Science and Math for Audio Humans – Introduction

by Danny Maland

Over the years, I've seen and heard quite a bit of grumbling from more seasoned audio professionals that the “new guys” don't have an adequate grounding in the academic fundamentals of the audio field. The perception is that there are a lot of people who know how to work equipment, but very few people who have much insight into why basic equipment works the way it does. The inevitable “these kids today” moan-fest ensues (and accelerates) quickly after the current generation is accused of ignorance, which ends up creating an opportunity for the older hands to feel superior about themselves.

Of course, while the moan-and-groan is going on, the “ignorant” young folks are probably out making all the money and connections – background knowledge or no background knowledge.

Anyway.

I am in partial agreement with the folks who want to see a little more scientific rigor in the lives of technical professionals. I think that more knowledge is better than less, and I think that quite a few people are “out there in the water” without a really strong understanding of what makes audio tick at a basic level. There are plenty of audio myths and opinionations that I've run across which betray a lack of understanding about what's really going on with sound and sound gear.

However!

My suspicion is that this is not actually a “these kids today” problem at its core. Rather, I think this is an issue that runs across the generations. My gut feeling (I have no hard data to back this up, I admit) is that the majority of people out there are rarely encouraged to ask “Why?” I believe that this has been the case for a very, very long time, and is not necessarily the product of a pernicious societal downturn. Mostly, I think that as equipment and professions become more commoditized, less background knowledge is required to hurdle the barriers to entry. “These kids today” are probably just as teachable and mentally flexible (if not more so) than anyone else, it's just that they haven't had to use their full capacities to get into the business. They haven't been encouraged to ask “Why,” and in the absence of actually needing to ask, they just get on with using the equipment at their disposal.

This may seem like just a question of semantics, until I ask this question of myself and my elders:

“Did you understand the math and science behind audio before you got interested in the field, or did you start using the equipment – however basic it was at the time – and then develop an understanding of what was going on?”

I strongly believe that the honest answer, for most people, is that they started playing with the toys first. The play jump-started the engine of curiosity, and the learning of fundamentals began from there. Yes, there are examples of people with very deep math, science, and engineering backgrounds taking that knowledge into the audio field, but I don't know that such an experience is or was REALLY in the majority. (I could be wrong, though! I often am.)

With all this on the table, this next series of articles is going to be an attempt to present some educational topics to the folks out there who may not have been exposed to it before. The idea is that the whole business may start the “curiosity juices” flowing in some folks, by giving them some background material to chew on that goes beyond the latest and greatest product manual. For the experienced hands out there, none of this will be new – but I'm betting that there are a fair number of folks that could be pointed this way for whom there might be some very juicy tidbits for the taking.

Now then – since we're so very rarely encouraged to ask “Why,” what do you say that we start this exercise by asking “Why worry about this kind of material?”

Here are my answers to that query:

1) Just being a “button pusher” is not enough. Yes, it works for a while, and yes, you can engage in a lot of discovery and learning by experimenting with the various toys available to you. However, just being a button pusher without delving into why the buttons are being pressed (not just what they do) becomes very limiting after a short while. Also, knowing to what extent the knobs and buttons can and can not solve problems can lead to a much greater confidence in one's work, not to mention making one able to propose better solutions to a client's needs.

2) Understanding “why” is the gateway to “how.” You may not know how to work a particular piece of gear, or know how to solve a particular problem in terms of “procedure.” However, if you understand the concepts that drive gear, or underlie a conundrum, you can sit down and think through creating your own procedure.

3) More understanding means better navigation of marketing materials. People are always pitching the latest gizmo and gadget, printing spec sheets that claim “this does cool things,” and assuring you that their product is THE solution to your needs. If you know what's feasible and what isn't, and you have some sort of idea about why things work, you will be much more able to figure out what manufacturer claims make sense – and where the caveats might lie. Better product choices mean more effective solutions, and that means happy clients.

4) Knowing the underlying concepts helps you to be innovative. It's true that you may happen upon a great solution to a problem without knowing all the nuts and bolts. However, if you want a consistent chance at coming up with ground breaking ideas and new ways of using existing tools, you have much better prospects if you know the concepts behind it all. (I couldn't imagine Dave Rat coming up with all the cool deployment ideas and products that he has if he hadn't become educated about how sound and audio technologies really work.)

5) The more you know, the more problems you can troubleshoot. If something breaks, or a proposed solution ultimately fails, you're much more likely to find a fix if you're able to comprehend possible root causes.

6) You can apply general concepts outside of AV. Having a curiosity about how things work, and even more, developing your ability to find out about how things work, isn't just handy in one place. You might get an insight that goes across technical departments. You might also discover that you have a knack for seeing the patterns that govern the financial side of the business – especially if you discover a “bridge” topic that ties things together. (For instance, I have this sneaky suspicion that pretty much all of audio is logarithmic, including equipment package capabilities and costs. I might talk more about this later – I haven't decided yet. I could be totally crackers...)

7) Knowing the basics provides a foundation for more advanced knowledge. Nobody goes to college before they've been through first grade, right? As you satisfy a simple bit of curiosity, you get a foothold to propel yourself up to understanding another layer of complexity. As I get older, I get more and more convinced that our most convoluted solutions are just a cascade of simpler solutions and refinements that got progressively stacked up on top of one another. (It's the whole “standing on the shoulders of giants” thing.)

Finally, before we truly embark, let me present a standard disclaimer: Everything that I set before you should be read with the idea that “this is how I've come to understand it.” If somebody catches something that's just flat-out wrong, or if you just think that an idea is debatable, please take the time to start a discussion via the comments.