April 22, 2024
Will.i.am's new startup Sound Drive wants you to reboot the music industry in your car | TechCrunch

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You can spend all day long curating custom playlists for every mood, picking tracks based on tempo or intensity, but whether you’re corner-carving or just commuting, you’ll never perfectly match the cadence and energy of every drive.

Will.i.am, the singer and songwriter turned entrepreneur, says he has cracked the code to doing just that with a new company called Sound Drive, which made its debut at CES 2024. The new venture will launch this summer in Mercedes-Benz’s electric EQ models, will.i.am told TechCrunch during a press event. The basic idea is not just to create an in-car soundscape that reacts to what you’re doing, but to create and remix tracks in new ways every time you drive. Tracks that, will.i.am said, are “conducted by the road.”

TechCrunch had a chance to test it at CES 2024 and despite some initial skepticism, we came away impressed.

Sound Drive finds harmony in the numerous channels of data flying out of the ECU of a modern car, everything from throttle input to brake pressure, and links that to a sort of intelligent multichannel mixer. Instead of two turntables and a microphone, it’s two foot pedals and a steering wheel.

But that’s just the beginning. “It’s around 10 segments roughly that we are using at the moment,” Mercedes-Benz CTO Markus Schäfer said. What he means is that the app will tap into as many as 10 different vehicle parameters that will affect the song. But, since the system will run as an app within the MBUX infotainment system, it has the potential to access much more.

Image Credits: Tim Stevens

I’m the first to admit that the concept sounds like a gimmick, more fake noises desperately trying to make EVs sound a little less boring. After 30 seconds behind the wheel of a Mercedes-AMG EQE SUV, I was convinced.

That car had 16 Sound Drive tracks loaded, some familiar and others created especially for the experience. I sampled a few, my favorite being Doja Cat’s “Woman” from her last album. Sitting idle, the rhythmic beat of the song was present yet subtle.

It wasn’t until I added some throttle that Doja’s sultry lyrics came forward. As I gained speed, the song really came into its own, which just left me even more frustrated with the perpetual Las Vegas traffic.

I also sampled “Scream & Shout,” the 2013 banger from will.i.am and Britney Spears, freshly retooled for Sound Drive. It’s much the same story there, with the song coming and going, swelling and retreating with my inputs and speed.

It’s important to note that Sound Drive isn’t just modifying the volume levels of different parts of the song. Lyrics come in and drop out intelligently, picking up where they leave off and continuing the thread of the song, not just going mute mid-verse.

It felt like driving through a movie soundtrack, not entirely of my own making, but one that responded instantly to the pace of my life.

Only to a certain degree, though. Schäfer was quick to point out that the music will not reward driving beyond the limit.

Sound Drive is not quite a performance as such, will.i.am likens being a conductor or DJ, but that’s just the beginning. Down the road, Sound Drive will let you geotag samples, linking auditory cues with memories. He said you could create a song route to chart the ending of a relationship, dropping tags with memories of where you had your first kiss — or last fight.

While reliving that kind of trauma in every morning commute might get a little heavy, he assured me that even if you cover the same road at the same time at the same speed stuck in the same traffic, you’ll never get the same song twice: “The song will be slightly different every route, even if it’s the same route,” he added.

Mercedes-Benz is the first partner, where the technology will launch with 10 tracks this summer as MBUX Sound Drive. That makes sense, considering will.i.am has an established relationship with Mercedes as a brand ambassador. It will initially be found in higher-performance AMG and AMG-Line EQ models and will extend beyond those to other trims in the Mercedes range.

In the future, Sound Drive will be available in models from different manufacturers as well. Will.i.am declined to give any timelines.

He did, however, say there’s no limit to how far this can go. This technology, will.i.am hopes, will drive us into a new era of music.

“Right now, still today, in 2024, people make music as if they’re still playing CDs, as if the main source of listening to music is vinyl,” he said. “Beyoncé and Taylor Swift told the world that live music is where the business is, and the only way to actually listen to live music is to go to a concert.” With Sound Drive, he said, that dynamic music experience will come from you — and your ride.

Read more about CES 2024 on TechCrunch

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