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The Practice of Mastering - 3 : The Position of Electroacoustics

Apr 24, 2005 - by Dominique Bassal
"The Position of Electroacoustics", third section of Dominique Bassal's article "The Practice of Mastering".
Objectives of this section
    Objectives of this section:

    - to present the results of two surveys on the relationship between mastering and electroacoustics;

    - to demonstrate the need to strengthen this relationship;

    - to specify in what context and within what type of limits this could take place.
    The survey of publishers - Terms of the investigationn
      Conducted by email at the beginning of autumn 2002, this investigation aims to determine to what degree organizations- of all types- involved in the publication and distribution of electroacoustic CDs make use of mastering. Below is the essential part of the text that was sent out:

      "Does your organization apply procedures related to mastering to digital content before pressing, and if yes:

      - In what type of studio? A specialized mastering studio, a 'general' commercial studio, or a composer's studio?

      - To what degree of intervention? Simple 'sequencing', equalization and compression, treatments in depth?

      - According to what criteria?

      - Pertinent details, numbers, statistics?

      If no, why not?"

      Of the forty or so record companies and associations that were contacted in this way, 21 responded.
        If most respondents- 16 out of 21- practice mastering in some form or other, only 6 of these do it, at least occasionally, in a specialized studio. The use of mastering does not seem systematic except in the case of Earsay Productions, for whom one partner is also a mastering engineer, and the INA/GRM, which has assembled its own facility employing full-time a professional mastering engineer .

        At the other extreme of the spectrum, two of the negative responses seemed accompanied by a total ignorance of even the existence of mastering:

        « …have no idea on the matters you talk about. »

        Parallel to this, CDMC finished by admitting to intervention in extreme cases, while Innova never undertakes mastering as a rule, except "on one single occasion", when a mastering professional was hired.

        The majority of respondents seemed to leave mixes unchanged, in a proportion of just above half of the cases, and the other half used one or other of the expedients identified in the previous section: auto-mastering, friend-mastering, living rooms grand tour, etc. This evaluation, imprecise as it is, corresponds to the responses of the organizations of this group, which were, in general, vague. Thus, in some cases, what is gallantly called 'mastering' seems to have more similarities with remixing or even copying operations. One thing is certain: whatever it is, this 'mastering' is entirely left as the composer's responsibility, which explains why it was very difficult to obtain information on the types of intervention undertaken. The general impression drawn from these administrators' attitudes and responses is that of a semi-professional milieu, perhaps not so much insensitive to sound quality as ill-informed of contemporary practices and the reality of the bigger picture. These questions are nevertheless at the heart of the preoccupations not only of those responsible in the rest of the audio industry, but also of numerous critics and columnists, not to mention a non-negligible portion of the consumer public.

        The table on the following page brings together, for better or worse, all of these responses. The numerous empty boxes perhaps help to confirm the judgment of carelessness that was put forth in the previous paragraph.

          Under the title Where, we note that some organizations use a Commercial Studio for their mastering. We are referring here to the declining wave of conventional recording studios which install a digital workstation in a room adjoining the main studio, hook up a pair of near-field monitors and baptize it as a dubious "mastering service", offered to their clientele at a discount.

          The Composer's Studio category brings together the substitutes called auto-mastering and friend-mastering, which we have already discussed. It seems logical to assume that the Operator here would be respectively the Composer and the Other Musician. The staggering void in the categories Operations and Objectives brings into focus the contrast between the investigator's desire to be exhaustive and the true volubility of the answers: lots of columns, few responses!

          A notable exception to this tendency, one respondent, in favor of professional mastering, after obligingly providing numerous practical details, added the following comments:

          « I think it is more a combination of ignorance and prejudice. So far as I know, most electroacoustic programs do not teach mastering or teach it in terms of pop preparation for radio play - warning of drastic compression etc. We've met respected mature composers with no idea of what or why one would apply mastering processes.

          Learning to master for CD (and soon surround DVD) replication is a whole new can of worms. In fact even recording and mixing skills are given short shrift in many programs - with the facilities themselves adding noise to recordings.

          Also, North American electroacoustic rhetoric puts the composer in direct control of all aspects of the sound - leading to arguments that it would be detracting from the composer's intention for a separate mastering engineer to mess with the piece. (Admittedly, there can't be that many engineers around who've had extensive exposure to electroacoustic work either - and they might certainly need some educating on the aims of the composer.)

          I know of one set of compilation cds where the organizing team refused to even adjust volumes of one piece in relation to another because the composers' final tapes were sacrosanct. »

          This excerpt illustrates well the disparity of viewpoints on mastering at the heart of the electroacoustic community. It also suggests some avenues which might be interesting to explore, in the context of another investigation, to determine and describe the respective influences of academic and business milieus on the state of practices in electroacoustics.
          The survey of composers - Terms of the investigation
            For this research, conducted a few weeks later at the initiative of Kevin Austin, we made use of the Internet forum CECDISCUSS, maintained by the Canadian Electroacoustic Community, which acts as a meeting ground for some 400 people , brought together by their interest in electroacoustic music: composers, students, teachers, etc. The question, of which the essential part is reproduced below, was addressed directly to composers:

            « What do individuals feel about sending off their new piece for 'editorial commentary / criticism' before committing it to "permanent" status?

            …Would you allow someone else to make the corrections / adjustments?

            …As a composer are you prepared to send the unmixed master file to someone whose real strength is in preparing superior mixes?

            Is the work as it gets burned to your CD "the" piece or would you be prepared to allow a studio to make (minor) adjustments to create a better (sounding) piece on the CD medium?

            ideas? comments? anecdotes? »

            It must be mentioned here that the aspect of 'editorial commentary/criticism' in the question may have sowed some confusion in the minds of the people surveyed. Understand that the intention was to present mastering to those who were not familiar with it by establishing a parallel with editorial activity, but in reality the two practices are too different. Mastering is in no way concerned with stylistic or structural decisions. If we want, all the same, to use the comparison, we should specify that mastering, in publishing, would go no further than to criticize or comment on the font to be used, or the choice of paper… while the editorial role, with its decision-making character, lies in general, in music, in the hands of the record company.
              A dozen people participated in this discussion thread, which is negligible in a forum where topics with more academic resonance can stretch out over weeks and inspire deluges of text. Does this weak participation confirm the tendency already observed in the survey of administrators and decision-makers? Does the electroacoustic milieu only appear to be indifferent to sound quality, considering that some form of mastering is undertaken in the majority of cases?

              After some effort in synthesizing the positions expressed in texts that were mostly torturous, we arrived at a breakdown of responses which confirms the suspicion of the previous paragraph. In effect, among the composers:

              - 4 clearly wished to be able to apply a mastering process to their works;
              - 3 made use of friend-mastering;
              - 1 used auto-mastering;
              - 3 seemed ambivalent;
              - 1 gratified us with an overabundance of details of his intimate reactions, states of mind, and minute variations in mood when mastering his first CD;
              - 1 was simply not on topic.

              Let's be clear that the "ambivalents" were so called because they gave accounts of arguments for and against mastering, without ever landing in favour of one or the other position. Thus, the same respondent wrote this:

              « So I agree that constructive criticism and feedback can be very helpful to workers in any creative field, especially if the criticism is impersonal or guided by some sort of etiquette. »

              … but also this:

              « On the level of achievement to which we ought to aspire, formal unity is so important that the presence of more than one hand would almost inevitably crack it. »

              Another first asserts:

              « You need an "editor" if you want to attain a certain kind of professionalism -- eg a "good mix" -- about which editors maintain "professional" judgement. »

              …and then, a bit later on:

              « …then maybe producing professional sounding music is less important than getting somewhere, technically, ideationally, perceptually, abstractly, semi-concretely… »

              Note that the "negative" side in these ambivalent responses relates in fact to a type of intervention which mastering is hardly concerned with, and that a few points of equalization will not affect the "formal unity" of a work, or its capacity for "getting somewhere technically…". This unjustified extension of the real role of mastering is to be put into account with the ambivalence- already mentioned- of the question asked.
                From this clarification follows the conclusion that there is not here any negative reaction to the reality of mastering work. And even keeping, to avoid any nit-picking discussion, the ambivalents in the breakdown, the fact remains that a majority- in effect, 9 out of 12- of the respondents, in some way or other, endorse the use of mastering. Again it is plausible that the lack of passion inspired by the subject, as well as the oscillating tone of many reactions, was due to a combination of powerlessness and incomprehension regarding practices connected with controlling audio quality. And without a doubt, this powerlessness and incomprehension create a state of disequilibrium from which a compensatory desire is fatally born. There would be, therefore, at this time, a real need for concrete means and information to attack the qualitative deficit that now acts so cleanly against electroacoustics.

                What do we expect to satisfy this need? Who is responsible for this delay? According to at least one administrative source, already mentioned, academic milieus are the cause, at least on the level of attitudes. And it is true that these milieus hold an excessive control over the feeble resources available in electroacoustics…

                Could there be, in the electroacoustic community, a more important difference in viewpoint than it appears between academic milieus and composers? Have we reached a point where electroacoustic composers are beginning to seek the tools and know-how they need to produce their music to the same quality standard of those other styles of "serious" music which enjoy commercial distribution? And while this is happening, is it possible that academic milieus, responsible for the electroacoustic mentality of militant isolationism, deep down may well be content with the present situation? Of course, they realize that electoacoustic music is not in a brilliant position, but at least it is under their control, control that would be lost if EA were to professionalize itself...

                If this is true, then it is high time for electroacoustics to undertake a very serious change of course.
                Change of course
                  At the heart of the electroacoustic community, any proposal, as humble as it may be, is in general immediately confronted by a series of demands for definitions, which, if we have the misfortune of satisfying them, unleash in response an empassioned debate addressing not the initial proposal, now forgotten, but the definitions. If the prospect of this nightmare did not prove to be discouraging at the time of undertaking the present chapter, it is thanks to the unexpected- and unintentional- help of the representative of the INA/GRM. During the first survey, on the question addressing the choice of criteria guiding the choices of mastering, he in effect explained that the respectable institution has operated, since 1998:

                  "…with chiefly artistic criteria but without ignoring the technical needs that a record requires for distribution to a large public."

                  That the representative of an institution as renowned for its intransigence as the INA/GRM chose to express himself in such vague terms instantly made him an ally. Without even knowing the details, the present author endorses in full these "technical needs", and cowardly defers to for the definition of the terms: criteria, artistic, technical needs, distribution, record, and large public.

                  There exists, therefore, on this planet, an active institution, structured and properly financed, which has, since 1998, deemed that electroacoustics should benefit from "distribution to a large public", and that for this it is truly required to not ignore certain "technical needs". This reality confirms entirely the notion of a change of course, identified on the previous page as a pressing need for composers, since this need has transmuted itself, at least in one part of the world, into a fait accompli precisely through a systematization of the use of mastering. That said, we will see that the prospect of a true distribution of product is not the only argument in favour of a mutual strengthening of the links between mastering and electroacoustics. We will see also that the use of mastering is perhaps not the only condition to fulfill to achieve this change of course.
                  Mastering to the rescue of electroacoustics
                    Electroacoustic music, by its nature, is not paralyzed by any instrumental tradition. Almost everywhere else in music, as global cultural baggage grows heavy with time, musicians, critics and certain portions of the public are arriving at more and more specific ideas of how a cello, a Fender Telecaster or a Roland TR-808 are supposed to sound. Any recording engineer knows that an entire corpus of increasingly restrictive demands are being constructed in this regard, which become quite simply debilitating if we try to evaluate them in terms of creativity applied to the sonic material. Electroacoustic music should not recognize any authority save one stylistic restriction: the famous "technical needs" evoked by the INA/GRM. Let's be magnanimous, and offer at least an alternative explanation about these:

                    - or truly be content with the following:

                    "An electroacoustic music product should display a mastery in the handling of sonic material at least as impressive as the instrumental mastery that musicians must display in all other styles."

                    To that effect, we could consider the mastering engineer, with his specific techniques for evaluation, control and transformation of sonic material, as an essential resource, even more vital in electroacoustics than in any other style, since here he need not be muzzled by questions of verisimilitude or blind tradition. If a correction of 12 dB turns out to be as necessary as it is conclusive, no one can object by saying that this will cause, at the same time, a loss of conformity with a restricted model of instrumental sonority. We could then go much further in the construction of a sonic image powerful enough to generate an aesthetic emotion on its own, even envisaging a creative role for mastering, which would allow the composer to go beyond the limits imposed by his habitual production environment… A retrospective process could thus be launched, in which the mastering studio becomes the place for verification and reinforcement of the most daring sonic propositions.
                    Electroacoustics to the rescue of mastering
                      Throughout this study, it has been a question of the various factors responsible for the crisis which afflicts, at this moment, the whole of the audio industry. Let's draw up a summarized list:

                      - the level wars, which have made productions physically more and more irritating;

                      - the format wars, which, by making consumers insecure, have paralyzed sales of music and reproduction equipment;

                      - the crisis of high density formats, which has given the industry a quibbling, greedy image;

                      - the increasing obsession for profit, which has inspired, aside from all the other problems above, an attitude of neglect towards standards of quality;

                      - the democratization of the means of production, which has given another push to this newfound carelessness;

                      - the popularity of the execrable MP3, which has degraded the ears of consumers;

                      - the increasingly pronounced tendency for imitation of the past, accompanied by the hardening of existing musical styles and the recent ossification of genres that had until recently been dynamic .

                      This situation only became possible because of the abandonment, by the musical avant-garde, of its role of beacon and motor for the rest of the industry. But, by taking refuge in universities, by refusing to follow- it ought to have preceded it- the qualitative global evolution, electroacoustic music has become practically invisible to the eyes of the rest of the world. And this, regardless of the value of the intellectual content of its productions. Following this retreat, a leadership deficit was created, which all of the speculators and opportunists known to music rushed to fill with a histrionic enthusiasm. The climate of generalized dereliction which set in has provoked the massive disgust of the public.

                      It is perhaps possible to reverse ship, by finally proposing to the public a wave of electroacoustic products in which an impeccable sonic presentation would already be in itself evidence of a rehabilitation program for the genre, a true technical reflection of the vigour and relevance of the content. This artistic renaissance would benefit mastering studios, which have already magnificently sustained, through a constant series of innovations, the preceding wave of creative liberty, that which rock knew in the years 1965-1975. More directly, a regular exposure of mastering engineers to the freedom of intervention and to the wide possibilities for optimization that electroacoustic music offers would certainly widen their perspectives and renew their practice.
                      Choice of a medium
                        The change of course proposed here must be adequately reflected in the adoption of a new distribution medium, more in accord with the demands of the moment. By general opinion, the two high density formats have, through the inanity and greed of their promoters, chosen a path leading directly to a mutually assured destruction. It would thus not be a question at the moment of suggesting the adoption or one or the other.

                        Elsewhere, we saw that Surround 5.1 has become a de facto standard, even if its use in conventional music is problematic: listeners are attached to a musical experience strongly inspired by the concert situation, and the idea of having, for example, the percussion or the first violin at one's back does not seem very likely to catch on at the current time. The remaining possibility is thus to assign to the rear channels elements of room ambience, but this generates other problems: when these elements are mixed at appropriate levels, they are inaudible in any home set-up except when the placement of loudspeakers is exactly according to specifications, which they are not in the vast majority of cases; and if, in revenge, we exaggerate their level of reproduction, we obtain an artificial effect, often incongruous, always tiresome .

                        Again, electroacoustics does not suffer, in terms of localization of sound sources, from the limits imposed by instrumental reproduction. It would even be, if it deigned to make use of it, the user par excellence of surround. It is thus foreseeable that a driving force could be unleashed, which would emancipate performance music from its current servitude in this regard.

                        The proposal is thus the following: release electroacoustic audio-only products in DVD-V format. It is a little-known fact, but it is possible in this format to have 4 uncompressed LPCM channels of density 48 kHz/20 bits or 96 kHz/16 bits . These densities are already in themselves an impressive qualitative advantage over CD-Audio, and even more so since they are supported, let's not forget, by a much more rigorous system of error verification. Add to this the massive advantage of the two rear channels, which can be intensively used in electroacoustics, and we obtain a format almost designed for the genre! And if, at some time, we witness the victory of DVD-A or SACD, it would be enough to follow the trend, knowing that most readers of these formats are also capable of reading DVD-V.
                        An entirely new context
                          Would the realization of all of this be sufficient to achieve the declared change of course? Far from it: we detect serious deficiencies in the production process itself, but also serious problems of mentality and image.

                          Several decades of isolation have created among electroacoustic composers habits of economy in selecting their means of production, a stinginess which must first be brought into question. In effect, we can give- during mixing, with the help of effects, then in mastering- a certain lustre to sounds coming from sound generators of low or mid quality, but the limits are quickly reached. Sooner or later, dynamic mics, consumer level preamps, MP3 sources, pop synthesizers, shareware and other plug-ins downloaded over the Internet, all equalized and mixed- while trusting a makeshift monitoring system- with converted MIDI sequencers, through the built-in audio output of a general-purpose computer, sooner or later, all of this shows through in the final product.

                          The credibility of the whole genre is all the more affected since pieces displaying these weak production values often suffer from the ridiculous supplement of being presented as ambitious projects for which the programme, complex and innovative, is put forth in hermetic prose, which has meanwhile been dispensed with in realms as abstract as philosophy . A true change of mentality is necessary here: we are not writing Masters' theses, but making music. And we will accomplish no goal useful to music by continuing to maintain this obsolete posture of austere intellectualism. All of this should give pride of place to works of an impeccable sonic construction, supported by discreet but solid knowledge of professional tools of production and their use, as well as by a mastery of the finest standards of quality.

                          If we want to give a recapitulation of the concrete elements in the scenario offered in these pages, we obtain the following:

                          - systematic use of mastering;

                          - adoption of the 4-channel linear audio on DVD-V format;

                          - exclusive use of top-quality sound sources and production tools;

                          - adoption of strict standards of quality.

                          All of these elements, we might justifiably retort, require significant financial resources. But it is equally true that a serious effort to endow electroacoustics with a relevance and credibility, which at this time it is cruelly lacking, could prove to be a generator of these resources:

                          - by way, first, of government subsidies, made more accessible, in these times of budget cuts, to initiatives directed towards technology and envisaging a certain link with the public, than to projects for which the cultural relevance is reserved for the academic sphere;

                          - it is not ruled out, on the other hand, that this effort to enhance production values and converge with the public secures for electroacoustics a visibility, in turn generating… sales. A certain self-financing could then result.

                          While waiting for these blessed days, partial solutions are foreseeable for each of the elements on the preceding page:

                          - for those points concerning mastering and the tools of production, it is essential to make resources available, under the aegis of organizations like the CEC, and in itself this could achieve at least the first steps of a graduated plan;

                          - the question of DVD-V is split in two: for all questions concerning authoring, a single communal installation, equipped with software and necessary material, should suffice for the combined output of several production groups. Composers, on their side, would not be obligated, in order to make their works appear in multichannel, to make use themselves of specialized facilities:

                          - the master could be delivered in stems, with instructions- in a standardized form, possibly graphical- about the behaviour of each stem in the surround landscape;

                          - a single stereo master could be used for a recorded multi-speaker diffusion in the mastering studio, whose result would become a perfectly acceptable surround product.

                          - Research and circulation of quality standards are clearly the responsibility of teaching institutions…

                          This concludes this study. In the audio landscape, more unsettled than flowing, it will bring perhaps to one or two of its readers the proof that a focalization of vision in this domain is possible regardless. Seen from another angle, it could be considered as a model to follow- or to avoid- in the elaboration of a knowledge/opinion tandem. One thing is certain: it has at least allowed its author to… let's say… document his own position.
                        About the author: Dominique Bassal
                        Electroacoustic composer / mastering studio / sound design
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