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.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

New improved versions of Science in the Studio plugins

I've just posted new versions of FranPan and FlexDelay which fix the annoying noise that you may have heard when stopping and then going back into play in your host application. This was an oversight on my part - for a hardware delay working genuinely in real time, then the samples that are stored in memory are constantly being updated and so old audio is constantly being replaced with new, even when audio isn't playing back. But for a VST plugin delay when 'stop' is pressed in the host application, time itself stops for the plugin too. This means that when it's restarted anything that was stored in the delay now gets spat out when it starts working again because it wasn't replaced with silence when the host was stopped.

Any plug-in that has memory (i.e. stores previous sounds for future playback) must deal with this and, I must admit, I forgot. This is a poor example of software engineering, because this kind of behaviour should have been stated in the requirements specification against which the plug-in would have been tested, and found to fail, the first time around. Ah well, I guess this episode does highlight the need for good engineering in many different aspects of audio!

(For those of you who are interested in VST programming, I've fixed the problem by flushing the buffers within suspend resume methods - a pretty basic step I should have taken first time around).

The new versions can be downloaded via the old links, which are here.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

ISEE how recording fits into engineering and how engineering fits into recording

Sorry, the title is a terrible pun on ISEE: the International Symposium on Engineering Education which I spoke at today. This is a bi-annual event where academics in engineering get together (this year at the University of Sheffield) to share ideas about teaching practice.

There were lots of really interesting and controversial presentations (the title of one of this afternoon's talks was Is attending lectures relevant anymore in engineering education?). I was presenting my thoughts on where in the recording studio engineering can (or does) take place. The paper that I wrote to accompany this presentation will soon be posted on the ISEE 2012 web site and I'll also put it on the dedicated web resource that will one of the legacies of this project. I focused on three areas of recording/processing: time-domain effects, dynamic-range control (particularly for mastering) and microphone array design.

The presentation was really well received (or maybe they just applauded at the end because I was the last to go on before lunch and their hunger - mine too, to be honest - was getting the better of them). I had lots of interesting questions and comments during lunch. Although sound recording is not something they usually cover at ISEE, it seemed to pique people's interest and I'm really grateful to all the delegates for their warm response and useful comments.

The paper writing doesn't finish there: I'm currently finishing off an interview for the Journal on the Art of Record Production and will then be starting on an article for an engineering journal. Before that I'm back at ISEE tomorrow to hear some more opinions and ideas on engineering and engineering education.

Friday, 13 July 2012

The final month!

Well, my eleven months on this fellowship are nearly up and, now that the teaching year has finished, the work rate for this project has now stepped up a gear from 'busy' to 'very busy'! Dave Beer and I are both writing up research outputs and I've been carrying on with interviews (most recently with four hugely influential figures in recording, see here), public engagement (most recently at the Big Bang Fair in York) and speaking at conferences about the project.

We've acquired many hours of interview and focus group data from well over two hundred people and this will live on after the fellowship in the form of an archive of transcriptions, papers and articles.

Right, better get back to work. I'll be back on here soon with details of how to access the archive and the latest news as the fellowship draws to a close.