College of Engineering News • Iowa State University

Engineers construct music

Engineers hoping to interact with music at Iowa State don’t have to do so in the traditional sense. They don’t have to play a musical instrument, compose pages of sheet music, or understand the traditional theories behind composition. Instead, they can explore the newest innovations in the field through a music technology minor.

Christopher Hopkins, creator of the minor and associate professor of music in the Department of Music and Theatre, says the two-year-old minor wasn’t designed with any one type of student in mind, but finds engineers show the most interest in the program.

“Engineering students often choose it for either enrichment purposes or for an extension of their major,” says Hopkins. “Some engineers have a serious musical avocation they want to explore. Others choose it as an extension of their program of study and want to use their engineering skills in conjunction with the music world in a professional way.”

Connecting the two sets of skills is not as much of a stretch as it may seem. Whether it is in a recording studio, crafting the next best microphone, or collaborating with architects to ensure a new concert hall has the best acoustics possible, engineers are a big part of today’s music.

“Engineering is often about a construction of something from parts,” says Hopkins. “The minor allows students to see how engineering applies to the construction of music and gives them another source for creative ideas.”

The core of the minor is three music technology courses, with a variety of electives in music, computer science, computer engineering, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, physics, and software engineering.

“When I created the program, I wanted it to be very adaptable because this is not a mini-major,” says Hopkins. “It functions in a way that allows students to create their own links to their major. Students use their engineering studies as a way to gain deep knowledge of science and technology, but they use the music technology minor to apply those skills creatively to sound or music in their career or personal life.”

Mark Wiemer and Christopher Hopkins

Derek Navratil (BSEE‘11) first became interested in the minor because of his attempt to break into the music industry in high school. “I have always had a passion for music and technology so in high school I started a music recording business, but that never really went anywhere,” says Navratil.

He now uses the skills he honed in music technology classes to record friends’ songs on the weekends; assist with audio production at his church; consult with a local touring organization for audio and lighting; and even reignite his recording company.

Although Navratil wouldn’t complain about being paid to do what he loves, music is his lifelong hobby.

“I will always work with music technology for pure enjoyment,” says Navratil. “Music is around us all the time and knowing how that music is made and the skill it takes to produce what we hear on our radios or iPods is a thrill I’ll never get tired of.”

An underlying desire, like that of Navratil’s, coupled with a thirst for technological innovation, is what makes the music technology minor fascinating to many engineers.

“Beyond the introductory courses, music technology isn’t about learning the software,” says Hopkins. “It is about creating software, meaning engineers can apply much of what they already know.”

Navratil used his engineering background while working on a surround panner that uses all eight channels of audio output in a music studio while he earned his minor. With the panner, he was able to create custom music outputs through an intuitive user interface, create an illusion of sound circling a listener, and pan audio fluidly from speaker to speaker in various configurations.

Another team of students recently worked with an AcceleGlove, a glove with accelerometers that sense motion and emit sound through custom-built software. The AcceleGlove is an example of a type of interface and software that can be used for performance of electronic music. Mark Wiemer (BSME’11) worked on the team to add a vibration feature to the glove, which allows performers to receive both tactile and audio feedback.

These kinds of projects supply students with advanced professional equipment, provide hands-on practice, and offer a chance to experiment with how cutting-edge technology can be applied to various aspects of music.

“This minor provided an invaluable education opportunity for me, and I have applied my skills time and time again,” says Navratil. “Being able to work with modern, state-of-the-art technology that the rest of the music world is using really enhances the learning process.”