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This computer music PhD wants to connect the world through mobile karaoke

  • Smule is a series of music-creation apps that make it easier to sing and record yourself singing to popular tunes.
  • CEO Jeff Smith, who has a PhD in computer music, feels lowering the barrier to creating music can bring people together.
Smul e co-creator and CEO Jeff Smith
Smul e co-creator and CEO Jeff Smith

What do you do with a PhD in computer music? If you're Jeff Smith, you create an app that you believe will connect the world across cultures – through mobile karaoke.

"Music was the original social network before Instagram and Facebook," said Smith, the co-founder and CEO of Smule.

Smith has 27 patents in the field of computer music and email security. His current largest project, Smule -- which is a series of music-making software apps that allow you to sing along and video record yourself performing popular songs with the help of filters and sometimes original singers themselves – currently has 52 million monthly active users. It has raised $156.5 million to date, with Tencent leading their latest fundraising round.

Smith's whole life has been music since he started playing piano at the age of 4. Although he studied computer science at Stanford, he also took music classes every quarter. He eventually used his degree as a software engineer at Hewlett-Packard's language lab and IBM's Scientific Research Center in Palo Alto, as well as to launch companies like Simplify Media, a startup whose software allows you to share your iTunes music across the web. It was acquired by Google in 2010.

Deep down inside however, Smith was still interested in learning about the intersection between music and technology. He audited classes at Stanford University for two years, until he took the plunge and got accepted to its computer music PhD program at the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA). There, Smith focused on ethnomusicology, interpreting how people's music performances are influenced by cultural biases.

Like most of his fellow CCRMA grads, Smith went into teaching computer science and music classes. But his studies also gave him the idea to create Smule, a way to lower the barrier for entry to creating music with technology. In other words: It was the first app to bring auto-tune to the mobile phone, he claimed.

"After we created that product, I went to my teacher and apologized to my teacher for everything we were doing to voice performance," Smith joked.

In all seriousness, Smule's apps do have other positive implications, he pointed out. He believes it gives people a passive way to create music, whether they've studied theory for years or can't really carry a tune.

"What it also allows us to do is bring this experience to people who are a little more inhibited," Smith said. "Fewer of us are inhibited about making music if it is just participatory."

His theory may have some gravity. About 20 million songs are created daily in Smule's apps in the more than 150 countries where the app is currently available.

Music creation will be the next way to engage people, and has the potential to become the next big online social activity, Smith said.

"We wanted to bring music back to its social roots," Smith said. "With mobile phones we make people more expressive and can we connect them to make them social together."