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Science!

by Baker Lee • in
  • FOH at Large
  • May 2018
• Created: May 15, 2018

A partial definition of the word “science” from the Merriam-Webster dictionary is:

1: The state of knowing: knowledge as distinguished from ignorance or misunderstanding;

2: Knowledge or a system of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through scientific method.

Then there is this from “The Science of Acoustics,” as defined by Science Daily:

Acoustics is the branch of physics concerned with the study of sound (mechanical waves in gases, liquids, and solids):

  1. A scientist who works in the field of acoustics is an acoustician.
  2. The application of acoustics in technology is called acoustical engineering.
  3. There is often much overlap and interaction between the interests of acousticians and acoustical engineers.

So, by definition, as well as utilizing an advanced algorithm, I have managed to come to the conclusion that all audio engineers are scientists.

Okay, while I might be stretching my conclusion a bit with a presumptive quantum leap, let me at least state that we are technicians who utilize scientifically devised technologies and theorems to enhance and enable our work.

‡‡         Back to Basics

In other words, we may not be acousticians, but we are acoustical engineers. Of course, not all acoustical engineers are created equal, nor are they necessarily mix engineers or operating and maintenance engineers. Acoustical engineers work in varying fields such as architecture, mechanics, software design, medicine and weapon design, to name a few. To be clear, few acoustical engineers work as live audio engineers. However, to be a qualified live audio engineer, it certainly helps to have a background in the science of sound — as well as a working knowledge of the science behind such disciplines as electricity and rigging. While most audio engineers these days do have a working knowledge of the aforementioned disciplines, the extent of their comprehension is not one that inevitably equates with their mixing skills.

Going back a bit it (when engineers actually had to build their systems with various components), a better understanding of sonic science was almost mandatory, as it was necessary to know and understand such things as Ohm’s Law to determine voltage, impedance and current in order to match the proper speakers and amplifiers. Engineers also were required to do their own calculations when determining how much to delay an ancillary speaker back to the main speaker array. Not to say that these are lost skills, but many speaker systems now come with amplifiers that are preset to their particular configuration, leaving the engineer free of worry regarding the impedance. Digital consoles come loaded with delay settings on each output — with displays in feet or meters — thereby limiting the engineer’s delay calculations to a mere measuring of the distance from speaker to speaker. This evaluation between the earlier engineers and their contemporary counterparts is not meant to qualify one over the other, but merely to show a comparison similar to the skills between an automobile driver who operates a stick shift or one who drives an automatic. While the application might be different, the science behind the technology is the same.

‡‡         The Good, The Bad, The Nasty-Sounding

I have seen, heard and worked on systems that were set up improperly. I have seen engineers redline entire consoles and pin their compressors, then complain about the system. I have watched as engineers push, twist and turn every EQ knob and fader and not understand why they weren’t getting the desired results. I have also set up and worked on perfectly balanced and aligned systems and have witnessed great engineers plying their trade in an educated way to make for a great mix. Despite what some people may think, there is a right (and a wrong) way to do things, and many of these things are even proven and backed by scientific understanding to optimize safety and integrity. As mentioned before, rigging and electrical knowledge is something all audio engineers should have under their belt even if they are not required to tie into power or fly the system.

This knowledge — a modicum of scientific comprehension — is essential to the understanding of what is needed to be safe while doing a show. I have been involved with and have witnessed shows that had power issues and rigging problems. Many times these issues have stemmed from a promoter or planner who has disregarded any discussion of the proven approach or the required detail to make for a successful show. Most of the time this type of response is delivered in an attempt to cut back on expense and optimize profits. While I have nothing against anyone making a profit, I think that ignoring science and fact while chasing a profit only leads to problematic shows — if not full-out disaster.

My father was a contracting engineer who worked around the world building airports, schools and other public facilities.

Upon his passing in 1996, his wife sent me a book she said he thought I would like with a title of Making Things Work. Printed in 1977, the book details everything from aircraft to bridges and even highlights certain failures — with these failures often due to the lack of adherence to proven science. In the forward by the Duke of Edinburgh, he states, “No project can start without some basic work in applied science.” Having spent a good portion of my life working in a technical field, I couldn’t agree more with the Duke’s assessment, and as my understanding of the science behind sound grows, so does my ability to do a better job.

‡‡         Forward Progress, Not Backsliding

We live in an age of opinion where groups such as “Flat Earthers” have being given a voice, and the leaders in our government are disregarding scientific findings regarding the world around us. I can only say that it makes my head explode to even try and listen to Flat Earthers describe their theory, but it is even more insane and damaging for our elected officials to ignore proven scientific fact in order to make a larger profit from unhealthy products. Maybe one of these disbelievers can come to a gig of mine and disregard the science that has proven it harmful for them to become the ground for my audio system.

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