Monday, December 21, 2009

The Potential iPhone Musical Revolution

I've been following along some of the developments concerning iPhones and music. Not as in "the iPhone as a device to play of other people's music," but as in "the iPhone as a tool to create one's own music." This very much reinforces my idea that focusing too much on people as consumers of music and not enough on them as creators of and participants in music will prove to be shortsighted. Some of the consumer money and time that music business types and artists are counting on to sustain themselves via fan purchases may instead be directed to more user-generated content.

Here are a couple of quotes which illustrate how iPhone tools are opening up music creation to more people.
  • There’s something about an iPhone music app. For musicians, it’s like having an instrument in your pocket. For nonmusicians, it’s a way to coax sounds -- often programmed to stay on key no matter what note one actually plays -- out of what may be the only instrumentlike device they ever pick up.

    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. "Music Apps Blur the Gap Between You and Clapton," New York Times, 10/1/09.
  • Ge Wang, the assistant professor of music who leads [the Stanford Mobile Phone Orchestra] says the iPhone may be the first instrument — electronic or acoustic — that millions of people will carry in their pockets. “I can’t bring my guitar or my piano or my cello wherever I go, but I do have my iPhone at all times,” he said.

    Professor Wang said he would like to democratize the process of making music, so that anyone with a cellphone could become a musician. “Part of my philosophy is people are inherently creative,” he said. “It’s not just people who think of themselves as artists.” "From Pocket to Stage, Music in the Key of iPhone," New York Times, 12/5/09.
  • In this article Wang talks about how he has has used a sense of fun and portability, combined with marketing via YouTube and sharing via iPhone, to engage users.

    Now, to give you something of an overview of iPhone music creation applications, I've organized them into five categories:

    1. Applications that turn iPhones into instruments.
    The one cited most often is the Ocarina, which is the digital version of a simple wind instrument. It is made by Smule, a software company co-founded by Stanford professor Ge Wang.
    Said Wang, "We at Smule are really trying to bring this idea of unlocking creativity to as many people as possible."

    He thinks the Ocarina encourages amatures who might not otherwise pick up an instrument. "App turns iPhone into musical instrument," Public Radio International, 9/1/09.
    Here are two other articles on the application.
  • "Is That Ocarina Music Coming from Your iPhone?"
  • "Enthusiasts keep pushing Smule’s Ocarina iPhone app to higher numbers"

  • Smule
    (which just received an additional $8 million in VC funding) also offers other musical applications including I Am T-Pain, which allows you to Auto-Tune your own singing. Recently Apple named two of Smule's applications (I Am T-Pain and Leaf Trombone: World Stage) among its 10 Best iPhone Applications of 2009.

    Another company that makes a variety of instrument applications is MooCowMusic.

    And here's more:
    The universe of mobile guitar software can be split roughly into three categories: those that replace traditional guitar accessories like tuners and metronomes; practice apps that simulate a fretboard; and apps that contain chords, scales and tablature. There’s even dedicated hardware for attaching your phone to your guitar, but more on that later. "For Real Guitar Players, New Ways to Rock on a Phone," New York Times, 12/3/09.
  • "10 cool videos of the iPhone as a music instrument."
  • "10 Best Musical Instrument Apps for the iPhone for Under $1."

  • 2. Groups of people performing together using iPhones.
    More ambitious than playing music on an iPhone by yourself is doing it in a group.
    A group called iBand ( is using the iPhone and iPod Touch to write and perform music live. Their website currently has two songs available for download, “Vitality” and “Life Is Greater Than the Internet,” both made with instruments available in the App Store. "Music Made With iPhone Musical Instrument Apps," Art of the iPhone, 2/5/09.
    Here's another article about the band. "With Software and an iBand, There’s No Need for Roadies."

    Here's a video of the group The Mentalists covering MGMT's “Kids."

    And here's a video of song played by using a variety of different iPhone musical instrument applications and then spliced together using Final Cut Pro.

    More elaborate than these YouTube performances are orchestras being organized to advance the cause of mobile music applications. Here are sites for some of them.

  • Stanford iPhone Orchestra
  • Michigan Mobile Phone Ensemble
  • Helsinki MoPhO

  • 3. Looping and mixing applications.
    For some, iPhone becomes a mobile editing tool.
  • Plenty of programs over the years have promised the non-musically-inclined the magical ability to play music, but few deliver. Judging from the songs people are already uploading to MyZoozBeat, this app one really does let people from anywhere in the musical experience spectrum make 'beats,' as they call rhythm and melody loops these days, then sing, rap or talk on top of them — and, with this latest release, share the resulting recordings.

    With all of the sharing of other people’s music that goes on, it’s refreshing to see that this app encourages people to share their own creations — and puts such easy tools in their hands that they have a decent chance at making something worth listening to, if only by themselves and their friends and family. (If you make your recordings public, other MyZoozBeat users will be able to hear them too.) "Anyone, Really, Can Make and Share Music with ZoozMobile’s iPhone App," Wired, 4/22/09.
  • ... an iPhone application called ZOOZbeat, which helps anyone -- regardless of musical talent or lack thereof -- create songs by selecting instruments from a list and then waving his or her phone around.

    "You don't have to know anything. You go in there and click on it, and it's playing guitar chords," Sheridan said. "It's pretty neat, actually."

    A quick flick of the wrist produces a high note. A gentler movement belches out a lower tone. The app loops the sounds and lets users edit their tracks on the fly or afterwards. "The new musical instrument: Your phone," CNN, 10/28/09.
  • If you want to learn more about ZOOZBeat, go here.

    Another product is Bebot.
    The major advancement of the iPhone is the multi-touch screen, Rudess said. It opens up the possibility of sliding between notes and playing several at one time. It's more akin to a violin or cello than a keyboard or drum pad, the standard tools for electronic instruments and music software.

    This is the very feature that Bebot exploits to produce its unique, sliding sounds.

    "It makes the iPhone potentially one of the most versatile musical instruments, and it fits right in your pocket," said Russell Black, the Melbourne inventor of the product. "Musicians flex creative muscles on iPhones," San Francisco Chronicle, 9/8/09.
    Here's a overview of more mixing/looping applications: "Best Ways to Produce Music on an iPhone."

    4. Interactive music programs.
    Some music creators are providing applications which are more artistic experiences than they are music-making tools. Ambient pioneer Brian Eno and musician/software designer Peter Chilvers have created three which you can find here.

    5. Music-related games.
    There are also music games which, in many cases, function just like their non-game music-application equivalents.
  • ... I found “Beaterator” absolutely absorbing. Layering track upon track, building drumbeats and various instrumental sounds, crafting my own songs and hearing them played back — for someone who’s never done anything like this before, it was a thrilling and eye-opening experience. And though “Beaterator” can get pretty deep pretty quickly, it did a reasonably good job of holding my hand and walking me through the meticulous music-making process....

    And that’s the great thing about games like “Beaterator” ... They encourage us to think about music and, more importantly, to imagine ourselves at the center of it. They encourage us to do something we might not otherwise do — to try our hand at music making when perhaps making music seems like something only other people do. And as much as they may seem like trifling and sometimes silly little toys, they put modern music making within reach of us all.

    As Timbaland says, “I tried to give people a game but I also tried to give people who love music hope of making their own music.” "Gaming our way to musical genius," Citizen Gamer, 10/12/09.
  • The Muppets Animal Drummer [is] a rhythm game that lets you drum along with Animal, as well as a free play mode where you (and he) “rock out” to the songs in your iTunes music library." "Disney launches Muppets Animal Drummer for iPhone," Music Ally, 12/16/09.
    "10 Free Music Based Games for the iPhone & iPod Touch"

    Although iPhone musical applications haven't yet transformed music creation, I think they have the potential to do so. Just as other recent technologies (e.g., Pro Tools, Auto-Tune, YouTube) have encouraged more people to express themselves creatively, I think the fact that companies are developing applications specifically to enable people (often with little or no musical training) to make music easily and quickly will have a major impact. As technology reduces the barriers of entry to music, we have seen that the pool of people recording, uploading, and promoting their music has greatly expanded. And I think the economics of the music industry will continue to reflect these technological developments.

    Suzanne Lainson
    @slainson on Twitter

    UPDATE, 12/27/09
    Best of 2009: 10 iPhone/iPod Touch Music/Sound Apps

    UPDATE, 1/10/10
  • Apple has given Mix Me In a spot in the latest New & Noteworthy section of its App Store. The application enables users to mix existing songs into their own versions. So, if they want to hear, say, a rock song as an acoustic ballad, then Mix It In does the business.

    The app, from Fried Green Apps, also allows consumers to mix themselves into tracks, adding vocals, guitar riffs, drums, or whatever takes their fancy. "Adding to mix tech to the tune,", 1/8/10.
  • VoiceBand transforms your voice in real time into almost a dozen instruments. You can lay down tracks, layer new performances one at a time, and build up an audio performance that you can then e-mail to yourself or friends. "VoiceBand: Personal music artistry gone wild," TUAW, 1/8/10.
  • UPDATE, 1/18/10
    Sprite has teamed with Zooz Mobile Inc., developers of a mobile music studio application, to launch Zoozbeat Sprite, the first iPhone application to be offered through Sprite’s ongoing Under the Cap promotion....

    Zoozbeat Sprite transforms iPhones into mobile music studios, letting users create their own tracks with downloadable beats and samples from music producers and artists such as Dallas Austin.

    Zoozbeat Sprite works by shaking, tilting or tapping the iPhone screen to create and combine rhythmic and melodic tracks that can be uploaded to the Web for listening and sharing in mp3 format with friends.

    Users can unlock additional beats within the application by twisting the cap off any Sprite or Sprite Zero bottle and texting in the keyword ZOOZ followed by the code under the cap.

    Sprite will then provide consumers with a Zoozbeat Sprite code that can use be used to unlock more beats. "Coca-Cola: Mobile integral to 360-degree marketing strategy," Mobile Marketer, 12/24/09.
    UPDATE, 3/4/10
    Here's a blog that is all about mobile music making: Palm Sounds.
    You'll find info on many applications.

    UPDATE, 3/19/10
    "SXSW: LaDiDa iPhone App Lets Anyone With a Voice Make Music in Seconds"

    1. Hi Suzanne,

      another interesting blog by you.

      I guess your definition of "music" and mine are not the same. And, even if the same, it is one thing to create music, it is another to create something original and good that appeals to others.

      I do have an iPhone and I do record music on it .... but not using any app that generates tones. Instead I use the "Record" function to literally capture ideas from my acoustic guitar!

      The iPhone being used to create music? The iPhone is a toy when it comes to that. The key to determining if it has any potential for a musical revloution is not when new apps are introduced and people purchase them, rather it's whether or not they are still using them a year down the road. Novelty factor is key and I'm sure many "musicians" will soon get bored of the loops and limited capabilities/sounds of these apps., just as I am with my Reason soundbank and my ProTools soundbank and .... you get the idea.

      I do agree it's the usability factor that has allowed people with little or no musical training to make music easily & quickly. ProTools prior to v8 was not User friendly.

      Has the presence of new, affordable technologies resulted in more people being able to express themselves creatively? No doubt, but to what purpose??

    2. What I have been talking about is more about making the average person "feel" creative rather than turning everyone into great songwriters and players.

      The most successful artists of the future may be the ones who draw more people in as participants rather than just as passive listeners and fans.

      Karaoke, for example, doesn't really require much skill other than the willingness to stand up and sing in front of others. But it's popular enough that bars have sometimes dropped live music to offer it.

      So I am trying to get everyone who is currently involved with music to contemplate a world where we have a lot more people making music and perhaps a lot fewer people buying musical items and experiences that don't personally involve them.

      Music used to be about sitting at a symphony. Now it can involve remixing songs. Next it might be about pulling out your iPhone and playing what you put together on a bus ride.

    3. Sadly, Suzanne, you might very well be right. There isn't much to contemplate about it, however. Such a trend will truly spell the end of the Greenland ice-shippers.

      My only consolation is that there will always be a group of people who are passionate enough about music to tell the difference. That is, of course, unless all music education in school switches to using iPhone apps (as I've read has already been pioneered).


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