Finn Arnold was always drawn to music, having been raised in family where it was not a question of whether you played an instrument but which instrument you played. While—by his own admission—not as talented as his siblings, he focused his energies on recreating vs. creating music. As a student majoring in electrical engineering and minoring in music, this resulted in learning how to program a computer to synthesize the sound of musical instruments. Later, during his career with Bose, it meant working with teams of engineers to build products that would deliver superior sound through technology.
Arnold learned during his 35-year career that his greatest satisfaction came from being a conductor and an instructor, leading teams whose talents and energies together could create something bigger and better than anything they could do on their own. As a manager, a mentor, and—at the heart of it—an engineer, he was driven to lead in a manner he calls “on resonance.” Now that he’s retired, he’s searching for that next wave: sound, or otherwise.
Finding his passion
It began with a chip. As a teen growing up in the small town of Harvard, Mass., Arnold heard that Radio Shack was selling a kind of synthesizer on a chip. This, he thought, would be his chance to play with sound. A synthesizer would be cool and it inspired dreams of a new endeavor. He bought the little wafer-thin device, with prongs that were meant to plug into a circuit board, and realized when he got it home that he had no clue what to do with it. So he began researching. He learned about resistors, capacitors, and proto boards—also learning how to interface them to a TRS-80 computer.
“If you did it right, you could make something that, when hooked up to a speaker, would make a wide variety of sounds,” he recalls. "You could make different pitches. You could make things that sounded like sirens or explosions.”
It gave him his first taste of engineering. At the same time, he says, it distracted him from high school. “That was where I would spend my time, and what I was motivated by. Doing my homework and grades and things along those lines never really rose to much importance.”
But just a couple of years later, college would consume his focus in the same way the synthesizer did. WPI gave him the opportunity to flourish. His older brother was a student at the school, so Arnold knew all about the science focus, and loved the idea of solving engineering problems, from both a technical and a theoretical perspective. Plus, he says, WPI had a way of teasing out the best in students.
“I had struggled in high school because in high school there’s a lot of telling you what you have to learn," he says. “And I found at WPI it was much more ‘what can we help you learn?’”
His love of music grew, as he learned about the mathematical formulas behind it. His Humanities Sufficiency project allowed him another chance to explore the synthesizer.
He was intrigued by the concept of trying to create something from nothing. He wondered: Can you understand sound to the point where you can rebuild it? For his project, he transposed an entire piece of music, mathematically describing each instrument and note in order for the computer to actually create the music.
“You quickly realize how incredibly complex it is,” he says, “to try to make something that sounds anything like a real-world instrument.”
He says he learned a great deal from one electrical engineering professor in particular: Dan Wolaver, who pushed him to be a better engineer. Wolaver was experienced in the industry, which allowed him to help students understand the difference between theoretical engineering and how a project might actually manifest in the real world. “He helped you tease out your own thinking,” says Arnold.
In his senior year, Bose came to campus to recruit. For Arnold, the notion of working for the audio electronics company, known for investing deeply in its projects and its employees, was a dream that would allow him to combine the two things he was most passionate about: music and engineering. The on-campus meeting led to multiple visits to Bose, for a tour and subsequent interviews. While there, he saw two cutting-edge technologies for 1983—a noise-cancelling headset prototype, and a Sony CD player—and was in awe of both. Once hired, he got to work on, even came to oversee, projects just as cutting-edge in their own right.