October 1996

What Education Should Really Be About

by Paul D. Lehrman

Here we are at the annual Education issue of Mix and, surprise! I've got a few things to say. I mean, like many of you, I've been involved in education, giving it or getting it, at one level or another, for most of my life. But these days, to my surprise, I seem to be spending a particularly large amount of time and energy thinking about it because, as the saying goes, I never really wanted to be a college professor, but now I are one.

Astute readers (meaning those whose medium-term memory hasn't abandoned them completely) will recall that earlier this year, in this very column, I ran a lengthy (so long I had to break it up into two parts) transcription of a group discussion about education in the audio field. A lot of perceptive things were said in that group, but there was much more to talk about that we didn't get to. Like what I think – since I was the moderator, I didn't get to do much talking in that group, outside of the occasional bad joke. So I'm going to take this opportunity to dissertate on what I think are a few aspects of audio engineering education that at present, perhaps, aren't getting enough attention.

Music. Even if you never make a record in your whole life, if all you do is edit vocals, record nature sounds, or analyze distortion in a broadcast transmitter, a knowledge of music is crucial to success in audio. Music is, by one well-known 20th-century composer's definition, organized sound. The goal of audio engineering, no matter what aspect of it you look at, is the delivery of…organized sound. Music provides the best system we have for dealing with both the mechanics and aesthetics of sound. Learning music, not just as a listener but better as a player, and most advantageously as an ensemble player, involves analyzing and comprehending pitch, timbre, volume, and placement in space and time – just the things we need to know to make good recordings. All musical systems, especially (if I may be slightly less than P.C. here) the European tradition, provide powerful languages for understanding and communicating these concepts.

Playing music is also a powerful discipline, and discipline is something that is required in the studio even if you're recording the most anarchic punk band in town. The skills that are learned in the course of a musical education, like which voice or instrument in an ensemble is out of tune, or whether two chords don't mesh or flow into each other, or whether a maraca is early or late, or whether one player in a group is too loud, are exactly the skills needed to run a smooth session, where the midrange ring of a snare drum might be covering up the vocalist, or the harmonics of a synthesizer patch are out of tune with the brass section, or the conga player isn't getting enough kick drum in the cans, or there's a buzz coming out of one of the 20 guitar amps in the room and you've got two minutes to find it and equalize it out.

Besides that, there's the empathy factor. If you're recording instrumentalists or vocalists, it really helps to know what they're up against. You don't necessarily have to be a French horn virtuoso, but if you know how the thing works, or better, how to make a sound out of it yourself, then when one starts to gurgle on a session, you'll know that there's condensation in the valve pipes and you can say, pleasantly and knowledgably, "We're getting some water noise in the horns," rather than "Did someone leave the toilet running?" If you've ever sung on a recording, you'll know that when you serve coffee to a voiceover artist, chances are he won't want lots of cream – unless you're looking for a quick way to end the session.

If you play a woodwind instrument, you know that the sound of clarinets, bassoons, and saxes does not emanate from the bell except on the lowest notes, and if you put a mic there, the pickup will be very uneven. If you play violin, you know that the sound of a good fiddle is much better from a few feet away than right on top of the bridge, and you won't stick a small-diaphragm condensor right on top of the player's nose, making her sound so tinny she'll wish she hadn't shown up. And if you play the guitar, and a guitarist who's working on a really tricky solo breaks a string, you'll know that you should stop the session and wait for him to put on a new string and get it stretched out, rather than pull out a guitar the studio happens to have around and say "Here ya go, do it on this, time's a-wasting!"

Perhaps most importantly, you'll know firsthand that playing music is a physical task, and people have limits on what they physically can do. If you've ever played an eight-hour gig, you'll have a much better handle at the end of a grueling session on whether it's worth trying "one more take", or whether the band has gone past the point of diminishing returns.

People skills. Audio is a very high-tech field, and it's also a high-glamour field. A lot of clients like the latter part, without understanding very much about the former. But they think they do, and that makes them dangerous. (The classic example, of course, is the girlfriend in "This Is Spinal Tap" who explains that a record didn't do well because the engineers "didn't use enough Dobly".) Dangerous or not, however, you still have to deal with them. In a school situation, students are used to talking shop with their peers and their instructors who, to one degree or another, know what they're talking about. But in the real world, a client who asks for something to sound "less digital" probably hasn't got a clue about what that means, or what it implies. Do you, the engineer, immediately accede and transfer your tracks to the analog multitrack gathering dust in the corner, thereby wasting a couple of hours and driving up the tape cost several hundred percent, or do you rush out and buy a tube compressor and patch it into the mix, or do you just add some reverb?

When a client issues an order you don't agree with, you have to know what to do: Follow it to the letter, pretend to follow it to the letter, tell the client you can't do it and suggest something else, or pull out the lots-of-lights-and-knobs-but-it-isn't-connected-to-anything producer's busy box. The hardest, but ultimately the most useful response, is to try to find out what the client really wants, and translate that into something that makes sense for you. But that takes a skill most people don't have naturally, and to throw someone into a situation where they have to learn it on the fly, while they're learning everything else about the job, can be cruel. An educational institution can offer a unique opportunity to help students develop that skill by bringing in real-world clients – not just bands, but filmmakers, multimedia producers, and ad agencies – and exposing students to how these creatures work, think, and talk. In some cases, students will immediately swear off the audio industry and go into something less stressful, like defusing explosives for the FBI, but better that should happen while they're in school than when they're in charge of a $300/hour session.

Problem-solving. There's no way that audio schools can keep ahead of the ridiculously rapid changes in technology that have characterized the industry over the last ten or 15 years. With 150 DAWs on the market, each one with a completely unique operating system, and each one having an obsolescence cycle of about 18 months, for any school to try to offer even a hazy cross-section of the available systems is ludicrous. Industry players are fond of telling me, "XYZ is the hot system right now, and if you have any students who know it, they're guaranteed to get jobs!" in an effort to get me to buy an XYZ or two for my school. And they're probably right – except that next year, when XYZ Inc. is acquired by PQR Ltd. and the system suddenly disappears, if XYZ is all they know, those ex-students will soon be back out on the street and in their basements with the rest of the wannabe Hollywood sound editors, recording techno on filthy second-hand ADATs.

What helps much more than teaching how these things work is to teach why they work the way they do. Systems, whether they're digital editing programs, MIDI sequencers, synchronizers, tape decks, signal processors, microphones, or what have you, are designed to handle specific tasks and to solve specific problems. Teaching students how to operate them before they know just what those tasks and problems are, is putting the cart before the horse. "What do we want to accomplish?" has to be asked before "How do we accomplish this?" If they learn to think that way, then when they go into a commercial studio and are confronted an unknown DAW, they won't be stymied when they ask "Where's the crossfade slope linear/log switch?" and find out there isn't any. Instead, they'll know to ask, "What tools are available to get these two sounds to go together smoothly?"

Knowing the answers to specific questions is far less valuable than knowing which questions to ask. If they work from the ground up, they'll learn new systems much faster. What does this do? How well does it do it? What problems doesn't it solve, and is there anything the manufacturer should be doing about that? It will also help with the inevitable limitations and bugs they'll encounter. When something breaks down, how do you figure out exactly what's not working, and once you've done that, how do you get around the problem so you can salvage the gig? If students are comfortable with all of these concepts, and are happy to solve problems on the fly, then there's little you will be able to throw at them in the future that will faze them. As one educator I know likes to put it, "Teach carpentry, not hammer."

History. If Santayana were alive today, he would have postulated that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it, only this time in surround. Today's audio studio didn't just spring up overnight. Our industry has grown the way it has due to pressure on three fronts: artistic, technological, and commercial. Some developments were necessitated primarily by musicians' and producers' needs for new sounds or better fidelity; some were driven by new technologies searching for an outlet; and some were driven by facilities' needs to do tasks faster and cheaper. In actuality, all of these forces, in varying proportions, are represented in just about every studio and every piece of audio gear. Recognizing that none of them function in isolation is crucial to understanding how we got to where we are.

It's also crucial to understand why certain practices evolved. In many, many cases, techniques that today we consider artistic started out as responses to technical problems. Tape saturation, at least initially, was not supposed to make the sound of a recording "warmer", it was supposed to make it cleaner, since higher levels meant a better signal-to-noise ratio. Rock and roll engineers whose meters pinned at the first chord of a song and stayed there until the final fade were often laughed at. Only later, when digital made it so that the sound stayed the same no matter what level you recorded it at, did it occur to most people that the medium itself, more than being just a necessary evil, was actually making an important contribution to the sound. The same with tube mics, tube limiters, discrete transistor equalizers, and so on. When they first came out, all anybody cared about was how well they controlled and/or reproduced the sound, not what they added to it. Plate reverbs were, once upon a time, substitutes for studios that didn’t have the money or space for an acoustic reverb chamber. Same thing with slapback echo. But they took on a life of their own, as engineers made virtues out of compromises, and today no digital processor is without its plate and slapback simulators.

The study of our history is also valuable so that we don't spend a lot of time and energy re-inventing the wheel. Many problems facing engineers and equipment designers today are similar to those encountered years ago. Thanks to technological change, some of the solutions are different, but that doesn't mean we can't learn from the solutions of the past. And we have to teach the failures as well as successes – like why quadraphonic stereo didn't make it in the market, and what's so different about today's multi-dimensional technologies; or why the designers of the AES/EBU digital audio standard didn't include a discrete clock signal, and how this held up development of true digital mixers and led to the current frenzy over boxes that deal with non-synchronous audio and timing jitter.

So yes, teach mic placement, teach equalizers, teach SMPTE, teach delay lines, teach room acoustics and tape deck alignment, teach automation and soldering, teach MIDI. But also teach the whys, the whences, and the wherefores – so that next generation of audio professionals will be able to develop their own tools to deal with the challenges they will face, challenges which we, with all our skills and all our wonderful playthings, can barely imagine.

Paul D. Lehrman teaches at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, and thinks of these columns as his own continuing education.

These materials copyright ©1996 by Paul D. Lehrman and Intertec Publishing