Engineering students, from left, Chris Martin, Oren Andiroglu, Michael Batey, and Michael Castellanos take a break to strategize at Monday’s Smackathon Blockchain Music Challenge, held at SLAM Miami. Photo: Mike Montero/UM News
By Robert C. Jones Jr.

Engineering students, from left, Chris Martin, Oren Andiroglu, Michael Batey, and Michael Castellanos take a break to strategize at Monday’s Smackathon Blockchain Music Challenge, held at SLAM Miami. Photo: Mike Montero/UM News

Team Sonify

By Robert C. Jones Jr.
Engineering students capture second place in the worldwide blockchain coding competition hosted by Pitbull.

When Michael Castellanos and three of his classmates were hard at work last April putting the finishing touches on their senior design capstone project—a new music streaming service that utilizes blockchain technology—the University of Miami College of Engineering students had no idea that in less than three months they would be pitching their creation to a panel of judges that included Cuban-American rapper Armando Christian Pérez, also known as Pitbull.

But on Monday, inside a gymnasium converted into a Shark Tank-like setting, the UM students did just that, presenting their Sonically Based Music Recommendation System, or Sonify, to the three-time Grammy Award-winning artist at the finals of his Smackathon Blockchain Music Challenge.

The result: a runners-up prize for the UM team and the right to go to Scottsdale, Arizona, in October to pitch their project to Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak at DesTech.

HyperValence, a team out of Singapore, won first place (a $6,000 cash prize) in the international blockchain coding competition, which Pitbull announced last April at the eMerge Americas conference in Miami Beach.

“If someone had told me a few weeks ago that we’d be in this position, I would have said they were joking,” Castellanos, an audio engineering major said only moments before he and his team went up on stage inside the seventh-floor gym at the Little Havana-based SLAM (Sports Leadership and Marketing) charter school to explain how Sonify works. “I honestly didn’t think we’d make it this far, but this is just incredible.” 

Sonify, which took top honors at the 2018 College of Engineering Senior Design Expo last April, employs blockchain digital technology—a distributed database existing on multiple computers and devices at the same time—to fully automate transactions with artist records and remove any middleman services. The program also makes use of a distributed file storage system that allows for cheaper costs. After each upload, a song is processed and retains a set of attributes for recommendations through deep learning technology.

“It means a lot to see what we’re doing has such a major impact. We honestly feel we can help artists with this project,” said Michael Batey, a senior software engineering major who worked on the back end of the project website and helped with the word processing for songs. 

“They’ve done this on their own,” said Jean Pierre Bardet, dean of the College of Engineering, as he sat with the students before the Smackathon presentations began. “This speaks to the caliber of students we have at the college.” 

It all started in the summer of 2017, when Castellanos, who had always been curious about artificial intelligence, decided he wanted to learn more about the ability of computers and machines to think and learn. “I always liked music,” said Castellanos, who plays the piano and clarinet. “So I decided to combine the two—music and technology.” 

When Castellanos came up with the idea for Sonify, he asked some of his College of Engineering classmates to help out, telling them his project had the potential to revolutionize the music industry. 

“I thought it was a genius idea,” said Batey.

Oren Andiroglu and Tristan Blarel, who graduated last May and did not attend Monday’s Smackathon judging, also joined the team. Chris Martin, an engineering student from the University of Pennsylvania and a close friend of Castellanos, joined the team later.

“I’m pretty overwhelmed,” said Andiroglu, who has worked on optimizing the speed of the site. “I’m unsure of the future, but I can only look forward by looking backwards and improving.”

The team will now start preparing for DesTech in Arizona. “It’s online but right now its use is minimal,” Castellanos said of Sonify. “It’s only a small percentage of what it could be, but it has tremendous potential.”

The Smackathon judges—Pitbull; Manny Medina Jr., a bassist for country star Kip Moore; Demian Brenner, co-founder and CEO of Zeppelin; and Jack Selby, managing director of Thiel Capital—agreed that Sonify has broad potential. Pitbull gave the UM team a little advice, telling them to strengthen their presentation skills. 

“We’ll be ready,” said Castellanos.