Statement of Position
Department of Music, University of Aberdeen
In 2003, I responded to a call for short excerpts of electroacoustic music from Dominique Bassal and Ian Chuprun who were looking for sections of pieces to master in order to build a small library of examples to be featured in eContact! 6.3 Questions en électroacoustique / Issues in Electracoustics.
At first I was suspicious and wondered exactly how the term mastering could indeed relate to electroacoustic music. I had heard about Dominique’s thesis “La Pratique du Mastering” but at this point had not read it. I decided to submit a couple of minutes of a piece I was working on at the time, Vox Magna, as I was intrigued as to what Dominique and Ian would be able to add to my work. Let’s face it, I’m doing the mastering as I’m working at the composition, right?…
They needed stems (stereo subgroupings of tracks) to work with and I noticed they mentioned that they didn’t want stereo tracks packed with dense material occupying the same frequency bands. I tend to work in this way when I compose, creating increasing numbers of tracks of ever-more complex combinations of sounds, which I then collate into one final assembly session — so it was not difficult to find these stems way back in previous sessions I’d worked on.
What came back post-mastering was stunning — not only had they significantly enhanced the quality of sound in such a way that it was the aural equivalent of suddenly looking through a clean pair of glasses, but there was even more space between the layers of sound; it was as if the extract had been “polished” up.
I was very happy with the results but began to feel guilty that I had not been able to do this myself and that I was failing in some way as a composer. I take pride in the sonic quality of my work and wondered, at this point, whether they should now be part of the compositional “team” as they had become part of the creative process.
Having reflected on this for a long time, I decided that I could rest easy in the knowledge that I had taken advantage of expertise rather than be lacking in something myself. I don’t deny that there are electroacoustic composers who can also master this well as they compose, but I know from my experience that the results are excellent.
Following the work on the short extract of Vox Magna, I was so impressed I asked Dominique to master my DVD-A release on empreintes DIGITALes, Un Son Peut En Cacher Un Autre. Recently I’ve begun experimenting with using these mastered versions in performance via multi-channel sound diffusion and the results are fascinating to those who know my work already. Some say it provides a fresh, new outlook to the piece, like a new diffusion or performance context. But where I really find the whole aspect of their mastering to have been crucial is in the mastering of the pieces for listening over a single pair of loudspeakers in a home or studio environment.
I regularly tell my students composing acousmatic music conceived for performance over multi-channel loudspeaker diffusion systems, that their stereo studio versions should exist as latent, two dimensional entities waiting to burst out into three dimensions through diffusion. What mastering did to my music is to enhance the dynamic content in such a way that it’s now almost half way towards that third dimension, even in stereo.
I guess part of what mastering in electroacoustic music is about is like hanging a painting in a gallery exhibition… it’s not about resizing canvases, or repainting images, it’s more about making sure the work is clean, framed appropriately, hung in the right type of space with the right lighting… maybe…
Other Publications by the Author
“The Applications of Technology in a National Curriculum for Music.” London: Sonic Arts Network, 1990. Contributing author.
“Scaling the Heights; Music and Able Learners.” Glasgow: Scottish Network for Able Pupils / Glasgow University, 1996.
“Some Perspectives on Musical Gift and Musical Intelligence.” British Journal of Music Education (March 2002) Cambridge University Press, 2002. Co-author.
“The Wow Factor? Development of Student Music Teachers’ Talents in Scotland and Australia.” Educational Philosophy and Theory, Vol 37, No 1 (February 2005). MacMillan, 2005. Co-author.
“The Wow Factor? Development of Student Music Teachers’ Talents in Scotland and Australia.” Music Education for the New Millennium, D. Lines. (ed.). Blackwell, 2005. Co-author.