Montana State University

Mountains and Minds

The sweet spot October 13, 2014 by Michael Becker • Published 10/13/14

Located at opposite ends of campus, music and engineering couldn’t get much farther apart at Montana State University.

You might think that was also true of the subjects those departments teach, but for the past seven years, engineering professor Rob Maher has been bridging the gap, one class at a time.

Maher, who heads the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, is one of several professors teaching interdisciplinary classes that mix undergraduates from engineering and music technology to explore ways the fields overlap.

“To me,” Maher said, “the goal is to have the engineering students not afraid to talk to creative users and, at the same time, to not have the music students mystified by these magical little chips and resistors.”

Maher has been interested in music his whole life. In addition to his love of progressive rock—he says he’s still recovering from rock band Kansas’ performance with the MSU Symphony in 2012—he plays the cello in the local Second String Orchestra and sings in the St. James Episcopal choir.

“I remember as a kid listening to an LP record, and I’m tapping my feet and being fascinated that this little wiggly line could cause an emotional reaction,” he recalled.

“I still feel that way, but it is now streams of digital data causing that musical thrill.”

Maher earned his doctorate at the University of Illinois–Urbana and began his teaching career at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln before going to work for a startup audio electronics company EuPhonics Inc., creating firmware to run the sound cards in computers.

His research has focused on digital signal processing, especially the area of audio forensic analysis. He is still frequently called to be an expert witness in the field. A recent out-of-state case he worked on was the grand jury investigation of a 2012 shooting of a couple by police who fired 137 shots into their vehicle. Maher analyzed audio from the incident to see which gunshots could be identified as coming from particular officers.

“They are going to spend more money on the litigation and the investigation of this than it would have cost to outfit all their cruisers with audio-video equipment,” he said, which indicates that his sort of work will only become more common and important as always-on recordings become more and more ubiquitous.

Maher brought his audio expertise to MSU in 2002, right at a time when the music department was looking at the role technology was going to play in the future of its field. Those explorations led to the creation of the music technology program, which admitted its first students in 2004. Maher was more than happy to lend his expertise.

“If I look at MSU compared to where else I’ve been in my career, the one thing I’ve noticed here is a really low barrier between departments,” he said. “It does take effort and persistence, but our academic culture is very tolerant of this sort of (interdisciplinary) work.”

The Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering falls within the College of Engineering, MSU’s fastest growing college. Last fall, engineering enrolled 3,102 students out of the 15,294 attending MSU. Maher’s department had about 330 students.

Working with music technology, Maher has taught two audio electronics workshops and a studio design course that involved Bozeman’s local Peach Street Studio. He also teaches the Science of Sound course for music tech students every year.

Electrical engineering major Aaron Reynolds, 21, took Maher’s workshop last spring. The Helena native said Maher’s hands-on approach in the classroom made a big difference.

“You run into professors who can lecture all day, but it doesn’t work when you get into a lab,” Reynolds said. “He’s willing to go over things as many times as you need to.”

Working with his music tech partners, Reynolds built as his final project a theremin, an electronic instrument known best for the eerie sounds it has lent to science fiction and horror movie soundtracks. Other groups in the class produced things like a plasma loudspeaker and laser light show.

Reynolds said the interdisciplinary groups really let the students’ field-specific knowledge shine while becoming part of something bigger. He said Maher was key to that cooperative learning.

“When they can talk to an engineering student as well as they can talk to a music student, that’s a really special kind of professor,” he said.
Music professor Jason Bolte, who advises the music technology program, said Maher’s background as a musician really helps him draw the music students into the engineering concepts.

“If we had someone who didn’t have the musical background Rob does, it might be harder for the students to relate,” Bolte said. “It’s an amazing opportunity to have him on campus and have his expertise. If it wasn’t for Rob, a lot of things would have to change in our department.”

Maher believes engineers have a vital role to play in the future of the modern, gadget-filled world, not just because engineers help make those devices real but because engineers have a duty to improve people’s “joy of living.”

Some students, particularly those outside of engineering programs, might not see the potential for study and careers in those slick gadgets because their design makes the engineering behind them all but invisible.

“It is increasingly easy to accept digital cameras, iPods, implantable defibrillators, anti-lock brakes, smartphones, and so forth, assuming that the technology magically fell from the sky one day, rather than as the fascinating engineering challenges they really are,” he said, noting that one or two innovations in a smartphone represent the life’s work of dozens of engineers. Even the very sound cards he used to help make are hidden now.
The crossover classes, he said, will help students see new paths and increase MSU’s appeal.

“It will really help define what’s special about this university compared to thousands of others,” he said. “Here, if we have this emphasis on the hands-on work and these interdisciplinary classes, people start expecting this rather than it being an exceptional thing. It becomes the way we do things here, and I’ll be really excited about that.” ■