For all you hear about the primacy of visual culture, you might not expect a Web service exclusively focused on sound to be a big hit. SoundCloud, however, has seen meteoric growth, hitting 10 million users in January. Its interface, however, hasn’t quite grown and matured at the same pace. We’ve seen a lovely-looking new HTML5-based player embed, but the main site hasn’t gotten the same refresh – until now.

Yesterday evening, SoundCloud provided press and some members of the public with a first view of the new site. The facelift is organized around even greater focus on SoundCloud’s signature waveform view, with a greater emphasis on sharing and real-time updating, as well as more easily managing profiles.

In short, everything is a lot cleaner – a whole lot cleaner – and more focused on actually listening to and sharing music.

What’s new:

  • The Waveform is bigger and more prominent – and stripped of hated comment clutter – with a new navigational interface.
  • Profiles are redesigned for easier navigation.
  • “Reposts” now add to sharing mechanisms for tracks and sets.
  • Real-time updates show activity right away. (This seems to me a bit reminiscent of the direction taken by listening services like Spotify.)
  • Continuous playback. I’ve long used Chrome (and now Firefox) extension for this feature, which even allows you to move between sites; it’s nice to see SoundCloud allow you to keep sounds playing in the background as you navigate, though.
  • Sets put collections of sounds into a single Waveform, in place of a playlist. This could be a solution for creating legal mixes for DJs and curators – or mixes of your own music – without running afoul of copyright restrictions by posting conventional DJ mixes. (That said, of course, you don’t get to actually mix and cross-fade. Now that’d be interesting.)
  • Streamlined navigation, with keyboard shortcuts, master volume control, and other features.
  • Improved search algorithm (a frequent source of complaints from readers to whom I’ve spoken), plus auto-complete/search suggestion.

The redesigned SoundCloud profile. All screenshots courtesy SoundCloud.

So, when will you get all of this? SoundCloud says the roll-out will take “months,” though they haven’t given a solid timeframe. Initially, “tens of thousands” of beta invites will be available; you can request one now via a dedicated minisite for the redesign. That’s a tiny fraction of the total user base, so we’ll see how easy it is to get into the queue; I’ll work on getting CDM in so we can at least report back. A public beta will come later this year, with a “full switchover” for everyone expected by the end of the year.

I’ve gotten feedback from CDM readers about what they want out of SoundCloud, and initially, it doesn’t appear the redesign addresses all those concerns. It certainly looks prettier and more usable, and for public sharing, SoundCloud has been terrific. But readers have also requested easier ways to sell their music than are currently available. I’ve also heard from users – and found in my own experience – that private sharing and collaboration is relatively limited. (Chris Randall notes via Facebook that he prefers Dropbox for this purpose, particularly since they’ve added a player that works with private tracks.) We’ll see if any of these functional areas is addressed as SoundCloud rolls out new functionality, or if it becomes available via their API.

SoundCloud, for their part, does promise “new features,” and says that you’ll continue to have access to “existing features in the current version, such as upload and record.” I think it’s safe to say this brief preview doesn’t cover everything SoundCloud is developing in 2012.

My guess is, with so many cloud tools evolving, users will use a combination of tools to get their work done, collaborate, and share their music. Naturally, we’ll follow that closely to see if we can provide some useful information about how to get the most out of these tools.

What do you think of this first look at the new SoundCloud? And how do you use it? Let us know in comments.

More info / beta signup: