Mix Messiah Productions presents: 31 Women in Audio, a series celebrating Women's History Month.
Day 7: Jamie Angus
She teaches audio and video signal processing, Psychoacoustics, Sound reproduction and audio and video coding. She has co-written two textbooks and has authored, or co-authored over 180 journal and conference papers and 4 patents.
She has been awarded an AES fellowship and the IOA Peter Barnet Memorial prize for her contributions to audio and acoustics.
Leslie Gaston-Bird: What were some of your childhood experiences that led to your vocation?
Jamie Angus: Well, I got music played to me at school when I was probably 7, including Peer Gynt’s “Morning Song” which I thought was just beautiful. I started learning to play the violin when I was about 7 as well. When we went to America the school had a big music program. so i joined the orchestra playing the violin. My mom loved G&S and my father loved Scottish songs. I also got taken to the Metropolitan Opera. And I remember we had a school visit - I have a YouTube thing on that - where we went to WOR Studios in New York which was live television-radio, and I was already into electronics by then because I had read a magazine - I was about 11 I think - and I was blown away with the stuff. One of the engineers showed me all the transmitter racks. So when they interviewing me, recording for a radio show, they said, “So what do you want to be when you grow up, honey?”, I said, “I want to be a radio engineer!”. And that’s what started me off. And I used to take apart old radios and televisions.
And I tried making my own speakers. They didn’t sound very good as you might expect, but they still sounded better the ones on my parents’ hi-fi. So I thought, "I need to learn about this". I read magazines and books that I could get a hold of, and I built more loudspeakers. When I was 17, I built a set of loudspeakers -- that was when I’d sort of sussed the design down a bit more. I built 4 so that I could have a quadrophonic system (in the early 70s) which was kind of freaky. When I left to go to a University in the UK two of the people I know asked if I was selling them. So I said, “yeah I guess I can cos I can’t take them over with me”, and they said, “well, would you sell them”? and I said “Erm, I have no idea, what would you buy them for?” And they said, “Four hundred dollars each.” And I thought, “Oh my God! Four hundred dollars!” so I used that money to buy a Nackamichi cassette recorder and things. I’ve already liked really good quality gear.
I went on to study electronics. And we experimented building circuits, trying them out and building amplifiers. When I got my PhD that was just when the microprocessor was invented. And I said, “this computer stuff looks like it might be important and DSP looks kind of interesting," so I decided to do a thesis on designing a DSP processor. I thought that would force me to have to learn microprocessors and DSP at the same time. That was in a Comms [Communications] department so I also learned about spread spectrums and curving. It was a very stimulating environment.
Then I worked at Standard Telecoms Labs, which nobody's ever heard of, but they invented optical fibers and I ended up working in the speech coding processing group for telephone terminals. They had an anechoic room so I could test my speakers out and learned some acoustic measurements as well as doing speech coding which links with audio coding and stuff like that. And then ended up going to University to teach after that.
One thing that happened to me when I went back to the UK was that I was not allowed to do music as a subject because I was doing sciences. And that angered me so much, as it did to one of my colleagues (Ross Kirk) at York University electronics department who had the same problem - he was a bass clarinetist in the same predicament as me. So we created the UK’s first Music Tech course in 1986 with Dave Malham and Richard Horton. There was no internet then: We were doing DSP on Atari computers, CD had just come out … back then everyone thought we were completely crazy. But nowadays people would say “well, DUH!!”
I was chuffed when my son got his music tech A-level in 2014. I thought, “Hey I finally got my revenge!”
LG: What is the same and different about working with a team of people when you’re a woman?
JA: It’s still tough: I’m at the top of the pile so i’m more fortunate. I think it’s more that you are invisible as a woman or you are brought in as a token woman. And you had to be “one of the guys” in the 60s and ignore shit sometimes. But these days it’s a bit better. Even in the AES which is being earnest about trying to do it, they still screw up sometimes. I think that’s more a case of people just not seeing it. It’s still quite a lot of guys out there and that makes it a bit trickier to get in. But it’s a great place for women to be. I have said that in sessions: being an engineer is a great job for a woman. When I worked at Standard Telecom we had a software engineer who had gone off to have a baby and came back, so they gave her a private telephone line so she could use a modem, a dumb terminal at home, and fully flexible work patterns so they could keep her on and so that she could continue to work. I can’t think of any other business that could have been that flexible. They wanted her skills and they were willing to do the extra bit to make it happen.
LG: What do you like and dislike about questions regarding women in audio.
JA: I don’t know that people ask me that question so much. I prefer to talk about the technical stuff. I don’t like people commenting on my clothing and stuff like that. I think, you don’t say that to guys, why are you saying it to me? But I like that people are interested in talking to me. I like talking about my posters, and being fired tech questions and we can have a nice technical discussion and gender isn’t in it all. i don’t like when people make a thing of gender one way or the other, but I recognize that you can’t pretend it doesn’t exit.
LG: Who were your female role models?
JA: Marie Curie was a big one, because she overcame a lot of stuff. And she had to work pretty hard. She started with tons of material just to get a tiny fraction of stuff she could measure. And she screwed up the first time: the sample was contaminated and she had to go right back to the beginning and redo it all. Other role models: There weren’t many around … Wendy Carlos. I liked her because she is a musician but she is also technically competent. She and Bob Moog had a big partnership in the development of an analog synth. I wanted to build one. I couldn’t afford it, but I learned how to build one though! Other role models because of the way they did the science: Paul Ehrlich had an idea that if you could dye a bacteria you had a magic bullet. It took most of his life but at the end of his life he found the dye that could do it.
LG: What was your favorite past project? What about upcoming projects?
JA: When I first read about diffusors, because of my PhD work I knew about the math involved in it so I clicked straight away what was going on, but I also realized that there was only a certain size that you could lift and put on a wall. People put lots of them together - that wasn’t a good idea. And because of the spread spectrum thing I knew I could maybe make it better by calculating it. So I tried it out theoretically using Excel. I remember the first time the results came out, I did a little jig down the corridor saying “Woo-hoo!” What I thought would happen actually happened!
Currently I'm investigating how you can get high quality amplifiers without needed a full switching one. People are going to Class D but not everyone likes the sound of them. I am looking at the audio signal more closely and saying, “can we do something more efficiently even though we’re using a circuit that’s not so efficient.” And that’s really interesting because of a few things: Maybe the switching ones aren’t as efficient as you think, and you can make a linear amp more efficient or as efficient. So that’s kind of neat. We call it “Green amplification”: Every home has amps and they’re all consuming power so if you can make it better you can save a little bit of energy worldwide.