Published: April 26, 2016
Brian Newsom working with team

The simple interface of SamPack, a new music sample generator hitting the market soon, hides some pretty complex technology.

The program takes a phrase like “bright horn sound,” uses IBM Watson’s natural language processing features to turn the phrase into a mathematical algorithm, processes the algorithm into audio and returns a WAV file to the user, all with the click of a button. And it was built by a CU-Boulder senior and a friend, in less than 24 hours.

Computer science and applied math major Brian Newsom and Bret Meritt, a sound design student at Columbia College in Chicago, built the program for the South by Southwest Music Hackathon in March, earning themselves first place in the “Creation” category and a $3,500 prize to help kickstart their business. He and teammates were also runner-ups in the 2016 New Venture Challenge for their work on Outloud!, a mobile app that allows people to listen to and record text articles for consumption on the go, and won $1,000.  

For Newsom, CU-Boulder has been a great place to cultivate his dual passions for technology and music. In addition to his double major, he has taken classes in the College of Music’s music technology program and played percussion in the concert band. 

On the technology side, Newsom is part of CU-Boulder’s growing “hacker” community – he participated in the inaugural HackCU last year and served as a mentor this year.

“HackCU last year was an amazing experience, and I can see it around campus that it’s inspired a lot of people to make cool things,” he said. “It’s really empowering to have the time and resources to make something you always wanted to.”

Newsom is also participating in the first cohort of the Department of Computer Science’s entrepreneurial capstone option, which allows seniors with a great business idea to work on a project of their own, rather than on the industry sponsored projects students usually tackle.

That course helped when they got to SXSW, he said.

“In the entrepreneurial capstone class, one of the things we’re learning is that you have to validate ideas before you spend a whole lot of time creating something that no one wants,” he said, adding that they spent several hours defining the problem SamPack was intended to solve before tackling the programming.

Hackathons tend to be a whirlwind experience, and SXSW was no exception. At the 24-hour mark, teams had to drop what they were doing and immediately go into judging, where they had one minute to convince industry experts of their prototype’s potential.

After winning over the judges, SamPack was one of six teams chosen to participate in an incubator session aimed at helping them take their creations from prototypes into startups with real customers. There, they met Alex Ebert of indie folk band Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros and Kiran Gandhi from electronic music group Madame Gandhi, both of whom were excited about SamPack.

“Alex was really excited about the prospect of new sounds because there’s so much music out there that all sounds the same,” Newsom said. “This is a new avenue to create things, and he was excited about directions we could take.”

Gandhi also expressed interest in using SamPack in her next project. 

While Newsom will be working for Twitter upon graduation, he looks forward to continuing SamPack as a side project – and it won’t be his only entrepreneurial venture. His team from the entrepreneurial capstone course plan to continue working on OutLoud!