Interview: Sripathi Sridhar (EEE – 2017)

Explain your current profile.

I recently completed a Master’s program in Music Technology at New York University. My research over the past couple of years has been in audio playback technology for virtual reality and other consumer experience systems. More recently, my area of interest is in the computational analysis of music and audio.

What got you interested in music? Why did you want to fuse the two domains which are poles apart?

I’ve been a student of music in various forms for much of my life. Moreover, I don’t believe the domains of music and technology are radically different. As I explore the intersection of music and technology, I am more convinced that they share many similarities.

How did you lookout for opportunities to fuse your passion with engineering?

It happened rather organically. I have always had an interest in engineering, but I wanted to bring music into the picture somehow. While looking at options for further study in this space, I found music technology programs at several universities, and it was a perfect fit for me.

What were some of the steps that you took towards building an interdisciplinary career?

I worked on some research projects over the summer and winter breaks while I was a student at NITT. Some were successful, and some much less so, but that laid the foundation in some ways to what I wanted to do later on.

We observed that you had done many courses online to learn in this expertise. How did they help you with admissions?

This is a hard one to answer because the admissions process is typically a subjective process, and difficult to qualify despite a favorable outcome. Having said that, whether the online courses help with admissions or not, they do help with personal growth.

Were you a part of any of the clubs at NITT? If so, how did being a part of them help you?

Some of my fondest memories in NITT were made at the clubs I was a part of. I was a part of Amruthavarshini, Music Troupe, Festember Marketing Team, and the Currents Marketing team. I cherish all the bonds and exposure to new challenges that these clubs gave me. My nearly four-year association with the Music Troupe was probably the most impactful on my life. Playing music with so many talented musicians was a wonderful learning experience, and it helped me broaden my horizons. Moreover, preparing for and performing at various competitions in college festivals helped me get more comfortable with stage performances.

How was it managing being in a band and regular college life? Did it get stressful at any point? What are some useful tips you would suggest to students who undergo a similar kind of routine?

Being a part of a band was one of the best experiences of my college life. At no point did it feel stressful at all. Take that with a pinch of salt however, as my academics did suffer to some extent at the time. However, I would say it is important to prioritize. Looking back, I wish I had maybe found a better balance with academics and extracurricular activities. I think it is important to introspect to understand what it is that you want to achieve and plan accordingly. The key to success always lies in the unglamorous area of hard work and sincerity.

How did you get into the band ‘Waterlemons’? How would you suggest interested people find more such avenues, especially in places like Tiruchirapalli?

Waterlemons was a gratuitous opportunity for me. I had known the band keyboardist from when we went to the same school growing up, and he invited me to audition to be the vocalist. I jumped at the chance and never looked back. There were many of my batchmates and seniors who were greatly talented and formed bands at different stages in their college experience. The best way to find like-minded people is through the various events that happen, such as the first year inter-hostel competitions, apart from joining music clubs. Be open to meeting new people, and keep honing your craft!

Would you attribute any portion of your progress to your previous work/volunteer experience, such as the Festember/Currents Marketing teams?

Working with the Festember and Currents marketing teams gave me exposure to a different side of business that I had not experienced before. It helped me gain some perspective on the making of business decisions, and that is something that will likely be useful in my career. Moreover, I’ve met many talented people in those teams, and cherish the memories that we made through the process of trying to make the college experience better for everyone.

Do you feel the subject exposure provided in your Undergraduate education allows you to enable additional knowledge in interdisciplinary fields? If not, how tedious is the process to gain additional skills, while adhering to the curriculum?

As I complete my Master’s program, the one thing I have become more certain about is that higher education only teaches you how to think. In a society that innovates rapidly, it is nearly impossible to have a fixed body of knowledge that is sufficient for a career. In that regard, any previous knowledge helps one to acquire new skills more quickly. Knowing signal processing fundamentals definitely helped me in acquiring new skills in my Master’s studies and I’m grateful for that. Having said that, it does require commitment to gain new skills during the program. Since there are many different areas of study within music technology, I did have to spend several hours working on extracurricular projects. While a lot of work went into these projects, it was immensely gratifying to see a working prototype or a research paper published. I strongly believe the extra work that you put in outside the curriculum is what makes a Master’s program worth it.

How difficult was the application process for NYU? What do you think would be useful skills in this regard? How would you suggest students to start preparing for the same?

The application for NYU was fairly straightforward. An important aspect though, is the statement of purpose, where you have to share your story and make an impression on the admissions committee. More than a skill, I think it can be useful to think about why you are applying to the said program, and trying to make that clear in the application. In my application, I focused on describing how music and technology were both important parts of my life. As with any program, the admissions committee wants to know how you would add value to their program and how the program could benefit you in turn. Few useful skills include the ability to do projects or exploratory study that might be outside your curriculum and solving or making contributions towards existing problems, even in a small way. I would suggest completing the necessary exams such as GRE and TOEFL early, leaving more time to gather recommendation letters and fine-tune your individual university essays.

How do you employ your engineering techniques in case of real-life performances?

This is a good question and something that a different type of performer might be able to answer better. For me, engineering and music have helped me get better at the other, but I tend to keep my engineering mind separate from performances, where it’s more instinctive and less logical. Many people do, however, directly use engineering techniques in music performances, which is a key area of research in this field.

How would you describe your Graduate education to work cohesively with the music industry?

My graduate work was primarily research-oriented. I feel lucky to have been able to work with and under the guidance of several leading researchers and faculty members, not to mention some very talented colleagues. Apart from the domain knowledge that I gained, I expect many of the characteristics that I observed in them, such as determination, clarity of thought, and breaking problems down into manageable sections, to be very valuable in my career.

What are your plans after graduating? In case of further education, what domain or topic are you interested in pursuing it?

I currently have an offer with a startup working on sound event classification. I find the area of music information retrieval very exciting; if I were to pursue further education, it would be in that or a related field.

What are some tips that you would like to give current students who would like to take such interdisciplinary profiles?

My advice is to go for a subject that really excites you. If you have the option and the interest to take the less common path, you need to make sure it is sustainable. Do some self-reflection to understand what fascinates you, and do the research to understand what programs would be the best fit and what your career might look like in that field.

Many students tend to not go for highers if their CGPA is not up to the mark. What are your thoughts and remedies for the same?

The application process for most Master’s programs in the US looks at the holistic profile of the student. I would advise against worrying about the CGPA too much, however having a good CGPA could never hurt. Having said that, it is important to show that you have a desire to learn more and develop in your field of choice. Extracurricular projects and internships, along with a strong statement of purpose, can help mitigate a low CGPA.

What are some of the things you wish you had known during your undergraduate, in retrospect?

I wish I had better understood the value of the resources available at NITT. The knowledge and network of department faculty, the research facilities, and, of course, the peer network can be a huge asset if harnessed well. It is important to get a holistic college experience while taking advantage of everything that makes NITT special.

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Some philosophical and music-oriented questions:

How would you attribute the thought process behind music to be aiding real-life psychological processes?

I think everyone has a unique relationship with music. Having said that, there have been studies that show that musical exposure can regulate mood and improve mental well-being. Moreover, the process of learning or playing a musical instrument affects the brain in many interesting ways that can have positive effects in other aspects of your life. For me, music has a peaceful effect, and the act of singing often calms me and recenters my mind.

In music, we have a rhythm that strings everything together and keeps the music alive. What, according to you, is that rhythm in technology and innovation?

Interesting question! I think the heartbeat or foundation of technology and innovation is curiosity. Curiosity about the world around us is what drives technical research and innovation at the most fundamental level.

What role do you think technology plays in classical music? Is it enabling the art, or is it diluting it?

To me, technology is a passive instrument. In the end, it is people and institutions that use it in certain ways. I don’t see any issues with the usage of technology in Indian classical music. In fact, technology has improved accessibility in a big way, allowing global collaborations, remote learning, and an ever-growing archive of music for people to explore.

What is your favourite genre of music? Have you ever tried making music using quirky things such as shells, coconuts, water drops, etc.? If yes, what was your takeaway?

My favorite genres apart from Indian classical music are progressive/alternative rock and metal, although it does vary from time to time.

I have experimented with urban street noises, and it sounded pretty good! It helped me realize that ordinary sounds are interesting, too, if you listen closely. I think playing with everyday sounds is a great way to get people who might not be musicians excited about music.

Lastly, what’s your take on fusion music and its effects on classical arts? Please do take some time out to check this article out: Propagating Indian Music Culture Through Fusion. Based on your reading of this article, please give your opinions on this? Is fusion music bringing our traditional music to a wider audience, or is it once again diluting the true form of the original music? What role has technology played in fusion music?

Very interesting question, and thanks for sharing this article – I enjoyed reading it.

Before I comment on fusion music and its implication, I must address the issue of semantics. I think it is often difficult to define what the boundaries of fusion music are. Some might refer to fusion as importing ideas from a different style of classical music, while the reverse that is, using some ideas of Carnatic music in a different genre context could also be called so.

Fusion music reflects the cross-fertilization of ideas from different musical contexts. As the author mentions in the well-researched article, there are many examples of maestros in the world of classical music collaborating with musicians from different disciplines. Whether or not this is diluting traditional music is subject to each individual’s opinion. I feel that such exploration only leads to more creativity and growth in the community and increasing access to the wider audience.

As far as the role of technology goes, many creative musicians experiment with electronic instruments, natural sounds, and electronic augmentation of natural sounds using effects pedals or virtual plugins on a computer during live performances and in music production to great effect.

As a graduate student in music technology and signal processing, what role will you play in impacting the lives of people? What is your vision for the future with the tools of technology and music? Do you have any social issues you feel you can tackle with the tools you are enabled with?

The way I see it, the applications of signal processing in the world of music technology are fairly mature. Rather, I see a lot of future influence of the application of machine learning and deep learning algorithms towards music applications. Currently, there are companies like Spotify that use such systems to recommend songs, while music software companies use advanced algorithms to build plugins that can filter out noise effectively, for example. What will be interesting to see is how deep learning will impact the process of music composition, which is highly subjective and a skilled process.

I think many socio-political and human factors define the general impact of such technologies. Of course, music technology has already had a massive impact on the accessibility of music and music education. An aspiring learner can simply download an app and follow lessons to learn how to play an instrument or use a plethora of software tools to make music in a fun setting with a gentle learning curve. The application of technology in any domain which is always controversial is change management and how to handle the disruption of traditional jobs. For instance, the availability of advanced speech synthesis algorithms could put a lot of voice artists out of work, at least for low-medium budget commercial applications.

Personally, my area of interest over the past few months has been deep learning and its applications to audio. The issue of accessibility to music education is one that could still benefit substantially from innovative technologies.

We thank Shashvat Jayakrishnan for aiding us in the curation of questions.

You may reach out to Sripathi for further queries via LinkedIn.

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