Mixtering: A Working Model for an Enhanced Sound Quality in Electroacoustics
Since the beginning of the 1980s, there has been an ever-widening gap in terms of sound quality between the electroacoustic and commercial music milieux. Building upon their extensive experiences in both of these milieux, the authors propose a working model for the re-establishment of a certain standard in the sound quality in electroacoustic work, which involves extending the role of mastering to assume part of the role of mixing. The term “mixtering” is proposed for this practice.
The growth of this gap is intimitely related to the increase in the prevalence of the home studio. Few studios maintained by composers reflect recent improvements and trends in acoustic research and signal processing, nor do they offer a reference monitoring environment, both of which are commonplace in professional studios. The general increase in accessibility to resources in the past 15 years has affected institutions as well, where for the price of a professional studio, a number of smaller but inferior studios can be built.
Recognizing its creative advantages, the authors do not intend to call into question the validity of the home studio, but rather propose a working method to ensure that electroacoustics regains its position as a vanguard, as much for its production quality, as for its compositional propositions.
A discussion of this nature requires dissociation of the “content” from the “container”: the identity of electroacoustics is not entirely based “in sound” but rather in the use of sound. The electroacoustic work — as with works in other genres — is not compromised by corrective procedures aimed at optimizing the creative intentions of the composer. Similarly, a difference is noted between treatments applied to the sound design and treatments applied to the mix: the former requires involved listening, while the latter requires a certain distance on the part of the listener.
The authors propose that the sound quality of the electroacoustic work suffers significant losses exactly at the point where composers attempt to improve the quality: at the mixing stage. The introduction of distortion, noise and phase problems by the equipment, an accumulation of adverse effects caused by each successive stage of compensation for various problems, and loss of transparency and precision are only a small selection of the problems encountered.
Most home studios are far from offering an optimal monitoring environment and their deficiencies strongly influence the composer’s assessment of a mix. Because the work was created in a coloured environment, it was in fact tailored to sound good despite its deficiencies. As a consequence, the composer may find the mastered work to seem inadequate when listened to in that particular environment. However, once the composer listens to and assesses the work in a neutral monitoring environment, a number of shortcomings in the sound quality and clarity of the original work appear, which are not at all apparent — or rather perceived — in the home studio.
The solution proposed is that the electroacoustic composer share some of the responsibilities of the mixing with the sound engineer, a procedure the authors have named “mixtering”. This requires more work on the part of the composer, but the engineer’s contribution will prove to be much more efficient: the work involved in correcting a poor mix at the mastering stage can be much more involved and problematic than simply correcting the problems at their source.
The annex, prepared by the engineer, offers a comparison between mastering and mixtering, using as an example a session based on the new protocol. The first part compares the sums of the source stems and the sums of the working mix stems. In the next part, the mixed stems are mastered, and commentary by the engineer concerning the problems and the solutions is offered, supported by audio examples and screen captures. The combination of the improved stems is optimised, and the mastering completed.
An interesting comparison between the sum of the sources and the mastered product follows. Then, each of the stems available in its source form is mixtered, with comments by the engineer leading to the final presentation of the mixtered product. An overview of the engineer’s and the composer’s views on the session closes off the article.
— English abstract by jef chippewa