SoundCloud, the crystal-clear sound of success

The music-sharing site now has 15 million users and is still growing rapidly, all thanks to one neat idea – the graphic visualization of music.

Computers are all about visual images, so how do you go about visualizing a soundtrack on a computer screen? SoundCloud has found a way, bringing the system of sound notation previously used only by music professionals, sound engineers, electroacousticians and DJ’s into the popular domain.

When a user records a piece of music or any other soundtrack on the site, a computer program translates it into a ribbon of sound waves which appears across the screen. The music becomes visible as a series of oscillations of varying frequency and depth, rather like heartbeats on a heart monitor. “The waveform is like a photograph of an extract of music,” explains Eric Daubresse, Professor of Music IT at the Academy of Music in Geneva.

Founded by two Swedes, Alex Ljng and Eric Wahlforss, in Berlin in 2008, SoundCloud had a slow start, but has taken off dramatically in the last couple of years, with 1.5 million new members joining every month since the beginning of 2012.

Initially the site mainly attracted members from the alternative music community, unsigned artists and electronic music labels, for whom it provided a forum on the Internet which was less anarchic and more professional than MySpace. Most pop stars, from Björk to Lana Del Rey have set foot here, indicating just how much SoundCloud has become an integral part of the music business.

Legendary artists as well as the unknown come here to create a profile and publish demo tracks, experimental material and remixes, or to air some of the rarer tracks in their repertoire. Like Twitter, members sign up to their favorite artists’ pages, and can make short comments on the music at any point in a track by typing in the box beneath the waveform. These comments are then published as a series of virtual Post-It notes, like a sort of interactive dazibao.

The site currently employs around a hundred people, based either at the main office in Berlin or in London and San Francisco where the company recently opened subsidiary offices. SoundCloud doesn’t advertise, and functions unlike any other company in the music industry: instead of the listeners paying to hear the music, it is the artists who pay for their music to be heard.

Once they have published a certain amount, around two or three pieces, they are encouraged to subscribe. It’s a cost which most artists don’t quibble over, given that they can promote their own material and receive feedback via the site. “I took out a subscription worth 70 euros a year, which is very reasonable. In exchange, I have access to the statistics so I can see who is listening to the music, when, and in which countries,” says Léo Wannaz from Swiss electro label, Creaked Records.

Thibault Tissot, the Swiss graphic designer from the studio Onlab, who created the visual identity for the site, explains that the site’s founders were convinced of its success right from the start. “We came up with quite an experimental approach using a logo that evolved and changed depending on the music. But they wanted something that was enduring, more appropriate to a multinational, like the Nike swoosh. We realized that they knew exactly what they were doing and where they intended to go”. The pictogram of a vibrating cloud that Onlab designed is simply a direct visual translation of the company’s name.

The vibrating logo also echoes the waveform which is at the heart of the site’s strategy. As easy to share and to export as a YouTube video, it can now be found on other platforms, blogs and personal websites. “That was a breakthrough idea,” explains 29 year-old co-founder Eric Wahlforss by phone from Berlin. “We realized we could make sound tangible, and even base our whole proposition around this visualization of sound.” It’s no surprise to learn that this young Swede has a music background. “I was already familiar with this type of visual imagery, which was very niche. It’s part of our mission to try to make it more widely available, to help people learn how to read and understand sound.”

The oscillating ribbon of the waveform illustrates variations in a sound’s intensity over time. For example, a sharp clap creates a peak on the graph which drops away rapidly, whilst a bass drumbeat which reverberates for longer gives a more elongated wave. Listeners can use this visualization to look at how a song evolves, pick out the faster and the slower parts, even identify the refrain and the verse. This is particularly useful for DJ’s who need to locate specific points in a song.

“In the professional sphere, it is used a lot in audio-editing,” Eric Daubresse adds. This tool for analyzing the structure of a piece of music may well end up changing our relationship with music, allowing us to indulge in zapping or surfing. As Léo Wannaz comments, “With SoundCloud, you listen to more music, faster”.

A wave isn’t the only way to represent sound visually, however. In order to visualize the tone, a key characteristic of any sound, you need to access its spectral shape. “Emile Leipp, who was Director of the Acoustic Centre at the University of Paris VI, first started to map the spectral shape of sounds just after the Second World War,” explains Eric Daubresse. In his research, Leipp used a sound spectrograph, a machine which analyzed sound frequencies in order to decrypt the vibrato effects in a human voice, for example.

Recently, Eric Daubresse and music composition students from the Academy of Music in Geneva have been working with a contemporary version of this fascinating piece of equipment. “We are experimenting with the Orchidée program developed by IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination en Acoustique Musicale, in Paris). We give it a sound to analyze, and it suggests how to reproduce that sound instrumentally. For example, the sound we make with a saucepan could be reproduced by playing an F on the trombone or pizzicato, etc”. It helps a composer find the combination of tonal sounds that together imitate an entirely different sound.

SoundCloud is on the verge of launching an updated version of the site, with an improved waveform. However it is not ruling out the possibility of one day including spectral shape imaging. “We’ve already looked at it, but spectral shape imaging is a lot more difficult for the user to understand,” explains Wahlforss.

In actual fact, it is already being used on the site, but internally, as a control mechanism. The company has taken the decision to apply more stringent controls to the material posted on its platform, and to check that new material doesn’t infringe copyright laws. To do this, SoundCloud uses spectral sound analysis to compare new posts with a preexisting catalogue of tracks, and deletes any which have already been copyrighted by someone else. Already a modern Internet giant, SoundCloud is also about to be one of the first to police this copy-paste, information-sharing economy.

Soundcloud’s website

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