Mastering Outside the Studio. Three sound design experts explain new practices (1/5)

Meet Alexander Kassberg, head of studio at Lexter Sound Design, Andrea Cera, composer, and Nicolas Misdariis, head researcher for the Sound Design and Perception team in IRCAM’s joint research lab

The general meaning of "mastering" indicates the final phase of musical production, the optimization of a recording to ensure great listening on the majority of sound diffusion systems. Today, the word "mastering" is changing. We "master" specially for different supports (hi-fi, tablet, smartphone). Playback engines on streaming sites correct the recordings played, a kind of post-mastering…

We’d like to focus on a particular sort of mastering that we are going to call "location specific" mastering. This type of mastering is becoming necessary for different working and sound diffusion conditions.

We asked Alexander Kassberg, head of studio at Lexter Sound Design, the composer Andrea Cera and Nicolas Misdariis,  head researcher for Sound Design and Perception team at IRCAM’s joint research lab  to give us their perspective on this subject.

From left to right: Alexander Kassberg (photo Sofia Svärdh), Andrea Cera and Nicolas Misdariis (photo IRCAM, Déborah Lopatin)

Could you illustrate the circumstances in which you decide to leave your studio and go mixing/mastering in the specific place where your music/sounds will be heard? Can you give us examples? In your case, is this decision related to the type of sounds you want to diffuse (complex spatial/multi-channel setups, very delicate sounds, presence of heavy low/sub range energy, etc.), or is it related to the specificity of a location (acoustics, types of speakers, listening conditions, etc.)?    

N. M. : For the sound design of a product or a space, we almost always create sounds that will be played through unconventional systems like buzzers, those little loudspeakers placed in more or less resonant locations (for example, in a car the location could be the dashboard or the area near the motor). Or, on the contrary, systems with massive numbers of loudspeakers like in an artistic sound installation. The acoustic response of the diffusion system becomes our reference point for the project, our listening system. Having said this, the creative phase obviously requires studio time. We have developed a series of solutions to simulate our target acoustics so we can reduce time spent on field studies. They consist, for example, of using systems that are close to the final technologies used for monitoring solutions, or modeling the response using the frequency of the system, or using an acoustic transfer function between the transmitting and receiving points. In any case, it is essential to finish the final touches using the technological solution that will be applied in the end. Time constraints also become a factor for mastering. If we use the example of the automotive industry and its very tight project schedules, we have to take into account the timetables for the availability of proprietary technologies that require the presence of different teams during testing sessions, and which are, in general, not very ergonomic. I mean they are not really adapted to the requirements of audio content production (memory that has to be transferred using slow and complicated processes, the difficulty of physically accessing integrated computers, etc.).

A. K : At Lexter Sound Design we develop and implement sound design concepts for public environments. This includes everything from acoustic treatment, hardware (speakers, sound distribution etc.), to audio content. As head of studio I’m responsible for the latter part. Usually the location that we work in, for example restaurants or shopping malls, are highly dynamic and variable. These are environments that have a high level of existing sounds: people, machines, ventilation systems, traffic, escalators, music leaking from different stores and so on. In addition, visitors in this sort of environment are generally not thinking about or expecting sound design, but are focused on 100 other colloquial things.
This means that the audio content we are creating will be distributed in an environment which often lacks in acoustics, has a high amount of ambient noise, and where the listeners aren’t actively listening. Needless to say, this is a reality very far from the studio situation that the sounds are produced in, and this makes going out there to listen to our content in the live location an absolute necessity. Even though we are highly experienced, we often can’t be totally sure until we’ve tried the content in the field if the mixing works, if the content blends with existing sounds in a favorable way, and if the sound concept as a whole is translated well in the live situation. This usually means adjusting the mix, enhancing certain sounds and toning down others. Eventually you as a sound producer develop an understanding for different rooms, its features and the people in them, but it takes lots of experience and field work to get there.

A. C. : In my collaborations with choreographers or directors, the systems used for sound diffusion can be extremely varied and atypical: loudspeakers in locker rooms, under seats in the audience, hidden in objects on stage, in the hallways of the theater’s foyer. In these cases, it clearly becomes important to finalize the music on site because no studio set-up can imitate the acoustic effects of these situations. Keeping in mind that the theaters we perform in during a tour all have different acoustics, we try to find a balance between a sound adapted to the particular diffusion effects we are trying to obtain in the beginning, and characteristics that aren’t too specific for the unique acoustics of a theater where the final performances will be held. Normally, we end up by producing sound files that are almost in mono, without reverberation, without a lot of dynamics; the files become material to sculpt when they are played. This makes the process of re-edition and remastering this music for traditional supports particularly delicate.

Photo:  Mood Stockholm Mall © Lexter Sound Design, photo Mathias Nordgren 

Interview in three parts. Read the next installement January 11th