Critical Thinking In Audio

Fake news. It’s something that has come to the forefront over the last few years, blamed by some on politicians, spin doctors, crappy newspapers, biased TV networks, the Russians and social media.

It’s a valid concern to have, all of us should check any stories not once, twice or even three times, but as many times as we possibly can. I routinely read several newspapers, websites and TV news stations to try and get to the facts about a story – irrespective of your political point of view trusting one source is unwise, as stories can get distorted by bias, misinformation or simply crappy journalism.

But have you stopped to consider that over the last few years the same issues face us in the recording industry? Not just news, but other things stated as fact are disseminated and before we know it we’ve also started to believe something as truth that may be plain wrong.

Let me ask you a couple of things. Does audio sound better when it is louder? Is bass non-directional? Do summing amplifiers make a difference to the sound? I’m choosing three examples from thousands of things that get written about, discussed and shared in forums, blogs like this one and social media.

Whatever you believe the answer to be to the three questions I just posed, where did you get your answer from? What facts do you have to back up that answer? Are your sources credible? Have you tested the theory yourself?

I’m enormously proud of the teams that work on the Expert sites; they work hard to make sure the facts, be that news or technical data are right. But we get it wrong, as does every other publication working in the recording space.

I am fortunate to be friends with some of the smartest brains in the recording world, the kind of people that have brains for planets. These are the kind of people it is best to shut up and listen to if you get to talk to them, or at best ask them a lot of questions. But does this make them infallible? Of course not.

There’s never been more information available but unless we apply critical thinking then we end up being dumber, not smarter

Theories Need Testing

I have rarely been more proud as a father than to learn of something my eldest son Jack did while on his University course. During his finals, he worked on a project which meant he had to analyse some work by one of the prominent thinkers in the psychology world. The work he was exploring had been accepted as correct for some years and made up part of the psychology canon of thought. However, during his research, he discovered that the theory was wrong and based on flawed studies. As you can imagine at first, he thought he must have made a mistake, but over time it was indeed the case that the accepted facts were incorrect. He not only graduated with a First but also found himself invited to Barcelona to present his findings at a specialist symposium. As I’ve already said, you can imagine how proud I am of him for discovering this new information and making a contribution to the ongoing research.

Theories need testing, however much they are regarded as fact and whoever states them as fact, learning comes through discovery, and that comes from critical thinking.

Why Critical Thinking Matters

I want to suggest that there has never been a more important time for our industry to encourage critical thinking. However, let us first define what we mean by the term critical thinking.

An official definition of Critical Thinking is “the practise of asking questions to discover answers about a subject.” It can and often involves discourse about an issue with people who have a common interest in advancing the topic.

The problem is that our current forum, blog and social media culture has cultivated many more cynics and fewer sceptics, in doing so may have made the task of encouraging critical thinking a great deal harder.

A cynic is motivated by a desire to bring negative points of view to debate; often the debate is the last thing on their mind. They have little interest in getting to the truth or discussing reasonably; they want to do all they can to express their negative point of view and to discredit anything or anyone who doesn’t happen to agree with them and their particular world view.

On the other hand, a sceptic brings a healthy sense of questioning, rather than make statements you will often see them asking questions and encouraging debate. They use words like How, Who, What, Where, When, Why and How – all leading questions with a desire to find out more.

In my opinion, those who ask questions are far more interesting than those who make statements, who on the whole are boring and about as useful to a conversation as the automated announcements in a train station or an airport.

This week I was in London at an event for those wanting to know about the Kii Three studio monitors, this meant spending time with some of the people behind them, Bruno Putzeys and Thomas Jansen. Before the evening began, I spent about 2 hours sat with Bruno talking; we talked about ideas and theories. We spoke of course about speaker design and room acoustics, but we also talked about social media, about biology, about Richard Dawkins, about our favourite books and our favourite radio stations (both huge BBC Radio 4 fans!) and other things too. I will add that I asked most of the questions, I learnt a long time ago that when you get to spend time with those who know more than you on a subject the best thing you can do is ask questions and listen. I asked why certain things were as they are and why certain things worked in the way they do.

I came away feeling enlightened and enriched, I have not only made a new friend, but I feel that through that short time together has helped me to grow a little more.

There’s A Lot Of How And Not Enough Why

Blogs like the Expert sites and a thousand others like us spend a lot of time producing content showing people how to do things, it’s valuable content, and for our part, I’m proud of what we do to serve the various audio communities. But is there enough ‘Why?’ content appearing, are we asking that question enough?

I’m enormously proud to be working with Julian Rodgers on some video projects, and he is one of the few people (if you know of others, please let us know) who is asking and answering the why questions.

It’s not enough to show someone how to mic up a guitar amp; it is equally important to say why we choose the microphones and the positioning. Let’s take plug-ins as another example. Before we learn to use a compressor on a mix buss, we need to ask why we do it. I see far too many people learning to record and mix by rote, and it’s not sufficient. Learning how to do something is OK as long as things are the same every time then the script will work, but what happens when something changes, then you need to know why things do what they do.

So let’s return to those three questions;

Does audio sound better when it is louder? Is bass non-directional? Do summing amplifiers make a difference to the sound?

Do you know the answer? But is your answer, right? Perhaps it is, but do you know why your answer is correct? Even more importantly does it matter and if it does why does it matter?

And before you jump on your keyboard and start typing furiously into the comments of this article I don’t need you to tell me, that is not the point of the questions, if you want to use the comments section to prove how smart you are, then I suggest you start rereading this post.

The Final Word

Wisdom isn’t knowing all the answers; it knowing you don’t have all the answers.

I recall a lyric from the song ’11 O’Clock Tick Tock’ from the band U2 that has stuck with me since the first time I heard it in the mid-1980s, “We thought that we had the answers, it was the questions we had wrong.” It challenged me to reconsider not only my assumptions but the questions I had to ask to arrive at them.

We have such fantastic resources at our fingertips we should strive even more to discover new things, to test those theories regarded as sacrosanct and see if they stand up to scrutiny.

It is in asking questions that we sometimes find the final word isn’t as final as we had always believed – there may indeed be another word after that.

This article was originally published at