Cited: New York Times
For both musicians and the melodically challenged, the iPhone music app. If you know how to play a real instrument, it functions as a pocket-sized version for impromptu jamming. If you can’t pick a string to save your life, you can still pluck out a song on the app- it’s even programmed to stay on key, if that’s what you’re into.
A main goal for many of these apps’ developers is to introduce nonmusical people to music, and musical people to different kinds of music. And when taken less as a serious instrument and more as a sampler for the wide world of music, these devices are wildly successful.
For those dying to shred, however, they leave something to be desired.
The majority of apps in this category try to cram a fully functioning instrument into an interface that, while touch-sensitive, is still only three inches wide. It’s about the same width as a guitar neck, so six strings fit reasonably well. Still, only a few frets can be covered at once, and even the simple acts of plucking a string and forming chords take a significant degree of finger wrangling.
Similarly, while many apps offer recording features, synching up separate apps without external recording software is difficult, unless you spend a lot of time behind a mixing console.
So the essential question becomes, are music apps real tools for artistic expression, or are they in the same league as, say, Bejeweled or other time-killing games?
“When it all comes down to it, these are all games, pretty much,” said Turner Kirk, community marketing manager for Smule, whose Ocarina is one of the simplest yet most inventive musical apps on the market. “We’d like to think of them as expressive musical instruments, even though we might be limited by hardware. But really, it’s like a toy.”
Ocarina proves that simplicity works in this environment. An actual ocarina — a simple wind instrument, frequently found with only four holes — is among the simplest music makers, and its virtual version is perfect for the iPhone interface. One has only to blow into the device’s microphone to control the instrument — almost identically to the way one would an actual ocarina.
Because it’s an iPhone, of course, users can take the experience to different levels, with the ability to change pitch, upload their recordings and span the globe to listen to others’ tunes. An online songbook lets even a beginner ocarinist play Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.”
Other simple apps that have been successful include Normalware’s Bebot, where one can make a tuxedoed cartoon robot sing electronic notes by dragging a finger across the screen. Tones and settings are customizable; one option places strings across the interface. It’s always perfectly in tune and is incredibly diverting. “Because apps like this handle the difficult part of making music — producing a good sound and playing the right notes — they free the user for the fun part of the process: getting expressive,” said David Battino, co-author of “The Art of Digital Music.”
Even real musicians use Bebot; a recent San Francisco Chronicle article on musical applications led with Dream Theater’s keyboardist, Jordan Rudess, playing it on the iPhone during a performance in San Jose, Calif.
Sheer simplicity, however, isn’t the only route to success. Moocow Music, which offers apps for bass, guitar, piano and organ, suggests on its Web site that its creations can be used “as a ‘musical notepad’ for working out riffs to play back in the studio on a real (instrument).” This is true. It’s also a tacit admission that the apps are not meant to replace real instruments.
Still, the care that goes into these apps’ creation is obvious. Rather than simply offering one sound per note, Moocow has loaded multiple guitar and bass samples for each fret and string, which are played randomly when that note is struck. Because real guitar strings are plucked or strummed slightly differently each time, this lends a subtle air of authenticity to the sound.
Several guitar apps feature preloaded scales, chord forms and tablature features for those looking to work out ideas. They make for terrific notation tools for pros and theory tools for novices. But as for actual instrumentality, well, there aren’t many people who say an iPhone feels better in the hand than a guitar. Or a drumstick. Or a cowbell.
And this is where it gets back to being like a video game. Many musical apps offer the ability to record a track, then add layers on top of it. Doing this between disparate apps is impossible without external recording software, but a multi-instrumental app like Moocow’s Band gives novices the opportunity to record and edit tracks with drums, bass and guitar, and make sure it all sounds pretty good (even if one doesn’t know how to play a lick of music). It’s as much a game as Guitar Hero, only instead of trying to keep up with prerecorded music, the goal is to make music of one’s own.
If there’s gray area, it’s with the synth mixing and sound creation programs. The BeatMaker from Intua, for example, combines drum machines, samplers and sequencers. It allows users to layer tracks, then loop them as one would in a full-fledged studio. It’s a powerful application (and, at $19.99, one of the most expensive musical apps on the market), but it’s all too easy for a novice to become lost in its features within moments of loading it up.
For companies like Sound Trends, whose Looptastic series allows for the creation of multilayered beats via mixing and matching of audio samples, there’s little pretense of being a studio replacement.
“We wanted to capture something that’s in the moment and fun,” said Sound Trends’ president, Aaron Higgins. “There are a few apps out there that are intimidating and lack the fun. You can play around with them, but once you open up the control panel it’s like opening the hood of a car. We made a conscious decision that that wasn’t the direction we wanted to go.”
Reasons for that decision are plentiful, but one stands above the others: the casual novice market is a whole lot bigger than the hard-core musician one. The user who would just as soon loop a few beats together as blow up a virtual Russian army while taking the train to work is key to Mr. Higgins’s reasoning.
Even when it comes to the professional music makers, this iPhone app is a godsend. How many hours of idle strumming goes into each gut-wrenching song? Instead of cheapening the guitar experience, this app has the potential to make inspiration all the more accessible- by making it mobile and consistently available. And, I hear it can make phone calls, too.
My Take: I once go-fered a music producer, who told me that pretty soon, all an artist would have to do is to sing a scale and he would mix it into a stellar performance. I’m fairly sure that in the future, they won’t even have to sing a scale.
So, this iPhone app that stays in key- to me it’s like a drum machine that doesn’t lose rhythm. If you’re that dedicated, why not take the time to legitimately learn how to play your chosen instrument?
Not that I’m an absolute hater, either. When my brilliant friend showed up at my door with her iTouch version of a guitar, I was over the moon. Now, I could insist that she play for me without making her carry her guitar and amp all over creation.
In the end, this app has the same potential as a video camera. Yes, the means of production are far more accessible, so anyone can produce something of passable quality. Still, there will never be a replacement for inspiration, skill, and dedication.
Until there’s an app for that, too.
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