Matt Kilmer is a percussionist, session drummer, live musician for top touring acts, composer, arranger, mixmaster, teacher, performer and now designer, too.
A drumset player since age eight and graduate of Berklee College of Music, Matt is known for his innovative blend of world music percussion and electronic tracks. I had the pleasure of meeting him at a frame drum festival in Vermont where he taught how to play two rhythms in different time signatures simultaneously. (Besides being a graphic designer, I’m a perpetual percussion student and enthusiast, so I wasn’t surprised to get a recent invitation to try out an app he developed called Jammer.)
At the true intersection of music and design, Jammer lets you turn recorded songs into your own musical designs. Each song has been separated into tracks. The round buttons are vocal, instrumental, and percussion grooves. The square buttons are short musical elements. All of which you, the user, can combine, layer, add to, and delete. Magically, they work together in any combination or rhythm that you tap out. You can play to your heart’s content with three pre-loaded songs, then browse the Jammer store and preview any song before choosing to buy it for 99c, or not.
The app is fresh, colorful, engaging and entertaining, and it teaches how pop music is put together. What’s really cool is that any combination of circles and squares, any rhythm or pattern you tap out, sounds great. It doesn’t seem possible to make a mistake.
Matt took a few minutes to explain how he became a designer as well as a musician, filling in details about how Jammer came to be.
Ellen: I can’t help but see a relationship between percussion—and music in general—to graphic design. There’s color, harmony, texture, syncopation, alignment, contrast, rhythm, the grid—all hallmarks of good design. I think designers will love the look and feel of Jammer as well as its musical possibilities. How did you do it?
Matt: It was a long process, starting with meeting Jake Lodwick, the entrepreneur and investor best known as co-founder of Vimeo—who is now CEO of Keezy, a developer of music-related apps—and Pasquale D’Silva, an animator and software designer. They are the geniuses who made Keezy Classic, a music sampler, and Keezy Drummer, a drum machine phone app.
I actually met Jake through Reggie Watts, the amazing vocal artist, beatboxer, musician, comedian and late-night show guest. Reggie introduced me to Jake, who hired me to do sound design for the Keezy apps, and we’ve been working together ever since. Reggie has been a huge supporter, and his track “Need to Know” comes with the app for free. We used the album artwork for our demo images.
In case you missed his TED talk, you can jam with Reggie right on your phone. See below for a little demo!
Can you describe the steps in developing the prototype and then getting to the version that’s on the App Store now?
I made a rough prototype using Ableton Live and Touch OSC to mimic a touch-screen controller. When I showed it to Jake, he immediately saw the potential for this new way of interacting with music in a creative yet commercial capacity.
You’re right—it’s not possible to make a mistake. It took about 18 months from idea to working iOS app. Ableton allowed us to mock-up some of the audio capabilities, but for most of the UI design, we used Sketch for static layout and Flinto for interactive prototyping. There were many iterations along the way, and we’re still changing and adding things on a daily basis. That’s the beauty of software development—you’re always iterating. In the music business, you work hard on a song or an album and polish it up largely in solitude. After releasing the final form to the world, you generally don’t change anything. But with software, you’re always seeing how people use it and changing it to make it a better user experience.
Did you have any formal design training?
Not officially, although as an independent musician/artist, it’s necessary to make album covers and tour posters to promote your band. I’ve always been an artist for fun, while music has been my main career path. Haleh and I worked together to make almost all the merch and marketing materials for The Mast.
Artist ‘for fun?’ How did you learn to make those posters and album covers? By watching tutorials, experimenting with software?
Both. YouTube is my savior. I started with Photoshop tutorials and moved to After Effects. Once I found Sketch, it really opened up the way I design for software. It’s made for that so it was natural to use is as my main interface-design software. Flinto was another YouTube find that allowed me to prototype interactive interfaces in a natural way. The way Sketch and Flinto work together is very powerful. All the knowledge out there right now, from YouTube to Dribbble and Invision and various design sites and blogs, is incredible.
Did you design the app’s look and feel?
I designed the basic overview. A design firm, The Collected Works, did the branding. Partners Justin Colt and Jose Fresneda have been an invaluable part of our process. We came to them with a functional and fun app, and they made it look great. They designed the logo, visual brand, and a lot of the UI elements. I’m confident in the UX choices we made internally, but they make sure that the UI is up to par. They also did a redesign of the Keezy brand and helped us on almost all outward-facing visual assets. Between The Collected Works and us, we’ve made it this far with a relatively small team that includes in-house software engineers at Keezy.
Do the artists get paid every time one of their songs is played with, essentially a new kind of music royalty?
When fans buy songs in the app, artists get a revenue share directly from every sale. In the store now there are songs by 80 independent artists, and we are currently in negotiations with a major record label to get songs by many of today’s top artists available by spring 2018.
What about you as the creator? Do you expect to be enjoying profits from this? Financing your retirement?
Ha! Right now I’m focusing on making Jammer a great experience for fans and a viable income stream for artists.
What would you like people to know about Jammer?
I believe that all people, regardless of their chosen profession, have music-making in their DNA. It’s our birthright as human beings to be music makers. Jammer allows everyone, no matter their skill level, to take part in the creation of the music of our culture. It really lets you get into a musical flow-state without having to spend thousands of hours practicing an instrument. So basically, try it, it’s fun!
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