The Creation of the Distance Mixer

Nic McConaghy

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Abstract

The expressiveness, complexity and detail of the sounds of the natural world hold particular appeal for composers working at the nexus of music, technology and the environment. The innate spectral and spatial characteristics of these sounds offer a wealth of creative potential, but such qualities often derive their meaning from the contextual setting in which they originate. The tradition of soundscape composition promotes the tight integration between this contextual information and musical structure and denounces abstraction. Its interpretation, therefore, requires explicable knowledge of environmental associations, and its meaning is inseparable from this context. Respecting and balancing these concerns with the traditions and techniques of acousmatic music poses a considerable challenge. This paper outlines a personal approach to composing with environmental sound that integrates reductive and contextual aesthetics into single compositional language. It discusses the strategies that led to the creation of a new software artefact and the musical value of the sounds produced through this technology.

The Distance Mixer is a custom SuperCollider class designed to assist in the composition of fixed-media works that seek to integrate environmental structures into electroacoustic composition. Its ongoing development reflects an attempt at maintaining the integrity of natural sound environments via acoustic partitioning while still permitting a degree of abstraction and transformation of sound materials. The Distance Mixer allows natural sound ecologies to inform the deployment of materials and encourages the practitioner to explore in real-time, the relationship between perspective, movement and distance and the influence of these spatial attributes on spectral space and the designation of acoustic niches.

The Distance Mixer applies the powerful spatial filtering tools of the Ambisonic Toolkit in novel ways to spatialise a variable number of sound sources and produces convincing spatial illusions and cogent aural landscapes. At its core is a distance variable that controls low-pass filter coefficients, amplitude scaling, soundfield quality, and the level of a simple convolution reverb for first-order ambisonic signals.

This paper will describe how the Distance Mixer emerged from an aesthetic discourse that consolidates the concepts of biomimicry, acoustic ecology and spectromorphology to explain the function of sound in the environment and its parallels with musical structure. The relationship between acoustic niches, perspectival space and spectromorphological qualities were of particular importance to its development. Through the immateriality of this theoretical framework, new approaches to composition emerged that had a productive and transformative impact on the creative process.

Bio

Nic McConaghy is an audio technician and composer of acousmatic music. He is in the final stages of a PhD in composition at the Conservatorium of Music, University of Sydney, where he actively engages in researching numerous elements of music technology, composition, recording, electroacoustics and ecoacoustic composition. In a research capacity, his oeuvre encompasses an array of innovations based on field recordings and environmental sound composition across a broad range of activities involving the use of extant and emergent technologies.