Why I am Not an Audio Engineer

Earlier today articles about this job posting started making the rounds on Twitter and App.net.

I am an entry-level programmer. I have spent a lot of time navigating my way through a lot of postings like this.

I like to call any entertainment fields (movies, music, games…) “prestige” industries. 99% of the people working in these industries make very little money. There is a lot of turn over because people tend to get used up and burned out by these kinds of jobs. If you survive the first few years you can sometimes work your way slightly higher up the food chain.

If you are up against 50 other qualified people for a job, there is absolutely no negotiating power there whatsoever. If you quit or get hit by a truck there are 49 people ready to replace you.

I first encountered this in journalism.

I was out on a story talking about an adult apprenticeship program to help lower-income people learn how to budget and finish their GED. Their keynote speaker was an alderman who was talking about the importance of education. He told this group that if they dropped out of high school their average salary would be only twenty thousand dollars a year! Just twenty thousand dollars a year.

The photojournalist, who had a bachelor’s degree in business and three years of experience, leaned over and whispered into my ear, “Shit, I only make nineteen grand a year.”

At that point in time I was attending school for audio engineering as well as video production. My favorite teacher at the school discovered a metal band whose first album he engineered and managed to get them signed to a major label.

I came up to him one day and asked him why he gave that up to teach. The dream of everyone in the audio engineering school was to do what this guy did and he gave it up. Why??

He looked me in the eye and said, “I got tired of coming to work and having people lay their guns on my recording console. I also got tired of watching my paycheck go up the studio owner’s nose.”

Another day a student asked him what it was like traveling with this metal band he worked with. He told us a story that haunts me to this day.

He said one night after a concert the band had a bunch of groupies and roadies hanging out drinking. Each member of the band had a roadie to haul their stuff around. The band members started playing a game I like to call, “My roadie is the most extreme.”

One of the girls threw up on the floor and a band member said, “My roadie is the most extreme. My roadie will eat that girl’s puke.” The roadie went over and ate the puke.

The drummer, not to be outdone, said, “Well, my roadie is the most extreme. He will eat my shit.” He dropped his pants and I do not feel the need to finish the rest of the story.

These guys were probably making ten bucks an hour for the privilege of being physically hazed and abused by this band. Their friends were probably envious of this glamorous life these guys were leading.

It is very difficult to describe what it is like being in a situation where things get out of hand. When people complain that a woman who was raped could have just walked away they do not understand the weird alternate reality you get into where you feel like you can’t walk away from an abusive situation. This does not just happen with women. It happens in situations where there is an extreme power imbalance, such as this incident.

The thought of being trapped in a job like this scares the living crap out of me. I am sure there are good places to work with audio engineering, but I prefer to try my luck somewhere that I have a better chance at having a modicum of value as a human being. I want to know how to do something that would be difficult and expensive to find a replacement for.

I will not work for a bully. Giving into bullying never gets you anywhere. It just lets the bully know that they haven’t reached the line they can’t cross yet.

I love audio, but I love my health, happiness, and physical well being more. People should not be treated this way.

Delia Derbyshire

Anyone who talks to me knows that I am obsessed with Delia Derbyshire. She was the recording engineer who recorded the original “Doctor Who” theme. The “Doctor Who” theme is a landmark piece of electronic music. The amount of work that went into designing the sound in that theme was tremendous. Derbyshire was a genius and was able to push that medium in a way that most people would not have had the tenacity and genius to accomplish.

Delia Derbyshire

Delia Derbyshire in 1965.

During her life she never got credit for the work she did on that piece of music.

The composer, Ron Grainer, wanted to give her credit for the work she did on the piece. He wanted her to be credited as a co-composer for bringing the piece to life. The leader of the Radiophonic Workshop (whose name I can’t presently locate) refused to allow Delia to be credited for her work. He said that the group was a collective and that no one person should be singled out for their contributions.

Over the years Delia has been given credit for the work she did. The first time I heard her name was in the documentary “The Alchemists of Sound.” If you look on the Wikipedia page for the theme Delia is given credit for her creation. Her name is very closely associated with the theme online. Her works have been rediscovered and some day we may be able to hear what she worked on later in her life. Sadly she passed away in 2001 so she never got to see the renewed interest in the work that she did.

However, she was never named in the “Doctor Who” credits for her work. The credits were always “Ron Grainer and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.”

Until today.

Today was the 50th anniversary of the first airing of “Doctor Who”. The show opened with the original theme from 1963. In the end credits Delia Derbyshire is named and given credit for the work she did.

I can’t express how happy it made me to see her name in the credits. There are women in history who get posthumous credit from history for the work they did, like Rosalind Franklin getting credit for the contributions she gave towards the discovery of the double helix. That is great that she and others have gotten recognition from the online community for the work they did, but it really makes me happy that the BBC was able to just once put Delia Derbyshire’s name in the credits where it should have been fifty years ago. This is a time to remember the people who made “Doctor Who” what it is and the fact that they did that was incredibly awesome.

Portable Wine Journal: Part Deux

For those following my blog, I am taking a slight detour from my audio application. I am a little burned out on trying to figure the application out. I have all the parts I need to make it work, I have just reached a mental point where I can’t “see” what I am working on and from past experience with long books and large cross-stitch projects I know sometimes it is good to put a project on hold for a little while and work on something else.

I spoke with Keith Alperin from Helium Foot Software a few days ago and he suggested that refactoring my wine app to polish it up a little bit and convert it to Core Data might be a nice project to do. He suggested showing my initial app and how I changed and improved it might be a nice portfolio piece.

Working on that app will showcase a bunch of more immediately marketable skills than the audio app. Since I am a little burned out on it currently, I hope that working on this will give my brain a reboot.

The biggest issue I need to resolve with the app is the amount of typing the user needs to do in order to store wine data. I would like to find a database or an API that connects to a catalogue of wineries or wine regions so that the user only has to type the name of the winery or the wine into the app and the rest of the information about it (color, dryness level, region, etc…) can be auto populated.

I would also like to change the layout to a collections view. I was disappointed by how unpolished the original piece of code looked and I would like to really put some thought into making the app designed well. I got a book on iOS design and I am looking for sites that have graphics I can purchase for icons and so forth.

I also need to revamp how the data is stored. I have the app set up currently in such a way that if you navigate off of a wine tasting object you can’t go back in and add more wines to your list. I plan to change the app so that you can instantiate a new wine independent of a wine tasting. For example, if you are at a nice restaurant and you have food and wine pairings you should be able to save the wine from your meal and not have it associated with a wine tasting object. After you create a wine tasting object you should be able to manually tell the app which wines are associated with that tasting.

More high-level things I would like to do is to have a map showing all of the regions your various wines come from. I think if you notice that you tend to like wines that come from a specific region you might find that information useful when looking into what wines you want to choose.

I am currently working my way through “Learning Core Data: A Hands-On Guide to Building Core Data Applications” by Tim Roadly. This book isn’t officially out yet, but I have a Safari Books Online subscription that gives me access to a “rough cut” of this book. I also have the Marcus Zarra Core Data book, but it is a little above my current learning level.

I think creating a nicely designed, polished app that utilizes an API and Core Data will be a nice portfolio piece in the way that an audio app does not. As much as I love audio, it is a difficult subject. It will be more of a life-time study for me than something that will immediately get me a job. I think learning Core Audio has made me a much better programmer, but my immediate concern is creating something that will demonstrate that I can do a job.

Any time I tell people I want to learn Core Audio I immediately get this almost panicked look in a person’ eye because they don’t’ really know how to respond to it. Sometimes they will throw out, “Well, we might need an audio app at some point in the future…” I don’t want anyone to try and make work for me using audio. I am totally happy doing anything iOS related and I think it would be prudent for me to focus more attention on my more immediately marketable skills than my interest in audio.

I have no idea what I will be doing after then end of this year beyond the fact that I am going to be coding. If I am coding for someone at a job or I am still working on my portfolio piece, I can’t say. I am not worried about it. Life is a journey. The destination is less important than the trip and so far it’s been a hell of a ride. I am looking forward to whatever comes next.

Jumping off the Boat

I have been working on implementing my app for school. I found a lot of documentation about how to code the parts of the project that I am doing. I have access to at least two people at a moment’s notice to ask questions to about my project. I theoretically have everything I need to get my project done.

I am having trouble making myself do it.

I know that the only person putting pressure on me is myself. I know that I have people who are happy to help me get through my project. I know that my deadline is a month in the future. I know I can make my project less hard if I can’t figure one part of it out.

It is still hard to work on.

I am afraid of failing.

For the last year all I have cared about was learning Core Audio. I worked my butt off trying to establish enough knowledge to be able to even approach it. When I was in Boston at the Core Audio workshop I felt exhilaration because I knew enough about what we were doing to understand everything we were talking about. I learned stuff, but I was only able to make those connections because I had a solid knowledge base with which to draw from.

I am afraid that I won’t get this done. I am afraid I will fail myself and my teachers. I am afraid I will fail my family who gave me the time and support necessary for this opportunity.

This reminds me of when I tried going scuba diving the first time. They took us out on this rickety boat over choppy waters for nearly an hour. I got into my equipment. I was ready.

They told me to jump off the boat. I couldn’t do it.

I stared at the short drop off the edge of the boat through my mask and I felt paralyzing terror. I knew that I could breathe and that I had a floatation device on that would immediately bring me back to the surface. I knew my wetsuit would keep me from being too cold. I just couldn’t jump.

I used the ladder to get into the water, but I didn’t actually go through with it. When the instructor wanted to take me under water and take my regulator out of my mouth and have me clear it I knew that I was going to choke. I was hyperventilating and I knew I would inhale sea water and have to get CPR.

There is so much to success that is completely mental. I know I am smart enough to do this project. I know I am a good developer and that I will have a great career, but doing something for the first time is terrifying. Finding the first real job is terrifying. Fearing that you will screw it up and never find another one is scary.

A lot of people, including myself, think that all we need is a shot. We have elevator speeches prepared in case we have 30 seconds with someone who supposedly can give us that shot. No one talks about what you do after you have their attention. It’s easy to think that if you could just have a chance that everything would work out. Getting that attention is the easy part. Delivering on your promise is where the work and the risk happen.

I have done everything I need to do to complete this project. I established my knowledge base. I absorbed my vocabulary. I forged connections with people who can give me advice. I have my app planned out and the design finalized.

I will not fail. I will do this. I will succeed.

I Don’t Want to Bother You, But…

I am currently working on trying to figure out AV Foundation. AV Foundation, very much like the rest of Core Audio, is not very well documented. It has been broadened and expanded the last few years and a lot of the material out there in the world is from 2 years ago, which is a century in Apple development time.

I feel unsure about how I am proceeding with this. I go into the Apple documentation and see that there is a programming guide! Cool! This will be easy.

Then I look online and I see developers talking about how the guide is really out of date.

I ask a developer what to do. His answer: Watch the WWDC videos and visit the developer forum.

I get ready to do that and I notice that the guide was just updated less than two weeks ago. Great! That means it is up-to-date and comprehensive, right? Not necessarily. Watch the WWDC videos and visit the developer forum.

I don’t want to bother anyone. I feel bad that I am asking things that keep getting the same answer and I worry that people think I am dumb or I am not listening to what they are saying. I don’t want to be a time suck to people who are high level developers who need time to actually do work.

I don’t know if this is just a stage everyone who is interested in audio programming goes through, where you think, “There has to be more than just this.” Yes, somehow people who are experts on this stuff don’t know that there is some super secret easy guide to doing these things that I am going to magically find because I am a special unique snowflake who doesn’t have to deal with the same issues as everyone else :p

I really want to be a self reliant person who can look things up and figure things out. I keep hearing from two different camps of people. One camp says never to ask any questions because it will make you look stupid. The other camp says that asking questions is a good thing to do.

Earlier in the year I could not get a VM working on my computer. I took it to my teacher. He tried one or two things for a little less than a minute then immediately got up and started asking the teachers around him about whether they encountered that error before and how they would fix it. Five minutes later we resolved the issue and it was working.

I think it is good to ask questions, but I get wary when I notice that I am getting the same answer to a lot of the questions I am asking. I hope that if I can show that I listened to what I am being told and can follow through with it that hopefully my earlier obtuseness will be forgiven. Apple development is a small community of people and audio development on the Apple platform is an even smaller community of people and I don’t want to be known as the person who can’t figure things out.

Okay. Existential crisis over. Time to get to work!


A while ago my husband and I watched the movie “Oblivion” when it came out on DVD/Streaming. We have very divergent tastes and it’s hard to find things that both of us are okay with watching.

I knew it was going to be a generic action picture that takes place in the post-apocalyptic world.

It is one of the worst movies I have ever seen.

I really can’t tell you what it was about or anything that happened because the sound design was so terrible that I feel compelled to complain about it.

The mixing was done very badly. The bass was set too high for a home theater experience. Every time something exploded our floors rattled because the subwoofer couldn’t deal with the vibrations being forced through it.

I don’t know how they did this, but there was a lot of annoying high pitched artifacts in the sound. So while the floors were rattling from the bass vibrations my ears were bleeding from these weird, inadvertent artifacts in the sound. I would be willing to bet money that the person who did the mix has hearing damage and didn’t bother to run things through a low-pass filter to make sure that anything annoying wouldn’t get through.

The absolute worst thing was the sound track. It was pretty generic, but there was something about the way it was composed that was completely horrible. There was no real melody, it was just a semi-monotonous droning. It was also in this weird pitch register where it needed to be either a lot lower or a little higher.

The soundtrack made me physically feel bad. I only got about two thirds through the movie because the sounds triggered a depressive response and I had to go to the bedroom to cry. It was a physical, emotional response to the music.

I have felt tremendous joy and other emotions to other music I have listened to. I probably spoke about this before, but when I heard Beethoven’s 5th Symphony live it was one of the most moving experiences I have had. When I heard “Skyfall” by Adele on the radio it really didn’t do anything for me, but hearing her perform it live at the Oscars it was a completely different piece of music. Something about the process of polishing and tuning the piece stripped it of its soul. Even though the live version was very badly mixed there was something in the performance that transcended the limitations.

I know most people don’t have the same sound sensitivities that I do, but seriously?? Spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a movie and not care that it sounds like shit? Paying a composer some amount of money for a horrible generic soundtrack? If the soundtrack doesn’t add anything to the movie, get rid of it. The movie would be a lot better if there was no music in the background during a tense moment than it would be with a droning, whiny repetitive melody in the background.

Watch “Star Wars”. They took a lot of care with creating a great soundtrack. They created a lot of their sound effects. The music enhances the tension of what is going on in the scene. Watch “Battlestar Galactica”. The sound was very different than what you usually see in space battle sequences. It was primarily militaristic drums with no orchestral swells. It ramps up the tension and it is genius.

I have accepted that most movies coming out are not for me because they are aimed at teenaged boys in China who do not care about the nuances of American political history. I have TV shows like “Breaking Bad” to compensate me for the loss of American cinema. But it just breaks my heart that sound is on the same pile of things like plot and dialogue that are not considered important enough to even do competently.