Tom Vek, recording artist, wants to sell you a music player. One that he’s designed himself. Sleevenote is designed to respect your favorite albums, from cover to tracklist, as a work of art in their own right. It’s pretty much all-screen, a 6.2-inch square picture frame that lets you interact with music the way we used to. Select a record, read through its (digital) booklet and select tracks by touching their name on the back cover. It’s designed to recapture the vibe you had when getting a CD, or vinyl record, ready to play for the first time.
“I was doing the artwork for [2011’s Leisure Seizure] and it dawned on me that not everyone buying it was going to see it,” Vek told Engadget. Knowing that the work he was putting in to creating the album-as-a-package was likely to go to waste upset him greatly. “I’d been resistant to the iPod,” said Vek, “because it wasn’t a good replacement for the visual side of CDs.” For many cover design is an art form in and of itself, with many covers becoming iconic in their own right.
Building a hardware player himself wasn’t feasible in 2010, but Vek built a Sleevenote app which does a similar job. Users with iOS devices can use the app to see their own music library, or through Apple Music, as a “wall” of albums, which you can then paw through and select. Swipe to the side, and you’ll see the back cover, where you can play a song from the track listing, just as with this incoming hardware version.
The idea stayed there, until companies like Native Instruments and Teenage Engineering started making interesting musical hardware products. Vek went back to his original idea. Sourcing a high-resolution square display proved tricky, since few displays are made square. In fact, the model for Sleevenote is sourced from a company that customizes existing touchscreens for different form factors. And while there are a handful of hobbyist square screens, nothing was apparently big enough, or high-resolution enough for this project.
Vek is launching Sleevenote as a crowdfunded project via Indiegogo, with a target of at least £497,734 ($658,210). In order to meet minimum goals to produce the first run of hardware, he needs to sell at least 1,000 of these units, since there’s no outside funding. That means that each unit is costing -- cue the sucking-in of cheeks -- £533 ($707). Vek knows that it’s not the cheapest, and tried to ensure that it came out “cheaper than an iPad Pro,” but hopes that audiophiles in the market for a high-end music player (i.e. people willing to pay) will embrace its uniqueness.
If funded and produced, the Sleevenote will pack a 7.5-inch (diagonal) high-resolution touchscreen display, but also and houses a high-end music player inside. Users can connect their Bluetooth headphones or speakers to the device, but are just as well off using a wired option instead. After all, the hardware will pack a Wolfson Class W headphone amplifier and Cirrus HQ DAC, as well as 256GB storage. And while it’s designed for audiophiles playing high-res audio, the hardware will also connect to Apple Music, Spotify and (eventually) Bandcamp.
Measuring 0.8-inches thick, Sleevenote can free stand on a table, and the pitch video (above) makes explicit reference to this being as much an object for digital art as music. Yes, you can do this with a Raspberry Pi and your own third-party display perhaps, but not everyone feels confident with a soldering iron and code.
The hardware has also been designed with an eye on sustainability and repairability, with a spaced-out, modular design. “Nothing’s glued together, which is the thing that iFixit gets the most upset about,” said Vek, and the whole body is held in with a handful of screws. The hope is that people will be using this device for many years to come, maintaining it if something breaks over time
Vek is self-aware enough to know that some people won’t readily embrace what he’s doing here and it’s easy to paint Sleevenote as a vanity project from a musician raging against the dying of the pre-digital light. You might remember Pono, Neil Young’s digital music service and player that launched in 2012 and was discontinued in 2017, or Tidal, the artist-led streaming service that has been dwarfed by Spotify and Apple Music’s success.
“I’m not complaining,” he said, citing Lars Ulrich as the stereotype of the angry artist grousing about the future. “I’ve done my fair share of [complaining], but now I want to find a good alternative to what’s going on,” said Vek. His philosophy isn’t to lecture and berate people about how to enjoy their music, but work to build something that’ll show them the alternative. And, as an artist, Vek feels he should have some say over how his work is presented to audiences.
If it reaches its funding goal, Sleevenote is expected to begin shipping to backers in October 2021, and if it finds a market, there could be more products along the way. But for now, Vek is focusing on just seeing if there’s a market for a device like this. You know, something for those people who believe that albums are more than just a series of songs arranged in a specific order.