects possible in art programs are also available for video. In fact, I’ve generated some book covers by putting an image in Vegas, treating it like an art program, and using its tools to manipulate the image. What’s more, these effects have automation, so you can vary the effect parameters as needed, or “morph” from one effect to another.
And like audio processors, you can cover up problems with video effects. When I’ve had some less-than-wonderful footage taken from a phone, it’s been possible to use glow, contrast, and other options to turn the video into something presentable. Fig. 5 shows an image (taken by an inexpensive Olympus flip cam) before and after processing by zooming in, panning to make the guitar more horizontal, then adding a blue glow and a special effect called Glint. That’s quite a difference! Frankly, a lot of video production is about smoke and mirrors.
Rendering. With audio, you eventually mix (render) everything down into a two-track (or surround) mix. There will be some constraints; for example, if you want to burn a CD, you’ll need to mix down to a 16-bit, 44.1 kHz sample rate format. For online streaming, you’ll probably use a compressed data format like MP3, or for archiving, lossless data compression like FLAC.
Video also requires rendering your project into a final format, with video and audio components incorporated into the finished video. However, you have more rendering options than with audio. You may render into a format that’s ideal for smartphones, for DVD or Blu-Ray, for online streaming, etc. Or, this decision may already be made for you. For example with YouTube, you generally want to render with the highest quality possible, because YouTube will apply its own data compression algorithms—the better the quality going in, the better the quality coming out. For television, you have to take into account whether the final video is going to play over NTSC or PAL formats. Vegas provides a wide range of formats you can choose for rendering (Fig. 6), so you can basically pick a format, and start rendering.
However, there’s one major difference compared to audio: Video can take a long time to render, especially with slower computers. I started doing computer-based videos back in the days of the Mac IIci, and it would take overnight to render a single frame of video! Technology has improved dramatically since then, but rendering a relatively long video can take hours because all the transitions, effects, and images have to transformed into a single video stream. Think of it as “mixing” pixels—and there are a lot of pixels in a video. Applying the mathematical transformations from effects takes time as well.
When working with video, you’ll be looking at a preview window, because no computer that’s affordable by mere mortals is fast enough yet to render everything in real time. So in a way, you won’t really know what the video looks like until it’s rendered. There are some workarounds; Vegas lets you selectively render portions of the video, which is very helpful. You may have a series of special effects that are so CPU-intensive that when previewing, there’s no way you can see even an approximation of what it will look like after rendering. The solution is to render just that section, which will still take some time—but nowhere near as long as rendering the entire video. Then when you hit that section, the preview will show the rendered version.
Video Requires Another Skill Set, But…
The above covers the basics of working with video. Conceptually, it’s similar to audio; the rest of what you need to know comes from trial-and-error, like trying different effects to see how they affect the video, and rendering with different levels of quality to find the best tradeoff between file size, rendering time, and video quality.
Once you have a few video projects under your belt, you might be surprised at how quickly everything falls into place. Like audio, you can always learn more—but also like audio, you don’t have to know everything to get good results. I’ve been working with Vegas since it first added video, because it was so easy to make the transition from audio to video. Although I’m no A-level video expert, even the little bit I know has been tremendously helpful in opening doors to new opportunities.