The Machine That Makes You Musical

March 31, 2012

New York Times Magazine:

In a dimly lighted conference room in the Palo Alto, Calif., offices of  Smule, a maker of music apps, Ge Wang was sitting in a meeting with his colleagues, humming, singing and making odd whooshing noises into the microphone of an iPad, checking the screen, and then pounding fugues of code into an attached laptop. Poking at his devices, he reminded me of a child obliviously amusing himself while the grown-ups natter on around him. Nobody else in the meeting seemed to notice Wang’s behavior as they listened to a debriefing about recent updates to Smule’s Mini Magic Piano app.

When the guy at the head of the table mentioned that the graphics on the welcome page now subtly pulse, Wang looked up. “Yeahhhh,” he said. “Classic Smule,” he added in a mutter to nobody in particular. “Everything needs to pulse.” Then he blew into his iPad mic and banged some more code.

Wang, who is 34 and a founder of the company, often leaves an impression of childlike distractedness. But in fact he’s distressingly productive. He was coding in someone else’s meeting in July because he had just two hours to prepare for a presentation on a new Smule product, code-named “Project Oke.” His company has been remarkably successful, but the app-o-sphere is more competitive than it used to be, and there was a lot riding on his coming up with another hit — ideally by year’s end.

Wang likes to say that he has two full-time jobs, and they seem wholly distinct. At Stanford University, where he is an assistant professor, he teaches a full course load through the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (usually referred to as CCRMA, pronounced “karma”), presiding over a highly experimental “orchestra” that performs with cleverly customized laptops, cellphones and other electronics. It’s very cutting edge and, in terms of audience, very rarefied. At Smule, a profit-driven, private company that recently raised its second round of venture-capital financing, he devises applications bought by millions.

Founded in 2008, Smule released several apps in rapid succession, but its breakthrough was the Ocarina. Exploiting the iPhone’s microphone as well as its touch-screen interface, Wang converted the device into an easy-to-play flute-like instrument. In what has become a Smule signature, the app also included a representation of the globe, with little dots that light up to show where in the world someone is playing the app at that moment. With a tap, you can listen. It’s also possible to arrange a duet with an Ocarina user thousands of miles of way, whom you’ve never met. The Ocarina was downloaded half a million times, at 99 cents a pop, in its first couple of months, making it the top-selling app for three straight weeks; a new artist selling that many downloads of a single today would probably end up on the cover of Rolling Stone.

The common aim of Smule’s products is to prod nonmusicians into making music and to interact with others doing the same. There are singing apps like I Am T-Pain and Glee Karaoke, and digital versions of instruments like Magic Piano and Magic Fiddle. What connects these easy-to-use diversions to Wang’s more abstruse gear-tinkering is the exploration of expressive sound via technology: everyone can make music, he believes, and everyone should.

It’s hard to overestimate how much Smule’s strategy revolves around Wang himself. Before the first Project Oke demo, I asked another Smule employee what the app would consist of, how it would work. He shrugged. “Right now,” he said cheerfully, “it’s all in Ge’s brain.”

What marched out of Wang’s brain at that first Project Oke demo in July was a cute robot, singing and dancing. The app, now known as Sing, Robot, Sing!, is likely to be in Apple’s App Store early next year, depending on how quickly the final version moves through the approval process.

There it will join what has become a bewildering array of products in the “music” category. This includes services like Spotify and Pandora that are analogous to radio, and games like Tap Tap Revenge, which involve tapping dots on your phone’s screen in sync with songs. Artists routinely release phone and tablet applications that include remix-it-yourself options. Reality Jockey, based in London, has created “reactive music” apps that respond to sounds in the listener’s environment as well as user actions. There are sophisticated instrumentlike apps that require technical skill or musical knowledge to master, and apps that recreate that ultimate amateur form, karaoke.

You could think about these apps on a continuum from the enduring (making something that aspires to art) to the ephemeral (a time-killing game). Smule sits somewhere in the middle. (“Smule” is a shortened version of Sonic Mule, a reference to a character in Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation Trilogy” who influences others without their knowledge, disrupts existing power structures and builds an empire.) Smule’s apps have instrumentlike functions, meaning they can be used to create new, expressive sounds, but they also feel like games. Wang is essentially trying to trick users into making music without quite realizing it. “He’s always had this notion that everybody is musical but they’re just too embarrassed to do anything about it,” says Perry Cook, a computer-music pioneer who was Wang’s adviser at Princeton and today consults for Smule. “Of course, the karaoke solution to that is to get everybody drunk,” he adds…

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