Designing for the (Citizen) DJ

The following is a guest post by Brian Foo, 2020 Innovator in Residence and creator of Citizen DJ.

Background

This past weekend, the Citizen DJ Showcase aired at the National Book Festival and the Citizen DJ application went from beta to officially launched as an LC Labs experiment. For the Showcase, the renowned DJ, Kid Koala, produced what he calls an “Intercity beat tape”, jumping between time zones, bpms, and genres. This 20-minute megamix featured dozens of new tracks created on Citizen DJ by creatives from across the country who, in turn, had used Library of Congress collections as source material for their new music.

This event, which allowed me to collaborate with non-profit organizations from across the country engaging students and creatives of all ages on topics ranging from history, identity, social justice, and creativity, marked both the end of my residency and the pinnacle of this project.

In this post, I reflect on how the feedback offered by you and many others across the country and world through user testing conducted in the spring informed my design of the tool.

Designing for the DJ

In hip hop, there’s a term called “crate digging.” In addition to being alchemists–in the sense that they create something new from existing resources– DJs are also excavationists. Half of their time is spent “digging” for the obscure and the rare sonic gems hidden in a sea of crates in the basements of record shops and thrift stores. The DJ’s reputation and craft are built on how large and diverse their library of sounds are and how adeptly they can recall the right palette of sounds to mix together in the right moment.

The Citizen DJ interface was designed to build on the feeling and function of crate digging. My goal was to make it as easy as possible to discover, listen to, and access large amounts of sounds from a music-making point of view. The first tool I developed was an interface that made it easy to browse thousands of clips within a collection in a matter of seconds.

A grid of hundreds of audio clips represented by colored spectral data

A screenshot of browsing thousands of audio clips in the Citizen DJ explore tool

When a collection is composed of tens, hundreds, or even thousands of hours of audio, it becomes infeasible to listen to them all. The Library often uses words to describe what is contained in such a collection. Citizen DJ complements this by allowing patrons to use their ears to get a sense of what is in the collection sonically. This will give attributions of the audio that would often go missing in a written description: audio quality, timbre, color, or from the mindset of a producer, its “vibe.”

Once you find a sample you like, you can then click through to listen to the full audio in context from the Library’s main website. You can also jump into another interface that allows you to quickly get a sense of what this sample might sound like in a new hip hop track.

Five rows of sixteen partially-filled squares that represent a musical pattern

A screenshot of a looping music sequence the Citizen DJ remix tool

Hip hop producers would often take time to chop, loop, and transform snippets from source audio material as building blocks to create new music. Citizen DJ attempts to streamline this process by chopping up, looping, and adding beats to the samples for you right in the browser. You can very quickly randomize your samples, randomize your drum patterns, speed up, and edit the samples in real time.

But more importantly, I designed Citizen DJ to be as compatible as possible with existing music production workflows and software. Once you find a loop you like, you can download it as a wav file and import that into your favorite DAW. Similarly, you can download the raw source material as sample packs composed of thousands of audio clips that you can import, chop up, transform, and arrange yourself in your favorite music production software.

A three-panel user interface with a file browser, a pattern editor, and mixer

A screenshot of importing Citizen DJ samples into other music production software

About midway through the residency, amidst the global pandemic, we launched a beta version of the Citizen DJ experiment to the public. This user-centered design process is characteristic of many LC Labs experiments, which are designed to be temporary, lightweight prototypes that explore possibilities for re-imagining the public’s experience of the Library’s digital collections. Citizen DJ, like other experiments on LC Labs, will be hosted on LC Labs for the next two years but is not a permanent program at the Library of Congress.

In my blog post about the user testing, I acknowledge the special impact the pandemic has on music professionals’ primary sources of income such as cancelled tours and concerts. At the same time, our collective reliance on music and other forms of art and entertainment is immeasurable. Even though we could not address the economic impacts to musicians directly, we hoped that we could open up Citizen DJ as a tool and resource to creatives across the country while they are stuck at home. We wanted to hear from them directly if these tools would be useful to them and if not, how could we make them so.

We were hoping to get feedback from a few hundred users, which would represent an unusually high number for a Library pilot project. The actual response was quite overwhelming. In just a couple weeks, we reached nearly a hundred thousand unique sessions and did not stop after that. What struck me in particular was the diversity of people, professionals, and organizations we reached–often those who have not previously engaged with the Library of Congress. We heard from amateur hip hop producers, professional musicians, filmmakers, educators, students, record labels, non-profits, well-known hip hop artists, and well-known non-hip hop artists. Over 80% of participants identified as artists or creative types while 91% agreed that Citizen DJ is for “people like me.”

Thanks to the hard work and careful attention from the Library’s user experience design team, we received lots of responses in the form of completing an online activity. In addition to this structured feedback, we received thousands of comments, messages, and emails that contained questions, suggestions, frustrations, and commendations. While I was very excited and appreciative of the positive feedback, I was much more curious about the mixed to negative feedback we received. It is impossible to unpack these all in a single post, but the feedback could loosely be categorized into: interface bugs, compatibility issues, interface usability, feature requests, and clarity on copyright and usage.

Tightly-packed words if different sizes, colors, and orientations

Word cloud of the most frequent individual words in Citizen DJ user feedback

As the sole developer, designer, and product owner for the Citizen DJ interface, it was quite challenging to decide what to work on during the remainder of my residency. My first priority was to make sure Citizen DJ was usable by as many people as possible, so my first round of work addressed many of the technical issues related to device compatibility, interface usability, and DAW compatibility.

Next, I focused on feature requests. The mixed and negative feedback I received from users was less about bad experiences, and more about how they want more features, especially music production features. To me, this was a good sign. These users clearly understood the vision and now want to integrate it into their own creative workflows. The challenge here was finding the right balance between the popularity of the feature requests, the effort involved in implementing those features, and how well those features align with the goals of the interface and project. Many of the requests were features of music production software, e.g. a swing function, custom sounds, mixing different clips together. However, the primary focus of Citizen DJ is around discovery and access of sounds for music making, so rather than focusing on music production features, I focused on making sure it was easy as possible to find sounds that you can use in popular music production software like Ableton and Fruity Loops.

For those interested in some highlights, here are some specific improvements I made in response to the feedback. You can now:

  • change the size and location of an audio sample (this was one of our biggest requests)
  • add additional drum tracks
  • save a pattern that you made directly in the browser
  • export your current pattern as a seamless .wav file loop
  • download any clip your hear as a .wav file
  • use the interface on a mobile device
  • use the interface with a screen reader
  • get more information about why a particular item is free-to-use
An waveform image representing a sound clip with a section highlighted

A screenshot of the new feature that allows users to customize the size and location of a sample

I continue to leave our feedback channels open, and you can always take a look at what issues and requests have been raised by visiting the project’s Github.

What’s next for Citizen DJ?

There are many unknowns, but there are also some knowns. Like all experiments hosted by LC Labs, Citizen DJ will be supported and available for the next two years. Furthermore, the underlying technology and interface of Citizen DJ are open source, meaning other institutions, organizations, or even individuals with enough software development experience can use Citizen DJ technology for their own audio collections.

If you are someone who might fall into one of these categories, please let us know at [email protected]! Our hope is that the development of this software is just the first step of many in opening up audio and video collections from all over the world.

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