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The Team Behind Facebook’s New Audio Product Suite

Sarah HallamMeet the Team
Mark Zuckerburg

Mark Zuckerberg, Founder & CEO of Facebook. Editorial credit: Frederic Legrand - COMEO / Shutterstock.com

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When Mark Zuckerberg was recently interviewed by tech journalist Casey Newton on “Sidechannel,” he dropped the bombshell that Facebook had already started working on a new suite of audio products.

The live audio wave has rocked Silicon Valley since it was catalyzed by Clubhouse last March, and getting a foothold in the space has turned into a full-on foot race between social media giants.

Twitter started its own beta version of a live audio app in December, Twitter Spaces, despite just being in talks to buy Clubhouse in April. And in an earnings call last month, Spotify CEO Daniel Ek announced he wanted the company to rebrand into an audio platform, rather than just a music platform. Now, with Facebook entering the game, live audio has officially become the new “Stories.”

The Org zoomed into the Facebook audio team’s org chart to get a closer look at the strategists, product managers, and yes, sound designers, that are getting Facebook into the live audio game.

Fidji Simo

Fidji Simo, Head of the Facebook App, at F8 2019. Courtesy of Facebook.

While Clubhouse’s main feature is its live chat rooms where users join to listen in on virtually any topic, Facebook’s new projects are wading even further into the audio realm — although live audio rooms are indeed coming to the app.

“The first thing we’re building is a set of new audio creation tools,” Head of Facebook App Fidji Simo said in a company blog post. “Just like we did for photos and videos, we want everyone to have tools that are powerful enough for the pros, but intuitive and fun — like having a sound studio in your pocket.”

The company said it had been investing in audio technologies, such as speech-to-text and voice morphing, behind the scenes for a “long time”, and it planned to make them directly available in an audio creation tool directly inside the Facebook app.

Facebook Soundbites

Facebook said it plans to roll out its newest feature, "soundbites" in the next few months. Courtesy of Facebook.

One of the first features to be rolled out are soundbites, which are short-form, creative audio clips created in collaboration with different content creators, such as comedians, inspirational speakers, and entrepreneurs. Also coming in the next few months are podcasts. Facebook plans to let users listen directly to the long-form audio shows in the Facebook app.

Steering all of these new features into a cohesive product roadmap is Fred Beteille, Head of Strategy, Audio Initiatives. Beteille previously worked as a product manager for Facebook Live, and brings a background in music licensing and royalties to this new world of audio creation for the app. Before Facebook, Betielle was a product manager at both Google and Youtube simultaneously and was COO and SVP of Technology at RightsFlow, a licensing and royalties company acquired by Google for Youtube in 2011.

Facebook Podcasts

In the next few months, podcast creators can upload shows directly to their Facebook pages, and users can listen while the app is open or running in the background. Courtesy of Facebook.

Perhaps one of the more innovative teams that will help with the heavy lifting for the new features is the Sound Design team. Sound design isn’t a widely-known profession, yet it plays an integral role in how we experience and perceive Facebook’s most recognizable features. Will Littlejohn is the Director of Sound Design at Facebook, and his job description includes creating all the little beeps and dings that come from the app’s notifications or in-app sound effects, like typing noises in Facebook Messenger.

An audio producer for over 20 years, Littlejohn’s sounds can be heard in over 90 video game projects, including the sound design for the PC game “Blade Runner.” He was also an executive producer and lead mixer for the “Guitar Hero” video game soundtrack.

As Facebook explores the new medium and builds out another in-app tool for audio, sound designers will be critical in testing how Facebook podcasts, soundbites, and the live-audio chat room sounds in listeners’ ears. Other skilled sound designers in Littlejohn’s team include Eleanor Thibeaux and Mark Lee, both sound design managers. Thibeaux leads and manages the Creative Operations team, which she describes on her Linkedin page as “a team of talented project managers and producers within the Facebook Inc ecosystem that can successfully maintain quality across all sonic experiences.” She previously worked as an audio producer at Facebook and as a production coordinator at Pandora, where she coordinated audio advertisements.

Facebook Seattle Dexter

The view from one Facebook's Seattle offices in Dexter Station. Audio research scientists work in nearby Redmond, Washington as part of Facebook's Reality Labs group. Courtesy of Facebook.

Almost 900 miles north of Menlo Park is Facebook’s growing Seattle-area campus, where teams of research scientists have been diligently experimenting in the world of VR and how audio contributes to the immersive experience.

It seems that some of these research scientists will be helping build out the future of audio at the company, and top players on these teams include Ravish Mehra, Director of Audio Research, and Michael Smedagaard, Director of Audio Technology.

Mehra started at Facebook over six years ago as a research scientist, primarily developing techniques for audio in virtual reality. He’s worked his way up to Research Science Manager and as of January, he is Director of Audio Research, overseeing a growing team of research scientists at Facebook.

Director of Audio Technology Michael Smedagaard has been experimenting with audio projects since 1993. His roots in audio engineering started as a product architect for Harman International, which launched state-of-the-art audio tech for the time, like CD players and Class D amps. He later found his way to Apple as Technology & Product Architect, where he developed audio hardware sections for the iPod.

After a few brief stints as a founder for various audio architect startups, Smedagaard wound up at Google as Advanced Audio Technology Lead. There, he led strategy for audio hardware, before he landing a role at Facebook in September 2018 as the leading audio technology engineer for AR/VR.

Although Facebook has publicly announced this slew of new audio features, it’s an ambitious project and will require dozens — if not hundreds — of sound engineers, designers, strategists, and product managers.

Team members on the sound design and creative operations teams have been enthusiastically posting about job opportunities for sound design managers and producers at Facebook, with a requirement being candidates must “advocate for the role and value of sound across Facebook and in the larger creative community,” signaling that propelling these new sound projects into the mainstream won’t happen overnight.

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