Thursday, 1 December 2011

Project update

I've been busy getting everything sorted for the first consultation event which takes place next week, here at the Audio Lab research and teaching facility in York. The event is now fully booked and there is a waiting list for places (although it's not too long so it's still worth letting me know if you're interested in attending). I'm really pleased at the level of interest and this bodes really well for the rest of the project.

Meanwhile I've had the opportunity to interview a dubbing mixer with over thirty years experience in television and film sound. Neil Hillman is managing director of The Audio Suite and his skills are widely recognised, not least by the Royal Television Society who gave him their Best Production Craft Skills Award in 2010. This interview, along with others that are planned, will form part of the publicly available project archive and, with material from the transcripts of events such as the one in York next week, will inform the research outputs from this project. It was a fascinating discussion and I'm looking forward to sharing it with everyone.

I'll be back soon to report on how the first event goes.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Simon and Garfunkel - The Harmony Game

This was the title of an episode of Imagine, the BBC HD arts program edited by Alan Yentob, which was aired this week ( It was a feature-length look at the making of their final album Bridge Over Troubled Water which was released in January 1970. I grew up with this album but had not heard it for many years when I watched this documentary which featured extensive interviews Simon and Garfunkel but also the engineer and producer Roy Halee. Clearly S&G both felt that his input had a huge influence on the sound of the album but what also struck me was the extent to which they kept referring to him as an engineer, often with superlatives such as 'genius' appearing in close proximity.

Embarking on this project has made me super-sensitive to word 'engineer' when I come across it in any context relating to audio technology and the act of the recording sound in particular; and it kept cropping up in this piece. Because Halee is also credited, along with S&G, as producer on this record there wasn't always a clear distinction between what he was doing in this role, and when he was acting as engineer but there were some examples of when others present during the recording felt he was doing what they considered to be 'engineering' things well. An example of those was moving around a room clapping his hands and identifying positions for instruments and the microphones with which to record them. So as I'm watching this, I'm thinking 'is that engineering?'.

A hand clap is an impulse-like sound and impulses are useful in audio testing and evaluation because they are short-lived and contain all frequencies of sound. The latter means that we can test something (the response of a room in a particular position in this case) at all those frequencies and the former means that the original sound dies away fast enough for us to actually be able to hear the room's response to that sound. But atucally a clap isn't a perfect impulse - it isn't as brief as we'd really like and it doesn't contain equal amounts of energy at all frequencies. When I go out and measure the impulse responses of buildings for use with convolution reverbs (which can be found here) I take a load of expensive kit, record a swept sine-wave in the room, and then do some processing on that recording to give me a very-nearly perfect impulse response. Even if that technology had existed back in the very late sixties, it wouldn't have been practical for Halee to go to these lengths to evaluate the room response at candidate spots for placing the drum kit would it? I'm not aware of anyone who would do this even now (I certainly don't when I'm recording - only when I'm doing the specialist job of measurements for convolution reverbs); the 'clap and listen' test suffices, right? Thinking of some current definitions of engineering in general (i.e. outside of audio recording) which seem to be along the lines of 'the use of quantitative and analytical methods, along with scientific knowledge, to solve problems', does the 'clap test' measure up? Does it matter or not if it measures up? Do we wish to limit our definition of engineering to the one I've just given? Given the sheer quality of the human auditory system (astonishing dynamic range capability for starters) and the fact that this is the 'target receiver' for any audio recording, isn't the ear, rather than a measurement microphone the best thing to use in such a situation? Is it ever right to abandon the sense of hearing and defer to the measurement of machines when recording? But is hearing a way of actually quantifying an audio signal or is it impossible to separate sense from perception? Do engineers only measure rather than sensing and perceiving?

I don't think there are simple, straightforward, catch-all answers to any of these questions; that's why I'm doing this project! But when I watch a documentary like this which takes the time to explore the writing, performing and then recording of an album, these are the questions that rattle around in my mind.

Simon and Garfunkel - The Harmony Game will still be available to view on BBC iPlayer for a few days. If you're interested in these questions I'd recommend taking a look (having a read of this interview too: and asking yourself whether you think what Roy Halee does is engineering.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Have Your Say!

The date for the first public event is now set: Wednesday 7th December at 2pm. The event will be held at the Audio Lab's new facilities at Genesis 6 on the Science Park at the University of York. The main business is a discussion amongst professionals and students about what recording is: the skills, knowledge and experience that are needed and the identity of the 'recording engineer'. There will also be a talk by Russ Hepworth-Sawyer,  co-author of 'What is Music Production?' and with considerable experience in the pop music industry. In addition there will be the chance to have a look around the Audio Lab's facilities, not forgetting the all important break for tea, coffee and biscuits. These discussion groups form a core part of this research - it really is your chance to have your say about what the recording profession is and what you think it should be.

IMPORTANT: The discussion group will be recorded and transcribed but contributions will be anonymous and will be run in line with the University's ethical policy on this kind of research.

If York is a long way away from you  then don't worry: other similar events are planned in different parts of the country, the next being at Glyndwr University in Wales. If you'd be interested in having such an event at your college or university then please let me know via email.

Places are limited so if you'd like to attend then please send me an email (jez [dot] wells [at] york [dot] ac [dot] uk).

A trip to the Royal Society

I spent yesterday at the Royal Society in London, honing my science communication skills at a workshop run by none other than Judith Hann (a household name amongst those old enough to remember Tomorrow's World) and John Exelby (co-founder of BBC World News). It was a fascinating day spent working with other scientists and technologists on effectively communicating issues in these areas and what I learned will be of great use in letting the world know about the outcomes of this project and about what engineers and sound recordists actually do in their day to day work.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Get involved! First event happening next month in York.

A large part of this project is concerned with finding out how different groups of people view recording and its relationship with engineering. These groups are:

1. Audio/recording professionals (past or present)
2. Those currently in higher education on courses about, or related to, sound recording (for example audio/music technology, popular music, audio engineering).
3. Those currently in further education/sixth form/years 12&13 aspiring to a career and/or higher education in audio/recording.

In order to gather views and ideas there will be a series of events in different parts of the country. These will involve various activities, usually over half a day. The first one is currently being planned to take place here at the Audio Lab on the University of York's campus at the end of November. I'll post more information up here as the plans progress but places will be limited so, if you fall into one of the above categories, and you think you'd like to be involved then please drop me an email at:


with your name, age and which of the above groups you fit into and I'll put your name on a mailing list for the event.

You don't have to be connected with the University in any way in order to attend - all are welcome from any of these groups. I'll hopefully see some of you in November!

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Flaming recording!

Now that the project is underway, Dave and I have been beavering away with our initial research. One of the things that I've been finding out more about is what people think engineering and recording are, as well as what they are not. Web forums can be a very useful source of primary material on what people think about a subject but they can also quickly become fractious places. In 2010 an article was published in the Journal of the Audio Engineering Society called "Recording Electric Guitar—The Science and the Myth"and it caused quite a stir on the journal's web forum. In fact that 'stir' became more like a flame war at times. It's an interesting read because it's an argument about some of the things that a sound recordist does, and the decisions they make, whilst going about their work. I'll leave you to see what you make of it:

A slightly less flame-ridden but still-a-little-spiky discussion appears on the 'talk page' for the Wikipedia entry on 'Audio Engineering':

One of the things that occurs with heated debate is that it very quickly becomes polarising, we rush to identify with one 'side' or the other. This is useful in one sense, because we very quickly become aware of  where we are positioned (in black and white terms at least) in a debate, but not at all useful in other ways because it stops us cooperating with, and understanding, other points of view.

I'd be really interested to hear people's thoughts on the issues raised in the above discussions but, in the interests of fire safety, please be nice :-)

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Together as one? A Response to Eric Schmidt

I read with great interest, and increasing enthusiasm, a transcript of Eric Schmidt’s MacTaggart lecture, given to the television industry’s great and good in Edinburgh a couple of weeks ago. I don’t watch a huge amount of telly but I was intrigued and excited by what by what he was saying about the relationship between science, engineering, humanities and the arts. He made one central point very clear: “you need to bring arts and science back together”. The good news that I have for Mr Schmidt is that there have been trends towards just this in higher (and other areas of) education, the bad news is that they’re often denigrated as impure and sometimes dismissed as confetti. Sometimes the denigrators and the dismissers are right, often they are wrong. However, it strikes me that a key question at the centre of this debate is not whether but when should you bring the two together.

I work in an Electronics Department which has been turning out successful Music Technology Engineers for over two decades and generating research output in this area for just as long. On the other the side of campus from me stands a Music Department which established its first electronic music studio almost half a century ago and with whom we have collaborated in teaching and research. I gained my first degree from a Music Department which brought the Tonmeister (‘master of sound’ for those whose knowledge of German is, like mine, non-existent) concept to the UK for the first time. Music Technology has many applications – from the recording studio to the doctor’s surgery (look-up ‘sonification’ if you’re wondering about the latter) and I do not see its importance diminishing. The term ‘music technology’ is a recent one, but the use of science to create, distribute and understand music is hardly new, neither is the application to different fields of the knowledge and technique acquired in this endeavour. We have witnessed the ability of music to enact (or at least powerfully symbolise) social and political change and, conversely, we have also seen how quickly our notions of what music is and how it is consumed can be affected by technological developments. In many ways these have presaged what Schmidt talks about in relation to TV.

There are some who are suspicious of multidisciplines such as music technology, concerned that any generalist who sits across many fields of study cannot be a master of any of them. But these generalists are just the people who can make connections in knowledge and technique which cross traditional boundaries of study. It fascinates me that the ongoing search for mathematically ‘sparse’ representations of audio seems to be leading us back to that centuries-old musical storage device, the score. It was a music technologist who recognised how a method to squeeze more simultaneous conversations out of mobile telephone networks could also improve the sound of concert halls and it was another who made the connection between (then rather abstract) digital filters and the physical musical instruments they could be connected together to intuitively simulate.

But what makes a music technologist (or a media engineer or an archaometrist for that matter)? In order to combine disciplines there must first be ‘a knowledge’ of them. I learned to read, had piano lessons, sang in the choir, created havoc in school science labs, murdered Shakespeare, fiddled with fractions (which are key to understanding why we usually divide the octave into twelve notes, by the way), floundered in languages (hence the limited knowledge of German) and finally arrived at the A-levels in Music, Maths and Physics that I needed to study Music and Sound Recording. This was at a time before all but the wealthiest schools had access to recording equipment and there was no Music Technology A-level, and I’m not sure that they would have been as beneficial to me as those subjects that I did study. Even when I did put these sets of knowledge together, in subjects such as Recording Techniques and Electroacoustics, I also continued in my first year at University to study Mathematics, Harmony and Counterpoint and the piano separately. On the courses that I teach on here at York we do the same: Maths, Programming and Analogue and Digital Electronics are taught as core disciplines whether to aspiring music or nano technologists, but we also begin to wrap elements of different disciplines together soon after our students first arrive. Music Technology Creation and Perception encompasses the Physics and Psychophysics of Sound, Analogue and Digital Sound Synthesis and Spectral Analysis and the work that students undertake reflects this multidisciplinarity (if you want to investigate human responses to sound, you have to design and create sound first).

The potential students we are looking for have an understanding of music and the needs of musicians and can demonstrate a practical aspect to their interests as well as an intellectual one. However the formal qualification that we place most emphasis on is mathematics because it is such a common thread running through Music Technology. This is something we prize more than previous study, at school or college, of Music Technology itself because it is something that equips our students to seek out and understand the connections between subjects such as Music and Physics for themselves. When I see courses in Music Technology that focus heavily on learning and using a single piece of software I can’t help feeling that this is like running a Creative Writing course whose primary focus is current technology for word processing. School children can, and do, use ‘professional’ music and audio sequencing software so I’m not sure that such a strong focus at higher level is worthwhile; training is one thing, education is another. Those who can use, but do not fully understand the workings and context of, current technology will be forever constrained by it and will not be able to make the bold leaps and reveal the hidden connections that characterise the best of multidisciplinarity.

Yes, we “need to bring arts and science back together”, but we also need to consider how and when it is best to keep them distinct so that symbioses between them can continue to flourish.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

And we're off!

Today is the official start date of the Fellowship, which will be running for the next 11 months. Dave Beer and I have already been doing some preliminary research looking at how those who refer to themselves as recording engineers influence the sound of the music that we consume, and how recording as an activity/career positions  aligns itself with related disciplines such as engineering and music.

Planning is underway for the first consultation event which will take place in York (with others to follow, including at the Royal Academy of Engineering in London). As soon as details are available they will be posted on this blog and elsewhere on the web. If you're interested in attending then please drop me an email (jez[dot]wells[at]york[dot]ac[dot]uk)

Monday, 1 August 2011


Welcome to my blog about recording and engineering. Starting this September I'll be embarking on a Royal Academy of Engineering Ingenious Public Engagement Fellowship. The Ingenious funding scheme promotes public understanding and awareness of engineering and until Summer 2012 the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAE) will be supporting me as I attempt to answer the question "Is Recording Engineering?" This blog will record my progress, activities, thoughts throughout the project. But more than that it will be an opportunity for YOU -  whoever you may be: sound recording professionals, record collectors, music enthusiasts, performers, DJs, music/audio/technology/engineering students, hifi buffs, anyone with an interest in music and how it is recorded - to get involved, contribute to the debate, attend events and have YOUR say.

Before setting out to answer the 'big' question at the top of this page, I think I should answer some smaller ones so that you know who I am, what I do and how this project came about.

Who am I?
I'm Jez Wells (Jeremy to my mum) and I've been lucky enough to spend the last twenty years studying, researching, doing and teaching music and audio technology.  I fell in love with the sound of the Moog synthesizer at the age of five (thanks to my dad's record collection) and a fascination with sound production then grew to include sound recording. I studied Music and Sound Recording on the University of Surrey's Tonmeister course then, after some time spent in the audio industry and teaching, I returned to study at the University of York (where I now work as a lecturer) and obtained my Masters and PhD here, both of which were in music technology. In addition to the teaching and research I do in my lecturing role I also work as freelance recording engineer. I also DJ, play the piano and organ and sing with a local choir. I teach all sorts of subjects at undergraduate and postgraduate level, from audio processing techniques to psychoacoustics. One strand of my research looks at devising new methods for synthetically changing the microphone technique for a recording after it has been made. I'm also a trustee of the York-based charity Accessible Arts and Media.

Why this project?
The technology and techniques to capture sound and reproduce it in different places and at different times, are amongst the most important developments in the lives of human beings in the last century and a half. Sound recording has transformed communication, music, heritage and education and the act itself of capturing audio fascinates and inspires many. There are now a myriad of education providers producing thousands of graduates in audio and music technology per year. Universities, schools and colleges up and down the UK now have their own recording studios and the home recording studio has become increasingly cheaper yet more sophisticated, thanks to the advances in computing technology.

This all means that sound recording is no longer something which is heard by many, yet done by a tiny minority. It is now something which many will have the opportunity to engage with over the course of their lives – they can aspire to or become a ‘recording engineer’. In doing so they will hear an event, do something to capture it and then hear it reproduced. To do this they will have to engage with an understanding of physics and technology in order to create something. Using a combination of knowledge of the physical world in which we live and technology for performing certain tasks, in order to create, is something that many engineers feel that they do every day. Yet, the relationship between ‘recording engineering’ and ‘engineering’ does not seem to be clearly defined or understood.

The term recording engineer suggests an individual who records sound by applying engineering principles, but to what extent is this the case? Is ‘engineer’ (as used in many countries) the correct term or is ‘master of sound’ (Tonmeister, German) more appropriate? To what extent can the ‘recording engineer’, a role perceived by some as a glamorous one, illuminate the process and discipline of engineering? Can the recording engineer protect their often precarious and ad-hoc employment by a realisation of the extent to which they are an engineer (via their transferable skills, for example)? Or are they technicians, acousticians and/or musicians for whom the term ‘engineer’ is entirely inappropriate? To what extent should engineering feature in Music Technology syllabi? This project looks to illuminate such questions by understanding and challenging perceptions of the work of ‘recording engineers’ and by communicating these findings to a wide audience.

How is the project going to be carried out?
In the coming months, in collaboration with Dr Dave Beer who is a social scientist here at York, I'll be asking as many people as I can what they think the relationships between recording and engineering are. I'll be talking to professional bodies, both budding and experienced sound recordists and others. This will be happening at events in both the north and south of the country, at schools and universities and via online resources such as this blog. I'll also be getting myself out and about and explaining/talking to anyone who's interested, at whatever level, about what engineering is, what people do when they record sound and the overlaps between music, science and technology.

If you want to get involved in anyway then let me know, via the comments below or by emailing me at jez[dot]wells[at]york[dot]ac[dot]uk or jez[at]jezwells[dot]org. If you're interested and have something to say on this subject then hopefully I'll hear from you in person or online.

Once the project has started in September this blog will be regularly updated so let me have your thoughts and watch this space.