Native Instruments is launching a new subscription service for musicians called Sounds.com. Scott Wilson talks to the company to find out how it works and what it means for producers.
Subscription services have come to dominate the way we live. Want to listen to the latest album? Pay $9.99 a month for Spotify. Need a constant drip of bingeable television? Sign up to Netflix. Need someone to deliver fresh ingredients in the exact quantities for making your own evening meals? There are numerous options for that too. The world of music production isn’t immune from this trend either: you can pay monthly fees for software synths and even samples now, meaning all the sounds you need to make tracks are just a few clicks away.
Subscription services for samples are nothing new. Splice and Noiiz have been offering an all-you-can-eat buffet of royalty-free sounds for a few years now, but their dominance is about to be challenged by a new player: Sounds.com, a platform owned by Maschine manufacturer Native Instruments that counts former Beatport CEO Matthew Adell among its staff. Like Spotify, the service offers a $9.99 a month paid tier and a free tier, each covering samples for making everything from mainstage EDM to sound effects for podcast producers. You search for the sound or genre you want and if Sounds has it, you can preview, bookmark and download in seconds.
If you’re familiar with online music stores like Beatport then the look and experience of using Sounds will be quite familiar. In fact, it’s difficult to see – on the surface at least – what differentiates Sounds from its rivals, beyond the big name behind it. However, Just as Spotify has used algorithms to deliver tailored playlists like Discover Weekly, Adell (NI’s Chief Digital Officer) and his team are counting on NI’s own MIR (Music Information Retrieval) algorithms to give Sounds the edge over its competitors. Unlike Spotify’s algorithms however, which have come in for criticism for reducing “music discovery” to a passive activity, the technology behind Sounds seems to be more about making the task of finding the right sample a lot quicker and more accurate.
As Adell tells FACT from NI’s Los Angeles office, MIR is able to analyse audio and determine not just simple variables like BPM or musical key, but specific things like whether a hi-hat is open or closed. “When the audio content is received by our system, it’s pushed through our MIR algorithms that are able to understand the content of the loops and samples in an incredibly deep way,” he says. “[Other services] tend to rely on the metadata that comes from the supplier to identify the nature of the audio and in a lot of cases the metadata doesn’t provide a very good experience for the end user. We’re going to continue to refine the system, but we believe it makes search and discovery infinitely more successful for the user and reduces the amount of work that the creator or supplier has to do.”
However, Adell – whose first jobs were working in bricks-and-mortar record stores and believes in the importance of human recommendation – is keen to ensure a more personal element to the Sounds homepage. “Human beings have a tendency to understand context a little bit better,” he says. “So we’re constantly looking for that balance on the home page and everything you see – even if an algorithm may have placed it there – a human being has decided if it was good enough.”
But as the dominance of Netflix has proved, the success of a subscription service is judged on providing a regular stream of content. Adell believes that Sounds has this aspect covered too. While Native Instruments will be offering samples from its Maschine packs, the platform also offers content from third-parties like Loop Loft, MVP Loops, and Symphonic Distribution. Adell says that around 40% of the content is exclusive to the platform and it will all be compatible with any software or hardware. It’s launching with half a million products (300 of which are free) though Adell expects this number to be in the millions by the end of 2018.
Adell also believes that Sounds has enough variety to attract producers working in all genres. “The first thing I want to do is make sure that Sounds isn’t all about EDM,” he says. “That would bum me out, so we’ve worked really hard actually on the inventory side to make sure that we can serve people who want to make EDM as well as people who want to make house, techno, hip-hop soundtracks or jingles – we even want to provide sound effects to people who are making podcasts. We’re really, really focused on being broad in terms of the inventory and the offering.”
Although Spotify’s free tier has come in for criticism for contributing to artists not getting paid fairly, Adell says that all third-parties and creators serving content to Sounds will be properly compensated. “We’re building a marketplace and we really want the end user and the creator of the content to benefit. It has to work for the creator of these loops and samples or we haven’t succeeded,” Adell says. “If you go to the homepage today, you can see [the free samples] clearly marked and we’re paying our suppliers for the use of those loops and samples no differently than we pay on the paid platform.”
As far as Native Instruments is concerned, Sounds isn’t just a subscription service for samples – the company sees it as the first stage in its mission to “democratize music creation,” which it announced last year along with news of a €50 million investment from a private equity firm. NI gear and software, such as Maschine, typically work best inside the NI ecosystem, but Adell is planning for Sounds to be compatible with whatever software or hardware you use. NI is planning integration for Sounds with its own hardware, but also a plug-in for DAW integration and APIs that will allow third parties to make Sounds work more seamlessly with their own controllers.
Adell doesn’t go into detail about how this integration might work, but it seems logical to expect, at the very least, some kind of browsing system similar to how you might call up a preset on Maschine or a Komplete Kontrol keyboard. “My goal was to create a system that works for you across your entire workflow, not just a walled garden of our stuff,” Adell says. “Everything at Sounds is completely interoperable. That’s key to the work myself and the team have been doing on Sounds, is to reduce friction. We’re really focused on meeting you and the tools you use, not asking you use our tools.”
Sounds is currently in beta to US customers only, but Adell is expecting the service to launch globally once payment systems and language translations have been finalised, with “80% of the world covered” by the end of 2018 and European customers able to use it by the end of Q2.
“The most important thing to me is that anyone using the service can find what they need when they need it as easily as possible. And I think it’s actually even more important in this world than say, a Spotify, where people are in the middle of writing songs while they come here to look for something,” Adell says. “So we’re really measuring our success against how rapidly someone can find the thing they really need.”
Scott Wilson is FACT’s Make Music editor. Find him on Twitter.