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Jez Wells: When Is An Engineer Not An Engineer?

Sounding Off
Published April 2012
By Jez Wells

When is an engineer not an engineer?

There's a joke about engineering that's been circulating for so long that it seems almost as old as the discipline itself: "An engineer is someone who can do for 10 pence what any fool can do for a quid”. This isn't the kind of comedy material that'll get me a standing ovation at The Comedy Store, but it has got me thinking about those who make sound recordings.

The word 'engineer' seems to be in demand: these people fix our central heating, install satellite dishes, build bridges, concoct chemicals, make foodstuffs, and, if the credits on CD liner notes are to be believed, record sound.

So what does 'engineering' mean? Is there really anything in common between the person in the white overalls who uses knowledge of chemical thermodynamics to design and oversee reactions between substances, and the person in the jeans and T-shirt sticking a microphone inside a kick drum?

Is 'recording engineer' an appropriate label that recognises the person at the mixer as someone who is applying scientific principles to construct an artifact, or is it yet another meaningless application of an over-used term, which tells us nothing about that person's skills or training? Does a more flattering interpretation of the above joke, "an engineer is someone who can do much better what any fool can do badly” shed light on what the professional sound recordist is able to offer?

At one end of the debate is the notion that engineers are only those individuals who have gone through an approved course of study that would lead to an MEng degree in the UK, and have subsequently gained sufficient professional competence to become 'chartered' (in the UK, using the title CEng), in the same way that a chartered accountant would.

I'd bet that this would exclude the vast majority of those who are credited with 'engineering' commercial recordings. As one contributor to a heated online discussion about Wikipedia's entry on audio engineering puts it: "[I] understand they are credited as "Engineers” on record labels. I don't care that this may have been done by the recording and entertainment industries for 60 years, it is still a misapplication of the title to people not qualified as engineers. The audio "engineers” you describe are generally not scientifically trained.”

At the other extreme are those who argue that, simply because they 'create' something, sound recordists are worthy of this designation. The late Drew Daniels, someone who made much-admired recordings as well as inventing audio devices for the likes of Fender, was clear that when making recordings with microphones, the usual scientific methods of engineering should be abandoned in favour of pure experimentation: "If you want to know how to mic a guitar amp, do it a thousand times” was his exhortation in a verbal scuffle that kicked off on the Audio Engineering Society Journal's online forum over an article called 'Recording Electric Guitar – The Science and The Myth'.

It's the opinions in between that I'm interested in, currently undertaking a public engagement fellowship with the Royal Academy of Engineering, investigating the identity, skill set and knowledge of people who record sound for a living.Please drop me a line if you want to tell me your opinions. Not because I'm kept awake at night worrying that the term 'engineer' might be suffering terrible abuse on record sleeves and CD inlays, but because I suspect that people who make recordings could learn some things from engineering.

I also have a hunch that those who 'do' engineering might do well to look outside of their notions of 'their' discipline and acknowledge the achievements of those who do some of the things they do, albeit in different fields and in combination with different talents. A colleague who's a talented engineer and musician believes that engineers are people who "make things happen well”. We should all ask ourselves how we can do this, whether making records or chocolate biscuits. If nothing else, we might be able to save someone 90 pence.

If you would like to air your views in this column, please send your submissions to soundingoff@soundonsound.com or to the postal address listed in the front of the magazine.

About The Author

Jez Wells has spent time in studios, one music department and one engineering department, and is working as a lecturer in music technology. jjw100@ohm.york.ac.uk

Published April 2012