Max Willard has worked on everything from music technology using the Microsoft Kinect to digital television.
Here, he tells us how a career in engineering at the BBC has given him the opportunity to do really ‘cool stuff’ in what he describes as ‘one of the best places in the world’.
Can you tell us what you job title is?
I’m a trainee technologist and I’m currently on the 3rd and final placement of the BBC R & D (Research & Training) training technology scheme.
How did you find your way into the BBC?
It was actually through a friend of mine called Chris Pike who is a trainee in the year above me...he went to the same university as me. I was going to be a sound engineer or a recording engineer and had spent a lot of time in studios. After a year of doing that - and a lot of conversations with mix engineers telling me how a lot of studios are closing - I started thinking of looking elsewhere. Then, just as I was coming around to graduating, I got this email off Chris [about the BBC R & D programme] so I came down and applied for the job.
What degree course did you study?
Electronic engineering and music technology systems at [The University of] York.
What did you study at A Level?
Computer science, chemistry, physics and maths
What put the spark in your head to think about engineering?
Playing in bands (I’m a guitar player) and, from a very early age, I was building things. My favourite toys were Lego, Meccano...that kind of stuff. When I started playing guitars in bands, the first thing you want to do is start recording. So, I got into recording techniques and started building my own microphones and audio gear and just kind of got hooked on it like that. I was never consciously trying to go into the BBC and tried to avoid it because both of my parents work at the Beeb. My mum is an Exec at Radio 4 and my dad is an Exec at Radio 1. I tried to avoid following my parents footsteps but after reading the job description and hearing a bit more about it, I couldn’t really say ‘no’.
How does the scheme work?
The programme works over three eight month rotations over two years...and you get lots of training courses in and around that. The first one [placement] you do is normally geared to your specific interest to get you grounded. So my first placement was working tape reproduction systems because I had quite a lot of experience in production.
I had done a lot of work in outside broadcasting - independently - before I joined. After that the idea is to do two other placements that are as different as possible. My second [placement] was doing image processing work and my final placement is right at the other end of the spectrum: I’m doing digital distribution on digital television.
What happens at the end of the programme?
All being well, you become a proper research engineer. Mostly people end up working on what they want to do, because at the end of the day if you’re working on something you’re not interested in you’ll end up doing substandard work.
So where do your interests lie?
My experience and interests lie in production. I’m a film-maker and musician, so have been around production for a very long time. So, ideally I’ll like to move into production research. There is a new kind of work which is testing new R & D ideas with mock productions: you get a director, a scriptwriter and a load of actors and put together a short pilot which specifically tests a certain piece of technology.
The BBC R & D Department. Photo by Mark Bassett
So it seems like there are always interesting things going on?
Absolutely. Because the BBC is such a massive organisation it does so much cool stuff and there's so many people who want to do cool stuff. An example is when we went out with the BBC Philharmonic and made a thing called virtual maestro using a Microsoft Kinect.
We wrote some software that does hand tracking, so when you stand in front of it, it knows where your hands are. We did a load of recordings with the Philharmonic and a digital cinema camera with a massive wide angle lens and surround sound. We made this art installation: you stand on a podium, the orchestra comes up and - because you’ve got hand tracking - you conduct the orchestra. So the higher the hands are, the louder they get. The faster you move the hands, you speed them up. It’s been a really, really big hit.
Do you think that engineers get recognised enough for their creativity?
It’s one of my biggest gripes, the use of the word ‘creatives’ ... especially at the Beeb. They say we'll get some creatives in and what they mean is writers, directors, people like that. You take a step back and think well, what is engineering? You make stuff...How is that not creative? That's what makes me mad, that the use of the word ‘creative’ is exclusive use to people who write or paint or whatever. You’ll find that most engineers who work here are musicians, artists, painters...they’re creative in their own right and especially when it comes to engineering and thinking up new ideas.
What would you say is the single best thing about your job?
There is always something new and you’ll never get bored. And, if – for example - you want to do a project with the best orchestra in the country, you can just ring someone up and go do it. You’ve got access to more resources here than some university departments, and the ability to just go play and do cool things. If you enjoy making stuff, it’s the best place in the world to be...I couldn’t commend it more highly.
What do you do outside of work?
I’m a guitar player and spend time recording bands. At the moment I’m also putting something together, an art installation, for a festival this summer. I do a bit of DJing and I’m also a film-maker and photographer.
I’m involved in a plethora of stuff outside the job, but another great thing about working here is that your interests and job merge into one in a lot of cases.
Is there any specific broadcasting technology which you think is going to change the way we do things?
I think we're going to see a lot of connection [by internet] but not just your phones and computers... we're going to see washing machines with wireless chips in them and your car being connected to the internet all the time. We're going to see the internet thing growing much, much faster.