Essay Guide for Recording Engineering Theory Final Exam


How should you set about writing an essay exam?  What constitutes a good essay?  Many instructors these days seem to avoid essay exams, perhaps because they are harder to grade, and you may feel unprepared for this form of examination.  But there's no need to be frightened by the apparent formlessness of the task.  It is easier to write an excellent essay than you might think.

First of all, your essay should be focused on the question proposed.  This means that you should read the question carefully a number of times, picking out key terms and considering various approaches.  It may be tempting to try to redirect your essay to a subject that more fully exploits what you think you know best, but this will usually be perceived for the evasion that it is.

Second, your essay should be organized and coherent.  Organization means that the parts of the essay are clearly demarcated and logically connected.  Coherence is a question of transitions from one part to another and the compatibility of your different assertions.  The only way to be sure of producing an organized, coherent essay is to plan it in advance.  You should devote one quarter to one third of your time to jotting down notes toward the essay and organizing them in outline form.  As you do so, consider whether the parts fit well together into a whole.  As you work on your plan, you may notice other students scribbling furiously and worry that you are getting behind.  Don't: they are the ones who should be worrying.

Third, your essay should be both general and specific.  Try to illustrate the general points you make with particular examples.  When you spend some time describing specifics, try to follow up by extrapolating to a more general level of significance.  "General" and "specific" are relative terms.  If, for example, you are discussing a character in a novel, a reference to the novel as a whole will be "general"; if you are discussing realism, a mention of the same novel will be a "specific" example.

Fourth, your essay must demonstrate that you have mastered the material.  An exam is a somewhat artificial exercise that seeks to evaluate what you know and your ability to articulate it.  Its purpose is not to persuade the general public but to demonstrate to the teacher that you have mastered the material and can use it.  It's easy to prepare to do this by developing in your mind a clear outline of the course while you study for the exam.  Then use this outline as a check list to draw upon as you write.  Take care to show that you have mastered both broad points (the theme of readings, for example) and details (names, titles, dates, terms).

Fifth, your essay should show some original thought.  Originality is an elusive quality, but one way you can easily make your essay original is to allude to matters that are not obviously related to your subject.

Finally, a good essay must be well written.  This means that you must choose your words carefully, paying attention to the grammar of your sentences and to your style.  Allow yourself enough time to reread and revise your essay.


The Recording Engineering Theory course is essentially technical in nature.  While the artistic aspects of recording are important, those are yours to develop in the future as you learn more and more about the technical side of recording.  So for the purpose of assessing student understanding of course material necessary to move you along into recording practice classes with an improved expectation of understanding what is offered in those classes, I am seeking exam answers from you that concentrate more on the technical and less on the artistic aspects of the course material we cover during the quarter.

Here are some examples provided by the instructor:

Example 1.

Describe the general goal(s) of making the musical documents we call recordings.  For example; why we do it, and list a few of the important things when we do it.

This could be answered as follows:

The general goal of recording music or speech is to preserve the event.  When doing this, an accurate  facsimile of the original signals is desirable.  Nominally operating audio gear of basically sufficient or better quality and audio information storage capability should be employed to accomplish that goal.  A production plan is also helpful to ensure adequate time and space for the work to be done, and to provide a comfortable working situation that does not dampen creativity.

Be as brief and concise as possible while allowing for clarity and full explanation.  Imagine you're teaching someone else the basics, and to do this, your words should convey the essence of the exercise without unnecessary words that might confuse your already clear answer.

Example 2.

A singer who sings and plays guitar at the same time, and a second musician who plays accompanying mandolin, are arriving at your studio in a few hours to record the first of ten or twelve songs for an acoustic music CD.

Describe how you might prepare before they arrive, how you plan to set up for recording voice, guitar and mandolin all at the same time, and how you plan to name and organize the recorded digital files that will end up on your computer hard disk

This could be answered as follows:

Preparation for simple two player session is as critical as any other.  In a clear space large enough to move chairs around and to allow for placement experimentation, I would provide two chairs roughly facing each other from about two to three meters apart, perhaps with a low baffle or gobo between the two seats.  Microphone stands for the three close microphones are placed out of the way of arms and legs, and maybe a stereo room microphone is located farther away.  Identical high quality headphones are placed on two music stands and connected to the same amplifier driving the engineer's headphones so that the live microphone monitor sound is heard the same by all.

My computer is the recording medium.  It has been prepared for the session by creating directories for the artists.  Its hard drive(s) have been defragmented and the computer and its recording hardware have been tested with representative microphones simulating the actual session.

I don't want to know about the dog and the phones--that sort of thing is assumed.  Never allude to alcohol or drugs; these are irrelevant in technical descriptions, the instructor doesn't care about nonsense like this, and alcohol and drugs never serve recording sessions to advantage, but only degrade session player's abilities.*

Example 3.

Describe why the “studio monitor” loudspeaker is the only tool in the recording studio that can tell you what you have in a recording, and why we use “studio monitors” instead of arbitrary reproducers such as automobile speakers, boom boxes or our hi-fi in the TV room.

This could be answered as follows:

The true studio monitor loudspeaker is uniform in frequency response to input signals, has low distortion and wide bandwidth characteristics.  Properly set up monitoring environments also provide uniform and unintrusive reverberation, creating a monitoring setup that delivers the closest thing to an uncolored and accurate representation of the recording and all of the processes that may be applied to it.  True studio monitors are unique in these characteristics, where other types of loudspeakers and listening environments do not require such strict accuracy, and so are useless in determining the actual content of the recorded product.

In general, it's always good practice not to try to impress an instructor by giving more information that what's minimally required to get your point across and to show that you understand the class materials.  As always, originality is preferred, but may not always be possible or even applicable in purely technical descriptions.  However, be sure NOT to simply repeat what you've read or heard the instructor say.  Take the time to re-word those facts or statements to show that you actually understand rather than simply recall the material.

If your clients indulge in drugs or excessive alcohol before or during recording sessions, here are some things to keep in mind:
  1.  Illegal drugs could get everyone and possibly the studio too, in legal trouble.
  2.  Musicians who have to be altered to play, lack self-respect and self-confidence.
  3.  It takes longer and so is more expensive to play and produce music while partying.
  4.  There are thousands of deserving musicians out there who could benefit from your skills.
  5.  A loser with money and drugs--or even with skill and talent--is still a loser.
  6.  Your time has value.  Use it to meet and work with better and better talent.
       Ultimately, your career satisfaction results from looking at your accomplishments
       and creativity, serving art and improving the world's musical heritage and legacy.