Make Music Anywhere
August 11, 2010 4:51 AM   Subscribe

Pocket music apps are letting composers and artists create music anywhere - and they're developing fast.

Simple keyboard apps with great sounds were created early on, like Virtuoso or Musical. The interfaces on many smartphones lead to more unusual composition tools like TonePad, a grid of notes that continually loop and give rise to unexpected melodies, and Bloom / Air, two generative music apps by Brian Eno. The availability of microphones resulted in new instruments being created, the most notable being Ocarina - a flute-like device, as well as toys like RjDj (previously) that resamples ambient sound to give a unique soundtrack.

Nanostudio is pushing the boundaries further by creating a full Digital Audio Workstation. It crams an astonishing level of functionality into a small package, providing creators with a four-track synthesizer, drum machines, sequencer, mixer and sampler. While this may not yet have the flexibility and power of desktop applications like Reason or Fruity Loops, it can act as a musical notepad allowing creators to note a melody or sequence on the go, then build it up with beats and bass. Similar tools like SynthStation, iElectribe and bleep!BOX make the future of portable music creation pretty exciting.
posted by Stark (51 comments total) 47 users marked this as a favorite
I haven't included many Android apps in the links or examples here as I'm not as familiar with that ecosystem, but I'd be interested to see what's available if people have suggestions.

Hopefully it goes without saying that I'm not related to or associated with any of these products, I've just had fun using them.
posted by Stark at 4:53 AM on August 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

I haven't included many Android apps in the links or examples here as I'm not as familiar with that ecosystem,

I can remote into my pc with Android. After that, what other apps do they need to make?
posted by Bathtub Bobsled at 5:35 AM on August 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

I hope somebody with familiarity of the Android music world can recommend some good ones. I hope there are some good ones!

One thing I would say: the name at least of the ocarina is not new, as it's a fairly old, quite simple duct flute. The app, therefore, should have been called something else. I know this makes me Mr Pedantic, but I declared myself middle-aged this morning so it's allowed.
posted by mathw at 5:36 AM on August 11, 2010

RjDj is close, but you need to be able to mix good sampling tools with a decent quality tracker to make full-on mixes that you can save/replay/etc.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:59 AM on August 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

Thanks for this post. I've been a fan of the RJDJ stuff and Eno's apps for a while, and TonePad is kind of a Tenori-On-lite. There's also MixTikl, a generative music tool (kind of like Eno's apps, but with the backdrop raised and the controls exposed), but the UI is kind of user-hostile if you're inclined towards just sittin' and listenin'.

The music toy I've been playing with most often is Soundrop, an iOS variation on Josh Nimoy's Balldroppings. (It's by a third-party developer, not Nimoy). It does some things better (the pay version has a variety of assignable tone patches, and gravity can be controlled by rotating the phone) and some things worse (the patches are noisy, interacting makes it slow down, it's easy to clip, control over timing and gravity are too limited), but it retains most of the spirit of the original. Its interface is practically made for a touch screen, and it works even better with the iPad's extra real estate.
posted by ardgedee at 6:10 AM on August 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

For the Reason users out there, the ReBirth app works really well on the iphone, and its a familiar interface. I've been using FourTrack for months now and its more convenient than firing up ProTools, especially if you just want to get an idea out and listen to it.
posted by numbskeleton at 6:25 AM on August 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

I played around quite a bit with Soundtracker/Protracker on my Amiga way back when. I'm not a composer by any stretch of the imagination, but even so I had a lot of fun. You don't have to be a great painter to doodle on a sketchpad, and you don't have to be a great composer to make some simple tunes or beats on a tracker or sequencer.

One of my classmates was interested when I told him what I was doing. I gave him a copy of Protracker or whatever and the neccessary instrument library discs to try out, and he's still making music, and actually selling albums of ambient/electronica music. So apparently small, easy-to use composing tools are like a "gateway drug"...
posted by Harald74 at 6:27 AM on August 11, 2010 [2 favorites]

I hope somebody with familiarity of the Android music world can recommend some good ones.

Unfortunately the Android OS of today has latency issues (warning: long technical discussion) that prevent many serious music apps from being developed.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 6:32 AM on August 11, 2010 [4 favorites]

I've been using FourTrack for months now and its more convenient than firing up ProTools, especially if you just want to get an idea out and listen to it.

Oh god yeah. It's faster than pretty much anything, really, and I've been enjoying the hell out of having it around. I never had a tape-based fourtrack, I went from super-lowrent bouncing on a pair of mismatched cassette decks to recording in desktop DAW software, so it's been a nice chance to try and think in that constrained "this is all you have" style.

I still haven't taken the time to work out an external-mic solution so I mostly use it for quick demo/note-taking stuff or intentionally blown-out minimalist rock stuff, but here's a bunch of breakneck recordings made using it. The folks who make FourTrack, Sonoma Wireworks, also make an iPad-centric big-brother product called StudioTrack that I haven't tried yet but will probably drop the cash for once I do make the effort to figure out micing/line-in stuff because that's frankly about all the interface I need when I'm just tracking—I tend to record everything before doing any real mixing or fiddling, so being able to say "next track, go!" really quickly is pretty valuable.

Mobile music production apps are this decade's synthesizer revolution, without the obvious faddish sound.
posted by cortex at 6:39 AM on August 11, 2010 [2 favorites]

The music apps I have are NLog Synth, Ocarina, Cat Piano, Baby Scratch, and my toddler's favorite, Shaker.
posted by swift at 6:45 AM on August 11, 2010

If I come to see your band, and you all pull out iphones on stage, I'm walking out.
posted by fuq at 7:11 AM on August 11, 2010

I use a number of apps mentioned on my iPod Touch, as well as the surprisingly powerful and lyrical Bebot, the synth-only variant from Bleep, Bleep!Synth, Jasuto Pro (a deep deep deep modular environment), SynthPond, nanoloop, and ProLoop, and I love the way these apps use gestures and the accelerometers in the iPod to create new possible environments.

These little machines make amazing oscillator sources, for making music that's not struggling to overcome the limitations of piano keyboards and guitar strings.

I just used my own iPod-fronted rig to play an abstract ambient gig back in June, and I love the way it brings back the playful, experimental pleasure of sitting there with a little box of wonders and seeing where the world can take you. Every sound you hear, if you listen to the recording, comes from the iPod, with processing via Nord & Electro-Harmonix.

What a world!
posted by sonascope at 7:39 AM on August 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

Thanks for this post. I love playing with this kind of stuff.
posted by box at 7:41 AM on August 11, 2010

If I come to see your band, and you all pull out iphones on stage, I'm walking out.

That's just plain retarded. You should set the place on fire first.

Honestly I'm assuming you're kidding, but if not, I can't relate to any obsession with specific tools over the end product when it comes to music. I don't care if you strum your ball sac with a pine cone as long as it ends up sounding compelling and interesting.
posted by spicynuts at 7:43 AM on August 11, 2010 [5 favorites]

(One app I like that hasn't been mentioned yet: Everyday Looper.)
posted by box at 7:46 AM on August 11, 2010

I still haven't taken the time to work out an external-mic solution so I mostly use it for quick demo/note-taking stuff or intentionally blown-out minimalist rock stuff,

So I went on over to the FourTracks website and watched the demo of the band The 88 using FourTracks to record their song and they are not using external mics and everything sounds hunky dory. Including drums. So are you saying that if you just put the iphone on the floor, as they do in the video, and start playing, it's going to sound overloaded and crap? I mean, that was what I expected cuz that seems only logical, but then the video and all...
posted by spicynuts at 7:54 AM on August 11, 2010

I am continually tempted by StudioTrack for the iPad but I keep reading their forums and getting cold feet. They're not the most responsive developer out there; when most responses to bug and feature requests are dismissive or indefinite, it gets pretty tiring after a few months after releases come and go. Also, those forums should be heating up, not getting quieter. FourTrack may be their only worthwhile product.

I enjoy playing with Pro -- monophonic subtractive synthesis ambient/crunchy sounds are kind of my thing.

On the pad, have a look at Mugician, which is a free (last I checked) polyphonic additive synth with a kind of unique interface. It clips way too easily but is kind of fun to play with.
posted by seanmpuckett at 8:00 AM on August 11, 2010

If I come to see your band, and you all pull out iphones on stage, I'm walking out.

is like the new

If I come to see your band, and you all plug your guitars into electrical amplifiers, I'm walking out.
posted by kingbenny at 8:03 AM on August 11, 2010

Well, I can tell you that my drums sound overloaded and crap (though it's actually a pretty awesome kind of BLAM POW CRUSH YOUR FACE crap that I'm considering incorporating into more careful recordings at some point), but I've gotten non-crap results with less overwhelmingly noisy instruments. The iPhone mic ain't much but it'll do the basic job when you're not blasting it.

I haven't looked close at how The 88 pulled their deal off (I'm more interested in the quick and dirty with FourTrack at this point, so I'm trying not to do bounces either for example but actually do it in four actual tracks). Maybe they drum with a lot more restraint and lighter sticks and muted heads? Maybe there's a secret method for lowering the gain on an iPhone mic? I'd be curious to know what's worked for folks.
posted by cortex at 8:04 AM on August 11, 2010

And I've also been enjoying FourTrack and Everyday Looper, as mentioned above.
posted by kingbenny at 8:04 AM on August 11, 2010

Maybe they drum with a lot more restraint and lighter sticks and muted heads? Maybe there's a secret method for lowering the gain on an iPhone mic? I'd be curious to know what's worked for folks.

Guy put a bed sheet over the snare and tom, played with brushes, and surrounded the iphone with throw pillows in a little improvised fluffy isolation booth. But I didn't see any restraint on exhibit.
posted by spicynuts at 8:06 AM on August 11, 2010

There's also the Korg DS-10, which is Nintendo DS synthesizer based off the old Korg MS 10 synth.
posted by zabuni at 8:10 AM on August 11, 2010 [2 favorites]

I also use the Blue Mikey iPod / iPhone mic with the above apps - significant improvement over the built-in iPhone mic.
posted by kingbenny at 8:11 AM on August 11, 2010

Ha.. I was once at a really pretentious party thrown by some really pretentious classical musicians who forced us all to sit through them drunkenly playing a string quartet and then Lithuanian drinking songs, sung in Lithuanian, with shots of Krupnika consumed at the appropriate moments, for extra gratuitous drunkenness. Yeesh. Later in the evening, I talked to the viola player, he asked me what I did, I mentioned computers. Suddenly he launched into a drunken tirade about how iPods and computers were destroying music, they make people into mindless music consumers who never even consider they might perform their own music or listen to music performed live.

So I said, "Oh really? Let's make some music right now!" I pulled out my iPhone and fired up TonePad, and started playing some sequences. That shut him up real quick.
posted by charlie don't surf at 8:23 AM on August 11, 2010 [4 favorites]

I'm actually happiest when, once people see that the visual aspect of my live set is going to amount to watching me poking around in a little black box, they walk out, because frankly, I'm tired of people who are so easily-bored and eyeball-fixated that they can only enjoy a show when some narcissistic, over-dressed dipstick gesticulates wildly over the most unimaginative and formulaic music out there. I'm on stage to make music, and it's music that comes from that place and that moment, and if you really need for me to pretend like making it is so exciting I have to jump up and down, you probably won't like what I'm doing, anyway. I make slow music for long thinking, and it's as pretty to watch as watching monks raking the gravel in a zen garden, alas.

When I'm feeling festive, I'll occasionally dress as a nun while I poke around in my box, but that's as theatrical as I'm inclined to get.

Something I loved about electronic music when I was first getting established was the simple fact that it wasn't rock and roll, and you didn't have to smash your guitar, or stomp around in blow-dry and spandex, or slouch around in flannel like the world was the opposite of your oyster. Most of my gigs, in fact, took places in venues where the players weren't on a stage, and often weren't even really clearly visible to the people attending, because you weren't there to be a rock star--you were there because you all believed in the possibility of momentary transcendence through the managed movement of electrons, and that was a glorious and heady thing.

It's also, I think, why electronics didn't make headway in the US, either, at least until you got showboating look-at-me musicians like Moby and the Prodigy and the rest of that ilk, out there making a scene. It's all probably good music, too, but there's something to be said for being there to hear something wonderful.
posted by sonascope at 8:37 AM on August 11, 2010 [3 favorites]

The iOS edge on this front is pretty much the main reason I would still consider buying one of Apple's mobile devices or developing using their toolchain for fun*. This is the kind of stuff I was dreaming of years ago when I asked this AskMe question.

* would also develop using XCode for wads of cash
posted by weston at 9:08 AM on August 11, 2010

Interesting thread, particularly since I went out to see some chiptunes stuff around the corner last night. Someone told me that there are about three of these a week somewhere around New York. !

My issues with chiptunes and my issues with these great toys (and don't get me wrong, I love 'em) are about the same - it's that I don't see it really possible to be expressive on these instruments, because there simply isn't enough "bandwidth" between the musician and the instrument - not enough "smooth dials" and "pressure sensitive keys" (though they don't literally have to be such...)

I do actually believe that people really aren't interested in musical expression nearly as much as they used to - and in some sense they're right. Jazz is all about musical expression and yet a lot of jazz is pretty lacking in visceral excitement. Something like Daft Punk is very exciting and it isn't about expressive use of instruments in that sense.

So I said, "Oh really? Let's make some music right now!"

"If you're really a mathematician, why can't you do multiplication like my calculator?"

Now, I have to say as a musician myself, I feel I should always be prepared to generate music - which is why I work hard on my singing and hand-clapping. BUT it's not reasonable to expect someone who is a technical specialist and has worked for decades to develop an advanced skill to just "whip it out" at a party.

You've probably worked out that I'm a little tired of classical music from other postings... but the violin is a Great Instrument and the violin repertoire is a very romantic and expressive part of music. There's no question that if he's been doing this for a while, he's literally made a few people in his audience weep at some point or another - you aren't going to do this with your iPhone!
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 9:16 AM on August 11, 2010

literally made a few people in his audience weep at some point or another - you aren't going to do this with your iPhone!

Oh please.
posted by spicynuts at 9:23 AM on August 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

Okay cool. I'll just pull out my phone and give you a quick review of all the composition / music apps I've got. In whatever order they happen to appear on my screen.


Generic guitar-tuner app. Does what it says on the box.


A very simple but functional four-track recording app, that includes some simple beats built in. Intended as a busker's friend, I guess, but I had some good results from it.


Generic real-time drum pad. Ugly, loud, but nice and responsive.

JR Hexatone

Oh, this is a good one, and a little weird. It's essentially a seqencer based on a hexagonal cellular automata. You attach various attributes to each cell, attach samples / instruments to starting cells, set it going and watch it create a stochastic beat. You can use it carefully to create the kind of loop you would make in a traditional drum machine, or you can go wild and us it to create glitchy randomness. Very novel, but actually useful to use, and it seems better suited to the phone than a lot of ports of traditional sequencers.


Generic set of conga drums. Amusing.

Everyday Looper

Yeah I tried this one after seeing that french guy on Youtube. Amazing, fun app that allows you to very, very quickly record, overlay, merge and mix recorded loops of sound. I generally don't use it to rap over beatbox, I use it to record ambient sounds and lay them over each other to create weirdness.


An app that looks quite useful, from a live musician perspective, but I haven't quite got the handle on it yet. Basically, it has hundreds of drum patterns built in - but you select which pattern you want by making quick guestures on the screen. Could be useful as accompianent if you strap it to your guitar, but I haven't quite got the hang of making the right guestures in the right timing to make it sound good.


An app for making strange, atonal ambient drones. Mix together frequencies at mathematically defined intervals and have them slowly twist and merge into other sets of tones. It's based around a syntax for frequency selection that allows you to divide an octave into, for example, 15 sections, and place tones at 1/15, 4/15, 5/15th of an octave etc. Nice to experiment with.


A modular synth that gets a lot of attention, but I haven't got the hang of it yet - you don't really make strict connections between the modules, you just place them near each other and they influence each other - the distance between modules itself is a modulating factor. Some of the demos it comes with are extremely good, especially in their ability to process live input as part of the chain, but I haven't been able to make it do much interesting from scratch.


Simply symth emulator - pick a keyboard, pick a waveform, lots of other controls to fiddle with. Good for making chaotic, robotic chiptune sounds, but apart from that it's pretty ugly.

iShred LE

This was a pleasant surprise. A guitar-emulator app that is actually a job to use, and which sounds beautiful. You can edit the sound of the guitar, in terms of effect pedals, pickup selection etc. (most of which sound remarkably good), and you then set a group of chords to use. After you've got it all set up for your song, just press the chord button, and strum or pluck the virtual strings on the screen. It's not at all actully like playing the guitar, but it sure sounds like playing the guitar, and I found it a great compositional tool, to concentrate on the chords and song structure before trying it out on my real guitar. This is an app you could pull from your pocket and use beside a campfire.


Fairly simple sampler / sequencer - does what you'd expect, you can arrange synths and samples into patterns, and patterns into songs, although the interface tries to be a little bit too clean and cute.

I, too would be interested in hearing what Android has going on. As I said in comment on Metafilter a couple of weeks ago - I couldn't give a toss about iPhones and Android really. They're just little computers. The one I choose the next time I need to upgrade my phone will probably be based, more than anything else, on what cool little music apps they have.
posted by Jimbob at 9:26 AM on August 11, 2010 [5 favorites]

The most fun music app I've tried on the iPhone, and my favorite iphone app is ThumbJam.

Primarily a sampler with a nice selection of built in samples and a great interface. It also includes a workable looper. But it's primarily an instrument to play, not compose.

I don't carry ear buds with me, so I have to constantly resist the urge to start it up and wail away at while waiting in line.
posted by alikins at 9:31 AM on August 11, 2010

As for the it's-not-real-music arguments, I liked them better when they were about turntables.
posted by box at 9:55 AM on August 11, 2010

There's no question that if he's been doing this for a while, he's literally made a few people in his audience weep at some point or another - you aren't going to do this with your iPhone!

Oh really?

Note: iPad soloist software "Pianist" also available for iPhone.
posted by charlie don't surf at 9:58 AM on August 11, 2010

Bebot, nanoloop, and Everyday Looper are wonderful, polished apps -- if a bit simple. (But I much prefer simplicity to poorly implemented complexity!)
posted by archagon at 10:48 AM on August 11, 2010

I feel I must mention that with the "iPad Camera Connection Kit" one can plug any class-compliant audio interface into the iPad, and i think (i don't have one to test) iOS4 devices. I've tested this with the tiny 2x2 RCA dongle that comes with Behringer mixers as well as a better M-Audio interface I have sitting around. At the very least it lets you plug your iDevice directly into the board to take the place of the DAT or MD of old to record live sets, and with the right DAWesque app will allow you an extremely portable recording tool.
posted by thedaniel at 11:33 AM on August 11, 2010

Oh please.

I assure you, I'm not a great classical music fan, but older people have favorites and when they are played by a real violinist, some of them will in fact cry.

It seems to me that people are misreading what I said entirely. I DO go to e.g. chiptunes shows - I rarely go to classical music shows - clearly I am finding more to my liking in chiptunes and the like but there is no question in my mind that for expressiveness you can't beat "real instruments" - and those include things like a synthesizer keyboard or the electronic wind instrument I play.

Shit, I generally bring a couple of toys like a Kaoscillator as part of my show! But at the same time I'd die of boredom if I could only play instruments like that.

There's no reason you shouldn't be able to put a whole music studio beyond my dreams in 1979 into a handheld. There's no reason you can't generate a whole ton of great music that way but you won't have close to the freedom of expression on an iphone that you will on a synthesizer keyboard or an electric guitar because the latter two simply have several of orders of magnitude greater bandwidth.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 12:05 PM on August 11, 2010

I think you didn't make it clear that you were talking about performing an existing, beloved classical piece on a phone as opposed to using modern technology as an instrument. I still don't necessarily agree however I see your point more clearly.
posted by spicynuts at 12:14 PM on August 11, 2010

...and I mean freedom of expression, while you are playing. Certainly you can arrange anything you want in advance...

Here's an example. I have a friend of mine who's a big classical music buff; so when he shows up to my shows I'll often throw in snippets or variations on classical themes into solos, just to see if he gets them (he usually does).

Now, this is nothing like sampling - because I don't have to plan it in advance, but more, I can play it any way I like and will often do silly things like "Beethoven in swing time." And sometime I think I'm reproducing something classical, but later realize that it's something I made up on the spot. Try that with a sample!

Now, I'm making it sound more fancy than this is - many musicians do this sort of thing and have since time immemorial with any instrument you name. But I won't be able to do this using just my Android screen...
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 12:17 PM on August 11, 2010

This isn't about playing "beloved classical pieces" - it's simply that a guitar (picking an instrument I have little facility on) is just a "better" instrument for live self-expression than any interface you could possibly have on an iphone screen, simply because there are more controls that are more sensitive.

And yes, it is about control and sensitivity. Humans rule the world, at least in part because of our 10 brilliant little manipulators. Your cat can't open cans...
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 12:20 PM on August 11, 2010

I agree with you on the general notion of the degrees of physical expressiveness available in traditional instruments vs. touch-based interfaces—there's just plain more machine to interact with—but I think you're making a mistake conflating that reasonable limitation with the idea that novel digital instruments/interfaces lack significant expressive power.

The theremin, possibly the simplest analog instrument in existence in terms of available input (two bare continua mapped to pitch and volume and that's it) has been used very expressively in a variety of contexts. The distinction between a theremin and any given two-axis touch app is superficial—hands through the air vs. fingers on the screen.

To your "try that with a sample" comment, the implication that the difference between traditional physical (or I guess at this point sufficiently legitimate digital instruments like synthesizers) and mobile or touch-based apps is the ability to to improvise or not is ridiculous. You can improvise on anything; trying to improvise within a sample on an app not designed for real-time sample manipulation would be tricky, yeah, but that's hardly a representative case of music apps in general.

Again: I hear you on the notion of physical expressiveness. But it's a matter of degree at best, and both advances in synthesis and sound modeling and the maturation/extension of new interfaces will reduce even that degree as time goes on.
posted by cortex at 12:36 PM on August 11, 2010

I don't care if you strum your ball sac with a pine cone as long as it ends up sounding compelling and interesting. -- spicynuts

Ooooo... so that's what that's about! Wow.
posted by Twang at 12:40 PM on August 11, 2010

You've probably worked out that I'm a little tired of classical music from other postings... but the violin is a Great Instrument

Any instrument can be a Great Instrument when it's attached to a Great Musician. Else it's just another ventriloquist's dummy. I reckon that applies to iPhones too.

I'm all about the music. If you write something totally amazing, like a 90-minute symphony, but you can't get an orchestra to play it ... I'll applaud it no matter how you get it to me. If all you can do is stand on the stage and play me a recording of something great, that's what I want, even if you don't dance around or make Weird Al faces or shine lasers or blow clouds.
posted by Twang at 12:48 PM on August 11, 2010

The one I play with on Android is Ethereal dialpad
posted by The Power Nap at 12:52 PM on August 11, 2010

Any instrument can be a Great Instrument when it's attached to a Great Musician. Else it's just another ventriloquist's dummy. I reckon that applies to iPhones too.

As a Decent Musician, I vastly prefer even a crappy piano to a fancy digital keyboard. I'm all for new technology, and make a lot of music with electronics myself, but let's not neglect the old technology that's been perfected over hundreds of years.
posted by speicus at 1:45 PM on August 11, 2010

I've never been much of a fan of guitars and find their natural sound to be completely uninspiring, and the massive industry that exists to take that signal and compress it, delay it, distort it, double it, phase shift it, pitch it, overdrive it, saturate it, fold it, spindle it, and otherwise mutilate it would seem to validate my suspicion. That said, the guitar is a lousy sounding instrument that's extraordinarily expressive, because of the way one articulates their playing, and it's inspirational to me as a target to aim for in my own music, even if I'm working with instruments that aren't remotely like guitars.

What I love with the iPad instruments I use (Bleep!Synth and Bebot in particular) is the sort of physical feeling I get from the instrument, from the form of it in my hand to the way it's responsive to touch, and how comfortable and free they feel for lyrical phrasing. Bebot's what I always wished theremins were during the twenty years between the first theremin I built (vacuum tubes and hand-wound coils) and the last (I have repented, after building and selling several dozen finely-crafted whooop machines, alas)--except it's polyphonic, doesn't change its scale with the weather and the weight of the user, and isn't almost impossible to play as something more than a special effect.

My music is slow, though, and I work in a mode that took into account what my piano teacher taught me when I was first learning to play the piano--if you can't play it fast, slow down until you get it right. In my case, I just kept slowing down until my pieces run for a sleepy, atmospheric hour or more, because I'm one of those slow children you see on the street signs. The iPod's just this perfect little polished stone in my hand, a soft-edged electronic worry bead that you sort of surrender to in the practice of building space, and that's why it feels so right, at least to me. I suspect, if one were trying to play faster, tighter passages, it might not be so.

At the last show I played, I had a few people come up for the usual what's-in-your-rig snoop (something we electronic players do by nature), and there were a lot of questions about what I was doing with the little black thing (i.e. my iPod in a case). I've got a patch in Bleep!Synth that's really lovely when you rock the iPod, turning it like a sort of religious fetish object in the hands of a praying monk, and it's about the only thing to watch, sometimes, when I'm playing. It doesn't seem like much, articulating it in the air, but once the sound goes through a few chains of processing that are sensitive to volume and the spread of frequencies, you can really do some rich, glorious stuff.

I'm not sure if I'm a great musician, or if my instruments are all that great, but I sit there, and I reach out to them, and there's something warm and comfortable there, a kind of synergistic ease and familiarity, especially now that I'm moving away from the traditional control forms, like keyboards, that work better for people with a knack for those things. I think that's where it all comes together--in that organic intersection where we forget that we're playing things and start playing sounds, daydreams, and stories.

It's the touch, really, and the soul of the machine, and you.

When you get playful, anything can sing, even the crappiest guitar in the world.
posted by sonascope at 2:30 PM on August 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

it's that I don't see it really possible to be expressive on these instruments
But I won't be able to do this using just my Android screen...

With full respect, just because you won't doesn't mean nobody can or will. Not only will they, but that will be their main method of creative expression, and any suggestion that it's limited as an expressive medium will leave them dumbfounded.

I adore violins too, but I feel far more free and expressive when using Impulse Tracker, 12.5% / 25% / 52% duty cycle pulse waves, a triangle wave, white noise, and delta-PCM samples. Not because I think the Nintendo Entertainment System is a superior medium, or out of any notion of practicality, range, established repertoire, or historical significance. It simply resonates with me personally, and allows me to express my own emotion in vast detail -- whether or not you or anyone else perceives it or even cares.

That said, I'd jump on a plane right now if I could afford it, just to join you for fist-pumping-NYC-hipster-with-gameboy dance parties. That scene is so much fun, and I miss those guys terribly. I'm glad you're able to dig it.
posted by jake at 3:46 PM on August 11, 2010

let's not neglect the old technology that's been perfected over hundreds of years.

I agree with you, but that in no way precludes the building of repertoire, the establishment of academic study, or the iterative refinement of new technology. Everything was novel and unproven at some point.
posted by jake at 4:18 PM on August 11, 2010

I think the notion of building repertoire and virtuosity with electronic instruments is a pretty interesting issue, particularly because there hasn't been any kind of stable platform for live performance out there. There's Csound, which is about as close to being a lingua franca for composed electronic music as you're likely to get, and it's 32 years old (counting Music 11 as a member of the Csound family) and crosses a heck of a lot of platforms, but Csound isn't yet well-adapted to live use by non-academic musicians.

There's so much you can do with an electronic instrument, but it's hard to work with a single instrument long enough to develop the kind of relationship with the machine that you can have with even a cheap violin, for instance. One of the music brilliant electronic musicians I've ever had the pleasure to meet, Charles Cohen, used to give the sad preface to his gigs that "this may be my last show," because his aging, impossibly rare, and dangerously-valuable Buchla Music Easel was always at risk of a breakdown that just couldn't be repaired. With the oldest electronic instruments, there are usually parts that can be replaced, like discrete capacitors, resistors, transistors, etcetera, but there are little bits, like specific, obsolete germanium transistors and the like, that will kill your instrument in a way you can't kill a piano.

I've got a fear of this kind of failure borne out of a few experiences.

I'm an absolute virtuoso programmer on the Ensoniq EPS. I'm humble about a lot of things, but I can freaking rock an EPS in ways that, when I used to call up Ensoniq in Malvern, would have them telling me could not be done. It's an insanely-deep and flexible platform for its intended use, but that was Ensoniq's stock in trade, back in the day—a real engineer's company. It had polyphonic aftertouch, a wonderful matrix modulation scheme, and envelopes and LFOs out the ass, and you could make that baby SING like nobody's business with a little roll-up-the-sleeves work under the hood.

It was also relatively unreliable, and I had more than a few gigs that ended with ERROR 144 - ZZZZZOOOOOP! when something interfered with cable connector mojo, but I worked around it. Thing is, what made that machine spectacular was a lot of custom chips and specific hardware (the no-contact capacitance action in the keyboard was freaking amazing, even though the keys went clackety-clack like a broke-down trolley), and it needs a very rare, irreplaceable floppy drive to boot.

The EPS does not leave my house anymore, and I'm always still a little heartbroken that I feel so inhibited about working with it, because I know it has a limited lifespan. It's twenty years sold, but in twenty years, it will almost certainly be unusable, when the floppy drive finally dies, or the custom vacuum fluorescent display dies, or some custom IC dies. I feel cheated by that, by how I can't have a long-term relationship with the instrument because it's dependent on the survival of a large niche industry for future parts and repairs.

I had the same experience with Opcode's wonderful Vision sequencer, which was brutally raped to death by the pigfuckers at Gibson Guitar (who also killed the Echoplex Digital Pro), long may they burn in hell. Had the same experience with my E-mu Emulator IV-series sampler, and with my Electrix Repeater, and you just get burned out, watching these companies crash. Hell, even my lovely, lovely Nord Micro Modulars, despite being software running on generalized DSPs, have a lifespan, which will be when the orphaned editor software (not blaming Clavia, either, seeing as they're a tiny company with limited resources) runs out of obsolete hardware on which to run.

A guy learning to play a cheap Strat copy or a beat-up old Baldwin doesn't have to think about such things. Most of those instruments are so standardized or simple that parts can be made by hand. Not so for electronics, so people keep pointing out that there's not the same virtuosity with electronic instruments, even though it's not our fault. The market shifts, manufacturing shifts, and things go wrong.

As for myself, I took a break from music to regroup, and rearranged my brain so that the virtuosity I'm aiming for now is the virtuosity of infinite adaptability, just building my instrument as this modular gestalt, always shifting and always moving, keeping my sources simple and my chains of convolution increasingly convoluted. It's hard to know what to do.

The thing with the app-instruments movement, at least for me, comes down to the beginning of something that could be amazing, once (if?) platforms stabilize over time. Having an app with a history, somewhere down the line, could be the piano of the machine, the way we can explore and innovate and try new things while letting the old things mature into platforms as rich and treasured as an old violin. I don't entertain the fantasy that the iPod/iPad/iPhone will necessarily (or should necessarily) become universal, but I think something could.

Maybe Linux settles down and stops being a dick. Maybe tablets settle down, and take a form that lasts. Instruments find long-term platforms, and people build custom playing surfaces and interfaces based on standard, generalized components and software. It's hard to know what will happen, but we might be at the start of something very, very good and lasting.

In the meantime, I'll be patching my stuff together, still a little commitment-phobic, alas, but the music and the drive to make sound into something good can't really be denied.
posted by sonascope at 5:29 PM on August 11, 2010

P.S. If you're on a 2G or earlier iPod Touch, DON'T "UPGRADE" TO iOS 4! It's utterly wrecked my iPod and I'm trying to get up my nerve to go through the spooky workarounds to backtrack to 3.1.3. Argh.
posted by sonascope at 5:32 PM on August 11, 2010

I really enjoyed reading those comments, sonascope. One thing in particular struck me: your mention of adaptability. I think THAT is the most important requirement for mastery of electronic instruments to develop. The idea, in other words, that you're not an EPS or Buchla virtuoso any more than a violinist is a Stradivarius virtuoso, you're a synthesist whose talent really shines when using specific instruments, but isn't limited to those instruments.

The concepts of modulation, filtering, velocity, and oscillators are just as fundamental to us as the concepts of vibrato, muting, pick angle, and amplification are to a guitarist. The unique features of a particular instrument might be vastly different, but once the basic concepts are codified in some meaningful way, you can start teaching them and they outlive individual instruments.

I have 7 guitars (my dad has like 20, it's in the genes). They all have different pickup configurations, one has a midi pickup, one has seven strings, one has a killswitch, one has scalloped frets, one has a DSP so it can be made to sound like other guitars. They're all easily recognizable as guitars, and I can still move from one to the other, even though I'd use different ones for different purposes, and there's a period of break-in where I'm not playing at my best until the muscle memory has adapted to the minute differences in fret scale, neck width, and string thickness. But the same is true of two different FM synths, or two different samplers. Past the programming differences, they serve similar functions. It could be argued, by someone with a refined enough appreciation for guitar construction, that two guitars are just as vastly different.

But I think that with popular synthesis methods, we're at or near a point where we can sit down and "break in" a synth or sampler by applying knowledge of common concepts. The jargon and programming techniques tend to translate pretty well between e.g. Reason's Subtractor and a Roland JP-8000. I sat down with Korg DS-10 and immediately started crafting sounds with it, because I know what filters and LFOs do, and have built up a number of "tricks" to make certain sounds. So I wouldn't be too broken up if a synth in which I'd invested a lot of time suddenly stopped working -- I'd find another solution with a similar cross-section of features, and be just as expressive with it, even if the exact procedure differed a bit.

So while I'm really excited to see where iPhone / portable music app lines go, the fundamentals of performance already exist for several types of synthesis, stuff which will far exceed the component lifespan of a specific piece of gear. That, to me, is the exciting part.

I think the most important thing is to get past the novelty stage, where the only reason something is noteworthy is because "LOL IT'S DONE WITH XYZ ELECTRONIC DEVICE", not because it's an amazing composition. I think that will happen, with enough passionate people using XYZ ELECTRONIC DEVICE as their primary method of composition and performance. It'll just take time before the rest of the world catches up and realizes it's legit.
posted by jake at 6:29 PM on August 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think my problem, in a way, comes from that I had early access to instruments with features that have mostly disappeared, like easily-programmable comprehensive tuning tables for each patch, or polyphonic aftertouch, or sample loop points that can be modulated by anything in the mod matrix. Some of these things exist, here or there, in software, but we've settled into a routine where all synthesizers are some variation on the old Minimoog architecture, albeit with upgrades and variations. That's not the end of the world, per se, as you could do a lot with basic subtractive architecture, but the thing that's really wonderful about electronics, and digital instruments in particular, is that ability to go off down some crazy side street of synthesis and add something new to what I was doing.

For my composed (as opposed to my improvised ambient) music, I've largely shifted over to Reason/Record, because it is really, really good—stable, gorgeous-sounding, and as deep as a tunnel to China. Though it makes me sad to look at my ten-foot stack of great old gear, I love that my patch cords don't buzz and crackle, my MIDI chains don't get fritzy, and a single instrument can screw up and mess up a ton of work. I sit there, working out a piece, and save it all as a single file that I can take to any other computer running Reason. That is brilliant, and a revelation. At the same time, though, there are sounds I made back in the early nineties that I can't reproduce, other than babying my aging machines along as best I can, because the architecture itself no longer exists.

Granted, I'm admittedly a little butthurt from investing myself in a chain of architectures that keep getting killed, architectures I picked because they had unique features that I wanted (the Electrix Repeater is the most recent one, and though the EHX 2880 is close, it's missing a couple key features I used in my performances). I think its the beginning of a real golden age for the kids who are getting started right now, when it's all really coming together. I'll be curious to see what happens with the Propellerheads and Ableton when they start getting into the iPad, which is where I'll probably end up (my fat fingers make it hard navigating on the iPod, alas). There's a lot of neat stuff on the way.

In the meantime, I think I need to make a lot of loops, drones, and atmospheres on my old stuff while I can, and squirrel away as many aiff files as I can.
posted by sonascope at 7:29 PM on August 11, 2010

I agree with you, but that in no way precludes the building of repertoire, the establishment of academic study, or the iterative refinement of new technology. Everything was novel and unproven at some point.

I agree with you, and I'm actively involved in all the things you mention. I still don't feel like the electronic medium is as expressively mature as the acoustic medium yet, though I'm willing to acknowledge that this may be more of a personal, subjective thing.

For me, electronics are better at "macro" -- so many timbres and textures are available to me at any given time, and that's very exciting. But acoustic instruments are still way better at "micro" for me -- e.g. if I want to shape a single melodic line or run in a subtle way. At least, I haven't come across anything that comes close.
posted by speicus at 7:41 PM on August 11, 2010

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