The Apple Designer You’ve Never Heard of Is Making Noise

Stringer says the Cell Apha is only the first of what will be a broader product line. For now he’s convinced that Cell provides unique value because it delivers a dimension of sound that others haven’t even thought of. To move beyond our current soundscapes and enter the world of spatial audio, he argues, we must move beyond the monophonic and stereophonic into—wait for it—triphonic. Yes, that’s a word Syng made up. “That had to happen,” says Stringer of the triphonic era he just invented, “because we’re trying to establish the stable special standard that prevails. We think we have the only technology that fills the bill.”

Stringer is referring to the coming age of mixed reality where sound—not just music, but everything we hear—will have to match or exceed the ambient sources of sound in the physical world. A multicellular configuration of his speakers can present music, or even a theatrical performance, in a way that replicates the experience of a live performance. Essentially, he’s creating the soundtrack for the holographic concerts that you just know are coming. (If only we would have had those holographs and Cells before lockdown.)

Stringer also showed me some tricks that aren’t part of the initial release, but highlight Syng’s possibilities. One demo involved a specially recorded version of “Eleanor Rigby” by a string quartet where Stringer’s team was able to isolate each musician. Using the slick Cell app, they showed me how you could drag and drop each instrument as if moving the actual instruments to different parts of the room—violin on the couch, cello near the kitchen door. In another demo, Syng staff acoustic engineer Elisabeth McMullin showed me how the system could integrate sounds from a recording (in this case, a Radiohead song) with other songs, or even sound effects like footsteps, birds, or sirens. In these cases, Syng is essentially providing the equivalent of a soundboard in a recording studio, where you can lower or raise the volume on each track. But instead of making the track louder or quieter, you’re moving it in space.

Syng, located in Venice, California, now has about 50 employees, and funders have invested $15 million so far. It’s a tribute to Stringer’s appeal that his investors include both the lawyer representing Apple in that patent suit and the opposing attorney as well. He reports enthusiastic responses from top musicians and producers (whose names he won’t reveal). “For three years now I’ve been giving demo after demo because my heart is to stir the passions of creators,” he says. “These people need tools like this to get to the next level of creativity. We’re hearing a lot about how there’s just not enough space in stereo to do what they want.”

Stringer himself has never been so stirred. At Apple he’d always been in the background. He says that he was fine with it, perhaps because of a life-long reluctance to engage in public venues. But now, as a 56-year-old CEO (albeit one who looks like he just emerged from a reunion of Laurel Canyon singer-songwriters) he feels rejuvenated. “I just knew that there was something else I had to do,” he says. “It really had to be outside. To put out a solution that you want to stand behind, you need to be participating throughout the entire process. You can’t just be a step in a journey. It just had to be this, you just had to make something. It’s when you’re comfortable enough to get uncomfortable.”

I hear him.

Time Travel

Christopher Stringer was on Apple’s design team in 2001 when the company released its hit music player, the iPod. In July 2004, I wrote a Newsweek cover story documenting how the product had become a cultural artifact of its own:

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