Contemporary Problems, Interventions and Results
1. Production Techniques; 2. Monitoring and Sources; 3. Traditions and Attitudes
While the development of fundamental divergences in the production methods of the pop and electroacoustic milieux developed since the 1960s is due in part to sometimes exclusive æsthetic and market interests, these interests have also contributed to the growth of very different heirarchies in regards to the creation and production of work in these two domains. The impact that technical and production developments of recent decades have had on the quality of the work being done by electroacousticians is not as apparent as in other fields of sound production, where mastering has long been considered to be an invaluable contribution to the effective presentation of works.
In the electroacoustic work, the potential for a less-than-optimal representation is extremely high, due to the broad range of quality and expertise colouring each stage of production: source materials (synthetic or recorded), microphone quality and miking techniques, recording and monitoring conditions, computers and resources, processing equipment and software, and monitoring systems often designed for too many functions to operate effectively… not to mention that digital production is not free of generation degradation.
Most, if not all, of these technical problems can be overcome — and fairly easily — but in fact the most important obstacles lie in the human domain. Many electroacoustic works seem to have fallen victim to the heritage of the pop industry, as they display the same excesses of technical production developed to counteract the inherent deficiencies of the pop industry’s means and standards of delivery. A general reassessment of the situation is imperative if electroacousticians wish at all to create and present work which is representative of the technical capacities that in fact exist today. But as long as the abstract significance of a sound, source or technique is held in such great esteem that the efficient transmission of its æsthetic intention is challenged, the potential of the work — of its delivery, perception and appreciation — is severely constrained by arbitrarily-defined borders: blind and immutable faith in the symbolic meaning of the word compromises the clarity of the message.
4. The Contemporary Audio Reality; 5. Current Audio Problems
A number of important developments in the audio industry in the past fifty years have contributed to a general improvement of production techniques and their application, the most recent being the omnipresence of high-definition digital recording and distribution support formats.
Despite the advantageous state of things today, the production of a transparent sound is nevertheless dependent on a number of factors, of varying complexity but of increasing reliability, that can in fact be more or less clearly enumerated. Unfortunately, it cannot be said that the majority of the institutions teaching electroacoustics today have modernised their teachings in order to effectively transmit these important developments. While it remains indisputable that many departments are suffering constraints in regards to availability of resources, several factors can, when properly addressed, dramatically improve the quality of electroacoustic works being created today, regardless of whether the studio possesses a “reference” monitoring or not.
A number of audio examples compare “acceptable” and “unacceptable” materials, in their raw format (choice of materials), as well as in combination with other materials (interaction, and processing). Higher quality materials will be seen to suffer much less than those of substandard quality through the various stages of transformation and processing they are likely to undergo in the creation of an electroacoustic work.
The composers’ selection process must cease to be arbitrary and begin to respect a minimum of qualitative criteria. Acceptable materials are those which:
- are robust (in order to better survive typical electroacoustic treatments);
- have a rich and consistent spectrum (avoiding thin or aggressive sounds);
- are “powerful”, both in their use and articulation of space and in the dynamic range covered, with neither ambiguity nor excess;
- have a neutral spectrum, without which a number of problems are likely to appear when attempting to EQ.
While there exists today a theoretically limitless palette of sounds to choose from, and although there are no systematic and comprehensive regulations concerning the interaction and interpenetrability of distinct layers of sound(s), these concepts should not be exploited recklessly, if the clarity of the work’s intention and identity is of any concern to the composer. Through attentive and ongoing perceptual “ear training”, composers can develop their own personal “lexicons” of sound combinations, which can be expanded and improved upon over time, and which will inevitably lead to constructive decisions about the feasibility of using two distinct materials together.
Most work stations contain a number of tools which offer an incredible range and depth of sound processing. Of course, the radical transformation of source materials is fundamental to electroacoustics, but these tools can easily produce disastrous results for the sound quality: intense and systematic colouration, thinness, background noise, distortion and a ridiculous dynamic range are only the most common. Such deficiencies are quite easy to correct at the processing stage, as long as the composer takes meticulous care in developing and selecting materials. Materials which are æsthetically uninteresting and which are in a state of degradation are much more difficult to correct in the mastering stage, even when the files are delivered as stems.
The mastering engineer encounters a number of recurrent problems in many electroacoustic works today. Before and after audio examples from recently-mastered discs give an overview of the most common problems, and show the results of mastering when used to heighten the clarity and identity of materials in varying regions of the frequency spectrum, to render the use of space more convincing, to improve the relations between layers of divergent materials, and to give more body and depth, or more precision and edge, to materials.
6. Interactions with Composers; 7. Mastering Session of Yellow Flowers
In the pop music industry an extreme division of labour has developed for a number of reasons, but remains to this day substantiated by spectacular improvements in the sound quality of the productions. The mastering engineer has a very specific role to play within this heirarchy, and the work of mastering engineers is understood and appreciated within the industry as an integral part of the complex transformation of the creative idea or impulse into a concrete product that can effectively “reach” its audience.
In electroacoustics it has not typically been possible to objectify the problems and concentrate on the solutions to the same extent, or even in the same manner, as in the pop industry, as the electroacoustic composer is usually responsible for all stages of the production. Between the fetishization of sounds and sound source identity, the lack of detachment from the production, and the accumulation of the types of problems discussed above, it is easy to understand how the slightest critique of the quality of the production may seem terribly personal to the electroacoustic composer, in the worst cases seeming to call into question the extent or quality of his artistic capacity!
As one might expect, composers’ reactions to the mastered version of their works vary greatly, from an initial astonishment and acceptance of the alterations — a reaction one might compare to that of the listener — to hesitation and A/B comparisons of the original and mastered in substandard monitoring contexts which lead to a number of forceful and compromising negociations with the engineer and, in the worst cases, bring the work back virtually to where it started from. Typically, once the composer listens to the work again in an acceptable monitoring environment, he remarks that the mastered version is in fact more solid.
A practical analysis of an entire mastering session of an electroacoustic work forms the final part of the article. At all stages in the production, detailed descriptions of the problems encountered and the reasons for the particular solutions proposed are explained. Before and after audio examples document the changes the work underwent during the entire process, so that the reader can “sit in” on the session to observe and learn from the experience.
— English abstract by jef chippewa