The story of how SoundViz started
How SoundViz went from a grainy line chart to a powerful tool for story telling.
Lessons from Nanna
I spent my childhood with my Nanna. She was an incredibly talented, successful painter and interior designer. She’d hijack me from my then single mother and take me down to Balboa park – in San Diego, where we’d spend days walking through the museums, sitting among the oil, watercolor, plaster and marble, looking for something that inspired us.
She’d pull out a notebook, piece of charcoal, handkerchief and make me draw. I was awful. She’d take the tools from my then tiny hands and wistfully create this paper-backed scene of us, dusted in broken charcoal, sitting on a bench, marveling at the piece before us. Then she’d cock her head, briefly looking deep in to her brand-new paper portrait, and say something in a very southern accent like, “now isn’t that nice.”
My grandmother taught me about art. But she didn’t teach me what you might learn about art in school. She taught me about creativity, reckless passion. She taught me how deeply personal art should be. I’d see it in her eyes every time she looked at something she was working on. She’d set everything down, step back and gaze. And in that moment, I can only imagine she was thinking “damn, he’s good” in that soft, southern drawl.
I started playing piano at eight, saxophone at 10, guitar 14, turntables 18. There was a point in high school where I could fill in for pretty much anyone in the band. I totally sucked at drawing and painting, but the seed Nanna planted flourished, nonetheless. As I got older and more confident in my abilities, I started getting in to composition and sound design. That’s a really fancy way of saying I wanted to be the next DJ Tiesto.
Two years ago, I’d just finished a track I was working on for a remix competition that I’d entered.
I’d worked on it from 6pm to 5am on a Tuesday night – definitely a work night. 11 hours of programming, no coffee, just unadulterated inspiration. I was on one and it was incredible. I had a perfect picture of what I wanted to do and I was executing. I couldn’t stop. I was terrified that if I went to sleep, I’d lose it and never finish. So I kept going. I finished the piece, then loaded it on my phone and fell asleep listening on repeat.
I can’t remember who, but one of my friends had shared a photo of a sound wave printed on a poster. It was a black wave on a white 30″ x 40″ poster board. I loved the idea. I wanted one of my new song.
It looked like this, minus the grey background and accompanying center line.
It was definitely cool, but not great. The problem was, it was a screenshot from the same audio engineering program I spent hours a day in. It was novel, but plain. Uninspired. If I were a mechanic, it would have been like me taking a picture of a transmission, printing it and hanging it over my bed. Imagine that post-tinder-date conversation.
The Big Idea
So, I looked around. I had an idea. I wanted color. I wanted depth. I wanted artistry.
After many failed Google sessions, I eventually gave up. No one had what I wanted. So, I started reading. How hard could it be to make my own? It’s just a graph after all. Over the course of another late night programming session – this time less synthesis and more 1s and 0s – I came up with something. It was a blank web page that played my song, but as the song played, it would take a piece of the song and print it to the page. I even got it to print in color. It took forever – as long as the song was. But, once it was done, I had my own colorized soundwave art. It was super ugly and I had to copy and paste screen shots together to make it look right, but it was mine and I thought it was awesome.
So I ordered a print of it.
A week or two later, a package came in the mail. I opened it up to find a rolled up piece of paper. Smooth, glossy and slightly bent in places, I flattened it out and looked for the first time at my creation. I followed the sound wave across the paper, the colors changing as I played my all-nighter story back in my head and I was mesmerized. I hung it up in my office.
Every day after that, someone would come in, approach my art and ask me about it. Every day I’d tell the story about the competition. I’d tell them how I stayed up all night and suffered through work the next day because I was so driven to exhaust that spark of inspiration. We talked about music and art and I shared my remix. It was amazing. That’s when I realized how compelling these things could be.
SoundViz began as a little web page on the internet, but as people discovered it, got a hold of it and started creating with it, it’s become something totally new and unexpected. It’s become a way for people to express themselves more profoundly than I ever imagined. From the bedroom DJ printing his competition-not-so-winning-est remix, to the business owner capturing the sound of his first order, to a daughter’s first wedding dance, to the parents that tattooed themselves with their child’s first words, to the mother that lost her child and wanted to always remember her last voicemail, every SoundViz has an incredible, powerful story behind it.
By the way, these days, my remix prints come out looking much nicer now!
Tyler and Chelsea are a husband and wife team who run SoundViz together from San Francisco. Our mission is to enable people to easily tell their stories through audio and visual media. Come join us or drop us a note.