A sound apprenticeship

Glenn Ward is a Senior Design Engineer at Cadac in Luton.

Cadac make sound desks and mixing consoles for exciting shows across the UK such as The Lion King.

They also used to make mixing desks for The Rolling Stones' tours!

Tomorrow's Engineers spoke to Glenn about how he annoyed his parents by taking apart the video player as a child and what he learnt from his boardroom experiences with Sir Alan Sugar on television's The Apprentice.

 

Name: Glenn Ward
Job title: Senior Design Engineer
Company: Cadac Holdings Limited

What does an electronics engineer do?

An electronics engineer can design hardware, he can write software and test electronic products. I work on mixing desks costing around £2,000 all the way up to £5,000.

The main area I work on is a large chip that sits in the middle of our latest digital mixers called a Field Programmable Gate Array. This is where the audio goes, where the processing and where the mixing of the digital audio occurs. I write code that then goes on the chip and produces this desired result. But also because we’re quite a small company you have to be quite varied in your skills, so I also dabble in hardware design, so I design diagrams and pick and source components.

So without you, this console wouldn't work?

It sounds like I’m boasting but without me this wouldn’t work because the actual mixing of two audio samples and sending them out as an outgoing signal occurs on the chip that I write the software for. The design and the way the processes occur come from my interaction with the other team members, bouncing ideas around about how we’re going to make the product do what we want within budget and tospecification we want to achieve. So as well as an individual contributing, I would also consider myself part of the team . We need to work together to get it done.

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What first got you interested and involved in engineering? When did you discover that it was the career for you?

Probably in childhood. I was always interested in taking things apart to the annoyance of my parents. The video player came apart a few times, I took apart all the electronics in there. I took apart a computer when I was younger and put it all back together again. I enjoyed knowing how things worked. At that age you don’t really know how that will turn into a career!

How did you get here education-wise? What did you study at A-level and university?

In my A-Levels I studied Physics, Geography and English and got three grade Es. I’d let myself down with my A-Levels but it spurred me on. I thought “I have to turn this around, I love engineering and I want to get into it.” So I did a foundation year at Huddersfield University.

Also, Physics, Geography and English aren’t actually entry qualifications onto an engineering course, hence why I took the foundation engineering year which a lot of universities offer if you don’t have the right A-Levels. Huddersfield University were happy to give me a second chance.

I then went onto their Electronic Engineering and Computer Systems degree course which was a four year sandwich course including a sandwich year, which I spent at Cadac, where I work now.

And in that, I turned it all around and ended up getting a First. I was proud that I’d managed to turn around my poor A-Level results and got myself into the career I wanted to do.

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How useful are those subjects to what you do now?

Maths and physics really are key with engineering. I think that’s probably something that scares a lot of people away. They don’t like it because at school it never really translates into the real world for them. But with engineering, you get to see how these numbers turn out and what it produces, it doesn’t just seem like you’re writing things down on a bit of paper. With digital audio, we deal with maths all the time, all the audio processing is to do with taking numbers, adding them together, multiplying them, subtracting them to produce a result.

Whilst it might seem a bit hard at the start, ultimately the reward is worth it when it turns out as something awesome like this. You see how the customers appreciate it and they love all the work and effort that you’ve put into it.

What kind of personal qualities are important for being an engineer?

I think you’ve got to have that curiosity. It’s what makes you want to get up in the morning and work on the projects that you do.

I think you’ve got to be quite analytical, you’ve got to want to break things down and look at them from different views, try and approach it with the old cliché of “thinking outside the box”.

Your competitors in other companies aren’t going to help you so you have to think “I’m going to figure it out for myself. No one knows how to do but this is what I’ve been given the task for.” You have to use all the resources around you, break the task down and produce your result.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

The thing I love the most is the realisation of two years hard work when you end up with a console like this. You’re sat behind a desk, coding, you’re soldering, you’re wiring things up, it can be hot and dirty work underneath a desk in a theatre somewhere. It’s like being given a very big puzzle and you’ve got two years to solve it, a certain amounts of resources to do it and off you go.

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Picture: Jenn Durfey CC by 2.0

What are your mixing desks used for, what kind of events and things?

Cadac’s history started in the theatre and recording studios. If you went to see the Lion King, Cadac have got a desk there which does all of the sound mixing for the entire show. When the actors are talking on the stage that’s all mixed together in the desk and it goes to all the speakers throughout the theatre.

In the theatre, the desk designer and the sound engineer just want you to notice the show. The skill is in wanting everything to appear as natural as possible.

What is the most exciting project or event or scenario that you’ve catered for?

Our equipment was used on Jerry Springer: The Opera - that was interesting. Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody was recorded on a Cadac and The Rolling Stones used a Cadac mixing desk in a tour before I joined the company. These products are involved in bringing out some iconic music over the years and that’s a great feeling.

So you’re like an invisible wizard behind the scenes?

Exactly, that’s what you are, you’re not in the front line, enjoying all the glory but ultimately you know within the industry and within yourself that you may have had a part in bringing that moment in history - that moment when the music hits the audience and they go crazy and they can pick out all the details of the sound. We’re the unsung heroes, the guys behind the scenes.

What did you think about Lord Sugar’s comment “I’ve never come across an engineer who can turn his hand to business”?

When Lord Sugar said his piece about engineers I thought “well that’s his opinion, he’s entitled to that and all I need to do is go out there and prove him otherwise”. And I’ll continue to do so. In the real world it’s been proven otherwise. We’ve all heard about engineers who have succeeded in business - James Dyson, Bill Gates, fantastic examples.

What skills or personal qualities did you bring to the show from an engineering perspective?

I’d like to think that I bought the analytical edge, to break ideas down and think about them. On the show you had to pay attention to detail because otherwise you would slip up. I’d like to think I aided the teams I was involved with in getting key points across.

Did you enjoy the experience?

It was a great experience, I absolutely loved it. I didn’t win which I was ultimately disappointed about but I learnt so many things about myself and about how other people work. It was the most high pressure environment I’ve ever experienced in my entire life and I feel like I’m a better person for it.

We were involved in all sorts of things, from buying and selling to negotiating and marketing. On a pure engineering career you might not come across these things so it opened my eyes to all the experiences out there and made me feel I’d become more of a rounded individual.

Was it weird seeing yourself on TV?

I hid behind the sofa pretty much every episode because you’re thinking “did I say that?"

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What advice would you give to someone who would like to do a job like yours?

Set yourself a goal. Say “this is what I want to achieve and I’m going to make it happen.” Networking is important too. Talk to the right people, go to companies, approach them and show them your passion. Also it’s best to do well at school, it works. You need a good education to get into engineering. With a lot of hard work, doors will open for you.

If you could go back in time and invent anything, what would it be?

Facebook probably.  Apple are a fantastic company, I love all their products - what Steve Jobs did there was brilliant. He took part of engineering and design and made it beautiful and it brought engineering and technology to the masses and made it simple, which I love.

What do you do outside of work?

Currently I’m training for the London marathon which is crazy. I’m running about 26 miles a week now which is absolutely draining but worth it. I play football on the weekend with a club called Goff’s Old Boys. I go to the gym and I do bits and pieces that come from the Apprentice like giving talks in schools.

 

More links

Students: Find out about how to get into engineering

Discover more engineering careers

Cadac homepage

Discover more careers in electronics engineering

The Institution of Engineering and Technology  (The IET)

The Apprentice BBC site

Follow Glenn on Twitter