Katherine Flynn’11
May 01, 2017

Lost and Found

The sounds left behind when recordings are compressed into digital files are music to Ryan Maguire’s ears.

Ryan Maguire’08 will tell you that he’s always been fascinated by the interplay of music and technology, the alchemy between the two.

“One of my earliest memories is when I was 5. I had a tape cassette recorder I was playing around with, recording the sounds of cellophane and listening back to it,” he says. “It was always something I tinkered with, but there was never a place for it. It was always outside any structure.”

Maguire slowly began to unearth that structure as he moved through high school and college, seeking out places where he could find mentors and build on his self-taught skills. He found it first at Beloit College, charting a course that would eventually lead to the University of Virginia. He’s pursuing a Ph.D. in Composition and Computer Technologies at the university’s McIntire Department of Music, which he expects to complete in 2018. Right now, he’s researching the sounds that get left behind when a musical recording is compressed into an MP3 file and creating ghostly new tracks out of these audio remnants. He plans to base his dissertation around this research and experimentation.

A Milwaukee native, Maguire headed to Beloit College after graduating from Marquette University High School. During his teenage years, he tinkered with music and recording technology after school and on the weekends, but at Beloit, he got formal training in the rudiments of recording technology for the first time from music professor Ian Nie. 

“While I was at Beloit it started being an accepted thing, where you could have serious conversations with people about it [music recording technology] in an academic environment,” Maguire says of this technology and all the possibilities for innovation it holds.

“It felt very open and creative and exploratory, not dogmatic or old-fashioned. That planted the seed for me to start exploring those questions.”

For his part, Nie is thrilled that Maguire has taken what he learned during his time at Beloit and pursued it steadily for the last decade. Nie taught Maguire the basics of Pro Tools, a computer program that at the time was an industry-standard for recording technology.

“Shortly after he graduated, he sent me some files, and I was very taken by the fact that everything that we had talked about during recording, he was beginning to apply,” Nie says. “And of course, he has since—as any good student [does]— surpassed me as far as an understanding of the recording industry.”

But back to those ghostly MP3 tracks. The idea, Maguire says, came from a seminar on the history of recording technology at Dartmouth College, where he received a master’s degree in Digital Musics in 2013, after getting a postgraduate degree in music composition at the New England Conservatory of Music. The Dartmouth seminar was led by Tara Rodgers, a Washington, D.C.-based independent scholar who studies the cultural history of sound and audio technologies.

As part of the seminar, Maguire and his classmates categorized and discussed new music that had been created in response to technological developments in music recording. For example, when the earliest DJs and MCs started scratching vinyl records, they created hip-hop, rap, and turntablism; magnetic tapes resulted in cut-up tape and tape loops; glitch music resulted from DJs and musicians experimenting with scratching CDs.

“So we’re studying the whole history. It starts in the early 20th century, and then it just stops at CDs. It seemed like an obvious question to me, ‘What now?” he says. “I started to ask, what kind of music could you make from MP3s?”

His experimentation began with compressing recordings that he describes as “pristine” down to the lowest size MP3s possible, and then working with the material that was left over. One night, he and Rodgers were at a noisy Irish pub in Hanover, New Hampshire, and Maguire tried to explain what he was working on. “She misheard me, and she said, ‘Oh, so you’re taking the stuff that gets deleted?’ And I kind of paused, and I said, ‘No, I’m not taking the stuff that gets deleted, but I should be.’ She sort of laughed and said, ‘Yes, you should be doing that.’”

One of his experiments, “moDernist,” plays with the remnants of the 1987 song “Tom’s Diner” by Suzanne Vega, used by computer scientists as one of the main controls in listening tests to develop the MP3 encoding algorithm. Maguire uses the programming language Python to analyze and reconstruct audio. His dissertation work will draw on six of the recordings that were used in the original testing and design of the MP3 compression code: “Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman, the aforementioned “Tom’s Diner,” “Trumpet Concerto in E-Flat Major” by Franz Joseph Haydn, “Take the ‘A’ Train” by Duke Ellington, “Sobre El Fuego” by India, and “Le Sacre du Printemps” by Igor Stravinsky. He’s hoping to answer questions about whether or not certain genres and styles are altered more severely than others by MP3 compression and how this leftover material relates to our music perceptual systems, among other things. He explains that he’s digitally dissecting the recordings in search of “the musical and acoustic properties of the MP3 artifacts created and discarded during the MP3 compression process.”

“It’s basically a really, really involved kind of remixing,” he says.

Ryan Maguire created a new version of singer Tracy Chapman's music video performance of Fast... Ryan Maguire created a new version of singer Tracy Chapman's music video performance of “Fast Car” that visually represents the information deleted during digital compression. A close look at this still frame reveals remnants of Chapman's face.
Credit: Ryan Maguire’08

Maguire plays a bevy of instruments, including guitar, pedal steel, piano, and synthesizers, and considers himself a musician first, approaching his research into music technology from that perspective. Daid Kahl’05, a close friend of Maguire’s at Beloit, remembers him spending a lot of time playing the guitar, and sometimes casually messing around on a drum kit that belonged to one of Maguire’s roommates in the off-campus house where he lived senior year.

“I came in [to the house] one day and Ryan was playing. I said, ‘Oh cool, I didn’t know you could play the drums,’” Kahl says. Maguire replied that he couldn’t. The set had only been there for a week and he was just “having some fun with it.”

Maguire is transparent about the fact that he wasn’t always an excellent student during his time at Beloit. He pushed himself to get a physics degree because of the challenge it posed, and while he entered as a member of the class of 2006, he left campus with a few classes unfinished and completed the rest remotely, technically graduating in 2008. Through independent studies supervised by physics department professors Paul Stanley and Patrick Polley, he was able to structure his own explorations into how technology could work with music and sound and how, in his words, “those two really different intellectual traditions could overlap.” He fiddled around with electronics and built an amplifier from scratch; Polley, Stanley, and Nie, he says, gave him space and encouraged him.

“One of the things that I’m very, very proud of is that I trained his ear so that it became a little bit more focused on sounds and correct reproduction of sounds,” Nie says, “rather than just generically listening to an MP3 and going, ‘Oh, yeah, this is OK.’” This ear for detail will serve Maguire well as he deals in the subtleties of MP3 remnants, the digital detritus that most people never have any reason to realize is missing.

Maguire has scores of ideas about more research that he’d like to pursue. Some of it relates to the role of the album in a day and age when the idea of the traditional LP has, in many ways, become obsolete. He wants to know what would happen if musicians and their audiences stopped viewing songs and albums as fixed, static works, and instead embraced them as ongoing, mutable, and malleable processes.

“People are still stuck in this old notion of music composition as a fixed thing,” he says. “What if a work is never actually finished, and what if it’s a living thing and evolves? That’s a little bit of what I’ve been thinking about.”

Katherine Flynn’11 is an assistant editor for Preservation, the magazine of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and a senior staff writer for Consequence of Sound, a Chicago-based online music publication. She lives in Washington, D.C.

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