ECE: Electrical & Computer Engineering
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Renaissance Man
of the acoustic waveforms

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Photograph of David Gagnon

David Gagnon (EE '07) is also a music major and has a mathematics minor. He is interested in music acoustics - analyzing and characterizing the sounds of music.

David Gagnon (EE ’07) came to Virginia Tech in 2002 intending to major in electrical engineering. But his diverse interests kept complicating his academic life. He will graduate this May with a double major in EE and music and a minor in mathematics, with a load of research projects on his resume. He’s also principal cellist with the New River Valley Symphony.

For graduate school, Gagnon may add another subject area to the mix. He’s being courted by two graduate programs—architecture at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and physical acoustics at the University of Texas at Austin.

“I love learning,” he says. “A lot of topics intrigue me.”

Gagnon added the mathematics minor because he enjoys it. He added music because he loves it and has played with the New River Valley Symphony for five years. An honors student, Gagnon started pulling his interests together with the Horton Honors Scholarship, which financed a trip to study the acoustics of European concert halls. Attending performances in Salzburg, Austria’s 2,179-seat Festspielhaus during Salzburg Festival trained his ear in a way that performance never had, Gagnon says.

“When I’m on stage, I don’t get to hear a lot of what goes on in the concert hall,” he says. “In Europe, I compared venues and noticed how the dimensions of the building effect sound clarity and echo.”

Gagnon spent the summer of 2005 visiting and sketching the acoustic environments of Europe's major concert halls.

Now he’s thinking about a career designing concert halls and achieving good acoustics for various types of performances. His senior honors thesis also involves music—analyzing and characterizing sound waves of music. He’s investigating how the sound changes as it bounces off materials of different absorptive values and how echoes show up in the audio signal. He’s also interested in characterizing music waveforms so music genres can be automatically catalogued and retrieved by computer.

Photograph of one of David Gagnon's sketches Photograph of one of David Gagnon's sketches Photograph of one of David Gagnon's sketches

“Our brains are so complex; it’s a challenging task to have the computer listen to notes and figure out what type of music it is,” he says. “The beat histogram, for instance, can give a lot of information about the type of song. Classical music can be speedy or slow, and the beat is not strong; it produces a blurry histogram. A techno song, on the other hand, has a strong rhythm.”

Gagnon is also looking at the timbre of different musical instruments—the tonal character and changes over time—and analyzing the waveform. In one test, he will play his cello in a studio with a friend on a euphonium, which has a different range, to determine whether his characterization program is only good for one instrument.

His engineering experience will have a major role in the study as well. Gagnon is using MATLAB to analyze the wave file of the music.

Gagnon is familiar with the data acquisition involved in research projects; he has participated in two separate REU (Research Experience for Undergrads) programs under the auspices of the National Science Foundation. In the first, at Central Florida University, he worked with ultra fast lasers. Gagnon spent last summer at Penn State, where he was involved with testing the conductivity of “graphene” thin carbon films, which have “cool, unusual properties” and the ability to conduct electricity well.

“I’ve just picked things that interested me during my college career,” he says. “I have a lot of things I want to learn. That means I go from musical theory class over to the engineering building for antenna design. Electromagnetic waves are similar to those in acoustics. These things are very exciting to me.”

—By Su Clauson-Wicker