Maths graduate from Cambridge is behind popular music-making app BandLab

Mr Kuok Meng Ru, managing director of Swee Lee Music, conceptualised BandLab to allow musicians to create recordings that can be hosted in the cloud across platforms, be they iOS, Android or Web.
Mr Kuok Meng Ru, managing director of Swee Lee Music, conceptualised BandLab to allow musicians to create recordings that can be hosted in the cloud across platforms, be they iOS, Android or Web.ST PHOTO: MARCUS TAN

Downloads of cloud-based app BandLab, which allows musicians to work together across platforms, hit six figures

Mr Kuok Meng Ru, a Singapore permanent resident with a mathematics degree from Cambridge University in England, is behind BandLab, a cloud-based music app whose download has reached six figures.

The free app, launched in November last year, allows musicians to record top-quality work without going to a studio or even if they cannot play many instruments.

If you cannot play the drums, you could find someone in the network of BandLab users who can and ask him to join your band.

Or if you prefer the solo pursuit of music and just want feedback, you can put up your music to let other people hear and comment on it, or invite them to remix or rearrange it.

The latest release, version 3.0, was officially launched yesterday and includes features such as "shouts", which allow you to share what you are working on with a photograph or short video.

Mr Kuok, 28, the app's chief executive officer and co-founder, is also the managing director of Swee Lee Music, which is one of South- east Asia's largest distributors of guitars and audio equipment.

Since acquiring the company in 2012, for a sum he declines to divulge, he has expanded to 14 more stores in Singapore and the region, as well as introduced an e-commerce platform. Swee Lee's revenue has more than doubled since 2012, he says.

"I was very fortunate we had the support of private investors to be able to actually take on an established player like Swee Lee and to effect the changes I felt were important," says Mr Kuok, whose father is Mr Kuok Khoon Hong, chairman and chief executive officer of agri-business group Wilmar International.

He declines to reveal how much he has spent on developing BandLab. Plans to monetise the app with in-app purchases are in the pipeline.

A keen amateur musician himself, Mr Kuok Meng Ru decided to start BandLab after facing challenges in making music in the current technological and social environment. He says: "You have technological barriers when I use a digital audio workstation such as GarageBand and you use something on your PC like FL Studio, and they're all different and you can't work together because they all use proprietary file formats."

Being a cloud-based app, BandLab allows musicians to create recordings that can be hosted in the cloud across platforms, be they iOS, Android or Web.

Mr Kuok also wanted the app to be simple to use. "Musicians need to deal with recording apps, multi- track software, time and place, geography, social media sites, messaging tools, cloud services - it's a lot to think about. You have to find ways to be efficient and organised.

"In a society where everyone is too busy playing Pokemon Go to actually get together and play music, you need things to be even more simple."

He describes following someone on BandLab or looking at the feed on BandLab as "going into the studio and watching someone's creative process".

Collaboration is a key component of the app for Mr Kuok, who believes a song is never quite finished because "someone can take it on and put his own spin on it".

"It's not like going to someone and saying, here's my final product. Unlike on SoundCloud, I want you to give me some thoughts, some feedback that I can incorporate into the next revision of my song," he says. "That's exciting because a song lives and breathes."

Mr Kuok, a guitarist and singer, has more than 270 projects on the app, many of which are collaborations with other users. "It's amazing how productive our users are because we've made it so simple," he says.

Using the app himself allows him to know exactly what can be improved on, fixed or upgraded.

His interest in music started in boarding school in Britain at age 11. Up until then, his knowledge of music was limited to what was played on the radio.

His school friends introduced him to English alternative rock band Radiohead. "They gave me a copy of Radiohead's The Bends. They said, 'Listen to it and don't come out till you like it.'"

That, he says, was the turning point, setting him on the path to appreciating the complexity and layers in music.

Earlier this month, BandLab acquired Netherlands-based Composr, a similar music composition app. It says the acquisition will bring in new users and talent to the growing company, including its founder Nick den Engelsman, who joins the BandLab team.

Mr Kuok, who is single, says they are constantly on the lookout for things for their users that they might not already have. "It's really about finding people who are like- minded and companies that can contribute to the ecosystem."

On the Singapore front, he hopes to do more with the music community here in introducing the app.

"A lot of exposure and experience come from working with people outside and in bigger industries and that's where BandLab can help - with the chance to work with other talented people," he says.

"It's not then just about how you can differentiate yourself, but about how you can be heard above everything else."

Correction note: An earlier version of the story stated that Mr Kuok Meng Ru is a Singaporean. This is incorrect. He is a Singapore permanent resident. We are sorry for the error.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 27, 2016, with the headline 'Band together on music app'. Print Edition | Subscribe