Music and Sound are two fundamental aspects that profoundly influence our hearing experiences, one driven by creativity and the other driven by technology !
Pranav Swaroop, our next pathbreaker, Acoustics Engineer at Listen Inc. (Boston) & Concert Violinist, solves challenging electro-acoustic measurement problems across diverse product lines – Speakers, Microphones, Headsets, Telephones, Automotive audio, Hearing Aids and so on.
Pranav talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about the fulfilling experience as a musician technologist, to be involved from the very beginning of the R&D process of translating subjectively perceived sound into objective measurements that can be used to create better audio products in the future.
For students, be stubborn about pursuing your interests, and aspire to transform those interests into a career by building on your strengths !
Pranav, tell us about your initial years?
I come from a middle-class family and grew up in a small town in the Malnad region of Karnataka, India where I spent most of my childhood. My father, a civil engineer by training, quit his job early in his career to take care of agricultural land inherited from my ancestors. My mother had finished her higher secondary education and supported my family as a homemaker.
Realizing my interest in music, my mother put me into formal training in Carnatic Music (South Indian traditional classical music) when I was in school (5th grade if I remember). Although none of my immediate family members were musicians, they all shared a liking for Carnatic classical and devotional music which is what I was mostly exposed to throughout my childhood.
Learning music for the first few years was force-driven, as in I hadn’t developed interest quite yet to be able to sit down and practice on my own without my parents continuously pushing me to. This gradually started changing in a few years when I started giving short performances of what I had learned in front of relatives and friends, at family functions, temple events, and so on and earned their praise.
I was pretty good at studies. I liked Physics and Mathematics in particular and had a tremendous liking for learning Sanskrit as a language. I had a bunch of really good friends in my school, with whom I used to spend time and talk about a lot of things including and apart from studies. I was able to secure very good grades in my school as well as in my 12th grade after which I moved to Bangalore for my undergrad.
What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?
I did my BTech in Mechanical Engineering and MS in Music Technology from Georgia Institute of Technology.
I wanted to pursue my undergraduate studies in Aerospace engineering since I was fascinated by rockets and spacecraft, but there weren’t good institutions in my city or nearby. The top ones were IIT Madras and IIST Trivandrum, both of which required very high IITJEE rankings. Instead, I chose to do Mechanical Engineering. Moreover, most of my immediate family members/cousins were working in IT and the fact that everybody was a software engineer made me move away from ECE or CSE which I partly regret. But, I’m happy that I was able to quickly switch disciplines, compensate for not realizing the potential of electronics and programming, and how that could be applied to my field of interest. I will talk about this later in greater detail.
By the time I was in undergrad, I had become fairly proficient in playing the violin (Carnatic music), and more and more opportunities opened up because I lived in a bigger city now. I could network and collaborate with local musicians in the area and also participate and perform in inter-collegiate events and music festivals. I formed a band called ‘Project Mishram’ in 2014 with a bunch of talented musicians of my age whom I met at these inter-collegiate events. All of us had had some formal training in music, cherished listening to or playing Carnatic music and as a band, our motive was to fuse intricacies of Indian Classical music with other western musical genres while preserving our traditionally unique roots. We focused on creating our own compositions and bringing about a unique sound unlike hundreds of other bands who were just covering film songs. The struggle was real – to get people to listen to our original compositions and create that identity as a band, without losing belief in our music, ourselves. This took a few years to give us a break. Apart from playing Carnatic violin concerts, I got to play with my band at various competitions and events across Bangalore and eventually all across South India. We started winning almost everything that we took part in which brought us a lot of name and fame and there was no looking back.
I had figured out by that time that music is what I liked to do for the rest of my life though there was no guaranteed income. This put me in a difficult position not knowing what to do after I graduated. Although I had a couple of job offers when I got out, I didn’t want to work at some company that did something that I wouldn’t even care about, just for the sake of money, and lose so much time that I could spend on practicing and making music. I was constantly under pressure from my family to start preparing for the GRE and apply for a master’s degree abroad, which I didn’t want to unless it was something related to music. The only music-related degree programs I had heard of were songwriting and production-oriented ones like at Berklee. Although I was interested in those programs, there was no guarantee that I would find a job and be able to make a living after I finished.
What were some of the influences that made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?
While I was in this dilemma, a close friend of mine in college sparked this thought in me that I could pursue a career in Music Technology. I did my research online to find top universities that offered such programs and I was lucky enough to find out that Georgia Tech, one of the top universities in the US, had an MS program in Music Technology. I wrote GRE later that year, applied, and got an admission offer! Although I was reluctant in the beginning, because I had very little background in CS and EE which were a major part of the coursework, I figured out that things wouldn’t change unless I took the risk and came to the US in Aug 2018.
Did you get any scholarship or was this self-funded?
It was mostly self-funded although I worked on-campus doing some other things to cover my living costs. Georgia Tech, being a highly ranked institute, scholarships were limited in my department and the RA and TA positions were mostly reserved for PhD students or those with a good number of publications.
My master’s degree focused heavily on technical aspects such as audio as they related to music, such as DSP for music and audio applications, Machine learning, Acoustics of transducers, Psycho-acoustics, Music production, and Cognitive musicology along with some optional music theory and performance-based projects.
Although the workload was taxing in the beginning, by the grace of God and a solid amount of effort, I was able to quickly understand Acoustics and DSP concepts, learn to program in a bunch of languages and ultimately graduate in Dec 2020 with very good grades.
Most of my classmates had some or the other kind of musical background or played an instrument or were into music production and shared similar stories.
How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path
Over the last three years here in the US, I have got to work at some of the top audio-tech companies on really cool projects. I started early in my master’s program looking for internships. I was offered an internship at Jabra, a leading manufacturer of headsets in 2019 where I got exposed to working in an R&D Acoustics lab, making measurements on Noise-canceling headsets and analyzing them. I found electro-acoustics to be a fascinating area because I was working on quantifying sound and objectively understanding why something sounds good/bad on a particular headset or loudspeaker and drawing subjective correlations with my musically trained ears. During the next term, I worked at Sony Computer Science Laboratories, Inc in Japan on a software plug-in that could compose music using Artificial Intelligence. During the last two semesters of my college, I worked at Motorola Solutions as a Co-op and contributed towards building an automated audio testing platform for Two-way radios (Walkie talkies). After I graduated, I worked for a little while in Austin, TX on a Noise cancellation tuning tool for headsets and earbuds for Cirrus Logic before moving to Boston MA to pursue a full-time position at Listen Inc.
Although job opportunities are relatively lesser in this field, throughout my internship/job hunt, I realised that companies in the consumer electronics/audio tech industry prefer applicants with a musical background as it added an intangible bonus skill that could help them look at products from both engineer’s and end user’s point of view throughout the process of product development.
That being said, the degree is helpful for non-musicians too who are interested in audio, but might help appreciate it more if you had some musical training/background.
In addition, I have been regularly performing Carnatic (Indian classical) concerts across the country and abroad, have been in constant touch with my band who are studying/working at different places across the globe but we still make time to sit together every weekend virtually and compose new songs. We did a UK concert tour in 2019, released a new album in 2020, got long-listed for the Grammys in 2021, and now once again gearing up for another UK/Europe concert tour this summer. As an independent musician, I have got to perform at several major music festivals and events at India’s diplomatic missions abroad in the US, Europe, and Southeast Asia.
Overall, I’m happy to be doing something that very closely aligns with my passion and make a living out of it.
How did you get your first break?
I was interested in working in the area of Acoustics of transducers (Speakers/Microphones/Headphones etc). In particular, I was inclined towards understanding different parameters that affect sound generation and propagation through a medium, that is arriving at quantifiable measurements to describe sound perception in simple words. In three out of four test labs that I worked at during my internships, we used a Sound measurement test system called ‘SoundCheck’ by Listen Inc. My first full-time offer after I graduated was at Listen Inc which I will talk about later.
I wanted to explore other areas such as Electronic musical instrument development, spatial audio, and so on, later in my career, but after having had a solid understanding and practical knowledge of electro-acoustics and DSP, which is also one of the reasons why I took the job at Listen Inc.
Throughout my job-hunt, perseverance, aggressive mindset, patience, and constant networking through emails and Linkedin have been key pointers that have played a significant role.
What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
As I mentioned in my earlier comments, the first challenge was to figure out what I wanted to be doing for a living. In my case, it became clear that I wanted to do something related to music or audio. Realizing this passion early in life and working towards that is the key.
If you come from a middle-class family in India planning to pursue higher education abroad, trying to figure out if you’d be able to earn back whatever you invested in, is the next hurdle unless you have got generous scholarships. In my opinion, there is only one life and unless you take that risk, there is no way you can make it happen. As long as you don’t end up on the streets, making informed decisions is very important when it comes to finances.
Where do you work now? Tell us about your work in Acoustics
At present, I work at Listen Inc, a leading manufacturer of Sound measurement products, both hardware, and software based out of Boston MA. Although we just have a handful of employees, Listen’s flagship product ‘SoundCheck’ is used in almost every consumer electronics and audio company globally.
‘SoundCheck’ is an audio measurement test system (software) that comes with some hardware (Audio interfaces) that interface with devices that we want to measure from. Some of this hardware is calibrated with high precision to serve as golden reference units. To give you a simple example, Frequency Response is something that we look at to understand how a loudspeaker colors the audio that plays through it. Similarly, measuring the impedance of a loudspeaker over a range of frequencies can give you different mechanical design parameters for a loudspeaker enclosure and beyond. These are all some types of measurements that are possible through the software we develop and the hardware.
Being in a small company, my role spans various disciplines from hardware testing to software. We work with customers across the globe such as Bose, Apple, Amazon, Facebook to name a few, and solve challenging electro-acoustic measurement problems across diverse product lines – Speakers, Microphones, Headsets, Telephones, Automotive audio, Hearing Aids and so on. This involves a detailed understanding of all of the above testing applications, requirements, metrics, and setup. In addition, the position requires good reasoning ability to identify and troubleshoot customer issues and also in working with the software development team in identifying bugs, testing our hardware and third-party audio interfaces for compatibility with our software. I’m also involved in presenting technical seminars, producing technical documentation of our products, and supporting our customers and global distributors through phone calls, emails, and onsite visits where every day presents a new challenge which I enjoy thoroughly and has helped me develop greater insights into this field
How does your work benefit society?
Music is an art form enjoyed by everyone irrespective of any language barrier. The medium through which you get to enjoy music is mostly through sound products such as speakers, microphones, electronic musical instruments, etc. Sound measurements make these sound products what they are and for a musician, it is a fulfilling experience to be involved at the very beginning of this process of translating subjectively perceived sound into objective measurements that can be used to create better products in the future.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
There are so many and I can’t pick one. In general, if I look back and compare myself with what it would have been if I just stayed in India and worked at some company and did music on the side, I can’t imagine that it would have been possible for me to travel across the world and perform at so many different countries, as many as 17.
Even now, when I travel between India and US for vacation, I try to make a few stops on the way in different countries, get myself shows to perform. That is in the way, a good reason to see new places, make new connections and perform while making my trip back home.
In 2019, my band ‘Project Mishram’ did a debut concert tour in the UK playing as many as 13 shows in 15 days. The entire tour was managed by us which started as a plan to do crowdfunding to play at just one music festival that invited us in the UK, to being a full-fledged tour sponsored by entities such as Air India. That experience of talking to people, organizing, and coordinating different things itself has taught me more than any MBA program could potentially do.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
Realize your passion and work towards it. Don’t hesitate to take risks when it comes to making decisions. Also, try to look at things from multiple perspectives before you make one. Even if things are going well at the moment, think about the future and have contingency plans in place to make failures less depressing.
I want to learn more in Acoustics and Audio signal processing and eventually get into electronic musical instrument design and development, spend a good amount of time and effort towards practicing and performing music, make new friends and connections and enjoy every small moment.
If anyone is interested in having a career in music technology, I’d be happy to chat. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org