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.