Mobile Musicians

“By pressing down a special key it plays a little melody” was electronica pioneers Kraftwerk’s vision for pocket calculators back in 1981, facing the proceeding foray of digital technology into our everyday lives. Although our daily routine, almost 30 years later, is downright soaked with digital technology, making music on the pocket calculator has hardly become a reality. On the other hand, real life once more surpasses the boldest fiction, as, instead of the pocket calculator, quite a different technological device aspires to become the modern equivalent of the ol’ squeeze box: the telephone.

More precisely: the iPhone. The days when the only thing that made cell phones stand out musically were annoying ring tones are over. For with its multi-touch screen and no least its processing power, the iPhone has been discovered by numerous developers as an adequate platform for a broad range of musical applications, which are now available through App Store.

Rock fans, who want to be on stage with their stars (virtually, at least) and are in for a quick musical moment of success may romp around with Guitar Hero III — a pared-down, mobile version of the by now legendary “instrumental karaoke” series that has been released on numerous computer game systems. Guitar enthusiasts with greater musical ambitions may download the Pocket Guitar by independent developer Shinya Kasatani: an apparently quite authentic guitar simulation with many options, which makes excellent use of the multi-touch screen. At a mere $0.99 US download fee, it’s an extremely affordable and above all space-saving alternative to the traditional travellers’ six-string that almost actually allows you to really rock.

Those wishing to enter some more synthetic aural spheres may find Bloom sparking their interest. Essentially, it’s a minimalistic, experimental synthesizer with an integrated loop sequencer, which was co-developed by none other than the father of ambient music, Brian Eno. The range of sounds and styles possible with this application is rather limited though. So it should probably be considered more of an interactive artwork instead.

What’s particularly neat — much like the real life original — is the iPhone Ocarina by Smule. Ocarinas (“ocarina” — Italian for “gosling”) are small bulbous wind instruments known, if at all, for their very soft and mellow sound and their frequent appearance in the The Legend of Zelda video game series. The knack of the iPhone version: Just like with a real wind instrument, one actually has to blow into the device, into the built-in microphone that is, in order to generate a tone, the pitch of which can then be controlled via the virtual finger-holes.


Macworld Expo 2009: Ge Wang from Smule demonstrates the iPhone Ocarina – David Pogue at the piano (simply click on the play button)

Now, we already have a guitar (plus bass guitar), a synth and even a wind instrument. But no proper band is complete without percussion. That’s where the Beat Maker by Intua comes into play — a drum-sampler and -sequencer including live performance functionality. Enough suitable instrument and melody samples provided, this application alone already allows to piece together full-fledged music tracks including melody- and bass-lines.

By and large though, we still just have a collection of separate instruments. In order to make music in any broader scope, we’d need multiple iPhone-performers. Or we’d just have to individually sample and then feed everything into Beat Maker or an external sequencer. Bit of a chore, really.

Once more, it’s the Japanese who’ve taken things to the next obvious level before us: Then and there, state-of-the-art synthesizer developers KORG packed together an enhanced emulation of their legendary analog synthesizer keyboard MS-10, including some digital effects like echo and flanger on top, plus a (also MS-10-based) drum machine, a slimmed-down but flexible pattern-/loop-sequencer and last but not least a software version of their Kaoss Pad and tied it all together to one fascinating little all-around power pack for mobile music production. Not for Apple’s iPhone though, but for another, not even that dissimilar since also touch-sensitive mobile device: the Nintendo DS. When running the KORG DS-10, it allows you to compose full-fledged, complex pieces with lush stereo synthesizer sound and then play them live while tweaking and editing them on the fly — in almost any imaginable electronica style, from wild EBM experiments or elegant trance to atmospheric new age.

Although the DS-10 has been available since mid 2008 and although the iPhone is vastly superior to the Nintendo DS in technical terms, so far, there’s nothing comparable on Apple’s flagship smartphone — despite the great musical commitment of iPhone application developers. While it’s true that Amidio’s iPhone app noise.io, which apparently houses a creditably powerful synthesizer, does follow a similar direction, it’s probably not without reason that so far, the creative user feedback completely pales in comparison to that towards the DS-10. Instead, complaints can be heard about an overly idiosyncratic nomenclature of the user interface and all too limited sequencing possibilities. Accordingly, one of the leading Amidio developers admitted that for creating the current official demo track — one of the ominously few demo tracks to begin with — the external software sequencer Cubase had been put to use. And that it was only the sound of the instruments that actually came from the noise.io.

An app that’s more promising and which made the leap from beta to final release just a few days ago is Randgrid. However, in this case, too, I’ve got the impression that the first demo tracks don’t measure up to the rhythmic versatility of the DS-10. Things mostly sound very jammy, repetitive and little through-composed, which could simply be due to the stylistic preferences of the composers concerned though. On the other hand, this limitation seems to affect the demo track on Randgrid’s website either — not a good omen, because such demonstrations usually are intended to also showcase the rhythmic flexibility of their respective music production software. Perhaps they made the mistake and, in contrast to the DS-10, left out the option of superordinate pattern arrangements in the sequencer — which would be a real pity. Well, we’ll see what else the iPhone community is capable of getting out of this. For now, the DS-10 remains the spearhead of mobile music production.

Oh… and BTW;-)

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