Sunday, 17 March 2013

New focus group transcriptions on line

Full transcriptions of two sessions (with second and final year students respectively) that I ran at the Institute of Sound Recording at the University of Surrey, are now available on the project web site. A transcription of the consultation with audio professionals which was held at the Royal Academy of Engineering is also now available.

Project web page

I'm off to the University of Surrey this week to talk to students and staff about the outcomes of the project.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Interview with Dave Fisher (former Director of the Tonmeister Course)

Last December I interviewed Dave Fisher as part of this project and that interview has now been published online by the Journal on the Art of Record Production.

Link to interview transcription

          Dave Fisher has worked at the BBC and The University of Surrey. At the latter he was Director of the renowned Tonmeister course in Music and Sound Recording from 1983 until his retirement, as Emeritus Professor of Sound Recording, in 2011. During that time he undertook a wide range of lecturing duties, including teaching recording techniques to students in each year of their course. This interview, which took place in the Audio Lab at the University of York in January 2012, was undertaken as part of the ‘Is Recording Engineering?’ project, supported by the Royal Academy of Engineering.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Transcript of the first consultation event

Just a quick update about the project website: I've completed and uploaded the transcription of the first consultation event that was held between year 12/13, undergraduate and postgraduate students, along with academics and audio professionals. You can access this from the project index here

There will be transcriptions of the events held at other institutions over the coming months.

Monday, 1 October 2012

A view from computer science

Even though the fellowship has come to an end, I will still be updating this blog with news and additional resources which have arisen from the project.

I'm very pleased to be able to present some thoughts on this topic from Olivia Leonardi. Olivia works with the online resource What follows is Olivia's own take on this topic and doesn't necessarily reflect my views, but that's been a main theme of this project: harvesting and hearing about other people's views on this subject. Thanks Olivia!


A July post attempted to answer the question of whether recording equates to engineering by examining the characteristics that define each discipline. Today’s post builds on the point made in the previous article that engineers and those who record music share some aims with their respective jobs, particularly when it comes to the design and use of digital recording devices. In this post, Olivia Leonardi discusses some of the ways in which software engineering applications have contributed to and significantly changed the audio recording process. Olivia is an expert in computer science who writes for an online resource that offers information about the field, including where people in related fields can find computer science open courseware.

Advances in Computer Science and Audio Engineering Have Permanently Changed the Music Industry

Audio engineering is one of the most dynamic industries of the professional world. In just the last 20 years, compressed MP3 files have replaced cassette tapes and CDs, while software programs have largely taken the place of analog recording equipment. Today, various technologies are available to help engineers optimize vocals, instrumentation, and recording quality.

Contemporary audio engineering can be defined by the difference between tracks recorded in the studio and those assembled using computer software. Some artists prefer the traditional methods, scorning those who attempt to reach musical perfection with electronic tweaking methods; others appreciate the convenience and relatively low cost of making music on a computer. Regardless, most listeners cannot differentiate between the two methods. As a result, many studios have closed their doors – and many musicians have created makeshift recording spaces in their own homes. In a recent New York Times article, rapper Aesop Rock, electronic musician Moby and indie rockers the Eels all described their experiences with home recording.“One of the greatest luxuries is having a permanent small studio space that's always waiting for me,”Moby said. “It's secure when I leave, and it sits there waiting patiently for me when I get home. It's the perfect companion.”

The home recording movement that has overtaken the music industry would not be possible without small-scale, user-friendly technology and equipment. The most notable change of the last few years relate to the advancement of computer programs that function as digital audio workstations (DAW), which are integral to recording, editing, and playing back music. Ironically, the first software-based DAW – Digidesign’s Pro Tools – first appeared more than two decades ago, and is still widely used today. Other popular computer-based DAWs include Acid Pro, Adobe Audition, Mixcraft, Paris and Sony Sound Forge. While recording studio space and services can cost musicians thousands of dollars, software DAWs are relatively cheap; the 32-track Pro Tools LE system, for instance, costs less than $500.

It gets easier, too. With the rise of smartphones and tablet devices, on-the-go musicians can even record tracks using mobile audio workstations (MAWs), which are typically available as downloadable apps. Some of the leading MAW brands include Cubase, FL Studio and V-Control Pro. Open-source audio workstations are another popular trend with home musicians. These non-commercial programs, such as Audacity and Rosegarden, feature a variety of plug-ins and accessories, and can be accessed using Mac, Windows and Linux platforms.

While many musicians have embraced DAW and MAW interfaces that essentially replicate traditional equipment, other engineers have approached the recording process with a more creative mindset. One example is Tristan Shone of metal band Author & Punisher, who was recently profiled in Wired. Shone personally designed and built each instrument and piece of recording equipment used to create unique sounds for his musical endeavors. His inventions include dub machines (rendered using the open-source program, Arduino) that create loops and rhythms; a keyboard-like device that enables him to manipulate samples; and ‘Rails’, an invention that functions much the same as a slide trombone. As quickly as software companies and app developers churn out audio workstation interfaces to emulate existing sounds, innovators like Shone are creating new sounds altogether.

As current as these technologies seem, the nature of digital recording dictates that they will become outdated in a matter of years (or less), only to be replaced with newer, more advanced equipment. But for the time being, musicians around the world are not only writing songs and playing instruments, but also moonlighting as home-based audio engineers. 

Olivia Leonardi

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

So, is recording engineering?

*drum roll*

*opening of gold envelope*

....and the answer is......."it can be".

Wait! Before you shout "fix!" or "cop out!" and march off, that really is the best short answer to the question (honest!). Having over the last eleven months spoken to over two hundred people about this, and delved into pages and pages existing writing on the subjects of engineering and recording, it was very unlikely that there was going to be a single, unanimous answer which would fit into a single sentence.

A longer answer is to be found in all of the articles, papers, interview transcripts etc. which can be found at the project web resource here. Although the Fellowship formally finishes tonight (just two hours left to go, sniff!) this resource will be a permanent record of the work that's been done. As you can see there still more to be posted there, and this will happen over the next few months. As I said in this morning's post this is really just the start of the public engagement with this subject. When I was first planning about this was something I was interested in and really felt needed some time and energy spent on it, now I'm passionate about making people think more about the engineering which is responsible for so much of the world that we live in, and the recording industry which provides so much of the soundtrack to it.

Before I sign off for the last time during this fellowship, I'll give you a medium-sized answer in the form of a top 10 thoughts that people have shared with me, or that I've come to realise myself as this project has gone on.

1. If your definition of an engineer is strictly someone who is a chartered engineer, then recording isn't engineering. Most people who work in recording studios aren't chartered and there is no organisation that I, or anyone I spoke to, is aware that is able to charter people based on their recording work.

2. For others engineers are those are apply numeracy an scientific knowledge to solve human problems and create things......

3......but engineering seems to have been around longer than science, so perhaps we have to be more general and replace that with some form of organised corpus of knowledge. I think that what this implies is rationality, an attempt to move beyond what "feels right" and what is explained by magic. That there is a structure and ordered behaviour of the physical world around us and engineering is the acceptance of this. 'Faith in the rational', if you like.

4. For one well known engineering academic of the last century, engineering is elevated above craft by the intellectual skills required for, e.g. "a computer software system". Can recording situations present the same challenge? Sometimes? Always? Never?

5. For another, writing  around the same time, this is the distinction: "Craft is the power to produce a preconceived result by consciously controlled action: the craftsman always knows what he wants to make in advance [whereas the engineer does not]".

6. For many who work in the studio, getting the best recording is not the most important thing, getting a recording of the best performance is the most important thing. If there is engineering, it serves to capture the music. The music does not exist solely to provide raw materials for engineering.

7. Engineers use existing methods and tools where they represent a satisfactory solution (they do not reinvent the wheel) but they are able to design and verify new solutions where necessary and possible. They do not just follow 'cookbook recipes'.

8. The accumulation of scientific knowledge is via experimentation however engineers use this knowledge in a systematic way to arrive at the best solution quickly. Trial and error, with no understanding of the underlying physical processes, takes longer than this.

9.Certain recording, and many live sound, scenarios require the design of systems for audio capture and/or reproduction. For some this is audio engineering (i.e. relating to the design and production of sound recording equipment) for others it is a part of recording engineering.

10. A useful way of categorising knowledge and ability in the studio might be to make the distinction between operator (can operate machinery, but does not understand how it works or the principles on which it functions), craftsperson (can assemble and use recording systems according to experience, and has sufficient understanding of the tools to experiment) and engineer (understands the physical laws of sound production and capture, understands the design and function of the equipment they use, can design and explain, new methods and systems for new recording challenges in a methodical and systematic way).

None of this is set in stone but is, I believe,  a useful set of ideas for applying to the work that you do, or aspire to do.

Does it resonate with you?

The last day

It's the last day of July and the last day of the fellowship! I'm on my way down to London (we just zoomed through Doncaster) for one last bit of media and public engagement training. Last night I completed the first draft of a journal paper on engineering and sound recording in higher education in the UK.

So does this mean that there's no more work to be done? Not at all, the fellowship formally comes to an end at midnight tonight, but really this is just the start. I've spent the last eleven months listening, talking, writing and doing lots of things relating to recording and how it intersects with engineering. I've now arrived at a point where I'm ready to put my findings into practice: to describe, advise, explain and demonstrate how recording and engineering are, or could be, connected. I've already got engagement events booked for the autumn, there are articles to get ready for publication, Dave Beer (my collaborator from Sociology) has a book planned. So we really are just at the beginning of the process of sharing our findings.

I'll start that process tonight with a post on this blog that, finally, tells you a little of what I've discovered over the last eleven months in response to the question Is Recording Engineering?

Saturday, 28 July 2012

A podcast all about panning

One of the plugins that I've written as part of this fellowship is a tool which allows two different panning methods to be explored: FranPan. I've just finished a 15 minute podcast which explains these two different panning methods and how they work.

Please help yourselves and share with other people you think might be interested.

Your comments, as ever, are welcome.