This is the final version of a conference paper, jointly written and presented by my colleague John Dack and myself as delivered at LIMTEC 2004, Leeds as “Place and Space in Recorded Sound


This paper will summarise and evaluate our experiences on the Sonic Arts degree course at Middlesex University. Our curriculum includes subject areas such as sound design, electroacoustic composition, studiocraft and interface design. Given the diverse nature of these subject areas it is both challenging and necessary to identify common concerns in what might otherwise appear to be an unconnected collection of subjects. We believe the development of listening skills promoting an awareness of “place” and “space” in sound artworks provides a unifying theme throughout the degree programme.

Three representative examples are introduced at appropriate points to encourage these skills. Firstly, in recording classical music the engineer is concerned inter alia with the reproduction of a given space. Spaces such as concert halls are often selected for their particular acoustic qualities and the resulting recording places the listener in a specific location. By contrast, when recording popular music, microphones are placed according to the characteristics of the instruments but also, for example, to create different, discrete acoustic spaces within the recording itself. Furthermore, these components may be recorded in differing acoustic environments – even in different studios. The third example chosen for consideration is the use of space and sound location in electroacoustic music. The electroacoustic composer articulates structure not only by movement between acoustic spaces (some with impossible acoustic properties), but also by invoking cultural and social aspects of spatial awareness.

By developing a sensibility to these different applications of space and place and examining how they contradict or support each other the student acquires a theoretical framework which can then help to inform their practice.

1 Introduction

In his 1961 study “The Phenomenology of Perception”, the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty discussed how we become aware of the space in which we find ourselves and how we experience its contents.

“Space”, he said, “is not the setting in which things are arranged, but the means whereby the position of things becomes possible.”

In this paper we address the ways in which various genre-specific approaches to the compositional and recording processes make use of this perception. In so doing, we seek to examine our experience of sound space and how this informs and is in turn informed by the place or places perceived or imagined as a result of this sensibility. We also highlight certain areas of apparent contradiction in the reassignment of nominally spatial criteria to other functions such as, for example, timbre and examine the relationship between compositional and performance spaces.

2 Space, location and event

Tony Gibbs

We experience music in particular places, be they concert halls, living rooms or wherever and the acoustic qualities of these places influence what we hear. We may not appreciate these qualities consciously but their influence is nonetheless substantial. A space may be described and even defined by its acoustics and, as Merleau-Ponty observes, once defined we can populate it with the sound objects of our choice.

Once so defined and occupied, it passes into a more specific realm. It is no longer just an unlocated space with certain qualities: it has become a place, somewhere that we can go to. How then does this consideration influence our approach to recording and realisation? What are its consequences for studio practice?

2.1 Classical recording

The techniques and procedures of classical music recording are well established. Essentially, most variants confer both temporal and locational identities upon the work in question. Emphasis is placed upon the when and the where of the recording, perhaps subtly to reinforce its credibility as a “real” product made by real creative people rather that the result of technical procedures.

Critics and writers of sleeve notes refer to and comment upon “the performance” whereas, in reality, there is very often no single complete performance upon which to comment: rather there is usually an assemblage of partial ones designed to appear contiguous. The temporal identity is therefore often illusory but is nonetheless broadly consensual: we accept what we know to be anomalous if not downright untrue and thereby enter into a conspiracy of sorts: one that is designed to enhance credibility.

The classical recording engineer has a set of technical tools no less diverse and capable than those used in other musical genres. In general however, and with the obvious exception of editing, these are used to a far lesser extent than is the norm in the recording of pop/rock music or in the realisation of electroacoustic works. Most particularly, this applies to the synthesis of spaces by means of artificially generated delays and reverberations which are only used very rarely indeed. Their virtual absence from the armoury of the classical recordist compares significantly with their hugely important usage in the other genres and we may speculate that this is in some way connected with the establishment of the previously mentioned senses of identity and, by implication, credibility. It is far easier and more comfortable to believe that a particular work was recorded at a specific time in a specific place than to be forced to accept that it is the product of innumerable edits and the synthesis of artificial acoustics or, if you prefer, a collage of no particular temporal or locational provenance.

Why should this be so? By establishing and reinforcing the view that a particular recording was made at a particular time and in a particular place, the opportunity is presented for the identification and indeed the celebration of an event. That event is, of course, the performance and it is this – be it real or illusory – that is presented for critical appraisal. We are invited by the writers of sleeve notes to acknowledge the achievements – whether real or created by editing – of the performers and, by our acquiescence, we acknowledge the acceptability of this unreality.

It follows that, if, by means of judicious editing, we can create the temporal illusion of a contiguous performance, there should logically be a locational equivalent whereby we can, simulate space. For example, there are generally agreed parameters such as reverberation time that may be adjusted to suit chamber or symphonic music. Surely by such means we can create a believable virtual place in which our virtual performance can take place? And indeed technological developments, such as acoustic sampling and convolution can not only do this but can offer the opportunity for a performance to be rendered into the location of choice.

Whatever means we use to achieve this, it remains evident that there is an overwhelming drive to establish and confirm locational identity as a major contributor to the provenance of the recorded work. In this context, here is an example in which the location is very clearly demonstrated.

(Example 1 John Taverner “Funeral Ikos”)

Most people who listen to choral works will have already identified the location of this example as the Chapel of Kings College, Cambridge. The acoustic qualities of this location are really quite unmistakable and widely recognised. The emphasis placed upon the its unambiguous rendering serves to demonstrate the significance attributed to this aspect of classical recording practice. In reinforcing its reality by careful recording, the creators of the work benefit from the implied additional credibility that this famous location confers.

Apart from carefully rendering real locations, it has long been possible to create virtual acoustic environments of sufficient credibility to believe them to be actual places yet, as practitioners, we rarely choose to do so. Indeed we go further and eschew many other techniques that are readily available to us. Perhaps the most notable of these is that mainstay of pop/rock recording, the overdub. There is a general reluctance on the part of classical recordists to adopt this approach. Better, it would seem, to be constrained to assemble the finished work by a multiplicity of edits than to record a soloist performing to a previously recorded orchestral part. Again we must ask why.

Here perhaps the answer may be a little more complex. We can of course restate the celebration of the event of performance as a major factor but is it not possible, indeed probable that the coexistence of these two parts in the same space at the same time leads to a subtle and perhaps synergistic interaction with the acoustic environment of the location? Hence an otherwise identical recording will sound substantially different in each of two locations and this cannot readily be replicated by the simple expedient of “adding some reverb”. Some extra, seemingly intangible factor has entered the equation.

2.2 Pop and rock

Turning now to the second of our genres – pop/rock, we find a wholly different perspective. In these styles, we find an apparently paradoxical situation insofar as a single recording may, on analysis, appear to have been created in several locations and, by implication therefore, in an asynchronous fashion. Here we should perhaps redefine “locations” as “environments” since the ambiences associated with these various components will typically combine both synthetic and real acoustics. This state of affairs represents a hybrid of a number of approaches, by no means the least significant being the complete artificiality of location within a given space implied by the universal use of the panpot !

Born largely of technological and economic necessity, the early practices of the rock ‘n’ roll studio were technically simple and thereby carried much of the locational identity found in classical recording. A good example of this is Brian Wilson’s work on the “Pet Sounds” album. In this, he sought to emulate the sound of his great idol, Phil Spector. Apart from using many of the same musicians, Wilson carefully sought out and worked in the same studios that Spector had used to create his famous “Wall of Sound”, rightly believing that their acoustic qualities were the key to the successful reproduction of this style. In this respect at least, Wilson approached his work in much the same way as a classical producer might. In addition, however, Wilson used multitrack recording, so now there was no requirement for simultaneity of performance although it is important to note that both Spector and Wilson believed strongly in the need to allow instrumental sounds to interact in real time.

Largely removed from the need for temporal consistency, the logical extension of this approach was similarly to dispense with any sense of place or at least with any sense of a single place. Now each component could be recorded separately at the best time and in the “best” location. This allowed the use of different acoustic spaces – real or simulated – for different instruments, each being chosen for optimal effect. By optimising each component, it was reasoned, the best possible collective product would result. Many recordings of the late 1960s, 70s and 80s show the simultaneous existence of multiple acoustic spaces and this reinforces a perceived lack of most of the qualities deemed desirable in classical practice: the multiplicity of acoustics is paradoxical, often confusing and undermines the credibility of the finished product as a single “event” that takes place in real time in a single place.

This example is from 1990 -91, a time of great technological development in the pop/rock area. A range of powerful digital technologies were becoming available at relatively low cost, none more so than high-quality reverberation processors. In this piece, virtually every instrumental and vocal component is accompanied by its own unique acoustic environment, most (but by no means all) of them being digitally created.

(Example 2 Genesis “Dreaming while you sleep”)

In that example, there are at least seven different acoustic environments in simultaneous existence. Clearly we are not expected to believe that three performers occupied so many separate spaces at the same time. Even if we allow for the asynchrony implied by the use of multitrack technology, we are still confronted with a bewildering number of different-sounding places in simultaneous use. This is a central issue: the concept of simple locational identity is dismissed to be replaced by a synthesis of diverse components which are not necessarily compatible and therefore, unlike classical recording practice, in this approach the components do not interact to any substantial extent.

An earlier attempt to address these implications of multitrack technology was to adopt the polar opposite to the classical approach – to record each component separately with as much isolation and as little “natural” acoustic as possible. In one studio a series of areas were provided, each of which was as acoustically dead and isolated from the others as possible. The thinking behind this was that acoustics should be created and imposed as appropriate and in isolation. The consequences of performing in what was, to all intents and purposes, an anechoic and atemporal environment were, to say the least, not happy ones and this practice was readily discarded.

One response to this was the practices of the 1970s in which bands would opt to record in certain studios because of the sound qualities for which they were particularly known and studio designers would vie with each other to create spaces with desirable instrument – specific acoustic qualities. This design philosophy did not seek to integrate the sound of the individual components: rather it sought to optimise them on an individual basis with little regard to the overall qualities of the final product. One must observe, however, that acoustic considerations were by no means the only factors in the choice of recording environment and indulgence invaded even acoustic design: for example, expensive Hawaiian lava rock enjoyed a brief popularity as the wall lining of choice for drum booths.

As the last example demonstrated, the accepted practice that has finally emerged for this genre is a hybrid of natural acoustics and digitally generated environments. Oddly, some presets of digital reverberation units (for example the famous Lexicon “warm room”) have themselves acquired the acoustically iconic status of actual venues: perhaps a nod in the direction of the classical tradition. The perceived need for a sense of place may, perhaps, be harder to dismiss or at least more tenacious than we might expect.

2.3 Electroacoustic realisation

The technologies available to the pioneers of electroacoustic composition and realisation were conspicuously poor in respect of their ability to synthesise spaces and places as readily as they could create “tonalities”. This situation has changed dramatically in recent times and yet its use is largely rejected by many composers.

The electroacoustic practitioner often eschews the concept of a single event and, by focussing to an ultimate extent upon the qualities of components, removes them from any existence in either time or space save for their duration and their possible distribution to a specialised sound system. Component sounds are typically created and assembled in accordance with compositional intentions. These rarely include unambiguous location in a single time and place: indeed the inclusion of information that could indicate, describe or identify a specific location is highly unusual. The placing of sounds in spatial positions is, nonetheless, a common practice which is further supported by the use of sound diffusion as a presentation technique. This, however, relies upon the qualities of the location in which the presentation takes place and, with some exceptions, does not imply the encoding of place identity within the programme material.

There are, of course, important exceptions to this approach. Perhaps the best known is Jonathan Harvey’s piece “Mortuos plango, vivos voco” in which the audience is invited to consider themselves inside a giant bell. The other main component of the piece is a boy’s voice which flies around within this space. Here Harvey defines both location – inside the great tenor bell of Winchester Cathedral – and its qualities very precisely indeed.

(Example 3 Jonathan Harvey “Mortuos plango vivos voco”)

The original version of this piece is designed to be played through a diffusion system so this stereo rendition may do it less than full justice. Amongst Harvey’s performance suggestions is the idea that the work should be diffused such that the inner surface of the bell is represented by the walls of the listening room. Despite its incompleteness in this respect, I think you will agree from hearing this version that Harvey has been very successful indeed in suggesting this particular space and describing its qualities.

He has sought directly to create and represent a space with highly specific characteristics and to use this as a central feature of his composition. In establishing such an unambiguous locational identity, Harvey has adopted a highly unconventional approach for an electroacoustic composer.

However, this is not to suggest that electroacoustic composers ignore the issue of space in a more general sense; far from it – the literature at least is full of such references. However, these tend to reflect upon generalised issues of space or on more abstract sub categories such as compositional and performative spaces and it is certainly unusual to find significant engagement with locational issues. We may argue that this abstracted approach leads many composers to deliver works that may have only limited positional information that is applicable to individual sound objects rather than seeking to create a work which has a single collective sense of place. Typically such limitations are those of one-dimensional stereo and even creating a sense of depth through the use of reverberation and related techniques is often not considered.

In general, however, where such techniques are used by electroacoustic practitioners, they are used at least as much if not more as timbral modifiers than as indicators or descriptors for acoustic environments.

In this respect, electroacoustic practice shares a certain amount of common ground with rock and pop in which practice ambiences are, as previously suggested, routinely attached to individual instruments or sounds rather than contributing to overall locational identity. Once again, there is a sense in which ambience becomes an aspect of timbre rather than contributing to a sense of place.

Taking the argument further we may speculate that there is perhaps an unconscious intent on the part of its practitioners to reinforce the synthetic and often analytical nature of much electroacoustic music by presenting it outside the normal issues of time, space and location.

3 Space in electroacoustic composition and performance

John Dack

In the first part of our talk Tony made several references to the works of musicians such as Brian Wilson and Jonathan Harvey. Anyone involved in teaching music technology in Higher Education will recognise immediately that such a wide range of musical practices cannot – and perhaps should not – be avoided. Similarly, many Sonic Arts students come from an eclectic mix of musical and cultural backgrounds. They embrace laptop performances and the design of real-time interfaces without considering whether their work fits into ‘high’ or ‘low’ art forms. My role as the Research Fellow in Sonic Arts is to provide them with examples of electroacoustic music from the post-war period thereby clarifying the relationship between composers’ practices and the theoretical concepts which either support their practice or result from it – in reality, of course, the two often proceed simultaneously.

Many questions are raised, therefore, which can only be described as ‘ontological’ (though describing them in these terms is often intimidating). They challenge fundamentally the very activity of creating music with technology and our experience is that students invariably respond positively to such investigations (and occasionally they even seem to think we might actually have some of the answers). In order to develop their self-reflective and critical skills they are encouraged to identify common ground in areas such as studio practice, musicology, acoustics, psychoacoustics and even philosophy.

As a musicologist with a particular interest in analysis of musical works (the terms ‘analysis’ and ‘musical work’ are both problematic concepts in themselves) I believe that practices of the recording medium and the electroacoustic studio provide a framework by which traditional musical concepts can be investigated and perhaps even clarified. Space and location play particularly important roles in such a re-evaluation. Spatial metaphors have always been used by theoreticians and philosophers when discussing music and when we turn to actual music there are many examples. For example, the antiphonal music of Gabrieli composed for St Mark’s Cathedral in Venice is frequently cited for its use of specific locations from which sounds emerged.

Furthermore, many composers in the post-war period such as Luciano Berio, Iannis Xenakis and Henry Brant wrote compositions that demand the placing of instrumentalists in precise locations on stage or amongst the audience. Moreover, both Debussy and Mahler used muffled trumpets and horns not simply to augment timbral quality but to evoke physical distance (merely asking the players to play quietly does not have the same effect).

Electroacoustic musicians should be aware of these kinds of discourses. Young musicians can deliberately appropriate them to form part of their own set of compositional strategies.

Tony correctly asserted that being able to identify the sounds originating from a specific place is rarely a requirement of an electroacoustic composition. Nevertheless, in soundscape compositions and works which rely on the recognition of real-world sound events a general sense of a location can be important to the composition’s network of meanings. For example, in Luc Ferrari’s ‘Music Promenade 1’ sounds were recorded in various locations during the course of two years. Of course, the listener need not be aware of the precise physical location where the sounds were recorded. In one section Ferrari contrasts ‘indoor’ sounds (the sounds of traditional instruments) with ‘outdoor’ sounds (a military parade) thereby creating not only a witty, playful juxtaposition of acoustic qualities but positing the concept that the characteristics of spaces are as important (in this case perhaps more important) than the sounds which were recorded within those spaces.

As listeners we hear the ‘progression’ (yet another spatial metaphor) in Ferrari’s composition from one acoustic space to another. The close proximity of the instruments are imposed in a surrealistic manner on the broad acoustic spaces within which the military parade takes place. This contrast is emphasised by placing the irregular rhythms and atonal melodic vocabulary of the former with the all-too-regular rhythms of the military band of the latter. The different acoustic spaces support the sense of disruption and musical anarchy: just as the soldiers begin to establish their marching patterns it is subverted by the avant-garde musicians. These are explicit examples of sounds occurring in certain places and the spatial cues by which they can be located; we should never underestimate the remarkable sensitivity of humans to such aurally perceptible details.

In addition to the interplay arising from clearly recognisable sounds and their possible settings the electroacoustic musician must also consider the relationship between the composer’s space and the venue in which the composition will be presented. This is rarely an issue for pop/rock musicians as recordings which display sophisticated use of different discrete acoustic spaces are not generally played for communal listening in a large concert hall. By contrast, the concert venue is precisely the setting for much electroacoustic music. Consequently, the virtual space (or spaces) created by the composer in the studio must always be re-presented in another actual space. Though it is true, of course, that many composers recognise that it might be desirable to release several different version of their work to suit particular playback conditions: domestic stereo or 5.1 surround systems or simply headphones.

The ‘fragile art’ of sound diffusion (to quote Denis Smalley) cannot be ignored by the electroacoustic composer any more than an instrumental composer can pretend that a performance of their work is of no concern, that their job is finished once the score has been written. The belief that the electroacoustic medium removes ‘interpreters’ from the chain of communication from composer to audience is only partially true (and is, in any case, frequently undesirable). Thus, in a performance, the composer’s space must be realised in a venue – the performance space – and the perception of the result must be interpreted by the listener. These three distinct aspects of spatiality comprise Denis Smalley’s ‘indicative field of space’.

I have found that this important concept repays careful attention. The composer’s space includes traditional, multidimensional musical space by combining pitch, dynamics, durations and spectral transformations at all structural levels. In addition, the electroacoustic composer can make use of an expanded vocabulary of sounds ranging from simple sounds fixed in pitch to complex sounds which move within the pitch-field. Of particular interest to the present discussion is the way in which the composer will distribute the sounds across a stereo image (and stereo remains the most common format for many composers) or a multi-channel arrangement.

For example, sounds can be placed within an increasingly dry acoustic space. As the reverberation time is reduced a continuous change occurs as one space is replaced over time by another. If this is accompanied by an attenuation of high frequencies the effect might resemble higher components being absorbed by the atmosphere. Now the movement is along what can be described as the ‘x’ axis. The sounds become more distant from the listener and an area opens up waiting to be filled with other sounds. The creation of such virtual spaces could initiate a new section as the open space acts as an ‘upbeat’ to further transformations.

Naturally, this carefully structured space needs a sympathetic ‘interpretation’ during the diffusion process. If the diffusion system has a sophisticated array of loudspeakers surrounding the audience a gradual distribution of the sounds to a front ‘distant’ speaker (often facing away from the audience) and speakers at the sides will literally create a space within which additional sounds can be placed. The composer’s virtual space and the actual space of the performance are in agreement. An unsympathetic diffusion will obscure this relationship. In reality, of course, it must be accepted that each member of the audience will perceive the sounds from a different and possibly unsuitable position within the venue. The ‘interpretative’ space of each listener results from the interaction between these actual and virtual spaces. Whether the sounds and their acoustic settings suggest real or imaginary spaces – or a mixture of the two – will depend mainly on each person’s acquired set of responses which are, of course, beyond the control of the composer.

4 Conclusion

We have argued that different genres approach the issue of acoustic space and the creation of place, of a sense of “whereness” in very different ways. For the classical tradition, the intention is to create a believable simulation of a real-time performance, one that is therefore, by implication, located in a single physical place and furthermore at a specific time. It is an event, one that is of significance and one that is to be celebrated.

The rock/pop sensibility disregards this, preferring the optimisation of component parts. Even so an element of performance remains and this at least requires a degree of continuity and consistency. The single “celebrateable” event is perhaps implied but its virtuality is at least partially acknowledged. The focus is upon spectacle and impact and this is, in part, established and reinforced by dramatic acoustic contrasts and paradoxes.

By contrast, electroacoustic composers usually retain a remarkable degree of detachment. Where classical practitioners seek to reinforce and exploit conventional perceptions of time space and place, and rock and pop engineers and producers manipulate these perceptions to amplify scale and enhance spectacle, they adopt an almost ascetic approach in which a sound object is to be appreciated as a pure entity, often divorced from any locational relationship. Yet, as John observes, we find within this genre a whole spectrum of degrees of site-specificity ranging from what we might call “pure” soundscape pieces to those, such as Ferrari’s work which invoke a creative use of space.

We must ask therefore, are there rights or wrongs in these diverse approaches, are there simply differences that respond to what are perceived as genre-specific needs or is the whole process altogether more subtle. There is a case to be made for believability: human nature likes the idea that what we hear was created at a particular time and in a particular place. This is, perhaps, something that our logical sensibilities demand and something that classical recording practice has grasped with some success. That electroacoustic practice has generally not done so may suggest that this is one reason for its continuing marginalisation from the mainstream. That rock and pop has embraced the exploitation of acoustic space with almost excessive enthusiasm may be seen as evidence of its reliance upon spectacle and hence its ephemerality

In any event, it seems clear that both the qualities of space as evidenced by acoustic qualities and the way in which these feed into the creation of a sense of an actual physical place or location are highly significant in how we respond to composed, performed and realised works. There is considerable diversity in approach and this diversity appears, to a large extent, to be specific to each genre. There is, however, a transcendent consideration: that of the human need to believe in a specific space, a particular place.

Another French philosopher, Gaston Bachelard, wrote of how accurately one must listen in order to hear the geometry of echoes in an old house. Bachelard wrote of domestic spaces whereas we have discussed those of recorded forms but it is surely no surprise that it is these very echoes, and the places that they evoke upon which our sense of both space and place is founded, and that contribute so much to the validation of our listening experience.

John Dack & Tony Gibbs

Autumn/winter 2004