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The Power Of Why: On The Value Of Not Knowing (And Saying So) In Pro Audio

I’ve found that when you introduce yourself as an audio engineer, people expect you to know things. The word “engineer” seems to impress them. Their eyebrows raise, and they immediately assume you’re good at math. (I’m passable.)

Even if you use the less impressive and more user-friendly title of “sound person,” the standard response – one so common it’s become a running joke amongst sound people – still indicates the expectation of knowledge: “So you know what all those knobs do?” (No, I only adjust the red ones.)

Unlike other fields of engineering, we need to no license to ply our trade. There’s no state appointed board to verify us. We either get results or we don’t. The proof is in the mix.

With the expectation of knowledge but no official vetting process, it’s logical to ask oneself “How much do I really know about this?” For example, I’d say it’s probably reasonable to assume that most live audio professionals have some basic knowledge of how a loudspeaker works.

But how many do you think would be comfortable explaining the concept in a classroom setting? How many would include a mention of Faraday’s law of induction? Likely far fewer, and I bet that only a handful would know the formula to find the voice coil’s inductive reactance. (It’s 2πfL.)

Of course, we don’t need this formula in order to mix a show. (And conversely, many people who do know this formula could not mix a show.) So why does it matter? Well, it certainly deepens our own understanding of what’s going on.

This helps us do our jobs better and also has the convenient benefit of assuring others that we know what we’re doing. Would you want to hire an engineer who has designed a bridge but can’t explain why it stays up? Artists rely on us to keep the audio situation under control, and clients and production managers want to know that their money is being well spent.

Like in any other business, if we are asking the “powers that be” to buy us something, we need to be able to explain what it does and why we need it. (Side note: in situations where a less expensive alternative would be satisfactory, be sure to say so. That way, when you find yourself in a situation in which the substitute just won’t do, you’re more likely to get what you asked for.)

Inherent Values

Engineers are, I think, pathological deconstructors. I don’t mean this in a negative way, and I absolutely include myself in this group. It’s a mindset. Nothing fascinates me more than trying to figure out how something works. What’s under the hood? What makes it tick?

I was, to the delight of some of my teachers (and the dismay of others, I’m sure), the “why” child. Just telling me a fact was never enough. I wanted to know why.

I think I was about eight when I decided to build a solar oven. When my mother found me squatting in the backyard over a water-filled bowl covered in aluminum foil, she could have said “That won’t work.” But she didn’t. She gave me a carrot to cook.

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So I found out for myself that it didn’t work, and also why it didn’t work. Foil reflects heat, it doesn’t absorb it. The fact that I remember this so clearly speaks to the power of “why.” I doubt I’d be telling the story if it ended with “That won’t work. Go clean your room.”

So there’s an inherent value in learning something, which means there’s an inherent value in not knowing something, for we must “not know” before we can learn. This is often the sticking point for people. It can be hard to say “I don’t know.”

Some perceive such an admission as a sign of weakness, but I believe it’s the opposite. It’s the opportunity to learn something, which is good because afterwards we’ll know more. Never learning means continuing to function with our existing level of knowledge.

At the rate our field is advancing, it’s certainly not an optimal approach. I see how some might find the relentless march of technological progress overwhelming, although I would suggest [to them] that they’re in the wrong field. I, for one, find it exciting to be involved in a field in which there’s always more to learn.

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