Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Simplicity is Bliss

There's little question that mobile is the next dominant platform for music production. The success of Apple's App Store, and the burgeoning market in applications for Google's Android platform, are pointing to the future of electronic music; it'll be increasingly portable, and increasingly more powerful for such a small size. For the time being, however, mobile devices are still far less powerful and, in size of screen alone, less versatile than their PC-based cousins. The best applications for mobile music making accept these limitations, and work with them, even turning them into advantages. To start the conversation, I'll look at nanoloop, originally a cartridge for the Nintendo Game Boy (and later Game Boy advance) developed by Oliver Wittchow, and recently ported to the iPhone. Just as Wittchow pioneered the 8Bit music scene by approaching the original nanoloop as a tool custom-made for the limitations and quirks of the Game Boy, so too has he designed the synthesis and sampling capabilities of the iPhone version; in other words, this is no 8Bit emulator. It's specifically an iDevice instrument.

Lovely, those rows of numbers!

See those rows of numbers? That's the sequencer in nanoloop, and it is a beauty to behold (and to work with). It's a painstakingly simple model - each channel of up to six sounds can be sequenced linearly (or in a loop) from up to 16 four-beat loops per channel. There's no flash, no soundwave display of the loop, but this tracker-lite approach works perfectly for a mobile platform. It'd be a limitation on a PC, but on the iPhone, it's conducive to immediate creativity, which is really a make-or-break point for so many apps. Nanoloop further eschews any traditional effects, going instead with its own quirky system of envelopes, filters, and LFOs (one per synthesizer). As for the sampler, it's (unsurprisingly) simple yet very usable, and conducive to on-the-spot recording and sequencing.

nanoloop's synthesizer

When I was in college, one of my professor's instructed the class to "never drape the patch cables around your neck," a quote which he attributed to Brian Eno. I've always taken this to mean that you must never let the process override the results (unless, of course, that is one's conscious creative decision, which is another matter entirely). I can sympathize with such a neck-draped situation, as I run into it often when making electronic music. How easy is it to work on sculpting a sound or sample for hours, and end up with an overprocessed, flat mess? While I do certainly appreciate the impressive arsenal of synthesis and effect tools available in an app like Amidio's moster synth, the Pro, it can be far too easy to get lost in a black hole of endless tweaking and still end up with an ultimately unsatisfying sound. Nanoloop's limitations and basic interface encourage immediacy. There's only so much to be done with each synthesizer, which forces the musician to think outside of the box. Already, I've had a great time turning simple sequences into odd, noisy drones using the BPM control, which has a lower limit of 1 and no upper limit. Here, then is a track composed and sequenced entirely in nanoloop for iPhone (some dynamics and light multiband reverb done in Ableton Live):

Nanoloop is far from the only simple-yet-brilliant kid on the block, however. The Strange Agency produce similarly well-designed little apps - in the $1-3 range, each one is a small investment with big sonic rewards, through simple adjustments. Soundscope Space is a monophonic synth with a rich analog distortion that can easily be reduced to digital grit. The controls behind Space are simple but very unique, including a x/y volume/pitch dual LFO (dubbed the "kuzmoscilator" and responsive to the speed with which it is flicked), and the ability to draw out any wave form (with selectable starting blocks of sine, square, and sawtooth). Sample-chopper Slice and tactile granular synthesis display Curtis are two more excellent (and cheap) examples of The Strange Agency's impecable design and utility.

Soundscope Space

Inevitably, any viable platform for electronic music production needs a good sampler. Many applications have arrived feature packed for these purposes - Beatmaker, iSample, Looptastic Producer - and they're all worthwhile, with their own unique draws. But I have to specially recognize Trapcode's ProLoop for its design and simple ingenuity in playing loops together. Like the simply laid out timbral controls in nanoloop and Space, each allowing for extreme possibilities, ProLoop's modular system between loops is its secret weapon.

ProLoop's main screen

In ProLoop, a minimalist interface for playing sampled loops, allows for up to 6 simultaneous loops to be played. Each loop has its own parameters for pitch (which can be optionally locked to a "master" loop), playing forwards/backwards, volume, granular freeze (stutter, which can be locked), and modulation. Each loop can be routed to any other loop as its modular source, enabling variable levels of phase, ring, and frequency modulation. This, of course, opens up a wide range of possibilities, particularly when combined with ProLoop's granular and pitch-shift controls.

Nanoloop, The Strange Agency apps, and ProLoop all conceal awesomely powerful features behind minimalist facades. It's always easy to get something that sounds good and encourages creativity in each app - yet it always takes dedication to get something that sounds great. Surely, that's the sign of a keeper in the app world? As mobile technology advances, it may soon be feasible to have something as complicated and processor-heavy as a PC virtual instruments or DAW available on the go. In the mean time, the best mobile music apps embrace limitation rather than fight the unwinnable battle against it, and come out as stronger, more focused (and, often cheaper) alternatives.

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