January 11, 2008
Mathematician Kevin Short of the University of New Hampshire is up for a 2008 Grammy Award for helping to restore the only known recording of Woody Guthrie performing before an audience.
In 1949, when Guthrie gave a concert at Fuld Hall, in Newark, N.J., Rutgers student Paul Braverman brought his wire recorder to secretly capture the songs and dialogue. Braverman donated his recording to the Woody Guthrie Archives in 2001.
Nora Guthrie, director of the archives, decided to transfer the old recording to compact disc. With the brittle wire often breaking, a team of specialists needed "a heroic 36-hour session to get the sound off the wire," Short said.
Sound engineers cut, pasted, and mixed the sound to reduce the hums and crackles to get a good signal. Short's role as mastering engineer came at the end, after the sound had been digitized. Relying on sound engineer Jamie Howarth's "golden ears" to get the right results, Short applied mathematics to the signal data to massage the sound. These mathematics-based audio manipulations undid the wows and flutters caused by the original recording machine's imperfections.
"This is what we do routinely with film and tape," Howarth noted, "but the special challenge of the wire required a new angle on the mathematical model we ordinarily employ, and Kevin was instrumental in that regard."
"Signal processing is one of the coolest places to test mathematical modeling and representation theory," Short said. "You have to scramble and come up with new mathematics to make it work."
"The nice thing about mathematics," Short observed, "is once you get a good model, it can be used over and over and it's right. Applying mathematics to real life can be very cool."
The resulting album, "The Live Wire: Woody Guthrie in Performance 1949," is one of five Grammy nominees for best historical album. Catch the Awards on February 10 to see if Short is among the winners.
Source: University of New Hampshire, Dec. 11, 2007; Associated Press, Dec. 7, 2007; Woody Guthrie Foundation, Sept. 6, 2007.