Innovator Brian Foo Incorporates “Citizen DJs” into Design Process

The following is a guest post by Innovator in Residence Brian Foo, creator of Citizen DJThe Citizen DJ project invites the public to make music using the free-to-use audio and video collections from the Library of Congress. The project features online tools for exploring and remixing tens of thousands of sounds from a variety of collections ranging from music to government film to oral histories. 

At the end of April, Brian launched a beta version of the Citizen DJ interface to get feedback from the public on how he could make the tool better before its official release this summer. In the blog post below, Brian shares more about the role of user testing in guiding the design of this music production and exploration platform. 

I would first like to acknowledge that I am writing this amidst very uncertain and challenging times. Since Citizen DJ is a music-making project, I am especially thinking of musicians, who now face cancelled tours and concerts, the primary source of income for many music professionals. In this context, I am particularly hopeful about the ways both musicians and the general public could directly benefit from this project. That’s why I’m looking for individuals with deep musical backgrounds and newcomers to music making alike to help with its design.

The central goal of Citizen DJ is to invite the public to create new music using audio and video material from the Library of Congress. Materials were handpicked for this project because they are free to use with no special permission needed. I also like to make the point that you can even use these materials for commercial use. In other words, any new work that you create is yours and you can do what you want with it: sell it, perform it, or give it away for free.

In addition to the materials being free to use, speaking from first-hand experience, this is not your average sound collection. Curated by Library staff, these are unique, sonically compelling, and in many cases historically and culturally relevant sounds. The sounds range from over 100 years old to less than 10 years old. They are sounds of musical performances, theater, interviews, oral histories, speeches, ambient sound recordings, and more. 

black screen displaying colorful sonograms

Screenshot of the Citizen DJ prototype explore feature

Even if you are not a musician, I hope Citizen DJ can be a tool for sonic discovery and serendipity. One of the biggest pleasures of this project is finding that bizarre sound or inspiring quote buried deep in a collection, much like the experience of the “crate-digging” DJ in the 90’s-era record shop or thrift store. Here are a couple I’ve stumbled across while developing Citizen DJ. This might give you a glimpse into the diversity of sounds you can find and reuse from the Library. 

Legendary musician Booker T. Jones speculates why clusters of musicians tend to emerge suddenly in space and time in this Off the record interview, [1986-1988?]-09-02 by Joe Smith, about 20 minutes in.

The above audio is part of the Joe Smith Collection which contains hundreds of frank and personal interviews with music icons: Ray Charles, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Tina Turner, Elton John, David Bowie, and B.B. King to name a few.

Another example is Santa Claus hides in your phonograph, one of the more bizarre finds in the collection of early Edison sound recordings. At about 30 seconds in, it’s unclear if the haunting nature of Santa’s laugh was intentional or not. This is certainly something I can see myself sampling to evoke a more dark and sinister vibe:

Tony Schwartz, the eclectic sound archivist and one of the original “remixers” of found sound, meditates on what New York City would sound like if there were no people on the island about one minute into the recording: 

sound waves from a musical excerpt

An excerpt from Sound Picture of New York by Tony Schwartz.

I am about halfway through my residency at the Library of Congress. It’s important to me to invite the public to preview the tools I am making, tools that will allow anyone to explore, remix, and download sounds made available by the Library. (As of this writing, there are currently about 300 hours of audio from 6 collections available to explore, with hopefully much more on the way.)

I am inviting the public early into my design process because I feel strongly about being able to respond to your feedback in a meaningful and substantial way. Whether you are a musician, student, researcher, or curious citizen, I want to make sure these tools and resources are as useful to you as possible. This round of feedback will focus on how usable and useful the tools are for you. Are you able to find interesting sounds? Do these sounds inspire you? How easily can you make something new from these sounds? Feedback I receive at this phase of the project will directly inform what areas I will focus on for the remaining months of my residency, whether it’s new features, interface improvements, or guides.

Looping back to my opening point, I acknowledge that testing and giving feedback takes time and effort. While it is important to recognize this effort, I would like to make it clear that this is contributing towards building a public resource that we all can benefit from. If you think these tools will be useful for you, I would like to work together to make it the best I can for your needs.

It is my hope that digital projects like Citizen DJ can offer musicians ample new creative material at no cost and can continue to engage and inspire all Americans from at home. And it is fitting to remember that music is something that has the power to bring all people together even when we physically cannot be.

Citizen DJ will launch this summer on labs.loc.gov/experiments/citizen-dj/. To learn more about the project, you can watch a recording of Brian’s live demo of the tool or see an interview with Brian about his inspiration for the project on the LC Labs twitter. You can also read about it in recent articles featured in The New York Times, Washingtonian Magazine, and an interview with Brian on WAMU 88.5

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