Vol. 28 Issue 3 Reviews
Alec Nisbett: The Sound Studio: Audio Techniques for Radio, Television, Film and Recording, Seventh Edition

Softcover, ISBN 0-240-51911-6, 388 pages, illustrated; Focal Press, Linacre House, Jordan Hill, Oxford OX2 8DP, UK; 200 Wheeler Road, Burlington, Massachusetts 01803, USA; Web www.focalpress.com/

Reviewed by S. Lyn Goeringer
Seattle, Washington, USA

Book CoverThe Sound Studio by Alec Nisbett is centered on audio techniques for radio, television, film, and recording. The techniques discussed in the book are not centered on scientific, mathematical, or engineering concepts; instead, they are geared more toward practical application within a working sound studio. According to the author, it is not necessary to come to this book with a strong background in any of these matters, either, although, in my opinion, it would help the reader a great deal to have a basic understanding of acoustics and audio equipment, particularly when dealing with the newest additions to this 7th edition. These new topics include “the virtual studio,” 5.1 surround sound, portable digital recorders, and multi-channel recorders.

The book is useful as a general reference guide, and covers a large range of topics such as basic studio set-up for various media, an introductory overview of acoustics, microphone design and use, and the practical use of post-production effects. One of the best things it offers is simplicity for the newcomer through the use of clear diagrams and well-written brief descriptions (see for example the explanation of microphone construction, purpose, and different types, and the detailed description of standard cable types in chapters 5 and 6).

One of the great things about this text is the insight Mr. Nisbett provides about working with speech and radio. Many books on audio technique frequently emphasize music, but fail to address the other audio techniques necessary for radio and television. The author devotes much of chapter 7 to a discussion on how to handle a basic radio set-up for one or two people at microphones, and how to set up to record multiple speaking voices for radio drama. This chapter also offers ideas on how to handle plosives (hard consonants in speech), and what techniques and tools may aid one to get the best and most “natural” recordings possible. Mr. Nisbett expands this discussion in chapter 8 with a special emphasis on handling microphones that are to be viewed by an audience, an important concept that is easily overlooked by sound technicians who are not visually oriented. Notably, this is one of the chapters in the book where it becomes quite apparent that the author is concerned not with technical and theoretical details, but with the actual art of audio technique.

Chapter 11, devoted to covering common filters and filtering techniques, is one of the best examples of Mr. Nisbett’s ability to offer simplified and useful explanations of complex audio topics. Granted, it is by no means a comprehensive guide to filtering, but he is able to explain without a lot of detail what filters do, what the common iconography is for common filters, and a short explanation of what a graphic equalizer is and does. As the book focuses on mass media applications of sound, there is a small guide on using filters for effects that may be needed in dramatic works to help in creating a suspension of belief. Most extensively covered is the use of filters to create various telephone sounds.

While Mr. Nisbett is successful in his goal of presenting techniques for the audio technician in a simple format (avoiding complex mathematics and science), this writing strategy leads to one of my major criticisms of this book: there is not enough detail about some of the more complex aspects of sound and audio techniques. For example, in chapter 2, on the properties of sound, the author describes “phase” in a section on directional perception in stereo as: “If the amplitude of the sound from one speaker is now increased and the other reduced, the signals combine at the ears as before, but the resultant signals differ from each other in phase—in effect, it appears as though the same signal is arriving at the two ears at slightly different times” (p. 30). While this description enables Mr. Nisbett to avoid mathematical complexities (the only assistance he provides in understanding this concept is within a small diagram to the side showing waveforms in various states of phase), this avoidance of established mathematical frameworks limits the clarity and usefulness of this definition. He does not explain phase in any great detail, and could potentially provide a clearer concept of it (and the other concepts he defines without theoretical frameworks) by simply providing some detail of the mathematical explanations for these concepts. These brief forays into mathematics may be a turn-off for newcomers to the subject, but may ultimately be necessary for their understanding of some of the more abstract concepts.

Another frustrating aspect of this text, which may also be due to Mr. Nisbett’s focus on writing in a non-academic and therefore easy-to-read style, is the lack of suggested or cited resources, particularly in chapters dealing with more calculation-based concepts. For example, when discussing the use of sound absorbers within a studio environment, the author begins to explain the effects of furniture and people on the acoustics of a studio. He explains that it is necessary to calculate the absorption of people as “part of a flat surface” but does not provide any assistance into what the necessary calculations may be or what they may actually tell the reader. In the following paragraph, he continues: “Tables of these values are available: in addition, they give the values…” But, he still does not direct the reader to sources containing these tables or mention if any of the only 14 sources in this text’s bibliography may contain these tables. Failure to provide sources or recommendations for further reading is a recurring theme throughout the book.

When Mr. Nisbett does provide reference to specific interfaces and equipment, he does so through vague references, which may further frustrate readers. For example, when discussing computer audio editing suites, he avoids naming specific software entirely, as when he states: “In one, the control surface has a keyboard, function keys, two scrub wheels, and a floppy disk drive.” Or, as found two paragraphs later: “In another, more modestly scaled desktop editor that works with a 16-bit linear (i.e. uncompressed) signal, the hardware looks more like a standalone work processor.” These references have no apparent correspondence to the provided graphics in the margins (p. 292), and no mention if the product being discussed is actually manufactured. This is not the only instance of the tendency towards vagueness in the book, although thankfully it generally only occurs during discussions of digital practices.

Although Mr. Nisbett often falters in the presentation of digital media information, he excels in the presentation of information on microphones and microphone techniques. Over 100 pages involve the subject—this is definitely the strongest part of the book. The author provides detailed descriptions of various types and constructions of microphones, taking the reader step by step through a lot of what microphones can and cannot do. He also provides insightful and detailed discussions of the most common advantages and disadvantages to different types of microphones, with a particular focus on condenser and ribbon types. The information and suggestions the author provides regarding techniques for these microphones may also be quite helpful for beginners to the trade. For example, Mr. Nisbett’s elementary breakdown of the active and dead spots of these microphones covers an aspect that is easy to forget when setting up microphones for performance or recording.

Chapters 7 and 8, regarding the balance of sound for speech and music, are similarly successful. These chapters are arranged by various types of acoustic ensembles, with diagrams provided to show ideas on how to arrange the ensembles in various types of sound studios. The emphasis on the sensitivity of the audio technician to the needs of producers and performers is crucial in a successful studio experience. This vital concept is presented clearly, and leaves the reader knowing that the ensemble or performer(s) involved need to be comfortable as well, even if sound quality must be compromised in some way in order to achieve this.

Overall, The Sound Studio is a useful book for both the seasoned and novice audio technician, as it offers suggestions for many different situations one might encounter in a multimedia sound studio. Mr. Nisbett provides a lot of relatively easy-to-read and understandable information for audio technique and practice that do not require a huge amount of science or mathematics to apply. This, of course, is also part of the weakness of the text, as many concepts can be most easily understood with a limited discussion of the relevant mathematics and physics, and this was purposefully left out of the book. Even with these shortcomings, Mr. Nisbett does manage to present practical and useful information with clarity, a rarity in most technical books on sound recording.