Monday, 30 April 2012

Your views

My piece in April's Sound on Sound has generated some really interesting responses. You can read the article here: When is an Engineer not an Engineer?

and here are some of the responses I've had, they are each fascinating and thought-provoking, just the kind of thing I was after. Dig in!

"Going back to the early seventies, it was not uncommon to find sound engineers wearing white coats - IBC and Lansdowne, Abbey Road, CTS spring to mind.

Certainly I think that the role of an 'engineer' has changed dramatically.  Back in the early seventies, a studio engineer was not expected to be or encouraged to be creative - that was the job of the 'producer'.  This itself was a similar bone of contention as many engineers resented the 'producer' and considered that the end result was totally the work of the engineer.  To emphasise the point, some would give the producer a fader labelled 'DFA' to influence the outcome . . . . (often justifiably!).

My first experience of working (as producer) was with one engineer at Lansdowne who simply refused to write any text on the channels on the mixing side of the desk on the basis that if I didn't figure out where things were appearing, I should not be sitting there in the first place.  I learned fast!

Also, apart from the core hardware, they knew how to mike up any instrument that was thrown at them.  There was also a training path of sorts through the 'tape op' system - that of course does not exist these days.

Most of the engineers that worked with at the time knew quite a lot about audio and recording, microphone techniques, etc - (they read electronic mags, not Q) and given that studio hardware was possibly less reliable back then, if anything stopped working, they needed to have sufficient understanding to fix the problem.  The more adventurous of them did indeed develop their own techniques to achieve astounding results - but this was more about impressing their peers than their clients!

Disc cutting engineers were even more technically savvy - which i think goes with the technology that they were working with  - and their coats were even whiter!

BBC sound engineers wre totally 'electronic engineers' and had no creative credentials, talents or musicality (actually there were a rare few who had musical abilities) and it still amazes me today that the BBC are totally unable to record and balance a rock concert satisfactorily - you can always tell when it a BBC recording - no vocals - maybe all bass or no bass at all - all hi-hat/no hi-hat - utterly lifeless and a travesty.  I dread to think how many rock concerts the Beeb has ruined over the years . . .

So, the blurring of the role of the engineer and the producer has taken place, plus it seems that with digital recording you can get away with far mor - or to look at it another way, get away with knowing far less.

There is much more of 'fix it in the mix' attitude than in former times.

Back in the early seventies, the company I worked for used to record six titles per session - and I had just four hours to mix twelve titles (from 8 or 16 track) - recently I had the miserable experience of working in a west end studio where it took the two house 'engineers' over two hours to set up the miking of a drum kit and routing stuff through the desk . . . . . . yes, times have indeed changed . . . ." (George Barker)

My training is in research science, but I’ve always had a keen interest in music; starting from the childhood piano lessons, through playing guitar in indie bands, until I discovered deep house music and moving more into production and putting together a home studio. I am currently an assistant professor in virology, but continue to produce EDM. I like to think I’m the only person who’s worked at biosafety level 4 and has a label deal!

To begin with, I have no problem with the use of the term engineer in an audio recording context, regardless of whether someone has a degree or attained chartered status. You can be a great artist without going to art college, and look at the great science that has been done in the past by hobbyists, and the clergy in particular. George Stephenson lacked any scientific education, invented the safety lamp by trial and error and was fairly convincing at designing steam locomotives. I think the current sociological climate, where so many have access to university, has made a lot of people think that, if you don’t have a degree, you can’t possibly be considered equal to those that do.

I also think that the person you quoted in the article who said “the audio ‘engineers’ you describe are generally not scientifically trained”. I don’t know of any engineers who are scientifically trained; that is not their job, and it shouldn’t be.

Science is an abstract concept, which uses experiment to derive a set of conclusions, which establish a working theoretical framework. Engineering is concrete; engineers take this framework and apply the knowledge to a tangible output. The scientists come up with the rules of fluid dynamics, the engineers build the plane, the scientists work out the laws governing transmission of forces, the engineers build the bridge. Building a bridge is not a place for experiment.

As for Drew Daniels’ comment about miking a guitar amp, for from being non-scientific, that is the essence of scientific discovery. Pure experimentation is what science is. If you look at the philosophy of the scientific method as put forward by people like Karl Popper, knowledge can only come through experience. If you don’t try that other mic at that other distance at that particular angle off the axis, you can’t know if it will sound better or not.

The major sticking point I see with the term ‘engineer’, is that is purely, and perhaps arbitrarily used to define the people either side of the glass. You can make a very convincing argument that hearing a guitar part and knowing that it needs a 3 dB peaking cut at 2.6 kHz and that compression from a Distressor will sound better than an 1176 is an artistic skill, rather than an engineering one.

My own personal thoughts are that the recording engineer is artist, engineer and scientist; it takes intuition, technical knowledge and knowing how to experiment to do the job. Engineer is just a job title. They may not be able to play the musical parts, they may not be able to build a mixing desk, they perhaps inhabit the middle ground, maybe they should be ‘artineers’…" (Fynn Callum)

"I am an artist, not an engineer.

I have owned 7 and currently own 5 mixing desks. I am self taught but that means learning from everybody I work with and from reading listening and watching. I try not to describe my self as a sound engineer, but the moniker chases me around. I also feel the word musician to be rather grand in my own case. However, I get paid to play in bands alongside excellent musicians and record and mix, and teach as good audio practice as I can. As long as I am honest and my skill level is sufficient for what I attempt, I am ok. God help me if I ever stop learning.

For a week, some years ago, I worked as the designated sound engineer on a youth project at Abbey Road. I looked cluelessly at the huge consoles in the two studios we used, never having encountered anything on that scale before. When introducing myself to the house assistant, he said "Ah, so you are the sound engineer", and I  knew I was in trouble and out of my depth. I soon earned his scorn, and if I won it back it was by project managing, getting my hands on when appropriate and leaving them off for most of the time. I did a good job but the title of sound engineer was the wrong one. A misnomer.

I met John Oram recently. I absolutely consider him an engineer. He knows what goes on under the hood and at the controls. I am still a something though. I am more of a creative contributor who uses recording and mixing. Perhaps I am a sound designer. 4 years at art college and a masters degree in sonic arts would seem to make that a far better title and helps to expose the engineer myth. Mind you, I drive a car. I neither engineered it nor designed it. Maybe I am a sound navigator. Who really cares? 

Last year I made a sound art piece on my computer, uploaded it to the net and it went viral. The original blogger described me as a DJ. Something of an assumption, but more honestly it was a journalistic device to help describe me, where he could perhaps have said  'sound artist'. One subsequent critic said "where do these DJs get off?" Well I did not call myself a DJ at all.  So if you want to call me a sound engineer, feel free, I can't stop you. And you can't stop me messing with mixing desks." (Paul Chivers)

"First off, you need to know that I am from Canada, in the province of Quebec, where we have an association called the Ordre des Ingénieurs du Québec (roughly the Quebec Engineers Board) that protects the use of the term Engineer. To become anengineer, you have to obtain credentials that are approved by Canadian Council of Professional Engineers that define the study program required to use the title. This protection has made it impossible for people to call themselvesSound engineer in Quebec (the Council does not have a Canadian program for that, to my knowledge) and, as an example, Microsoft was forced to retire the term Microsoft Certified System Engineer (that I have passed) in Quebec (although MCSE is tolerated). I myself have studied Electrical Engineering and am part of the OIQ.
As you could guess from my reading of Sound on Sound, to which I actually subscribe, I am also deeply interested in sound and music. Actually, I originally had studied in engineering because I dreamed of designing and manufacturing sound synthesizers. The opportunities that followed my degree made it that I became a computer systems consultants and I worked very successfully for over 20 years in that field, until I thought I needed some change so I went back to school in 2008 to study audioengineering at a college level.

During this 20 years career though, I was passionate enough about music to educate myself and learn the tools of the craft: I had a personal computer running what was then Cakewalk sequencers in 1988. It must have been version 2 running on Windows! So I started with outboard synths, MIDI and grew progressively has the software upgrades got to market (Cakewalk Pro, then Cakewalk Pro Audio, and then Sonar) to learn about all the technical stuff involved in recording, mixing, mastering music using these tools.

And so in 2008 Im back on the school bench with kids 20 years younger than me, mostly interested in producingbeats with at best a secondary degree (which turns out to be 11 years of school here) so with very little technical, mathematical and scientific knowledge; and teachers just about my age (sometimes younger obviously) with no degree whatsoever but that had had a career (or something resembling it) in producing music in the Quebec music industry. I took this decision with the intention of changing career and make a living in something I loved. This is the place I understood the difference between engineers and non-engineers.

Most of the teachers were really musicians that had learned to use audio gear and computers to record their own music first and then work in studio to record others. They were pretty good at that and I enjoyed learning from them in general. But, I was told falsity more often than not when the course were very technical (think of artsies presenting the Nyquist theorem, acoustical principles, or digital compression techniques to an engineer). And also, these folks had a very negative opinions of engineers in general. They tend to look at me as too technical and notusing my ears enough to a point where I sometimes felt they were condescending toward the profession.

What I found the difference is, is a matter of efficiency. People that approach recording, mixing and mastering from amusical perspectiveear the results they want to get, but they will do a lot of tweaking and trial and error to get there; sometimes taking path that are actually pulling them away from the result. Evidently, people get better with experience, so I could not compete with the teachers in terms of efficiency. But humbly I could get a recording, a mix or a mastering job done in a quarter of the time my colleague would. Thats because engineers, to the contrary I think, will try to define a path to get to the results and follow that path, making changes as required in the process. The former are more exploratory, sometimes giving birth to very good ideas that we engineer will not find, but at the expense of taking much more time in the process.

It might not be the same everywhere, but to me it was a revelation.

After finishing the course, I tried to get a job into recording studios or gaming production facilities, but I could not compete with the low wages that my colleagues were commanding. So I decided to continue doing music as an hobbyist and pursue my former career in technology. After all, it is not so bad being an engineer, even if it is not an audio one!" (Sylvain Roy)