Study Hall

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Modular Genius: Applying Existing Technologies To Do Cool Things

As technologies and gear continue to advance, let's not feel threatened and “disarmed.” Instead, let's flip it on its head and blow people's minds.
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Every time a new audio innovation arises, it’s met by a certain amount of resistance. This is ironic and puzzling to me, seeing as our field is driven almost entirely by technology. What motivates this response?

Perhaps fear that technology will replace us. Are system techs quaking in their boots, fearful of being replaced by a system processor with auto-EQ abilities? How many engineers have become unemployed as a result of automixer technology?

More likely, I think it’s fear that technology will make us lazy. I know an engineer who won’t use a dynamic equalizer because it’s “too easy.” He also thinks that RTAs and FFT programs such as Smaart (not to mention consoles with built-in analyzers) make it possible for “anyone to be a monitor engineer” since there’s now no need to “learn your frequencies.”

While this may be true at the low end of the spectrum (no pun intended), I doubt that any professional-caliber monitor engineer feels that his livelihood is threatened by a $200 feedback suppressor unit.

This is an interesting point, though. Does technology make us lazy? Does the prevalence of Spell Check mean that today’s younger generation doesn’t have to learn to spell? Do our ever-present smartphones absolve us of the responsibility to memorize important phone numbers or do mathematical calculations by hand?

With audio technology advancing at such a rapid rate, perhaps too much emphasis is put on workflows that are changed as a result of new tech, and not enough emphasis on brilliant new uses of the new technology to enhance our jobs… in other words, finding the art among the science.

The excitement lies, for me, in discovering new uses for existing technology to do cool things. GPS is nothing new, and neither are camera phones or online restaurant reviews. But when you combine the three, you get a smartphone app that will offer up dining suggestions simply by panning your phone’s camera across the storefronts.

Likewise, online banking has been around for decades, and Optical Character Recognition is coming into its own… nothing new or exciting there, right? But what about the bank apps that let you photograph a check with your phone and deposit the funds into your account? That’s cool!

These are not new inventions, but rather “cobbling together” chunks of existing technologies to allow us to do new, creative, amazing things.

In my mind, one of the figures at the forefront of this “modular genius” is Dave Rat, whose “Rat-isms” include obtaining an accurate of a device’s latency by listening to its signal in one ear while the “dry” signal panned to the other ear is increasingly delayed. When it sounds “in the middle,” the added delay is the device’s latency.

According to Dave, this resulted, in some cases, in a measurement that was more accurate than the manufacturer’s stated values. He also used water and bags of salt to ground the stage at a Red Hot Chili Peppers show and saved the band from problematic RF. (We all know that saltwater is electrically conductive, but who would have thought to apply that knowledge in such a way?)

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The underlying principles of these examples are basic, known by any engineer worth his or her salt (OK, that pun was intended). The brilliance, to me, lies in the application of astoundingly simple principles to find ways to do really cool stuff.

That feeling of “Wow! That’s so cool!” is the audio engineer’s equivalent of watching a magic show. We’ve all experienced that moment of excitement when we learn of a new technique or application that’s just plain neat. As technologies and gear continue to advance, let’s not feel threatened and “disarmed.” Instead, let’s flip it on its head and blow people’s minds.

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