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AcSoft Interviews: Behind the Beard with Nigel Burton

Nigel joined Temple Group in 2018 and is a director with their Acoustics team. He is responsible for developing out architectural acoustics capabilities to which he brings a wealth of experience, and enjoys mentoring the more junior members of the team.

Nigel is an active member of the Institute of Acoustics, through which he has become a Chartered Engineer, and is a board member of the Association of Noise Consultants.

AcSoft interviews is a series of interviews where we talk to people in the industry to get their thoughts and insights on a range of key topics.

Did you find acoustics or did acoustics find you?

When I was at school, I used to do backstage work. So I used to do lighting first and then I moved into sound. I only moved into sound because we had a better sound board than we had a lighting board!

I then volunteered to do hospital radio and I’d got the idea that I wanted to do media production at University. I was interested in becoming a camera operator or something similar, so I filled in my UCAS form and I think at the time we used to have eight slots in the UCAS form and I’d filled in like one or two and the teacher said to me you’ve got 45 minutes fill in the rest. So I flicked through, what was at the time, like sort of yellow pages of courses and saw audio technology. Where’s that? Salford. Where’s Salford? I’ve never heard of Salford. It’s in Manchester. I’ve heard of Manchester. So I just wrote it down and then ended up going for an open day there, and the rest is kind of history. So that’s how I got into doing audio technology.

The question I am often asked, is why hospital radio? A friend of mine was doing it at the time. It was at the hospital that my mum worked at. And I’d spent a lot of time as a kid, just not because I had any illnesses, I was just really accident prone.

How has your time in the RAF affected the way you train new members of the team at Temple and the way you fulfil your role now?

So I did my industry placement as part of my course at Salford University in the RAF within the noise and vibration division. I did get to live in an officer’s mess, which was fun, and very cheap beer! I got to visit loads of flying stations around the UK, so it gave me a really good grounding in acoustics and in a kind of strange way, acoustic consultancy. So a lot of things like noise at work and things like that we used to look at. We used to run noise surveys around the flying stations to look at their noise insulation grant scheme. So it gave me the fundamentals of how we would deal with things.

When I did then start my first job, I was a bit shocked when they showed me their equipment cupboard and I said, all right where’d you keep the rest?  They were like, what do you mean? We’ve only got like two sound level meters. With the RAF, we’d had like 15 or 20! So I don’t know, I could ask our new members of staff to drop and give me 20, but it would be a bit unfair because I never had to do that.
The sort of fundamentals of how to report right, how to set up equipment, calibrating equipment before we started and at the end of measurements. So those sorts of things were all really useful.

What does the future of acoustics look like and the future challenges?

So I think with like with most industries I can see AI becoming more and more prevalent in things like data management possibly or source recognition.  I know there’s some people are doing some clever stuff at the moment where they’re using, I think it was described as an Alexa type thing, but it wasn’t Alexa. They can do ecological surveys with recording sound and then listening for what breeds and species of things are making the noise, which is all very clever stuff.

I went to an Institute of Acoustics meeting the other night where they were talking around advances in material technology in noise barrier design, and rather than having solid barriers all the way along, this was looking at what you could achieve with, spot barriers along a line.

Somebody was talking recently about air source heat pumps and there was a there was a part of me thinking, well, you know, boilers are noisy. But somebody did raise the point of, we got things wrong with combustion engines where we just kind of went, well, it’s just noisy deal with it. So we should be trying to use technology to minimise noise as far as we can really from the source rather than trying to deal with it afterwards. So hopefully we’re a bit more thoughtful about where we put things and how we how we control the noise at source.

Do you think that with AI coming into our world, that there’s a risk to the acoustic consultant in terms of redundancy, possibly?

I’d like to think that it will be used to do the more mundane stuff and will actually then lead to more time and space for acoustic consultants to do the clever work. I’ve seen it, I’ve got an old contact who is, for example, in environmental issues, an environmental manager, and has now set up a business with a colleague to number crunch and pull in all the information in an automated way that they would have done manually before. The way I describe their route was that they’d spend all month pulling together everything from that month, by which point you were then on to the next month to do the same thing.

If things like unattended noise monitors haven’t reduced a need for acoustic consultants. I think, as I say, it doesn’t scare me in the way that it perhaps scares some people. I think it can only be useful if we use it in the right ways.

So there is a strong demand in society for a change to greener energy. This is clear in the food we eat and the way we even vote politically. Does this affect the services you offer inside Temple and the businesses you want to work with or even for?

Our value is creating sustainable futures. So the sort of work that we do at Temple is driven in that direction. You might know, we’re a B Corp.

Why do you think it’s important for potential clients and existing clients to understand the benefits of a class one type approved system and a class one system, being used by a fully trained acoustic consultant?

So we’re all walking around now with things in our pockets that are potentially sound level meters, which I think is positive from the perspective of raising awareness and people can be, looking at their phones and thinking, oh, I wonder how loud it is. So that’s useful. I mean, even the things like, the iPhone now, I occasionally get a warning to tell me that if I carry on listening to music as loud as I am, I will damage my hearing. So I think that’s positive, but it does lead to some people, who would then do measurements on their phones and say, oh, that’s fine, we don’t need to employ anybody.

Competency of acoustic consultants and use of class one equipment it’s just going to help accuracy in measurements. You don’t want to have inaccurate measurement data. A lot of the standards are written nowadays around what needs to be done and how it needs to be done.

We saw how noise levels changed during the pandemic. So just trying to minimise the inaccuracies or maximise the precision in the measurement procedure that we can control, that means that we know that if there’s changes in other things, well, at least we know the equipment and the person doing the measurements knew what they were doing.

Has anybody ever asked you what you do for a living and if they weren’t from an acoustics background, how did you explain to them what acoustics is and what you do?

Depending on how much I want to talk to people, I’ll say I’m an engineer and that normally, bores them enough. What sort of engineer? I’m a chartered engineer, but I suppose I’m an acoustic consultant more than an acoustic engineer.

I tend to give examples of projects I’ve worked on. So things like if I’m talking about building acoustics, I’ll talk about external noise, internal sound insulation, so that if you’re in a hotel, you can’t hear the people who are in the room next to you. Control of reverberation, so soft finishes in big voluminous spaces and control of building services noise.

Quite often I used to get, oh, can you fix my stereo? But nobody has stereos anymore and it’s interesting that most people have got better stereos than me. I do remember doing some measurements down near Paddington Basin one day and this car, this car sort of, drove up, blacked out windows and the door opened and this guy got out and I thought, it’s David Dimbleby, and then he sort of walked past me and he said, what are you doing? And I said, I’m doing some noise measurements and given what a fantastic interviewer he is, I’m expecting a , really, really crucial follow-up question. He just said, is it noisy? And I said, yeah, a bit!

What does Nigel Burton do for fun at the weekends, and ultimately, what’s behind the beard?

We’re assuming I have fun?! I was thinking about this, I’ve been really tired recently, but I think it’s partly the winter and things. So hopefully now the clocks have gone forward, we’ve got a bit more daylight. I generally like getting outside a bit more than I have been. So I’m five minutes walk from Epping Forest. I am a friend of Copped Hall, which is far grander than it sounds.

I do like a bit of formula one and from time to time I’ve got one of these racing chairs so I can race online with teenagers who are far better at driving than I am. It sort of folds up quite neatly because I am an adult, so I didn’t want to sort of huge one that would take up too much space, but I might get that out this weekend!

I still don’t think I have a beard. Because it’s a great  achievement. I’m terrible at maintenance, hence why the beard gets long and gets short. I need to have a trim next week. My local beard technician will put it into some sort of form for me. It’s got a few greys in there now. I spotted one grey in the hair the other day. One of my colleagues suggested you must dye your hair!

Check out the full interview on YouTube – https://youtu.be/bPPBx7KFBW4

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