UNH Mathematician Nominated for Grammy Award
By Matthew Gianino, Institute on Disability / UCED
December 12, 2007
Kevin Short, professor of mathematics at UNH, has been nominated for a Grammy
award for his role in the restoration of a 1949 bootleg wire recording of folksinger
Woody Guthrie. Doug Prince photo.
A biosketch of Kevin Short would read: Ph.D. in physics from the Imperial
College of Science and Technology in London, professor of mathematics at the
University of New Hampshire, teacher, researcher and entrepreneur, founder
of UNH’s first spin-out company, and Grammy Award nominee.
Short was honored Dec. 6 in the 50th annual Grammy nominations for his role
as a mastering engineer in the restoration of a 1949 bootleg wire recording
of a live Woody Guthrie concert. It is the only known recording of Guthrie
performing before an audience. Guthrie, known as the Dust Bowl Balladeer, wrote
more than 1,000 songs in the 1930s and ’40s, most as political commentary
on poverty and social injustice.
Short is renowned for his discovery of Chaotic Compression Technology, which
applies a mathematical theory known as chaos to audio, speech, video and image
data. This allows the compression of large files to a fraction of the size
and, with encryption, enables transmission in a wireless environment, such
as downloading to a cell phone.
UNH filed for patents in 1998 and two years later, Short started a company,
Chaoticom, which became Groove Mobile of Andover, Mass., now a leader in mobile
music services. After leaving Groove Mobile in 2006, Short began to dabble
in music restoration.
Old analog tapes often were distorted by the mechanical effects of the recording
instrument. The sprockets and gears that rotated the spools could cause warps
and warbles in the sound, unlike the precision of modern digital recording
“I had been working on the mathematics of compression techniques and
did lots of analysis of audio to figure out what’s going on in this music,” said
His papers at scientific conferences caught the attention of Jamie Howarth,
founder of Plangent Processes of Nantucket, Mass. Plangent’s patented
Clarity Audio Restoration technology uses a software algorithm to correct the
speed and musical pitch distortions in analog recordings.
Howarth is an Emmy-award winning musical producer, engineer and session musician.
He has an analytical mind and “golden ears,” said Short. “He
would watch how these machines move and he could hear what’s going on.
He’s an expert in ‘de-wowing’ old music, the audio tracks
from old movies and classic rock.”
Short had worked with Howarth on the audio restoration of the Spielberg movie “Close
Encounters of the Third Kind” and restoration of a Grateful Dead classic
from 1976, “Live at the Cow Palace.” When Howarth was called for
the Woody Guthrie project, he brought in Short. “I wanted to be sure
we gave these rare performances every possible opportunity, and Kevin’s
mathematical analyses gave us a better understanding of this antiquated medium,” said
In 2001, a heavy package had been mailed to the Woody Guthrie Archives in
New York City. Received shortly after the World Trade Center attacks of September
11, this strange package from an unknown sender, containing two spools of wire,
was at first suspected to be a bomb, according to published accounts.
As it turned out, the box had been sent by an elderly man who pulled it out
of a closet in the process of moving. Paul Braverman, as a student at Rutgers
University in 1949, had brought a wire recorder to Woody Guthrie’s concert
at Fuld Hall in Newark, N.J., and captured the songs and dialog.
Never capitalizing on his unauthorized recording, Braverman put the spools
in a shoe box and stored it in a closet, where it remained for a half-century.
He donated it to the Woody Guthrie Archives and died two years later without
knowing the result of his beneficent bootlegging.
After determining the mysterious box was indeed not a bomb, Nora Guthrie,
daughter of the late performer and director of the archives, searched for a
year for a wire audio recorder. Finally, she found an audio restoration specialist
who had converted a tape player to read wire, and hired a team of sound engineers
led by Howarth and by Steve Rosenthal of The Magic Shop, a recording studio
These engineers began the difficult work of transferring the sound. “The
brittle wire would snap and sproing,” said Short, and the loose ends
of the hair-thin wire would tangle in knots. “It took them a heroic 36-hour
session to get the sound off the wire,” he said.
“I was not part of those efforts. I came in at the end, when everything
had been digitized. The sound engineers cut and pasted and mixed the sound
to reduce the hums and crackles to get a good signal so we could figure out
was what going wrong with the recording.”
Relying on Howarth’s “golden ears” to indicate satisfactory
results, Short applied the precision of mathematics to the signal data. “It
sort of broke the bounds of our assumptions,” Short said. “It really
tested everything we had.”
Howarth said, “Kevin led us to a greater understanding of how best to
reclock the sound to undo the wows and flutters caused by the original machine’s
mechanical imperfections. This is what we do routinely with film and tape,
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.” The
resulting album, “The Live Wire: Woody Guthrie in Performance 1949,” was
one of five Grammy nominees for best historical album. Awards will be announced
What’s next for Short? He has two new projects in the works: multiple
channel sound analysis, which may lead to the development of better stereo
hearing aids, and the refinement of techniques to detect trace materials used
in making improvised explosive devices.
“Signal processing is one of the coolest places to test mathematical
modeling and representation theory,” said Short. “You have to scramble
and come up with new mathematics to make it work.”
Short’s love of math paved the way to a Marshall scholarship which allowed
him to study abroad, six U.S. patents, a successful company, a university professorship,
an open door to fascinating research opportunities and yes, maybe a Grammy
Award—all by the age of 44.
What advice does he have for his students—and his four children—about
career choices? “The nice thing about mathematics is once you get a good
model, it can be used over and over and it’s right,” said Short. “Applying
mathematics to real life can be very cool.”