University of Rochester

The Science of Winning a Grammy

By Katina Antoniades

As a geology and physics major, Kevin Short ’85 took voice lessons at the Eastman School—and, like several alumni who honed their skills at Eastman, Short has joined the list of Rochester’s Grammy winners. But the professor of mathematics at the University of New Hampshire can attribute his award to his expertise in math and physics rather than to his singing abilities.

Short, an expert on analyzing noise, distortion, and other aspects of sound, was part of a team of sound engineers recognized for their work to restore the recording The Live Wire: Woody Guthrie in Performance 1949. The Recording Academy awarded the album a Grammy this year for best historical album.

Short and his wife, Michelle, traveled to Los Angeles to attend the ceremonies. “It was actually surreal, in some ways, because it’s hard to look back on it and believe that it’s connected to your normal life,” Short says.

When Short, who has taught at New Hampshire since 1994, joined the project, the team had already created a digital file from a live performance by the folk music icon that had been recorded onto a spool of wire, a method used briefly after World War II before it was replaced by magnetic tape. Short designed a portion of an algorithm that restored distorted sections of the recording by correcting pitch and timing problems.

That work is one example of his longstanding interest in applying research that was first kindled at Rochester. As a senior, he won the Stoddard Prize in Physics—in spite of lab equipment that broke and forced him to completely change his thesis midway through spring semester. He says his studies at the University gave him a good grounding for his work after graduation.

“I think I went into graduate school with a much better sense of what research was,” he says. As a Marshall scholar, he attended Imperial College London, earning his Ph.D. in theoretical physics in 1988.

Short’s college experience also taught him how to juggle several activities. When he wasn’t working on his singing—or studying—he played baseball, gave campus tours, and worked as a trainer in the Nautilus room.

“I actually saved my little pocket calendars to review from time to time in my life—and I couldn’t cram any more into the day than I did,” he says.

In 2001, Short launched Chaoticom (now Groove Mobile), a software company that developed a new type of audio compression that could make songs small enough to send to cell phones as ringtones.

“It was the first [company] to do it in Europe and the United States,” says Short. “And everyone piled in right afterwards.”

Although he continues to work on audio and video compression, Short left the company to return to research.

“[Research] is as natural to me as breathing,” he says. Over the years, he has investigated subjects as diverse as background seismic noise (the rumblings of the earth) and chaotic secure communication (using chaos theory to hide messages within audio that sounds like noise).

Short isn’t content to work within a theoretical vacuum.

“When you’re just doing mathematics, you can assume the world is simpler than it is,” he says. “And I’ve always found that when I think I have something that works beautifully, I can always find something in the real world that shows that ‘Eh, it’s pretty good, but there’s more to do.’ ”

The applications of Short’s work range from the detection of bomb-making chemicals to the improvement of hearing aids.

“It’s funny,” he says, “because [the Grammy] seems to have made the applicability of my research to real-world problems more accessible to people.”

To hear excerpts of the Guthrie recordings before and after restoration, visit

GRAMMY WINNER: Kevin Short ’85 shared the honor with producers Nora Guthrie, widow of the folk icon Woody Guthrie (right), and Jorge Arévalo Mateus, and mastering engineers Jamie Howarth, Steve Rosenthal, and Warren Russell-Smith.