The Procedural Hows and Theoretical Whys of SoundCloud.com
Part A: In Good Company
The website in question is where you, right now, can go to listen to live recordings of New York’s Alarm Will Sound ensemble performing original commissions at the Mizzou New Music Summer Festival, including work by composers Clint Needham and Liza White.
It is where CHROMA, the London-based chamber-music group, posted the world premiere of Rolf Hind’s piece for featured clarinet soloist, “Sit Stand Walk.”
And it’s where London’s Barbican Centre has uploaded numerous Beethoven recordings by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, under the baton of Kurt Masur.
It is not the website of a leading classical publication. It is not the online culture section of The New York Times or the London Guardian. It is not a digital offshoot of WQXR or NPR, or of big-eared KCRW for that matter.
No, it is SoundCloud.com, and it has quickly become, with good reason, the default go-to site for music hosting by all manner of musicians, not just aspiring pop stars and bedroom beatmakers, but also those involved in new and experimental composition and performance. The following overview is intended to provide an introduction to making use of SoundCloud, including some tips for maximizing one’s efforts, as well as some passing contextual and tactical thoughts on why SoundCloud has proved as popular and functional as it has.
Part B: Crash Once, Twice Shy
New music makers have numerous reasons for wariness before taking the time generally necessary to master yet another online music-hosting platform.
Why even try, when so many services have let you down before? All that fine-tuning of a personalized MySpace page, only for the user base to up and leave it like a ghost town? All that effort in uploading a project to Archive.org, only to discover that the tag processing is unwieldy? All that work getting music into iTunes, only to have track previews limited to 30 measly seconds, and to be left wondering how, other than linking, you might actually promote your music?
The issues with music-hosting platforms are cultural as much as they are technological. Viewed as a whole, the variety of barriers to having proper online representations suggest something akin to a digital-era conspiracy to keep complex music off the Internet.
Here are some of the hassles:
There is sound quality. At least since iTunes debuted and introduced a particularly low-grade format (128kbps) as an audio standard, the sonic compression of digital music has not suited the dynamic range of most music that doesn’t fall within the broadly defined realm of “pop.” Over time, the standard MP3 file sizes have, thankfully, enlarged (320kbps tends to be the norm), but online streaming is currently supplanting MP3 files, and frequently that means, indeed, a low-fidelity presentation of recorded sound.
There is categorization. Few if any online services handle the taxonomy and typology of adventurous music well. Most music websites have a field for the artist and a field for a song, and little to address the informational void. The sites are already living in a post-album world, and they do little to make nice with recordings in which things like composer and conductor and performers and soloist are important. On a particularly bright and cheerful day, one might consider the Internet a fascinating and massive experiment in New Criticism, every piece of music floating out there virtually free of context.
And there is the basic typographical matter. It’s something that so-called desktop publishing presaged, a situation in which corners are routinely cut in favor of oversimplified—and thus meaning- and pronunciation-altering—decisions regarding haceks and accent marks and umlauts.
SoundCloud.com doesn’t solve all these problems, but it does offer a solid and adaptable foundation for musicians to use to share their music.
Part C: Setting Up the Account Is Just the First Step
Here are some simple instructions on setting up and making use of a SoundCloud.com account.
Step 1: Sign up. You can do this by associating your new account with your Facebook account, or you can create an account directly on SoundCloud.com. The latter is recommended because there’s no significant benefit to the former. You can always associate the accounts later.
Step 2: Fill out your basic profile. The fields (City, Occupation, etc.) are straightforward. Here is one suggestion, though: strongly consider using a single word, or a phrase with no spaces, as your “profile” name. The profile name serves various purposes, including being your SoundCloud account URL. To join SoundCloud isn’t simply to access virtual real estate. It’s to participate (more on which in Step 5), and having a single memorable identity is key to making your presence on SoundCloud effective.
Step 3: Fill out your “Advanced Profile.” Keep your Description brief, maybe 200 words, tops—and consider using rudimentary HTML tags, such as <b></b> to bold key words and to structure the text. Enter URLs for essential web locations, and don’t overdo it. Your website, Twitter, and Facebook are likely sufficient. Enter too many, and your listeners won’t know where to click. You can use the <a href=”URL”></a> tag in your Description if you want to, for example, link to a record review or interview that appears on another website.
Step 4: Upload tracks. As with the creation of your account, the uploading of a track will require you to fill in various fields. They’re pretty straightforward (Title, Image, Type). There aren’t multiple fields for participants. However, the Description field allows for simple HTML, so you can use that space not only to list participants (performer, composer, etc.) but to link to their SoundCloud accounts or websites or both. Make note of that “Show more options” button: it pulls up a whole bunch of additional useful fields, including simple ways to add commerce links so you can sell the track or related material. The easiest way to go about this all is to set the track as Private until you’re happy with all the text and other details, and only then make it public.
Step 5: Participate. That bears repeating: Participate. Even if you’re employing SoundCloud primarily as a promotional tool, think of it as a party—you’re not going to meet anyone if you just stand there (unless you’re wearing a funny T-shirt, or blessed with remarkable cheekbones). These things take effort.
To begin with, “follow” people—follow musicians you work with; follow musicians you admire. Some will follow you back, and that will be the start of actually communicating on and through SoundCloud. You’ll find, in time, that you will look at the Following/Followed lists for people you like, and take a cue as to whose music to look at. Furthermore, the people whose music you do follow show up in your SoundCloud home page, so you will be kept abreast of their activity—not just what they post, but what they have commented on.
Also, embed your tracks elsewhere (on your blog, for example), and encourage others to do so. One of the beautiful things about SoundCloud is that it has elegant “players” that you can use to embed a track or a set of tracks into a post on another website. For example, the track below is from a project I recently completed, in which I got over 60 musicians to remix the first movement of the Chamber Symphony, Op. 110a, by Dimitri Shostakovich. The original recording was by the fine Los Angeles ensemble wild Up, who graciously provided the source audio for the project.
And, finally, be sure to comment on other musicians’ uploaded tracks—that is, see SoundCloud for what it is, not just a music-hosting platform, but a platform for communication and collaboration. Comments come in two forms: standard and “timed,” the latter of which appear at a distinct point along the chronology of the track. You’ll see the “timed” comments along the track just above.
Step 6: Dig in. There is far more you can do on SoundCloud. The coverage above is intended simply as an introduction. For example, you can create Sets of tracks that provide additional context. You can join Groups, which in addition to collating tracks by some semblance of shared cultural activity (field recordings, serialism, toy piano) provide for discussion beyond the confines of a single recording. There are Soundcloud apps that allow you to do additional things with and to your tracks. Everything described above is free, albeit with a space limit on data storage, but you can elect to pay for a premium account and access additional resources. (The limits to SoundCloud are worth noting. For one thing, this is all “fixed recordings.” If you specialize in algorithmic music, you’ll be posting finished recordings, not live generative sound. Also, SoundCloud is a business, and as such monitors what is posted; it is especially attentive to copyright violation, so if you tend toward the aggressively plunderphonic, be prepared to have your track removed—or your entire account for that matter.)
Step 7: Make it new. The structure of SoundCloud suggests itself as a neutral space. In many ways, it has defined itself as the anti-MySpace. Where MySpace became overloaded with design elements, SoundCloud keeps it simple. This simplicity suggests SoundCloud less as a place and more as a form of infrastructure—if MySpace was a city that never slept, SoundCloud is the Department of Public Works. Its elegant tool sets provide structure but don’t define or fully constrain activity. For the more adventurous participants, SoundCloud is itself a form to be played with. Some musicians have used the “timed comments,” for example, to annotate their work as it proceeds. Others have fun with the images associated with their tracks, posting sheet music or workspace images. Some create multiple accounts for different personas or projects. Others have used the limited personalization options to colorize the embeddable player and make it look seamless within their own websites and blogs.
It’s arguable that the most productive users of SoundCloud recognize the fluid nature of the service and post not only completed works, but works in progress. They upload sketches and rough drafts and rehearsals: this keeps their timeline freshly updated, helps excuse the relatively low fidelity of streaming sound, and further invites communication with listeners—many of who are fellow musicians themselves.
Ready to make some noise?
You can use platforms like SoundCloud to participate in NewMusicBox’s “Sound Ideas” challenges and easily share the music you create. Craft responses to prompts from:
Selections from submitted tracks will be featured in an upcoming post.
Marc Weidenbaum founded the website Disquiet.com in 1996. It focuses on the intersection of sound, art, and technology. He has written for Nature, the website of The Atlantic, Boing Boing, Down Beat, and numerous other publications. He has commissioned and curated sound/music projects that have featured original works by Kate Carr, Marcus Fischer, Marielle Jakobsons, John Kannenberg, Tom Moody, Steve Roden, Scanner, Roddy Shrock, Robert Thomas, Pedro Tudela, and Stephen Vitiello, among many others. He moderates the Disquiet Junto group at Soundcloud.com; there dozens of musicians respond to weekly Oulipo-style restrictive compositional projects. He’s a founding partner at i/olian, which develops software projects that explore opportunities to play with sound. He lives in San Francisco in a neighborhood whose soundmarks include Tuesday noon civic alarms as well as persistent seasonal fog horns from the nearby bay. He also resides at twitter.com/disquiet.