Dial ’œA’ for Acoustics

Chris Fitzsimmons interviews Emma Greenland , Associate at WSP Acoustics, and winner of the IoA’s Peter Barnett Student Award, to talk about her experiences as a student and starting her acoustics career. It turns out that the best place to find a work placement at the time was in the phone book!

Amongst the many people at the Institute of Acoustics’ Reproduced Sound event in November 2009, were an encouraging number of students and young people. One of those presenting papers was Emma Greenland, the winner of this year’s IOA Peter Barnett Student Award.

Somewhat surprisingly the award hasn’t been presented for a number of years, due to a lack of nominations. Surely this speaks poorly of the amount of new blood coming into our industry?

Greenland herself holds a BEng Music Technology, and a PhD resulting from her studies of speech intelligibility in open plan classrooms, the work for which she won the award. I asked her about her own route through the system, and how she believes things have changed since then.

“At A-level I studied maths, physics and music. I then went and applied for University degree courses in music technology. At the time I was applying there was a lot of confusion about what music technology actually meant. For some courses it meant actually making things like violins, but obviously there were other Universities which offered courses more akin to what we understand as music technology now – the technology behind its production and engineering.

“I went to York and did music technology with electronic engineering. The course at York consisted of a first year of pure music, the same kind of content that you would see on a music degree, with some options for sound recording modules. The second year was a full year as an undergraduate in the electronics department, so you got a good grounding in that aspect. Then you chose what you wanted to do. Some elected to go back into music and brought that through as a strength, others remained on the electronics track. I stuck with Electronics for a further two years to get my BEng.”

During the degree course, Greenland was already exploring summer jobs other than the usual fast-food or bar work. As part of the electronics course, she’d done some work on room and psycho-acoustics, which she’d found interesting and so looked for something in that field.

“This was before the advent of Google, so I actually ended up looking in the phone book under A for Acoustics. I found a couple of local companies doing acoustic consultancy. I was genuinely surprised you could get paid for doing room acoustics.”

Greenland says that things have improved a little since then with bodies like the IOA in the UK and others on the continent significantly raising the game as far as their outreach efforts are concerned. Even if a firm of consultants does visit a University open day, the chances are that the acoustics part will be a single stack of leaflets lost on a large table of other leaflets. It falls to the industry bodies themselves to promote acoustics as a career path to undergraduates and those in secondary education. Something which the IOA is now actively involved in.

And there is genuinely a demand for competent consultants. Before the start of the recession there was considerable under-supply of acousticians and whilst the downturn has led to some cuts, there’s no reason to assume that demand won’t be back when things return to the black.

“I eventually found a job with small local firm,” continued Greenland. “I did a lot of shadowing work – site surveys and acoustic tests et cetera. Once I’d graduated I then enrolled at South Bank University on the Masters course, before starting a part time, funded PhD study in open plan classroom acoustics.”

This work was what won Greenland her Peter Barnett Student Award. “It has been a while since they gave the award, and I think it’s nice they have brought it back. It’s simply because there aren’t many students studying acoustics and very few supervisors aware of the prize. Hopefully this will encourage a more people to get involved and the award will be presented regularly.”

Acoustic consultancy should really be a very attractive career choice, following a music technology degree. It tends to be well paid, with good job security. As Greenland also notes it pays from the start. Those wanting to get into the recording side of the business often find themselves working unpaid or part time when they start out.

Back on the subject of her PhD research, I asked Emma what had led her to her specific subject.

“Well it was slightly by chance – you tend to get presented with a broad list of possible subjects, and the challenge with these things is to identify which one you can drill down into in detail to make it a more interesting study.”

But how much opportunity does one get to pursue this further?

“Well, of course working at WSP Acoustics I have to follow their agenda, but it’s certainly a selling point for both myself and the company to have a speciality in a particular area. I try to do as much as possible in classroom design and the company does support my work in terms of attending conferences and publishing papers.

“I do get to attend the BCSE conferences [British Council for School Environment] and I’m the chair of the Institute of Acoustics’ Speech and Hearing Group. We do attempt to represent the IoA at extra conferences that I wouldn’t get to go to otherwise.”

And for someone setting out now, down the same path the Emma has followed, what has changed in the last ten years or so?

“I think what has improved is that I would certainly now direct people towards the IoA if they are seeking support and advice. I mean I did the masters course, but there is now a diploma in acoustics run by the IoA as well if you don’t want to take the masters route immediately.”

The addition of a Music Technology A-level has also bridged some of the gap, in the UK at least, between secondary education and the requirements of a undergraduate degree course.

“The IoA are also getting into schools now, particularly on the physics A-Level. But there’s also the creative side to it – I think acoustics could appeal to a lot of previously frustrated musicians, as well as the physicists!

“Over all I think I’m very optimistic about our efforts to encourage young people into the system. My committee within the IoA has at least three other people on it under the age of 35, and I think we should be working towards that on all the different groups.”

Frankly the news that being under 35 makes me a young person in the eyes of the IoA is particularly heartening. I assumed I was done for at 30. However, what’s possibly more encouraging is the effort at least one sector of our industry is making to bring in new blood.

Article Categories




Most Viewed