Shapemix Music
What’s the problem you want to solve?

How do you make music mixing easier to use?

How do you bring music mixing to the masses?

Who are the users?

Initially the users were anyone who enjoyed the process of discovering music by actively engaging with it. Eventually we found our audience were 10-16 year olds who used our remix tool as a fun pastime and as a gateway to music production and engineering.

What’s your role in the project?

I was the founder, President and later, the Chief Product Officer.

What’s your design process?

Academic Research

The initial research for Shapemix began as an academic study of the intersection between image and sound. I studied animal sense, education of music and art, the histories of dance, music, film and the difficulties of skeuomorphic user interfaces.

I created 14 case studies that explored the differences in space and temporality, using our perceptual boundaries as experiments in understanding how we understand change and significance.

The most promising of the experiments was Shapemix, an audiovisual tool that allowed people to place objects in space and manipulate them in a way that made more cognitive sense than using a skeuomorphic projection of a mixing console.

The concept is simple: Take each track of music represented as drums, vocals, guitars, etc. and represent it as a shape in space. Where the shape is in space determines its volume (up or down) and position between your ears (left and right). Each shape can be identified by its color and by the effects that are applied to it (reverb, delay, filter, etc.).


Founding, funding and launch

I brought my idea to music engineers, hoping to gain some insight on how this might work alongside professional music tools. I was fully prepared to develop and self launch a tool that would augment mixing platforms.

I found a partner in Legion Enterprises, who provided funding, PR and leadership. They had a very different idea on how to execute the idea: Bring it to the masses as a remix tool for established music. We then patented the interface and music marketplace.

We launched Shapemix about 6 months after the initial investment closed. I opened an office and hired two music content editors, developers with expertise in DSP, cloud and mobile technology, and a designer.

Whereas the initial launch was soft, we needed to have the infrastructure in place to share, collaborate and mix and store all of the audio information and its metadata to the cloud. This also included eliminating any need for users to understand concepts such as pitch and tempo control, making mixing and sharing as fully realized mixes available to platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and the internet at large, the primary focus.

What are the design options and how decisions are made?

We made decisions on the basic principle that most things had to be understandable within 2 seconds or we failed.

The core of the design remained unchanged, but we needed to provide the elements for the user credentials, music marketplace and a composition tool.

We wanted users to simply open up the application, get a one page tip on how to use it and then let them start mixing right away. That meant preloading a mix and providing an interface that was subtle, yet blindingly obvious.

People who delved more into the product were rewarded with more to do, but it wasn’t necessary for those who just wanted to play around. However, people who who did play around more did explore more of the interface.

This made placing the marketplace, composition tool and mix upload off the main page, but they also had to be equally. Easy to use. We applied the same “has to be understood in 2 seconds” principle separately to each of these features as well.

What are the constraints and limitations?

The iPad was brand new in 2009 and we didn’t know its audio and internet bandwidth limitations. We did a lot of tests and ended up having to partially write our own audio engine to get more horsepower out of the device for drawing and interacting.

We also didn’t want to mix and then upload gigabytes of data, adding to both our and the user’s cost. Instead, when a user uploaded their mix, they were actually uploading only the metadata and then the server did the mixing for them.

We used SVN for our version control. I don’t want to elaborate on the time someone wrote over a large piece of functioning code, costing us a couple of days.

We had one harrowing moment where we got a bit too far ahead of ourselves with the interface.

Between version 1.1 and 1.2 we decided we were going to amp up the UI and introduce multitouch gestures. Two taps to open preferences for a sound, three taps to do something over-the-top, you get the idea. It. Was such a disaster (we went from 4.5 stars on the Apple store to 1 overnight) that we had to call in a favor to someone at Apple to roll back a version.

We definitely learned from that one.

How to validate your design?

We validated our design with Boston and New York musicians, producers and DJS that we knew in our circle. At soft launch we gathered data on the most used features and solicited direct feedback from users that signed up with our platform. I conducted usability / product interviews with existing and new users to understand how they were using the platform. We walked through the interface and talked about what was working, what wasn’t and what product features they would like to see.

We also validated new features as demos with our DJ/promoter constituency.

My experience as a designer helped drive the product vision. Instead of jamming features into places I could help steer the conversation in ways that helped guide the usability from a strategic perspective.

What will be your next step?

Shapemix closed down in 2012. I’ve been working on the original idea in (all my) spare time in Unity and have a good working prototype for the next version. It might be a game or a controller for Ableton Live. I’m not sure yet.

Colin Owens