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Mastering Outside the Studio: Cécile Le Prado

Interview with Cécile Le Prado, composer and sound designer
Publish date
Oct. 28, 2019
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Last year, we met three sound design experts, Alexander Kassberg (studio manager at Lexter Sound Design), Andrea Cera (composer), and Nicolas Misdariis (head researcher in the Sound Perception and Design team at IRCAM-STMS) to decipher new mastering practices outside the studio.

Mastering, which is commonly defined as the final phase of a musical production with the purpose of optimizing a recording and ensuring it is played on the majority of today’s sound diffusion systems, is still undergoing changes. Dedicated mastering is carried out specifically for the type of targeted broadcast (hi-fi, tablet, smartphone, etc.), playback engines are used to manage corrections on recordings to be broadcast on streaming sites and thus ensure a kind of post-mastering.

We continue this series of interviews with Cécile Le Prado, composer and head of the "Sound Design" program at the École Nationale des Jeux et Médias Interactifs Numériques.

Can you illustrate the circumstances that lead you to use other media or leave the studio to mix/master in specific conditions where your music/sounds will be heard?

For over 30 years, I have been creating sound installations in relation to the environment, to the perceived soundscape, and to the memory of the place. I am interested in the space captured by my microphone, in the space transformed into a studio, and finally in the space recreated to the listening audience, usually in a space not dedicated to either a concert or an exhibition, usually in the space where the commission was from. This approach has led me to make a model of the temporal structure of my compositions in studio and finalize the spatial and timbral construction in the place where the installation will be heard.  For example, Guinà’ is a creation for the sound courtyard at the Familistère de Guise. Due to the specific nature of the space’s sound diffusion system (51 loudspeakers in the ground) as well as its acoustics (7’ reverberation time), this commission implies a phase of mastering in situ. The same is true for Iles Ephémères, commissioned by the Prieuré de la Charité-sur-Loire with a system dedicated to the chapter house. This space is highly reverberant, but in a completely different way from the courtyard. While the courtyard at Guise has a high ceiling with a glass roof, at the Charité sur Loire it is a vaulted space. For Iles Ephémères, we had a system of four loudspeakers built in the center, directed towards the walls of the chapter house in order the have the different vaults resonate off each other. The listeners are placed outside the loudspeakers, between the sound diffusion system and the walls of the room. In the Familistère de Guise, the listeners are located inside and walk, unaware, on the loudspeakers.

During a specific mix/mastering session, what type(s) of audio transformation do you apply to your music/sounds?

In multi-channel installations, a large part of my composition concerns the writing of the spatial behaviors of sound objects.  These are validated only in situ at the time of the mixing session: trajectories, positioning, movement speeds, agglomerates in part of the space or, on the contrary, bursting of the sound choreography. I prepare drawing on paper: a model for stereo listening, then a multi-channel system in the studio. In fact, when leaving the studio, the structure of the composition is ready but it does not take into account the specific acoustics of the restitution place or the possible masking effects related to the natural sound environment of the venue. The latter is generally unpredictable. I am thinking of quirks of weather, such as the sound of the wind or rain on the roof of the courtyard at Guise, the traffic of visitors, voices, slamming doors or the bells at the Priory in La Charité. In other words, this final step primarily requires filtering to make the movements of sound objects more readable, to balance the direct and reverberated sound relationships and thus to clarify how the sound is detached in space. Following this specific mixing step in situ, it often happens that I delete certain sound objects, certain trajectories that seem useless to me.

Guinà’ © Familistere de Guise

Do you think a specific form of listening is necessary for this practice?

A specific form of listening is essential in order to start over again from scratch, to forget what we have prepared in the studio, and to hear what the site has to offer. We need to listen to how we can illuminate the space with our sound proposal and conversely how the acoustics of the space and its vulnerabilities can help us to reveal the essence of the composition.

Does this type of operation modify your way of working generally?

I have always been attentive to the notion of open works and to non-dedicated spaces—often public spaces,  not "protected"spaces—including the final stage of implementation in situ. I now see this step as an opportunity to keep only the essentials. I gradually learned to let go and accept that another presence from the initial composition was revealed through this exchange with the space.

How do you adapt to possible variations in the listening characteristics of a space or to specific broadcasting medium, such as, for example, different types of environments around the listener (presence of other people, variable background noise, additional music, etc.)?

In most cases, the natural environment of the space where you will set up the installation is known from the very beginning. I try not to work against it but with it, accepting that at times fragments of the composition will mix with the natural environment, so much so that it may possibly disappear. This is particularly true for outdoor spaces, public places such as gardens where the climate, the flow of people or traffic is unpredictable. This is also the case in interiors in places not dedicated to the installation, such as the courtyard of the Familistère de Guise, the priory in La Charité sur Loire, or the fitting rooms of the Galeries Lafayette du Prado in Marseille. In the Galeries Lafayette, the Escales project called on five composers to create sound portraits of ports around the Mediterranean basin. Each composition is given in the form of a multi-channel installation in a small space, a grouping of 3 to 7 fitting rooms. The sound is diffused via sound showers; loudspeakers integrated into the ceiling. Although it is in a space off the floor from the general store, and not affected by background music, there is a certain acoustic porosity due to the curtains separating the cabins. In addition, exchanges between customers and store staff are part of the site. I installed Massilia, carnet de bord in this context, understanding all the constraints. It is precisely for this unusual listening situation that this project was created.

It is very difficult to put oneself in the place of a listener, to anticipate where one's attention will be focused, what mental image will emerge when one is listening. For all these reasons, each listening experience is different.

Photo 1: Cécile Le Prado © DR
Photo 2: Guinà’ © Familistere de Guise.PG

Îles Ephémères © Cécile Le Prado & Manuel Poletti