Duke Magazine
by Jacob Dagger
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With a series of popular mobile apps that turn the iPhone into a musical instrument, Ge Wang hopes to change the way we think about music.
Portrait of Ge Wang
Music man: Wang plays theme song to Legend of Zelda video game using Ocarinaapp, with speaker “gloves” amplifying sound. Toni Gauthier

Jeff Smith had enjoyed plenty of success in the world of Internet start-ups. In 1993, just a few years after graduating from Stanford University, he had cofounded Tumbleweed Communications, a software company that specialized in email security, catering to large corporate clients. Over twelve years, he’d expanded the company, slowly acquiring other software firms, and eventually taking it public on the Nasdaq.

But by 2005, he was ready to move on. An avid pianist and composer in his spare time, Smith decided to leave the business world and return to graduate school at Stanford to follow a different passion: computer music. Early on, Smith was particularly inspired by a course on synthesizing sound, but even more so by the course’s instructor, first-year professor Ge Wang ’00. A talented programmer who specialized in computer-generated sound, Wang had written a new computer language dedicated to music performance. In his first semester at Stanford, he had founded a pair of novel ensembles: the Stanford Laptop Orchestra and the Mobile Phone Orchestra, both of which featured students composing and performing music on electronic devices.

“When I met him,” Smith says, “it was my conclusion that this guy was going to change music, he was going to change what it meant to [the world].”

As is often the case with those who have proven themselves successful in Silicon Valley, Smith was still routinely in touch with his former associates. It was early 2008 when a former investor asked Smith to review some new business ideas.

The previous fall, Apple had announced the upcoming release of the iPhone SDK, a software development kit that would allow third-party developers to create programs for the iPhone platform. In June, the company would debut an “App Store,” where applications could be sold directly to consumers. Though Smith says that most of the ideas presented in the investor meeting were duds, the resulting conversation concluded with a tentative plan for Smith to look into the new market for iPhone applications, with a particular focus on developing music-based programs.

Smith shared the idea with Wang, whose programming and music skills would lend themselves well to the project. The timing wasn’t perfect for either one of them—Smith had his Ph.D. work to keep him busy, and Wang was rushing to wrap up and defend his own Ph.D. thesis and adjusting to his new teaching duties—but after much discussion, they decided the opportunity was too good to pass up. “Wow,” Wang recalls thinking about the iPhone. “This is going to change how people do music, this device. But someone will have to actually be there to effect that change. And we might as well be part of that.” That summer, the pair launched SonicMule (later shortened to Smule), a start-up dedicated to developing interactive “social/sonic media.”

Over the past three years, the growing start-up has released nearly a dozen music-based apps for the iPhone and iPad, almost all of which have been unquestionable successes, commercially and critically. Collectively, its apps boast more than ten million active users. The staff, originally a bare-bones team of six, has grown to twenty-five, with a wave of additional new hires expected this fall. And it’s part of a growing industry. In April, Forbes reported that the mobile app market totaled about $2.2 billion last year, up 160 percent from the year before.

But Wang hopes to accomplish much more than simply establishing a successful company. His goal, audacious as it sounds, is to help change the way that music is produced, listened to, and shared around the world.

“I think the future of music-making is one where we might see the relationship of who is producing music versus who is consuming music actually changing,” Wang told the BBC last year. “Instead of a model where you have a few performers performing for many audience members, it actually might be a model where it’s many to many.”

“I think mobile devices [represent] a wonderful way to actually move in some sense towards that vision,” he added. “It’s perhaps the most personal and intimate computer that we’ve ever had.

And we have these types of devices in the hands of tens of millions, and soon more, people.”

Original schema for what would become the Ocarina.
Original schema for what would become the Ocarina.

On a Wednesday afternoon in late April in Smule’s Palo Alto, California, headquarters, Ge Wang is trying to explain some practical uses of the company’s latest iPhone app.

He pulls his iPhone out of his pocket and cues up the app, Magic Piano. The app turns a smartphone into a sort of musical instrument. “If something particularly epic is happening in your life,” Wang says, “you might play something like this,” and as green dots begin to float down the device’s touchscreen, he follows them with his fingers, tapping out the triumphant opening notes from Chariots of Fire.

“On the other hand,” Wang says, “if you’re feeling down, you might play something more like this.” Again, his fingers follow a series of descending green dots, but this time, the music that comes from the iPhone’s speakers is “100 Years,” pop band Five For Fighting’s soulful ballad about the passage of time. Over the past two weeks, staff members have been working long hours to get the new release—adapted from the original iPad version—just right. It was submitted to Apple yesterday, and today, in the wake of the storm, things are unusually quiet, save for Wang’s performance.

The office, located on the second floor of a two-story building just off Stanford’s campus, consists mainly of one large room with a wall of east-facing windows and desks in groups of four arranged in what Wang describes as “ninja-star formation.” Wang’s desk is in one corner, Smith’s is in the opposite.

The walls are decorated with colorful drafts of design documents used to build past apps, photos of staff members, and “Ahnold Film Festival” posters featuring Wang’s face Photoshopped in place of the former California governor’s.

One of two conference rooms features a long table, comfortable office chairs, and a big screen; it doubles as a site for weekly business meetings and a gaming studio. An X-box console, as well as faux instruments used in the popular game Rock Band, are stashed along one wall.