Who needs an expert when I have somebody cheap who says they can do it better for less?
I don’t see why I need to pay to contract a professional engineer to sort things out. I have someone here already who can plug gear in and use it and they don’t cost much.
It’s becoming more and more common these days to hear such comments from people who should (but don’t) know better.
Sure, many folks can “operate something” and have read a book or done a course, but there is far more to doing something properly than swallowing a textbook and proclaiming expertise.
Let it be made clear, there are a quantity of people around the world whose stories are very different from mine but equally deep and varied in this field, this is not a tale of one-off levels of experience. I can only speak from my own experience here, but there are many similar (but differing) stories that go to make the experience that comes with constant dedication.
I consider myself average to good in what I do and have probably reached a level beyond journeyman. But what does a person get when they ask for my services or the services of other accomplished experts? Well to know this we must go way back in time.
(are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.)
We will have to go back to a young boy in the late 1970’s who was taught to be curious and listen to what people had to say by his ever patient grandfather. This curiosity and the incredible fortune of having access to some of the world’s top recording studios of the time allowed a 10-year-old to walk in and ask any question he wanted of people with incredible skill. Watching such people work in close quarters and hearing the results sparked a lifelong passion for all things audio and all things technical. By just 10 years old in 1979 I had managed to be backstage at a massively complex concert (Mike Oldfield’s “Exposed” tour, Belle Vue Manchester), I closely inspected the workings of the sound systems, and spent the whole concert sitting at the FOH mixing desk watching the technical work that went into concert production and engineering. This was the start of an early understanding of what went into the spectacular end results we call shows. By 12 years old I’d helped and worked in tape copying rooms (Townhouse Studios London), performed vocals on recordings in studios (The Manor Studios Oxford), and been out in mobile recording trucks on remote recordings (The Manor Mobile). At 14 years of age, I had begun to help out and work at Audio Workshop – Blackburn, a small business where we made, installed, and rented out sound systems for all kinds of uses. I learned the skills of making loudspeaker cabinets from professional cabinet makers, repairing electronics such as amplifiers, mixers, and lighting systems, there I also learned about the aspects of installing and setting up venue entertainment systems. By 12 years old I was able to solder cables and plugs, by 15 I could design and build basic audio amplifiers from scratch, By the time I needed to learn basic soldering at college I was probably as good at it as the teacher. By 15 years of age I had worked as a general studio construction assistant constructing The Court Studio at Jacob’s Studios in Farnham. I had begun to learn the skills of woodworking from expert carpenters who usually did old style barn construction and restoration. I learned all the simple aspects of the technical system installation, cabling, and loudspeaker installation from some very expert engineers. Later that year I had helped on the design aspects of my first experience in recording studio monitoring systems at E-Zee studios in London. At the same time there I had helped solder the cabling systems, install the equipment and assisted in systems commissioning. By 16 years old I had performed my first lone recording studio loudspeaker installation on what was probably my fourth recording studio build (Barnet London). By 17 I was attending college learning Electrical and Electronic Engineering. Just before my 18th Birthday I was working full time at what was probably the UK’s largest rehearsal studios (E-Zee studios London) as a systems maintenance engineer and sound mixing engineer. There, over a two year employment, I learned live sound and sound recording with some of the world’s greatest artists and crews. I learned all the pressures of the industry by being largely alone in having responsibility to keep everything operating every day. I used all the skills I learned at Audio Workshop to build some custom sound systems, upgrade the existing systems with more reliable components, and keep a high-end 24 track commercial recording studio running and tuned-up. Duties were evenly split between operating equipment and maintaining equipment and that helped cement an understanding of the needs of both sides of the fence in my mind.
During this time, I used all my experience to build my own sound system for rental that was adequate for venues of up to 5,000 people (The Olympia room at the Winter Gardens Blackpool). I learned basic principles of loudspeaker design from new contacts I had made through my father at Southampton University (Dr Keith Holland and others) and had my first experiences of learning and using TEF analysis systems to measure and evaluate loudspeaker systems. By 18 years old I was commercially renting out my own sound system which I had designed and built myself and mix engineering bands on local circuits. I was also supplying some of my excess sound system components to the studies at Southampton University into loudspeaker horn design and getting regular updates through my father on all that was being discovered and brought into question.
By 20 years old I had built about 10 or 12 recording studios, some alone with my own team, some working with big teams, and really learned a high degree of carpentry from the skilled carpenters we employed. I had studied audio electronics and systems and had installed 5 or 6 whole recording studios. I had re-built vintage Neve mixing consoles (Pink Museum Liverpool) and re-built non-working 24 track tape machines for customers. At this stage, I had aligned and set-up 7 or 8 commercial recording studio monitoring loudspeaker systems and built 4 or 5 of those on-site by hand myself. In the process I had re-mixed a current UK number 1 single (Aswad Don’t turn around) and recorded many successful artists.
Often I was the first mix engineer to use the studios I built as part of the final commissioning and fault finding sessions. These sessions required extra skills where I had to fix any teething troubles on-the-fly as we progressed with the sessions. One such random unexpected session involved recording the Liverpool Football Team while being filmed for TV and simultaneously trying to resolve transport issues on the tape machine without the artists noticing.
By 21 years old I had designed and run one-off disposable highly compact loudspeakers systems that were used in the warehouses of the Manchester Rave scene. That system design required super high efficiency cabinets of extreme simplicity and easy removal of expensive components to be recovered for the next week’s use, this was not simple conventional engineering and without these systems many of the events would have failed to happen. The next years involved applying all the accumulated knowledge into providing augmented systems for the newly expanding nightclub scene that was a result of electronic dance music. Systems for this music required more capability than for the “discos” of the 1980’s. Careful system design was required to out-perform conventional systems of the time that were required by rock and disco.
By 1993 I had accumulated a wide, varied, and comprehensive knowledge based on over 10 years of exposure to the industry, college learning, and long and varied informal apprenticeships. My close connections with progress at Southampton University on many aspects of loudspeaker and room design along with digestion of one or two respected books on the subject were now beginning to pay off. Much of the systems engineering at that time in the field was based on trial-and-error engineering with a lot of previous experience involved to get successful results. I was now reaching a level where the accumulated technical knowledge was starting to reap rewards in the application of the understanding of how things work out both in theory and practice.
I am at this stage 10 years or more into my experience at a high level in the technical industry having worked alongside, and under, people who have become big names in the industry. I have done all I can to learn and expand my knowledge and I have concentrated on accumulating a wide breadth of knowledge. I identified at an early stage that in order to ever master my profession I will need to understand as many aspects as possible not just a single narrow subject.
The early 1990’s saw me move from the UK market to Portugal at a time when Portugal began to advance dramatically, another 8 or 10 recording studio constructions, installations and commissioning’s saw the rapid move into digital technologies and new horizons. It was a time of great change in how recording studios worked and needed a large amount of new thinking. I advanced again my knowledge and was involved in much experimental work that was being published worldwide, some later to be included in now legendary publications within the industry. I again diversified into live performance system operation, installing, rental, and design. I worked closely with newer processed loudspeaker systems, and some of the first ever touring digital loudspeaker processors.
Even before digital system analysis had caught up with DSP system processing I was applying the knowledge I had learned from recording studio monitoring design, and all the contact I had had (direct and indirect) from what are now becoming a few PhD works at Southampton University and beyond, to the live systems work I was doing. Diversification continued, I used my studies at college in electrical engineering and read and learned far more about all kinds of interrelated system power requirements for large scale live event systems, and later studio systems. I took system installation and rigging very seriously I studied and practiced as much as I could about show rigging and structures to be safe and proficient flying many tons of gear over the general public safely.
Seeing a need in the market I also built, opened and operated my very own CD mastering studio accumulating many tens of successful jobs for major global record labels.
Returning to the UK, I took with me my experience working in Portugal with many major international artists on tours and festivals, and my work for the country’s two premier concert equipment suppliers and I applied it to a growing company (HSL productions) in the north of England. Here I worked far more closely with now maturing DSP processing systems and partnered up with one of the UK’s leading people supplying computer audio analysis systems. (Steve Badham) This culminated in us becoming UK technical representatives for a major world manufacturer of loudspeakers (Community Professional Loudspeakers). We applied and developed DSP control of some of their premium systems while constantly experimenting and learning the true power of good analysis along with modern processing.
I also expanded this process and knowledge into entertainment system installation. By now I had attended many Institute of Acoustics academic conferences and had taken on-board much of what I had heard and seen, in addition I had, by now, contributed to a few presented academic papers myself.
I was now approaching 20 years’ experience in the industry at the forefront of audio engineering, I had moved on from being a trainee audio engineer to a now experienced journeyman professional where I was now helping manufacturers and installers develop their products.
I had trained in operation of many new interesting systems, become an expert installer of various aspects of system installation and landed my first job as a loudspeaker system design engineer for UK based system installer (Lynx Acoustics), who sold up to one thousand units per year to their installation customers. Now responsible for designing and production of an entire product range of loudspeakers, I was also head of audio installations for a national installer that could carry out over 20 major system installs a year. I was also consulted by major global manufacturers on their product designs and was an early tester of many products (including the first ever BSS BLU series DSP processor). I was, at the same time, responsible for the electrical design of major sound, lighting, and video installs, now newly used data system installation, rigging, structural engineering, and acoustic development of new products.
I learned data system install by buying two whole racks of Compaq data centre servers from a surplus equipment supplier and reading a few good books on the subject while experimenting and learning on my own pro-level network gear. College was not an option, there simply wasn’t time, but I had to learn networking and data system infrastructure. As the industry progressed we were more and more involved with venue wide data system install and design. System processing and automation that we were involved in was the most advanced cutting edge available, entire entertainment venues were designed, tuned and aligned with the most advanced processing and analysis systems and I implemented the latest understanding and concepts. Venues could even be automated to be re-aligned on-the-fly depending on how they were being used.
I soon gained easy membership access to some of the worlds most respected audio and acoustics societies which usually require proof of at least a degree level of qualification in audio and acoustics (Learning in the field you don’t get this paperwork, but fortunately the institutions and societies will recognise proof of exceptional application of knowledge in lieu of certification). I continually learned and regularly used many associated standards and requirements which take sound system design into highly regulated life safety system requirements, I even gained positions in industry bodies which develop these requirements.
Outside of Audio I worked at great depth in venue lighting, show lighting, venue automation, video systems, structural systems, and power control systems. Some of my experience achieving certified technician qualifications.
Understanding disciplines which we interface with regularly was very important for me, one cannot design or install a great system without fully understanding how it will interface with all the systems around it.
Returning to Studio construction and properly entering the film studio building market I managed and ran construction of a high-end film mixing facility (In Portugal again – Loudness Films) where all the latest digital systems, computer analysis, and DSP control were applied, the studio now becoming a well-known quality reference in the industry.
The next project took me to use all my skills in one very large project for Russian Government owned Gazprom Media. I single handily delivered all of the following aspects on-site in Moscow; Acoustic design (not concept), project management, loudspeaker design, DSP system design and programming, data system design, equipment specification, ventilation system design, overall project CAD work, assisting and directing equipment installation, electrical system design, plus, commissioning and testing to achieve Dolby Premier Certification on the first visit after completing the whole 14 room project in just 10 months. This included building the world’s first purpose built Dolby Atmos dubbing stage along with all other rooms.
Following this project and now with 30 years’ experience I finally consider I have mastered my profession. I have demonstrated that alone in a foreign country, working for a large government company I can design, build and deliver a world-class film production facility, alone, from my own knowledge and manage every aspect of the job to a level that achieved a difficult certification first time.
Following this I went on to develop further high-end loudspeaker DSP control of existing studio monitor systems which out-performed some of the most respected systems, then based on this work build my own range of high-end studio monitors and prepare them for larger scale production. I was invited to participate in world standard authoring for two international technical societies and I now work alongside leading world experts in my field, learning all the time. I continue at every moment to progress, learn, and develop my skills, and improve the results I achieve.
Having mastered one’s skills, one can apply all this accumulated knowledge in ways that are invisible to the layman. When presented with problems, new situations, or difficulties one can often overcome them without much visible thought as a large amount of this mental process now becomes an automatic, second nature, background process. While it may not seem to the observer that any calculation or thought went into an action, the truth is it took well over 30 years of brutally hard work and dedication to fully understand and know the processes that just happened before you in the blink of an eye.
To learn everything that was needed to make that split-second decision took me almost half a lifetime.
Without the weeks of watching at Audio Workshop in 1985 and months of work in the studios in 1987, added to a failure in the clubs in 1992, that caused me to study further works of others in 1995 and develop a process that was successful in 1998, it would never have been used to achieve a result in 2002 that lead to the decision to use a process in 2008 that allowed me to discover that I need to do this today in a way that other people don’t do but I know perfectly from first-hand experience that without a doubt it will get you the result you want by me doing something that you never saw me even think about.
That is what you pay for when you get the experience of over 30 years of serious learning from the best by a recognised expert to do something to the highest possible standard that any other average limited experience technician will do really badly for “half the price” four times over and still not get to where I got in just a few moments.
Experts are never expensive. More often than not they are way too cheap in this business.
J. Newell MIOA MinstSCE.
Member AES (Standards)
Member SMPTE (Standards)
Julius Newell Acoustic Engineering (Unip)Lda
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