Improvising vocals, samples and VST plugins in a loop – The production process of a Reggae Mandingue track
Despite violent economic challenges and the near absence of audio education in Bamako, Mali, arrangers/engineers master the recording studio as a compositional and improvisation tool to produce popular music. In 2018, most Bamako studios are built around Cubase 5, an outdated Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) that requires a basic computer and sound interface to intermediate between recorded audio, MIDI programing using banks of virtual instruments commonly named samples, and signal processing through equalizers, compressors, delays and other effects referred to as VST for Virtual Studio Technology plugins by the younger generations including all the participants of our ethnography. This paper highlights how this technology transcends the artistic hierarchy between stage performers and studio technicians by enhancing improvisation and collaborative processes in the studio. I will illustrate this effect of globalized digital audio through the analysis of a seven-hours Reggae Mandingue production whose process was entirely documented from recording to mastering with two video cameras, computer screen captures, and a high-fidelity stereo microphone placed just behind the ears of the arranger/engineer.
To convey studio practitioners’ creative process in Bamako, I propose to complement ethnographic methods with a Cognitive Video approach that consists of 1) superposing performance gestures to technical gestures; 2) selecting the most meaningful moments of each production step; and 3) layering excerpts of self-confrontation interviews with the performer and the arranger/engineer while watching the video editing following Donin and Theureau (2007)’s Cognitive Anthropology methods. This approach extends the procedure and video editing of a cross-cultural study that I conducted with world-class improvisers from New York and from Kolkata in West Bengal (Pras, 2018), which itself drew from previous duet improvisation experiments following de France (1989)’s Video Anthropology approach (Pras & Lavergne, 2015) and Schober and Spiro (2014)’s Performance Science experimental procedures (Pras et al., 2017). In keeping with recent research focusing on interface design and the organology of music technologies (Bacot, 2017; Grupp, 2016), computer screen captures augment the data collection concept of my improvisation studies, allowing for the addition of a sound engineering expertise on social and music aesthetics analyses.
The production of the Reggae Mandingue track will be edited rhythmically on the eight-beats loop that structures and underlines the creative process as a drone. The editing will emphasize on vocal, arrangement and sonic creativity, following the real chronology of going back and forth between the improvisations and their editing and processing to become a composition. Beyond the expectations of the musical genre that remain obvious, my purpose is to give the viewers access to the uniqueness of the track, as the result of collaborative work using digital audio tools.
Bacot, B. (2017). Geste et instrument dans la musique électronique : organologie des pratiques de création contemporaines (PhD thesis). School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (EHESS)
de France, C. (1989). Cinéma et anthropologie. Paris: Les Editions de la MSH.
Donin, N., & Theureau, J. (2007). Theoretical and methodological issues related to long term creative
cognition: the case of musical composition. Cognition, Technology & Work, 9(4), pp 233-251.
Grupp, V. (Editor). (2016). Track It, Zip It – Demonstration with Victoria Grupp [2-min video]. USA. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PMagrFGb854
Pras, A. (Producer & Director). (2018). A Home Away From Home [50-min video documentary]. Canada. Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bJD_JTSQ0eo
Pras, A., & Schober, M., & Spiro, N. (2017). What about their performance do free jazz improvisers agree upon? a case study, Frontiers in Psychology, 8(966).
Pras, A., & Lavergne, G. (2015). L’échantillonnage dans l’improvisation : Rencontre de deux instigateurs du free jazz avec un jeune artiste de la scène noise à New York, Musicae Scientiae 22(4), pp 433- 451.
Schober, M. F., & Spiro, N. (2014). Jazz improvisers’ shared understanding: a case study. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 808.
University of Lethbridge, AB, Canada
Is an Assistant Professor of Digital Audio Arts at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, and an Associate Researcher of Centre Georg Simmel at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (EHESS) in Paris. Her research examines the impact of globalized digital technologies on worldwide audio and music practices from esthetic, cultural, and political perspectives. She started conducting an ethnography of Bamako recording studios with Ethnomusicologist Emmanuelle Olivier in July 2018. The past year, she presented her video documentary A Home Away From Home around the world, based on a cross-cultural experiment that she carried out with four world-class improvisers in West Bengal at the end of her postdoctoral residency at The New School for Social Research in New York. Amandine completed her PhD thesis at McGill about best practices for studio recording in the digital era. Graduate from the Advanced music production program (FSMS) of the Paris Conservatoire, she produced albums and curated live events with artists as diverse as Michael Attias, Jim Black, Quatuor Bozzini, Luciane Cardassi, Daniel Carter, Sougata Roy Chowdhury, Nels Cline, Benoit Delbecq, Mary Halvorson, Tony Malaby, the Metropolis Ensemble, Andy Milne, William Parker, Satoshi Takeishi, and Terri Witek.