If you’re like me, you have a burgeoning browser bookmarks list (say that three times fast) of Things I Definitely Want To Watch When I Have Time. But there’s an awful lot to keep up with (and as the co-perpetrator of an audio podcast, please accept my sincerest apologies for making it worse).
With so much content out there, it’s a better time than ever to ask the question: how can we be sure the content we’re consuming is accurate? The disheartening but realistic answer is: we often can’t. Not with 100 percent certainly, at least.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, unless one honestly does not care whether the things one believes are true, in which case a career in a technical field is perhaps not the best direction. (Schrödinger doesn’t make audio equipment – that DSP is broken, regardless of whether you choose to believe it.) For the rest of us, what can we do to protect ourselves from misinformation? Each of us has at our disposal an excellent set of tools to help guide us in vetting a claim. The three pillars, if you will.
1) Knowledge of fundamentals. While we can’t be experts on everything, a solid understanding of fundamentals goes a long way towards helping us evaluate a claim. Although the pro audio industry is largely spared from consumer snake oil (such as directional cables and “vinyl demagnetizers”), we in the pro world have been no stranger to questionable marketing claims for decades.
Additionally, false claims are often not malicious, but they are still equally unhelpful. You might discover, for instance, that your fancy new 2000-watt power amplifier is actually only drawing 250 watts from the distro when the show’s underway. Did you get ripped off, or is that the unavoidable reality of crest factor math? Does this digital console really sound “squeezed” when it’s in direct sunlight or is it thermal compression from overheated high-frequency drivers? What are the odds that an object the size of a bottlecap will produce any meaningful acoustic change at 63 Hz when placed in the corner of your home studio?
We can apply our knowledge of fundamentals of acoustics and electronics to give unfamiliar claims context. (If you think the laws of physics are being broken, they aren’t.) This can pull back the veil on a number of concepts that we take for granted. Just one example: the realization that power is a rate (a Watt is a Joule per second) is all that’s required to cast the proper amount of suspicion on the entire concept of “peak power” amplifier ratings. Maybe there’s more to the story. Use what you know to guide you through what you don’t.
2) Research (don’t reinvent the wheel). Despite the relative youth of our developing field, there’s an enormous amount of published, peer-reviewed research available on basically every aspect and topic you can think of. Audio Engineering Society (AES) membership provides access to a veritable treasure trove of well-vetted research and historically significant papers.
If you find yourself wondering about what the data has to say about a topic, look it up! Formal studies are particularly helpful with test circumstances that can be hard to replicate on a small scale (controlled conditions or listening tests incorporating large sample sizes). Many a debate has ensued about the audibility of (pick your topic here: absolute polarity, phase shift, higher sampling rates, MP3 compression, jitter, the list goes on). Does a statement sound fishy to you? Ten bucks says there’s a study on it.
3) Empirical evidence (reinvent the wheel). Now, more than ever before, we have access to a wide selection of very powerful measurement and experimental tools. Pay attention to that little voice in your head that wonders things like “I wonder how wide the filters in my GEQ actually are.” Or “I wonder, what’s the difference between the Lin and Log settings on this compressor?”
We have an unprecedented ability to record, play back, examine, look at waveforms, spectrally analyze, predict, model, and blind test. I’m always slightly dismayed when watching forum debates rage on for hours or days over a subject that can be experimentally verified in a matter of minutes.
Audio “experimentalists” such as Dave Rat and Ethan Winer have blazed an inspiring trail of “Well, go find out.” What happens to the response of a measurement mic when it gets left in a cold car overnight? I know an excellent way to find out… Laboratory-quality controlled environments are not necessary to derive useful, actionable conclusions about a wide variety of audio curiosities in many cases, and to drive deeper investigation.
By using these three “pillars” as guidance, we have – each on our own – a deceptively powerful toolset for investigating a curiosity or vetting a questionable claim. Indeed, this “rationalism” also plays a necessary role in the purely artistic aspects of our work: Even when working in completely subjective realms with descriptors of “warmth” and “brittleness” – terms dealing completely with human perception – we’re still called upon as engineers to make some objective adjustment to improve the situation, so it’s necessary that we develop an understanding of how the fundamental underpinnings of sound, acoustics, electronics, and perception play a role in our experience as listeners.
Besides the obvious benefits of keeping ourselves accurately informed – and therefore safe and professionally effective – there’s also something I find very appealing about adhering to the discipline of “audio engineering” in the traditional sense: when engineers wore lab coats and broke new ground in our understanding of concepts we now take for granted by indulging their professional curiosity. Even though I wear fewer lab coats and more T-shirts than my predecessors, I still place a high value on the spirit of curiosity and experimentation that moves us all forward.