The True Story of SoundJam

Bill Kincaid says: "One day back about, geez, what, 5 or 6 years ago now, I was on a long drive up to Willows, California, to the race track where I was going to spend a day practicing in my Formula Ford. I'd left [the Copland team at] Apple a year or so prior and was working for a startup, which didn't leave a lot of time for racing, but I was trying to keep my hand in. As I drove I was listening to NPR on the radio and somebody was talking about the latest geek toy, a little device called a Rio that was like a solid state Walkman that played something called MP3 files (first I'd ever heard of them). It all sounded really interesting — and when at the end of the spiel the fellow said something about "Don't get excited, Mac users, 'cause it won't work with Macs." I thought, "Ha! I can fix that!"

The next day I started scouring the web to learn about MP3 and then I began making phone calls to Diamond Multimedia, creators of the Rio. I managed to talk to their VP of sales who was really receptive to the idea of helping me create Mac support for it, and put me in touch with their engineers (a bunch of whom were in Taiwan, which made for some tricky dialogue).

I realized pretty quickly that I could design interface hardware and driver support but I was not the right guy to write a "Rio Manager" app. I've never been a UI programmer, but I knew a really good one — Jeff! Jeff had left Apple too by that point and it didn't take much convincing for him to become interested in the project. And he saw that the app could become not just a "Rio Manager" but a Mac equivalent to WinAmp, and he was sure Casady & Greene, who published Conflict Catcher, would be interested in working with us. Thus was SoundStep (the company) was born.

I spent the next few months designing a parallel-to-USB interface for the Rio 300 that ended up being scrapped, since the Rio 500 was due out and had USB built in. Then I spent the following year and a half learning MP3 from the ground up — the ISO standards, the reference source code, IEEE and AES papers, anything I could find. I relearned a bunch of math and learned for the first time the basics of DSP (my degrees were in mechanical engineering and CS, so this was all new to me!). Jeff was in the same boat — he wrote the decoder basically from the ISO doc and the distribution 10 public source, and I did the same for the encoder which turned out to be a much bigger job even though we bought some source code to start from (another story for another day). Wow. What an experience. Every day it felt like my head would explode.

That was a pretty exciting time to be involved with MP3, as you remember! I quit the startup and went full time on SoundJam, much to my wife's concern. For a couple of guys working out of our living rooms we felt like big wheels. We went to shows, talked to writers and reporters, and had lots of interesting business discussions with lots of interesting people at lots of other companies that were all trying to establish a claim in what sure looked like a big new market. There were a dozen forks in the road that would have resulted in SoundJam becoming something [else]... but here we are.

I think it's remarkable and admirable that you guys went your own way with Audion. My hat is off to you."