Research@Schulich: Douglas Beaton

PhD student Douglas Beaton was recently awarded a prestigious Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship, which will fund the next three years of his research in Music Technology.

Douglas Beaton has just completed the first year of his PhD in Music Technology, supervised by Prof. Gary Scavone, and was recently awarded a Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship. These prestigious awards are given to just over 150 students across the country each year, with Douglas being the only winner this year from the Schulich School of Music. Valued at $50,000 each year for three years of study and research, they are aimed at students who demonstrate excellent leadership skills and a high standard of scholarly achievement in the social sciences and humanities, natural sciences and engineering, or health-related fields. 

Photo credit: Vadim Daniel

Douglas is a professional structural engineer and architectural acoustician, and his research focuses on computational methods for the design of musical instruments. With a decade of experience in consulting work, Douglas has analyzed and designed buildings, bridges and marine structures across North America. Highlights include the recent “Big Lift” project on Halifax’s Macdonald Bridge, the Westminster Pier Park in New Westminster, BC, and the upcoming Joseph Strug Concert Hall at Dalhousie University. Throughout his consulting career, Douglas has specialized in writing computer code to automate sophisticated analysis and design tasks.

Alongside his engineering work, Douglas has a strong passion for the visual and performing arts. He has served on the board of directors at the Vancouver Fringe Festival, and the Chicago Fringe Festival’s advisory board. His personal music collection includes over 500 albums, and he relishes the opportunity to tour historic performance venues when he travels.

In this article Douglas answers some questions about his doctoral research, and offers valuable advice to other students who might be in the process of submitting grant applications:

Where are you from?

Gander, NL, and also Vancouver.

What attracted you to McGill for your doctoral studies?

The Computational Acoustic Modeling Laboratory (CAML) in the Schulich School of Music is exceptionally well reputed for work on the physics of musical instruments.

What led you to multidisciplinary research and innovation?

A talent for technical work led me to a career in structural engineering. Years later, a passion for music and performing arts prompted a new career in architectural acoustics. These days I study musical acoustics, at the confluence of my previous careers.

What do you enjoy most about working in the field of music technology?

Applying my talents to the benefit of my passion is the best part about working in music technology. If I were wealthy, and didn't need to work for a living, I would still be doing exactly what I'm doing right now – that and philanthropy.

Explain your research in four sentences:

These days we design nearly everything on computers, but instrument makers still rely on physical prototypes. The ability to hear an instrument on a computer before building a prototype would greatly speed up the design process. My research will combine methods from structural engineering and acoustics to help us listen to an instrument before we decide to build it. That way, your early prototypes can be made of zeros and ones, instead of precious tonewood.

Douglas performing vibration testing on a marimba bar.

What led you to this particular topic?

Three factors contributed to arriving at this topic:

1) Rapid computer prototyping has enabled great innovation in other fields. I believe it can do the same for acoustic musical instruments. I also believe there will always be a place for acoustic instruments, even in an increasingly digital world.

2) Despite much research effort, finding physical parameters that predict the quality of acoustic instruments (e.g. a violin) has proven difficult. Listening to virtual prototypes on a computer would eliminate the need for these quality predictors. These virtual prototypes would also replace physical prototypes, thereby reducing consumption of valuable materials, including endangered rosewood. So this approach would circumvent a significant technical challenge while also having a positive environmental impact.

3) This work will leverage all of my previous experience, both as a structural engineer and acoustician. I have extensive experience in the structural analysis methods that will be employed, including coupling them with other analysis types. With my background and motivations, this project is a perfect fit.

Who is going to benefit most from your research?

Instrument designers and manufacturers will be the primary beneficiaries of this research. Marimba manufacturers, in particular, will benefit as the project will focus on marimba bars.

Potential applications outside of music include things like designing quieter household appliances, or producing film or video game sound effects.

Douglas measuring the marimba bar's thickness at one end.

How does this Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship influence what you will be able to achieve during your PhD?

This Vanier CGS will be an immense help. First and foremost, it will remove the distraction of financial concerns, and allow me to really focus on my research. I'll have greater ability to present at conferences in the absence of other travel funding. I can even move closer to campus and cut down on commuting time. Finally, the prestige of the award will bolster my CV and presentation slides, which can lead to greater networking opportunities.

What advice would you give other doctoral students applying for Canadian scholarships such as the Vanier?

Contact your references early and follow up with them well ahead of the deadlines. To win a Vanier you will submit your application first to your department, then again to McGill, and finally to the national competition. One of my references submitted his letter at the last minute, all three times.

I read once that people remember three parts of everything: the best part, the worst part, and how it ended. When writing your research proposal and leadership statement, be sure to finish strong.

What advice would you give to new students in your program?

Eat your lunch in the music tech lunchroom and chat with whomever you find there. The people in this program come from such wondrously varied backgrounds and everyone is working on something really interesting. You never know what you might learn between bites.

Find out more about the other McGill University students who received Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarships this year

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