Audio is a peculiar field of interest. Like most commercially oriented fields, audio is a blend of both the science and the arts. Without one or the other we would not have the industry we have today. While many of us have entered into the audio realm through music, not everyone does. In fact, there are related fields of study that we as audio engineers owe a great deal of gratitude towards. Having a knowledge of what these fields do can have a tremendous impact on how we work in the audio field. So for those of you who ever wondered what lies underneath the console, what is inside that effect, or maybe even why some bands are more successful than others, read on and see where you might end up!
Why Do Other Fields Matter?
From a purely artistic perspective, audio is simply an extension of the music field. While else would we want phasers, flangers and bit crushers, if not for artistic expression? Truly, most of our tools would be useless if not for some artistic purpose. However, audio as a industry could not have grown, if it weren't for the sciences and other artistic fields.
For as much money as the audio and music industries make, it still pales in comparison to the visual arts. We're forever in debt to the movie industry. Without movies, there simply would not have been any reason to fund early audio research (minus the needs of the telephone companies). Everything from stereo and surround sound, to digital and the CD, are products of the movie industry in one fashion or another. Can you imagine mixing in mono and nothing else? I sure couldn't!
The Hard Sciences
While movies provided much the needed funding, ultimately it was the sciences that gave us the tools of the trade. Were it not for electrical engineering, physics, acoustics and control theory we would not have microphones, EQs, compressors, none of it. Without these tools, the only way to hear music would be to make it yourself or go see someone else perform. You're a fan of EDM? Well, I'm sorry to say that EDM would simply not exist!
Choosing Another Field
Eventually, we all reach a point where we are either content with what we know and do, or decide to dig deeper to see how far the rabbit hole goes. For those that fall into the latter group, finding a related field of study to audio can be a rather daunting task. From electrical engineering, to DSP, to marketing, the number of fields that directly intersect with the audio industry are staggering. For those truly lost, here is a list of fields and what they generally are all about to get you started...
1. Electrical and Computer Engineering
As previously stated, there would be no audio if not for electrical engineering. Every single piece of equipment we use is the product of some electrical engineering knowledge. From circuits to woofers, if you want to build a tool, this is the field to get your feet wet in. Even without an in depth knowledge of these fields, being able to understand a spec sheet, and why transformers can change a sound, can greatly improve our workflow and help us make better choices when purchasing gear.
Like it or not, we live in the digital age. Even if you use all analog gear to mix, at some point you will end up digitizing your mix. Programming has given us digital gear, Ethernet systems, and MIDI controllers, and has made the industry significantly more streamlined. If you ever had an idea for a plugin, wanted to know more about how your DAW works, or why some audio drivers are better than others, then programming would be a huge step in the right direction.
3. Signal Processing
While the above fields make everything work in the practical sense, we owe a huge debt to the study of signal processing (typically digital signal processing, or DSP today) for coming up with many ideas in the first place. Every time you use a filter, pitch correction, or noise reduction, you are using the end product of some signal processing theory or idea. The fact that we can take changes in volume over time and extract frequency information is quite extraordinary! If you ever wondered why we can't do certain effects, what the difference between a Butterworth and Baxandall filter is, or simply why filters are measured in dB/octave, then signal processing and DSP is the place to begin.
As mentioned earlier, the audio industry is forever in debt to the movie industry. Many full time audio engineers still work on movies or TV to this day. Knowing why and how our commercial cousins work can be a huge step when doing sound for film and sound design. Be honest, how many audio engineers really know anything about FPS or black bursts? If you ever wanted to get involved with TV or the movies, knowing more about the video industry and how we work together can be a huge boon.
How many times have you heard someone say, "They are so good! Why aren't they more popular?" Well sometimes it simply is a matter of knowing the right people and creating the right image. Marketing affords us the ability (for better or worse) to manipulate audiences into liking one thing over another. That's why it's so expensive! Most bands do not have the know-how to really market themselves and so they rely on labels to do it for them, which again is not cheap. So if you ever wonder why know one knows about your studio or band, or why that other band is much more popular, take a look at marketing and you maybe surprised what you can do on your own.
At the core of it all, audio is simply the manipulation of sound. We can't manipulate sound without some understanding of what sound is and does. This is where the field of acoustics comes in. Even if you have all the training and gear, your mixes may not turn out right. Why? If your room is ill-suited acoustically, it can make it tremendously hard to get a good mix. With a little acoustic knowledge however, you could modify that mixing space instead of buying more and more gear. For those of you who simply love sound for the sake of sound, or want to improve your listening spaces, acoustics is a great place to begin your search.
The options above are simply the tip of the iceberg. Many of these fields intersect with each other just as they intersect with other fields not on this list as well. Does web design have anything to do with marketing? You bet! Do electrical engineers use the ideas of signal processing? Of course!
The big trick is to try and find a place to start. The Internet is full of resources to get you started once you pick a field. Additionally, many universities have continuing education classes, and even the good old book can be a huge help. So go ahead and explore, you will be smarter for it and become a better a audio engineer in the process.