Interview with Dave Fisher

Dave, would you be able to take two minutes or so to give a brief overview of your educational and work history?

OK, I suppose my interest in what might loosely be called ‘sound recording’ started when I was really quite young. I’m not sure why, to be perfectly honest, but I became very interested in hi-fi. I think I’ve always been an engineer at heart, I wanted to take things apart to see how they worked; and perhaps more importantly I wanted to build things when I found out how something else worked. So I started off building hi-fi, which used to terrify my mother I have to say, because in those days the equipment I was building used valves and so there were high voltages around and soldering irons littering my bedroom, I think my mother was quite terrified at times – probably quite rightly so, looking back on it! I remember when I was about fourteen, maybe thirteen actually, I built a design of a hi-fi pre-amplifier which was published by Mullard, and had four EF86 valves in it and I also built a pair of Mullard “Five-Ten” power amplifiers.

So, from when I was really quite young I had decided that I wanted to be an engineer. At school I wanted to do maths, physics and chemistry; but my school, once they knew I wanted to go in to electronics, effectively wouldn’t let me and said I should do maths, further maths and physics and so that’s what I did at A-level. Then, I don’t quite know why, I think the school just said “would you like to apply for Oxbridge?” and I said “I don’t know, I suppose so, alright then….”. So, I applied to Cambridge, got a place and read what was then called Mechanical Sciences. After university I applied for a number of jobs. I’d had a friend who I haven’t actually been in touch with for a long time, last time I heard he worked for Grass Valley though in the meantime he worked for the BBC. He was also very interested in hi-fi and we ended up building hi-fi pre-amplifiers during our undergraduate years, most of which I think I wouldn’t want to have visited on me now!

So you were doing mechanical science at the time…

Well, it was called Mechanical Sciences but it was because, I think, the course had been titled that many years before when engineering was a sort of dirty word. I did what was called the electrical option of the Mechanical Sciences Tripos. What we really did was mechanical engineering, structures, materials, fluid mechanics, thermodynamics, along with a few others I can’t remember, as well as heavy electrical engineering and electronics. So when I left Cambridge with what you could loosely describe as a general degree specialising in electrical/electronic engineering, I applied for jobs with EMI, Decca and the BBC. They all offered me a job, actually. I had in my mind that working for EMI would be all about Abbey Road Studios because The Beatles had already happened by then, but they actually offered me a job at what they called their central research laboratories and at the time it would have been designing colour television cameras. Decca offered me a job in their microwave branch, designing radar systems but I had really decided that I was an audio man so I took the job at the BBC.

I went into Operations and Maintenance and I started working in what was then the BBC film department at Ealing. In those days inserts to most television dramas and a lot of programmes were made on film because they were the only small, portable, lightweight cameras; the only alternative was an outside broadcast unit, so there was a lot of film. My first job was maintaining Nagra portable quarter-inch tape machines, I then did some radio microphones (because film had a lot of their own radio microphones) and maintained an awful lot of dubbing theatres. So, rather interestingly, the bandwidth was from more-or-less DC, for a remote control system for 16 mm sep-mag [separate magnetic soundtrack] machines, up to 175 MHz for the radio mic’s. After I’d worked there a while I move into video tape recording in Television Centre. I then moved into the BBC’s Engineering Training Department – I was there for a year on attachment and then I went back into television sound at Television Centre. Then I got a full-time job at the Engineering Training Department and ended up fundamentally teaching television sound operations which is what I spent most of my time doing.

After that I applied for a job at the University of Surrey, running the Tonmeister course. I think I’d sort of intended this to be a career move that would last three or four years but, for all sorts of reasons, I stayed there twenty seven years.

That twenty seven years has just come to an end and you are now Emeritus Professor of Sound Recording.

Yes, which of course fundamentally means I’ve retired although I’m still on the University’s books: I have a contract with them but they don’t pay me anything!

Which courses did you teach at Surrey?

Well, I was effectively the programme director, although that title wasn’t always used at the start of the Tonmeister course. The particular lecture courses I taught covered a big range – it might be better to describe what they were rather than what they were called. Firstly, I taught every year of the course: first, second and final years. I taught anything to do with operational recording, very bluntly: where to put microphones. I also taught, when I first went there because I was the only person in the Music Department who had any knowledge of it, the electronic engineering aspects: the things to do with network analysis (networks in the electronic engineering sense). I taught audio engineering, fundamentally, so I’d do things like modulations schemes, AM and FM, I taught digital audio principles, error correction. I taught audio recording systems such as F1, CD and DAT, in their day. I taught “where to put microphones”, particularly for second and final years, quite extensively. I would talk about the engineering, in the electronic sense, of large systems such as desk topography. I did for a while teach acoustics, really only room acoustics and psychoacoustics because I know almost nothing about musical acoustics. I also taught video systems – I’d worked, remember, in video tape recording – and in the days when you needed real electronic engineers to operate them, let alone to maintain them because of the ‘maturity’ (or perhaps “immaturity”) of the equipment (which is I suppose how we’d describe it now). I think that’s about it!

OK, so focussing then on the operational recording and the “where to put microphones”: clearly those were skills and knowledge that you had acquired during the time when you were at the BBC: presumably there was a formal training process and then you became involved in delivering that training?

That’s right. The BBC at the time ran, for aspiring sound supervisors, something called The Sound Training Course which lasted six months, which was one month of formal lectures at Wood Norton (the engineering training department), followed by five months of attachments to various sound supervisors, effectively mixing their programmes for them, with them hanging about watching what you were doing and slapping your wrists occasionally.

When you have taught and been taught sound recording, just to focus at the moment where to put microphones, to what extent did you feel that you were employing skills or understanding or knowledge that you had acquired in studying to become an engineer? To what extent did it overlap, or resonate, with the training that you’d had at Cambridge which was essentially a broad engineering training?

I would say significantly. I’ve always felt that the best balance engineers are the ones who understand the engineering, in the electronic engineering sense, of the systems, the equipment that they are using, well. I think that there are an awful lot of very good balance engineers who don’t, and it doesn’t make them ‘not good’ but it may, and I think it often does, make them attribute things which they do to some bizarre cause: if we’re not careful we go down the “oh, we’ve got to use the yellow guitar lead, because it’s the only one that sounds right”. It’s not because it’s yellow. It may well sound better, but it’s not because it’s yellow. It’s down the ‘gold-plated mains plug’ route: “Oh, gold has far better contact, you get far less noise”, well you do but probably after you’ve put the plug in a few times all the gold has worn off anyway. I think there is this danger of the ‘magic fairy dust’ and it seems to me the best balance engineers have always been the ones who understand both [good balance and the engineering behind the systems and equipment]. I have to say I’ve met a number of balance engineers who are very technical and not very good, and some who were very un-technical and very good. However I think the very best ones understand both because it seems to me that if you understand the technology or, maybe technology isn’t the right word, the scientific basis of the job you’re doing, then you can generalise things. So, if you know what an uncorrectable error sounds like on a digital recording you attribute it immediately to be a fault probably with the media that you’re using. Consequently you don’t think “ooh, that’s a funny noise isn’t it? I bet that’s because there’s a full moon, we’re going to have to be careful not to record then”. And then you avoid the full moon for the next few years and then, gosh, there are no uncorrectable errors so that must have been the cause – there’s a danger that you go down this bizarre cause and effect route whereas if you have enough knowledge of the technology, you know and hence you can solve the problem immediately.

It’s silly things like … if you sit behind an analogue sound desk there’s a great danger that, if you’re trying to do a balance, when you start off, if something isn’t quite loud enough, you make it louder: you push the fader up a bit further. And then something else isn’t quite loud enough so you push another fader up a bit and then you look at the output meters and you see that it’s all peaking more than it should, and there’s a danger that now what you do is  get hold of the group’s or the main fader and you pull that back a bit. Then all of a sudden it’s not loud enough, and you think “I’ll have a bit more violin” and you go on like this for a while and after a while it’s all very distorted; and the reason it’s distorted is because you pulled the main fader back and all of the extra gain is now being generated by the channel amplifiers. But, unless you understand the electronic engineering of it, what goes through your mind is “at the output of the desk, the meter is peaking more than PPM6 and I can hear distortion, so clearly what I have to do is reduce the output level, ooh! I’ve got a main fader, I’ll pull that back a bit” and of course that only makes it worse. So, if you don’t understand the equipment you’re using you’ll commonly end up down a cul-de-sac where things just get worse and worse and worse. Whereas, if you do understand what you’re doing then you’ve got to do the unintuitive thing and open up the main fader and turn down the channel gains. It’s not at all intuitive unless you understand the block diagram of a desk: unless you understand how the signal level inside a desk has to be constrained to avoid it going below the noise level (because if it does that for any one amplifier that noise will be superimposed on the output) and it never goes above the clipping level of an amplifier. But the gain structure of a desk isn’t something that someone who only can operate them has a concept of, but if you do have it you can be a better operator.

So, it’s not a necessary condition, but it helps?

I think to be the very best it’s necessary, but I agree that to be just ‘very good’ it isn’t necessary, because there are a lot of people who don’t have those skills. They may have them intuitively, but why reinvent the wheel every time? Why not teach people how wheels work, and then from then on they can look at a tyre and say “oh, that’s flat it won’t go round, I’ll need to change the tyre” rather than trying to drive the car with the flat tyre thinking “I wonder why it doesn’t seem to go? I wonder if it could be because of that? Let’s change it and find out”.

So it’s an ability to deal with situations which are outside of the normal operation of either what that person is used to, or the way that the equipment should be behaving? It’s the ability to negotiate that without falling back on “it’s a full moon”.

Yes, without “it’s a full moon and we haven’t enough fairy dust”.

In terms of deciding how to make a recording, how to plan from the outset, where does engineering come in there (thinking about positioning microphones, for example)?

Well, again, I think I’m great believer in broad education. So, for instance, a decent balance engineer should be able to go to a location recording site and decide whether it’s too noisy, or too reverberant. Now, you don’t actually need to know anything about Sabine’s equations in order to decide that, but an engineering knowledge may help you to solve a problem that you might otherwise not have some idea about. For instance, if you know nothing about acoustics but you read a bit about it once in “The Boys Book of Acoustics” you might think “I know, absorbent surfaces. That’s what I need to make this cathedral dead-er”. But if you have no concept of how much absorber you really need to make a cathedral dead….You can bring an awful lot of duvets into a cathedral and it would make no difference, whereas you could take two into an office and it might turn it into somewhere where you could record a voice-over perfectly satisfactorily. So I think that, although you could say “well that’s all experience”, you could reduce the time it takes to gain this experience tremendously by teaching somebody some first-year acoustics. You should be able to work out for yourself how many duvets to the cubic metre you might need to significantly change the effect on a recording. Whilst, if you want to make good recordings, there isn’t anything better than good experience, I think that if all you have is experience it will take you years to get enough to make reliably decent recordings. Whereas I think if you have the right engineering, and other background – maybe we ought to say academic training because it could be operational training, it could be engineering-style electronics, it could be building acoustics, it could be musical – there are lots of things that will contribute to the acceleration, if you like, of your experience, turning you into a competent recording engineering.

So it allows you to arrive at the optimum outcome from a particular recording situation…

…more quickly. What’s more, I think it allows you to predict what might happen when you do something, which is much more difficult to do through experience because you need to have experienced that particular thing already.

And it will prevent you from trying to deaden a room by putting a couple of egg boxes on a wall.


So what are the skills that a recording engineer has? If someone, let’s say they were year 12 or 13 and they’ve come to an open day at Surrey, was to come to you and say “I don’t know if I have what it takes to become a good recording engineer. What are the overall qualities that I need?”.

I would say that, for any engineer, of any sort – and I think you could be an acoustic engineer or a microwave engineer or a recording engineer – engineering is about accepting, certainly taking, scientific principles and using them to make something. It seems to me that engineering is about making things. It’s about having a product at the end of the day. The theoretical physicist will go into raptures about Higgs Bosons but they’re not generally going to build something out of a Higgs Boson. I’m not saying it isn’t important, but it seems to me that engineering is about, if you like, much easier science and making it do something. So the first thing I would say about someone who wanted to be a recording engineer is they’ve got to be really interested in it. They’ve got to be interested in how stuff works. I used to ask people when they went out and bought a bit of equipment what they would do when they first got it home, because certainly as a kid what I would have done is taken the lid off and had a look inside to see how it was built. Nowadays that’s a bit tricky, because as someone once said to me in an interview, “oh, I wouldn’t do that you’d invalidate the guarantee!” and also you might look in a CD player and there might be three or four integrated circuits and a mechanism so there may not be very much to see any more, but I think you’ve got to be interested in how it works, because I think you’ve got to be interested in analysing things, systems – not just equipment, operational systems and microphone techniques. You need to be able to analyse them so that you re-engineer them to suit your purposes. You know: “I’m going out to make a recording, shall I use a Decca tree, or shall it be multi-mic’ ed, or maybe I’d like an ORTF pair, maybe I’ll have a coincident pair”. You need to know what the relative advantages and disadvantages are, so as to choose a technique which matches your required finished product. Now, you can do this by experience, but if all you’ve experienced is people using Decca trees that’s the only way you’ll ever make recordings – you might make some absolutely excellent recordings but, on the other hand, if you’ve had the theoretical background of what an ORTF pair might do, or what a coincident pair might do, then you may not often choose them but they’re in your armoury. It’s like: would you like a toolkit with ten screwdrivers in it, all different, or would you just like one screwdriver which claims to fit every screw? Because, after a while, you realise it doesn’t actually fit every screw even though the manufacturer might have told you it does. So, I think this is one of the things that I’d look for in someone who wanted to be a balance engineer: they’re excited about how it works, they want to know how to make recordings.

I think also, and I know this sounds awfully old-fashioned, but if they’re going to properly understand things, inevitably if you want to understand the engineering you’re going to have to be quite good at maths and physics. But, more importantly than that, I think you’ve got to be able to relate things which you’ve learned theoretically to a new practical environment. When I was interviewing people for the Tonmeister course I’d often ask them if they knew how a microphone worked and I was always rather disappointed if they said “yes”, whereas if they said “no” I’d start saying “well OK then, let’s try and design one” and I’d try to design a moving-coil microphone with them. Now these were people who had no idea how a microphone worked, but they’d all done enough A-level physics to be able to work out how a moving coil microphone worked from first principles. Now the interesting thing was that often people could not do it, because you’d say “well, what about Fleming’s rules” and they’d say “oh no that’s Physics, that’s nothing to do with sound recording”. “Yes, but look this is a conductor and it’s moving in a magnetic field, what do you know about that?”, “oh no, that’s physics”, “but this is a problem of applying physics to sound recording”. Now, the person who said “I’ve never really thought of that, that’s interesting isn’t it? Yes, I know!” and then we could work out what direction the magnetic field is in, and all of a sudden you’ve designed a moving coil microphone. They might have left thinking “oh dear, it didn’t work, I don’t think I’m going to get a place!” but the reality is that they would get the place because they’d been able to associate something they’d learnt theoretically in one subject area (Physics) with a completely different one (Sound Recording). Now you might say that this is the basis of academic study, but I think it’s also the basis of engineering, particularly the basis of recording engineering.

So that’s: excited and interested in it, understanding the….

…the relationship between the theoretical science and its application and it seems to me that that is what engineering is. It’s taking theoretical, fundamental science and making it into a working, real system. Surely that is what engineering is? And I think a desire to do it is necessary and you’ve got to be interested in the artefact, in the result, in the product, the object, the recording.

As a sound, or a piece of music?

As a sound, I think. Because I know an awful lot of balance engineers who like music but aren’t musically educated and can still do a good job, and you have to say that there are lots of recording engineers who never record music: they’re recording speech or they’re recording sound effects or something. If you’re dubbing Hollywood films do you need to know much about music? Well, the music probably comes as stems but it’s at least substantially pre-mixed. What you need is that the audio object, the thing that you end up with, the stuff that comes out of the loudspeakers, must interest you. You must be excited by it and I think once you are you can easily begin to analyse it, and you can therefore hear the component parts. You can work out what you might have to do to make it sound the way you want it to sound if what’s coming out of the speakers isn’t how you want it to be.

So it’s interest, understanding and an excitement in what you’re actually going to come up with and produce?

Yes, and it’s hard to know which of those is the most important I think. I would have to say that if I was trying to employ someone I’d look for someone who had some knowledge but, mainly, really wanted to know more. If you’re really going to do something well you’ve got to be interested in it. Supposing you were employing someone as a chef and you asked them what they thought about ice cream and they said “oh, I never eat it”, “well, what do you eat?”, “oh, I only ever eat hamburgers” you begin to think to yourself “well this isn’t someone who’s really interested in food”, and I think you can do the same sort of thing with audio engineering: do they like listening to recordings? It doesn’t have to be music but are they interested in it as an object in its own right? In other words, can they listen to the Today programme, not because it’s full of politics but because they’re intrigued about how they get those inserts in, and why the person speaking down a telephone line from Liverpool sounds different, and why they play the wrong inserts sometimes, and how do they physically manage to put it together into what comes out of the speakers.

So it’s those three things: how you get it to work, how that relates to an understanding of the theory, i.e. maths and physics, turning that into a practical outcome (which is what engineering is) and an interest and fascination with the outcome.

Yes and, of course, you’ve then got to develop the listening skills to tell whether something meets some ‘criteria’. I’ve always thought that you could get ten experienced, renowned balanced engineers in the same room and ask them to mix the same source and you’d get ten different results; and certainly, years ago at the BBC, I think I could probably listen to things on air and I could have a really good guess at who’d mixed them, as long as I knew the people. However if you then took a first year sound recording student and asked them to do it, you would then get an eleventh result and most people would probably not like it much; but most people would listen to the ten different ones that experienced people had produced, and think that any of them were quite good. In other words there’s a sort of acceptance window into which, once you have this skill and experience, your output will fall. I think that is where the honing comes in, the experience comes in. The fact that they’re different doesn’t necessarily make any of them better or worse than the others – it’s like trying to compare apples and oranges: which one is the best? Well, it depends which one you like most. If you listen to something mixed for Radio 3 it’ll sound quite different from something mixed for Classic FM; and you may well find that people who are mixing for both, mix appropriately. Maybe Classic FM isn’t the best example. Let’s say that Radio 2 mixes will sound different to the same piece of music on Radio 3 and it might be certain people in the same organisation doing that. Which is right? Well, the answer is that they’re both appropriate for their intended audience.

And presumably if you want to make money as an engineer or if you want to come up with a useful artefact at the end then it has to meet a specification?

If nothing else it has to meet the spec of the producer.

Which leads me on to another interesting thing, because one of the things that other engineers are quite used to working with is a design specification and they then measure their success against that design specification. Probably if you’re an audio engineer who designs and builds CD players there are more objective ways in which you can reassure yourself that you are conforming to some kind of specification. At the other end of the scale you’ve got a pop single which you’re mixing and mastering, and there maybe some un-written rules – this acceptance window that you talk about, which at the moment probably is “very loud, quite compressed” along with various other attributes.

And of course this is partly fashion and, hence, changes with the years.

So if you mixed a kick drum as low as you would have done in the mid-seventies, you’d probably be quite out of place now.

Yes, you probably wouldn’t get much work!

And if there wasn’t this change in fashion, as well as a change in technology you wouldn’t be able to tell when something was recorded, you wouldn’t be able to tell the seventies from the nineties. What about the technical review process that happens in broadcasting, but doesn’t happen so much in other aspects of sound recording or sound transmission. Is that a red herring in that it just relates to an attempt to avoid damaging the transmitter [via unacceptable programme levels]?

I’m not sure what, nowadays, a broadcast technical review would involve. When I worked in VT , for instance, we reviewed all tapes before they were transmitted to check that they were suitable for transmission, and this would involve checking that the signal levels were correct, the tape didn’t drop out, there were no discontinuous edits that would have made the picture roll or whatever. There were some safeguards in the signal chain; there were audio limiters on the input of analogue transmitters so that, if they were AM, they didn’t melt the modulator and, if they were FM, they didn’t produce extra sidebands that interfered with the next transmitter. There were always standards that were rather implicit I suppose. When, for instance, the BBC owned its own engineers you couldn’t go out and buy any equipment, someone in an engineering directorate in Capital Projects had tested it out of existence and approved it as suitable for the BBC. It’s a bit more tricky now. You can still, of course, check the signal level on a recording doesn’t exceed ‘something or other’. With a digital recording you can’t exceed 0 dBFS anyway and if it’s up there for a long time with successive samples then you call that clipping. So I’m not quite sure what ‘technical review’ means, whether it’s more production based: you listen to it and you check that it sounds the way you think it should sound; that it’s not clipped, it’s not below the noise floor.

There aren’t any guidelines relating, for example, the level of dialogue relative to background music?

I’m not sure whether there are any published standards in the film industry but there are certainly standards which are applied to dialogue level by dubbing mixers. But you might say, if you go back long enough, in the days of records being released on vinyl there were certain things you couldn’t do. You couldn’t have a large out-of-phase signal because it would make the groove depth go to zero and, of course, when the cutter head leaves the surface of the disk who knows where the replay stylus will land! So at the mastering stage if, for instance, you panned the kick drum fully left it would probably produce a very large S [side] component which might well reduce the groove depth to below something adequate and the result of that would be that the mastering engineer would make LF [low frequencies] mono whether you liked it or not. So in those days you would never dream in the studio of not panning the kick drum central, because you knew that if you did the mastering would put it back to the middle, so you might as well put it where you wanted it in the first place. There was a lot of discussion in the 1970s about de-emphasis limiters at transmitters, in order to avoid over-modulating FM transmitters. One of the things that the BBC did was have limiters which, instead of reducing the whole signal to avoid over-modulating the transmitter, would reduce the pre-emphasis so that the average level was kept up, but when you then de-emphasised it in your receiver the HF fell if level, so the frequency response changed if there was a large amount of HF [high frequency content]. Of course, there was a lot of annoyance, if you like, back at the sharp at end in Television Centre that you were generating a mix which didn’t end up coming out of the transmitters and you’ve then got the ultimate engineering versus art question. On the other hand, if you were doing a live programme you listened back off air from the transmitter and so you could do something which you knew, because you were listening to it, produced a satisfactory result at the transmitter output, even though that might not be what you might have started off initially wanting to do in the studio. Now, if you like, that’s the same as the mastering level on the vinyl disk. So it may well be that there were, well it’s unfair to call them unwritten rules perhaps, but I think certainly in a closed organisation such as the BBC and doing live transmissions, a lot of it was self-imposed because you wanted to maintain your own reputation, you wanted to hear coming out of the transmitter the signal that you thought you’d sent to it.

So you were constrained by your knowledge of what was going to happen to the signal down the line?

But unless you knew that it was a pre-emphasis limiter at the transmitter how could you have done anything about it? We’ve gone back to a need for a technical understanding of that which you are using. It’s a bit like driving a car. You don’t really need to know the details of how hydrocarbons burn in your cylinder but, on the other hand, if you’ve got no concept of what the gearbox or the clutch do you’ll probably never be a racing driver or a rally driver. You can still take the kids to school quite safely but if you want to extend you really need to know a bit about how it works, and the more you know, it seems to me, the better. I don’t think knowledge is ever a bad thing.

Also that knowledge of how it works allow you to understand the constraints which then might…

…change the way you do the sharp end in order to get the result that you want. It was always the way with analogue tape recording that you knew if you sent some things to an analogue tape machine they would come back sounding different because, for example, you can’t record peak level 10 kHz because the tape wasn’t capable of recording it and playing it back. So you knew that you would send certain things to the tape machine in a certain way and expect them back in a different way. You knew that there were some things that you could lay with a trowel on the tape, and the tape machine would change the sound in the way you wanted it changed. But woe betide you if you wanted a harpsichord to sound just like a harpsichord and you tried to lay it at peak level because it would come back sounding top-less.

Does that mean that there is less requirement now to be an engineer because we have, for example, 24 bit recording?

No, I think it’s only changed. OK, you could now say that recorders are effectively transparent: they either clip or they don’t and as long as it’s not buried in the noise it’s alright. But we’ve still got the problem of: how does the desk behave? How does the signal chain behave? Does it matter whether you press the EQ button and put all of the knobs to ‘flat’? Does it sound the same as if you take the EQ out of circuit? It depends on the desk, it may or may not, but if you don’t understand that there’s a difference electronically between taking the EQ out of circuit and just putting its knobs to the nought position you may wonder for years why one day it sounded good and the next day it didn’t sound quite the same. I agree that, certainly with recorders, a lot of the need has changed but in my day people were worrying about how FM transmitters behaved but maybe nowadays we should be saying “well, it’s only the same as worrying how an mp3 coder works, how is this balance that I’m doing now in the studio going to sound when listened to on internet radio?”. So I don’t think there’s any less need, though the specifics have moved, have changed.

What about ‘golden ears’? Are they essential in sound recording and audio engineering?

When I first started my career as a maintenance engineer, I was firmly of the opinion that if “it couldn’t be measured then it couldn’t be heard”, and was at best sceptical about the “golden ears” brigade who seemed, amongst other things, to claim that they could hear the difference between different sorts of cable.  But then I heard about a technical fault that had been identified by listening.  The BBC was innovative in the introduction of digital networks to convey broadcast signals from studio centres to transmitters; their 13-channel PCM system was introduced in 1972.  Engineering this in the early 1970s entailed designing all the equipment themselves.  The story goes that the analogue to digital converters were tested in a similar way to analogue audio equipment (since that was all that there was at the time); distortion was measured at high signal levels and noise at low levels; there was just no need to test the system’s integrity at intermediate levels.  However, when operators listened to programme signals conveyed by the system they complained about a “roughness” or distortion at intermediate levels.  Upon investigation, a fault was found with the ADCs, which introduced distortion over only a small part of the signal dynamic range – a fault that would never have been imagined and hence was not tested for before it was heard.  Once alerted to the fault, however, it could be measured and corrected.  This isn’t in the same league as much of the hype from the Hi-Fi industry, but it certainly taught me to respect the views of people with better ears than my own, and was an early introduction to the idea that art (the listening skills) and science (the electronic design) not only go hand in hand but have features which inform each other.

In your predecessor John Borwick’s 1973 paper, “The Tonmeister Concept” he describes the Tonmeister course as it was then and it’s changed a great deal since then I’m sure….

…I think that the principles are still the same…

…but he makes the point, to paraphrase, he says “we believe that this training of Arnold Schoenberg’s ‘sound men’ [which he described in various writings on sound recording in the 1940s] should happen in a music department”. Is that where you think it should happen?

I think the short answer to that is “no” and the long answer is “yes”. I don’t think it need happen in a music department, but if what you want to do is to get people who can record music then it’s highly desirable to do it in a music department. I think it’s also highly desirable that people have musical understanding. You could look at this at a very basic level and say, if you’re going to record Purcell and Mahler, you’re going to expect them to sound different and, if you expect the performances to sound different, then as a balance engineer you ought to expect your recording to sound different. It may affect where you put microphones but, perhaps more importantly, it will affect whether or not when you sit behind the desk you think “mmm, this is the way it ought to sound”. For instance, if you were recording film music, you would expect it to be closer, probably, than if you were recording Gregorian plainchant in a cathedral. So if you went to the cathedral and thought, “oh, this is awfully distant, I’m going to have to hem it in” you might end up with microphones two feet away to make it ‘as close as you thought it ought to be’. But, if you knew how it ought to sound, and I agree that this is a rather remote and extreme example, but if you understood that Gregorian plainchant was designed for big spaces and to be listened to from quite a long way away and you think “well, that’s the sort of overall mix that I’m aiming for” it would affect your whole perspective of what you should be doing when you were sitting behind the desk and deciding whether it sounded right. So I think that having a good musical education is a good thing, but we’ve got to remember that there are many balance engineers who don’t record music.

I think, if we take the Tonmeister course as an example, when I was very first there one of the things the Department did was that it tried to recruit people who were fundamentally musicians who wanted to know a bit about where to put microphones, and sometimes those were the students it got. Generally, of course, it got students who wanted to be balance engineers, or at least audio engineers – not necessarily balance engineers because there have been an awful lot of Tonmeisters who have gone into academia, there are a lot who have gone into equipment design, an awful lot have gone into maintenance. Although, I think that on day one of the first year of the Tonmeister course if I’d asked “how many people want to be balance engineers?” it would have been ninety nine percent of the people; but, by the final year people had seen that there were other jobs and they’d decided “oh well, maybe I want to go in to maintenance” or “maybe I want to be an editor”. Whereas if I’d asked people on the first day of the Tonmeister course “how many edits do you think there are on the average classical CD?” I think most people would have said “edits?! Surely there are no edits! Surely they’re just brilliant performances and they play it from start to finish?”; and if you’d said to people “well, there might be three or four hundred, there might be even more than that” they’d have not believed you. I think that as you become more experienced you may well discover that there are jobs that you didn’t know existed at the start, that you happen to enjoy and perhaps are brilliant at: classical editing for instance. Now, you might say that in order to be a classical editor you actually ought to be a very good score-reader, because you’ve not only just got to follow the producer’s marked up version of where to put the edits but it would be awfully handy if you could say “hang on, they didn’t play that right. They played a chord which sounded alright but it wasn’t the one written down. Maybe I should draw this to the producer’s attention?”. OK, the producer should have noticed it in the studio, but that’s a very high skill at music. Whereas, if you want to be a pop balance engineer you may need much less musical knowledge in the academic sense but you probably need a much wider range of genre knowledge about the music itself to know how it should sound, because it’s rapidly changing: it’s not like classical music that, once established, stays reasonably constant.

So, I think music education is very valid, however, just to go back to when I started teaching the Tonmeister course: we used to lose a lot of people from the Tonmeister course who, after a year, would decide they would really rather be musicians and changed from the Tonmeister course to the Music Course, and I said “this is a waste, because it means we’ve got spare places on the Tonmeister course: we ought to start of trying to recruit people who actually see their career path as going into audio engineering, in one form or another; not people who see their career path as ‘something to do with music and maybe it’ll be recording’”. We changed the way that we interviewed people and it made our drop-out rate go from about forty percent to almost zero percent over the period of three or four years. Hence, I think that I would say that if you want to be a balance engineer then that’s the most important thing and you musical ability is secondary, but what musical abilities you have may determine the branch of audio engineering that you can really find a niche in; and I think a musical education would be useful even if you’re going to be an electronic design engineer. If you’re going to design MPEG coders you’ll more likely hear the artefacts if you’re a musician, because you’re more likely to have heard live music. You’re more likely to realise that ‘that funny noisy thing’ is actually the HF that was supposed to be there, and that ‘that funny bubbly thing’ is an artefact that the coder has just generated and shouldn’t be there. So, a real musical interest, maybe an interest in being a performer, is very useful indeed and academic musical training is very useful for some jobs, but not for all. However I don’t think that the musical interest is ever a loss. I mean, I did thermodynamics on my degree course and that means that I can fix the air conditioning and quite often that’s more important than being able to make a good recording!

You said you studied fluid dynamics as well, so acoustics was part of that?

Sort of! But I can fix the central heating for you as well, and it does mean I can hold my own with air conditioning engineers who come and say that there’s nothing wrong with the air conditioning!

I suppose this is a question that you might typically get asked by a parent at a university open day: Is sound recording a stable occupation?

I don’t think that there are any stable occupations these days and I think that one of the interesting things about sound recording is that news of its death has been grossly exaggerated. It’s interesting that, whilst the number of medium-sized studios has fallen over the last few years a lot, that might only have been because, if we were to spool back thirty years, then we’ve probably got more now than we had then. Maybe there was a boom that the industry couldn’t quite support. When vinyl records wore out, you had to go and buy another one (well, maybe) but now that CDs last for (almost) ever (certainly a human lifetime anyway), maybe now that you’ve got ten recordings of The Four Seasons you don’t need another one. Now, the musicians will want lots of different versions of it, different performers, different conductors perhaps, but the average person may be happy with only one of each major work and, if it never wears out, then OK. So maybe we just had this glut of studios in the late seventies/early eighties, when CD started: when everything was being re-recorded. Maybe we’ve come to the end of that. But, there seems, to me, to be no end of Hollywood films. They go to video as well, maybe quickly, but I think the film industry is better than it ever was.

And we now have eighty TV channels…

I was going to say, my Freeview box yesterday found me eight-eight channels. We may turn our noses up at the sound engineering that’s necessary to do a television shopping channel but the reality is that it’s someone’s job, and they’re doing a professional job of it and if there’s no sound then there’ll be hell to pay.

So I think that the reality is that the number of outlets for audio engineering has increased tremendously. For my fourteenth birthday I bought a quarter inch open reel tape machine and in order to afford this I had to sell my ‘cello. This gave me some money, my parents contributed the remainder and I went out and bought this open reel Truvox seven and a half inches per second tape recorder. Now, I was the only person I knew who owned such a thing and when I went to university I had lots of friends who were into hi-fi and though we were all electrical engineers, so we were all into the equipment, I was the only one who owned a tape machine. Everyone owns one now: an iPhone is a recorder, your desktop computer records much better quality signals than my wonderful Truvox open reel machine ever did. So, firstly, anyone can record audio these days: you can download Audacity for nothing from the internet and, whilst if you’ve used Pro Tools you’d turn your nose up a bit at it, it records audio, it records it at high quality, it edits it adequately (far better than I could ever do with my tape machine) but now everyone can do it, for effectively nothing. So firstly, we have to say that if we’re going to provide audio education we mustn’t confuse that necessarily with training. In other words, you might go on the degree course to learn something and then have a job which uses many of the skills you learned on that degree course but which isn’t about that discipline. Does everybody that goes into marketing do a degree in marketing? Well, probably not. Consequently, it seems to me that if you’ve had a good education, an analytical education if you like, where you’ve been taught to absorb information, to analyse it and to synthesize new material from that, you might find that sound recording has a lot of transferable skills. It’s about time management, about making decisions about what is good enough. When I started working at the University of Surrey, Sebastian Forbes was professor of music. When I first started working there I had time to sing in the university choir and I was always impressed at how good he was at rehearsals, because he had the knack of knowing when something wouldn’t get better in a rehearsal.  When it was imperfect, and perhaps even the choir could tell that it was, he had this knack of knowing that it wouldn’t get better with more rehearsal, but that there were other bits that would get better if he rehearsed them instead. That’s a fantastic skill and it’s something that audio engineers also need: you need to know, if you’re running a session, how many takes do you need? Now, it may not always be under your control, maybe it’s a producer role, but I can remember sitting behind a BBC sound desk and going to fourteen takes and then we used the first one because it was actually the best. In the meantime the artist was worn out, and at least some of their confidence had been destroyed, and then the next take wasn’t as good. So it seems to me that there’s more man-management, certainly in classical recording of small ensembles, almost than anything else. It’s making the performers happy, it’s making them content to produce a good performance. Because no matter how good your recording is, if the performance is lousy you will still get a sow’s ear and not a silk purse in the end. Now, those are very important man-management skills so, it seems to me, that if you’ve been taught that sort of thing as part of a sound recording course it’s a very useful transferable skill. Record keeping is vital in the audio industry if for nothing else than copyright management. So there may be another skill that you hadn’t expected: “sound recording? What’s that got to do with keeping records?” but if you’ve got a tape with no label on it then professionally it’s of no value at all, because you don’t know where it came from or whether it’s a copy or a copy of a copy. So there may be an awful lot of transferable skills you learn, so I would also say that, just because you read sound recording at university, doesn’t mean that you have to end up as a sound recordist. Finally, I’d say that even those who don’t end up with a career as a sound recordist might end up with it as a hobby; and there have been quite a lot of Tonmeisters who have ended up with it as a hobby and get great pleasure from it, but are actually accountants. We have a number of lawyers, we have a lot of people who are web designers but I don’t think their education is lost because it’s changed the people they are. You know: educo – I lead out.

Leading on from that you don’t just teach in a lecture theatre or by running practical sessions. There is a culture of how things are done on the Tonmeister course, the TOI (Tonmeister Operational Instructions), although when you first get them you think “right so I’ve got to read all of these have I?…”

“…There are a lot of words, and not many pictures in this…”

Absolutely! But to what extent does that help teach people, having that culture [of a standardised way, for example, of archiving and documenting recordings]?

I think the culture of having these formalised things, which you could look at if you wanted to and if you did would help you, and which occasionally you were forced to look at because someone would come and slap your wrist if you wrote the wrong recording number on a tape, because in any large organisation you’ve got to keep track of them (and Surrey was, by those standards, a small organisation but nevertheless we kept track of recordings over the last forty years), [that culture] does help.

Someone once said to me, “oh, you’ve got very high standards, you expect a lot of Tonmeisters” and they meant it as a criticism. I said “well, of course I do. Why shouldn’t I?”. “Well, they can’t achieve it”. Well, I have a theory that says: if you expect ‘this much’ of people then that’s what they achieve, and I think it’s true of teaching as well: if you teach, and let’s discuss this in terms of an arbitrary unit of numbers, them a ‘hundred’ of something then what they’ll end up understanding and knowing is ‘ninety’ of it. If you actually want them to know a hundred facts/things/pieces of informations about something, you’ve got to teach them a hundred and ten, and you mustn’t let on to them that that extra ten isn’t important. This is because there’s a sort of hysteresis in knowledge and in understanding as well, and I think that this thing with the paperwork – and an organised system of paperwork – is actually an important part of the culture, and some will take advantage of it and some won’t. Just because not everyone takes advantage of it, I don’t think that’s a reason to not do it. And it does always give you the last word, you can say “have you read the TOI?” and, even though they always say “yes”, you can tell whether they actually have or not!. I think it was useful, but I never deluded myself into thinking that it was bedtime reading.