Social top

Contemporary Problems, Interventions and Results

[English Abstract]

1. Production Techniques: An update

Mastering in electroacoustics is today a reality, thanks to, among other things, the concrete endorsement of one of the most important labels specialised in the genre, empreintes DIGITALes. It goes without saying that this would not have been possible without the active collaboration of the composers represented by the label, themselves influenced by the larger community of electroacousticians. This is another way of saying that the progressive professionalisation of electroacoustic production methods — of which mastering represents the first historic step — indeed responds to a necessity. Throughout this series of articles we will not only recognize and identify the practical details of this new approach and the concrete obstacles it encounters, but will also reflect on the possibilities of further development available today.

As the process which permitted commercial productions to surpass electroacoustic production in terms of sound quality is still fresh in our minds, it may suffice to refer back to it for a moment, in order to consider the work remaining to be done.

Even if it lacks the means to invest in similar resources, in 2007 it should be possible for electroacoustic production, when mastered in “stems” (1), to at least reach an intermediary stage in quality, notably through the use of contemporary mastering tools. But there is no reason for progress to stop there:

The propositions made in the accompanying article on Mixtering will make it possible for elecctroacoustics to regain some of the ground it has lost in terms of sound quality. It may seem cynical to mention, but the present decline in pop CD sales may forewarn of a stagnation in investment in the development and acquisition of cutting-edge production equipment within the commercial sector: a moment’s respite in the acquisition race which the electroacoustic milieu could turn to its advantage in order to regain lost ground. This final surge will only be possible with improvements to the quality of source materials and a professionalisation of the listening conditions in production studios.

2. Monitoring and Sources

Aside from the costs in acquiring it, which may be considerable, the most disconcerting characteristic of reference monitoring is its honesty, to which it is not necessarily easy to accustom oneself. If the best-produced discs are found to have an exceptional sound on such a system, both more detailed and more pleasing than on even supposedly high-end domestic systems, average or deficient productions are immediately displeasing. Using such a system for leisure listening seriously calls into question the make-up of one’s music collection. In particular, most electroacoustic productions suffer greatly on such systems, for all the reasons given throughout this series of articles. This explains, to an extent, part of the skepticism found amongst composers in regards to this kind of system — a tool largely accepted in other milieux; however, the explanation is insufficient and requires development.

Even if we succeeded in restricting the use of this type of system solely for production work (hardly conceivable from a practical standpoint), we would still have difficulty managing the situation due to a series of problems related to the source. These problems can be summarized via the following dilemma:

The simple solution to this dilemma is obviously to remain content with biased monitoring systems which give an unrealistically favourable impression, with the result that the electroacoustic milieu remains, definitively this time, “behind the times” in the realm of audio developments. We would much rather face the problems, describing them here according to the principal categories of source materials.

2.1 Microphone Sources

Microphone recording is an ever-evolving technique and today requires increasingly specialised knowledge. Its success is however dependent on maintaining tight control over a number of physical parameters, and this control demands more and more important material means. The parameters are as follows:

2.2 Synthesized Sources

Right away it should be noted that no synthesis software can escape the present conflict between the precision of the waveforms it is to calculate and the efficiency of the available computational resources.

For example, a programme as ubiquitous as Max/MSP, already in its neutral state a huge consumer of resources, cannot succeed in synthesizing sounds of an even acceptable quality without severely limiting the number of simultaneous “voices” produced. This contradicts its more or less universal use as a principal tool for synthesis, intended to be highly interactive and used in real-time.

Synthesis instruments destined for use in the pop milieu suffer from the same fundamental limitations, with the small difference that they come with a number of hard-wired tools which serve to mask their qualitative misery. Further, even if we wished to do so, their rigid configuration prevents their operation in a high-quality mode using few voices. (Native Instruments’ “Massive”, with an “Ultra Quality” mode, recently appeared on the market.)

That said, the problems related to the compromise induced on the waveform calculations should not be downplayed: not only do the resulting distortions irritate the ears, but the potential for irritation is cumulative, which increases the difficulty for electroacoustic composers to build ambiances having a “symphonic complexity”.

Because of the high degree of control of raw sound materials it offers, synthesis is even more sensitive to monitoring deficiencies than microphone recording. A biased listening situation can induce fundamental errors at all stages of synthesis: harmonic content, envelope construction, the value of any parameter, etc.

2.3 Processed Sources

Here we refer to recorded or synthesized sources which have been so greatly transformed that their intrinsic audible characteristics are predominantly a derivative of the treatments applied in the processing:

3. Tradition and Attitudes

The difficulties discussed here are only partially insurmountable: experience has shown that a severely selective choice from amongst available materials, made according to discerning qualitative criteria, can lead to high-quality electroacoustic productions. The keyword here is “discerning”, and in order to fully comprehend its importance we shall now examine a number of production prejudices which today are still rather persistent before formulating (in section 4) some practical recommendations.

3.1 Denial and Aesthetic Dogmas

By teaching the priority of abstract significance over æsthetic effectiveness, by assigning rigorous æsthetic equivalence to elements that have a greatly varied level of euphony, the bastions of post-modernism have in reality defined a restricted sound signature, which is dogmatic almost to the point of parody, based once and for all on the technical possibilities available to the early pioneers of the electroacoustic genre.

This is not the place to discuss the fundamental æsthetic validity of these arguments; we will concentrate on the facts and on the results. Audio quality is neither a given nor a concept that can be transferred from context to context at will. The conditions of its existence have evolved over the past 50 years thanks to a growing corpus of knowledge and complex techniques which follow a number of increasingly precise rules and conditions. The fact that these rules and conditions are not always clearly stated — if stated at all — does not invalidate their authority. This will offer us the occasion to formulate them, to refine them and expand their scope, at the same time adapting them to electroacoustics without the fear of — or more precisely, with the intention of avoiding — loss of identity.

For an art which considers itself “avant-garde” it may seem curious to cling to the fringes, suffering elementary conditions of production for reasons of fidelity to abstract concepts, knowing that this is in effect to abandon any hope of presenting works displaying a sound quality that reflect contemporary expectations. It would seem obvious that the value of a musical proposition is more dependent on the choice of musical materials than on technical limits affecting their transparence. Even musical genres as “established” as Baroque music were able to integrate — without provoking lamentations of æsthetic treason — technological advances at many levels: consequently, even if a Corelli LP produced in 1973 has a radically different sound signature than the same piece on a multi-channel SACD in 2006, no one in the “Baroque community” would accuse the SACD version of being less “authentic” than the 1973 product.

3.2 Techniques Inherited from Pop

The fact that the pop industry was dependent for so many years on distribution mediums as limited as the AM band, 45 rpm record or the audio cassette caused profound repercussions on recording techniques and mixing in an era when these mediums were predominant. The strategies were brutal, and the results more displeasing than anything else, but their elementary nature, built on a strict minimum of qualitative requirements, made them easy to understand and teach.

Although the general conditions of music distribution have evolved significantly from this catastrophic state, many electroacoustic works sound as if their authors followed the recipes of a bygone era, if not to the letter, at least in spirit. How can this phenomenon be explained? The two arguments usually evoked to explain their curious survival are hardly tenable: distribution in mp3 format gains nothing from these techniques, and the “level wars” are rejected by the majority of composers, with good reason.

In order to understand, we must again unfortunately remind ourselves that the electroacoustic community has remained for too long on the fringes of the evolution of production techniques and could therefore do no better than to concern itself with knowledge related directly to the level of equipment it had at its disposal. These recipes, which initiates are still encouraged to mix-and-match at will, are all related more or less to the following categories:

See following section:
4. The Contemporary Audio Reality

Social bottom