Mastering Outside the Studio. Three sound design experts explain new practices (2/5)

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

During a location-specific mixing/mastering session, which kind of audio transformation do you usually apply to your music/sounds? Which tools do you prefer to use? Do you think that a dedicated form of listening is required for this kind of practice? Has this practice changed your way of working in general?   

A. C. / N. M. : Filtering is an important process for offsetting imbalances in the final diffusion systems. When we work in the studio, it is important to make sure that the surface of the sounds played is balanced, that no individual frequencies appear too blatantly. It is also important to control the dynamics. When we worked on the sound design for the D-Day exposition at the Centre Pompidou, we watched how Gérard Chiron used compressors and limiters to reduce the sound dynamics of sounds that were going to be played at very low volume.

It is really challenging to listen to a sound you know well with the final sound diffusion system: you have to listen with the ears of a person who has never heard that specific sound, and try to understand what their perception could be with the addition of this sound in the space. Sound can become something else. Is it still effective? What needs to be modified? Which components are resilient and which are hidden by the ambient noise? To find the answers, collaborative work is essential. Several people have to share the listening experience because, quite often, the person who created the sounds knows them too well and can hear them even in the most difficult conditions. 

To avoid obvious differences between the studio and the final systems, we have developed particular work configurations. For example, we try to reduce the time spent working in the field by creating, virtually, the final acoustics for the sound diffusion using impulsion responses that let us sample and test the acoustic response of a cockpit or dashboard. For the small sounds for the dashboard, we work with headphones or very small loudspeakers. For sounds intended to be heard outdoors, we have developed tools that simulate urban environments. And for applications specific to cars, we have a collection of road noises recorded inside different cars to we can recreate the background noise that will be present with our sound solutions associated with specific functions or driving actions.

Sound design for the interior of the Renault Symbioz

A. K. : The acoustic and psychoacoustic features of the location can affect all aspects of the audio content. The mixing and mastering foremost (e.g. frequencies that are enhanced by resonances in the room or the speakers) but also on a more creative level. Remember, we’re creating non-linear sound experiences for an audience that aren’t necessarily listening. Are the sounds we create clear and obvious enough to convey the concept? A simple example: A client might want to have sounds of the ocean in his/her location. But the sound of ocean waves are very similar to white noise. In the studio situation we as producers KNOW that the sound we’re adding is a recording of the ocean, but will the listener interpret what they’re hearing in that way? Chances are that they instead perceive the sound as coming from a noisy air duct or from the roar of the traffic outside. As a creative it’s really an impossible task: ”listen to your production as someone who has no previous knowledge and isn’t listening actively”, but we have do our best. And that might very well lead to us reconsidering parts of the production. After listening in the live environment we might realize that that ocean sound doesn’t really work, and needs to be replaced with something more clear. Eventually you as an audio producer develop an ear for this. I don’t need to redo my productions nearly as often as I had to when I started out, because by now I have the experience to understand what will work and not in advance. Yet I would never rely completely on this. In tricky cases I still go out in the field for the final mixdown to be sure.

Interview in three parts. Read the next installement January 16th