Four pros speak candidly about the dawn of “tablet music”
BY JASON SCOTT ALEXANDER
SURELY WE’VE all sat bemused through the viral hit YouTube video showing New York City indie band Atomic Tom, whose gear was supposedly stolen, take to the subway and put on an impromptu performance, using only instrument emulations running on each of the members’ iPhones. Publicity stunt or not, this virtual tapping of drums and strumming of guitars is proof of concept for all naysayers to witness.
The animated alt-rock-hip-hop collective Gorillaz took it a step further on their new release, The Fall (Parlophone), making extensive use of iPads to write and record the album while on tour during a 32-day stretch between Montreal and Vancouver. The fact that such a high-profile band chose to go that route is pretty impressive, but is the medium ready for prime time?
Inspiration’s Key As far as Dream Theater keyboardist virtuoso and die-hard synth junkie Jordan Rudess is concerned, the iPhone—and, by extension, the iPad—has allowed him to fulfill a longtime creative vision. “I’ve always been interested in putting together the world of audio and visuals,” he says. “It’s my goal to try and put those together as much as possible and make a musical instrument or a visual instrument that’s as enjoyable and informative as possible.”
Taking what he’d learned over the years playing the Continuum hardware controller developed by Dr. Lippold Haken, plus early inspiration from Russel Black’s Bebot singing robot app for the iPhone, Rudess enlisted the help of Kevin Chartier (developer of the 4D Synth) to begin work on his very own MorphWiz application.
Their design began with the concept of using the vertical grid as a tool for not only expressing pitch but also—at its most basic purpose—to express amplitude. “You’re able to put your hand down on any spot on the playing surface and know that, if you want it to, you’ll be absolutely intune to a diatonic pitch,” says Rudess. “And that’s fine, but what makes it really cool is that once you slide to another note, when your finger stops near a grid line or a pitch that’s marked, it has the ability to ‘round’ or auto-correct your pitch at the speed that you determine within the program.”
While the secondary goal was to make the interface unique, visuals were carefully designed to give the player real information about performance parameters. While you slide pitch, for example, rings beneath your fingertips morph through the colors of the rainbow. Once your finger stops, the ring will change to white, according to the speed of the pitchrounding. So, you have five fingers on the playing surface, and each finger’s moving, you can visually determine what’s going on with intonation.
“I’m so happy that a device came along, not only for me to see my vision through, but to allow people to experiment with musical concepts that they would have never had the chance to touch before,” says Rudess. “If I can give someone who’s never played music before an iPhone or an iPad and say, ‘check this out, just put your finger on this,’ and they can do something that sounds cool and inspires them, that sounds musical, there’s a lot of joy there. How can you say that’s not the greatest thing in the world?”
Anytime, Anywhere Portability and convenience are of course paramount to a gigging musician. Alex Skolnick, the stylistically diverse guitarist with heavy metal outfit Testament and, most recently, the Alex Skolnick Trio (a jazz group known for playing bebop renditions of classic rock and metal tunes), admits that these features originally sold him on the whole notion of tablet-music in the first place. Already accustomed to pocket headphone amps like the Zoom, Korg Pandora, and Tom Scholz Rockman back in the day, Skolnick—a self-proclaimed “iPhone geek”—found it a natural progression to join forces with Agile Partners (in affiliation with Peavey) and endorse their AmpKit guitar amp simulator app.
“Sometimes, when you’re backstage, you might leave your headphone amp on the bus, or vice versa. But you always have your phone on you,” he chuckles, adding that it was AmpKit, alone, that really made him an iPad user.
“You know, I didn’t really see the purpose of the iPad at first. I have my iPhone and Macbook Pro, and I just didn’t see the point of this third product that’s kind of in the middle. But, after using AmpKit, I really ‘got it,’” he says. “The graphics are better, yet it has the same kind of [iPhone] interplay with the touchscreen, which you don’t have on a laptop. Just to have that in a bigger package than your phone is great.”
While Skolnick mainly uses AmpKit for songwriting, warming up, and practicing, he admits that the technology’s not at the level yet where he can experiment with amp/mic combinations that directly translate to the studio with physical gear.
Touch OSC, with the Korg microKontrol
“But, that’s no fault of the product—I feel that way about pretty much any handheld amp product, or even a lot of the plug-ins. I haven’t really found one that replicates the sound that you can get with a real amp and a real mic. But, I wouldn’t be surprised if we get to that point. Compare it, though, to any other miniaturized rigs, and it’s one of the best out there.”
Could he ever see himself taking to the stage with just an iPad? “I mean, if it really got close, sure! I remember the dawn of Pro Tools, for instance, and thinking, ‘there’s no way this is ever going to replace 2-inch tape.’ But, I was completely wrong. Sure, analog is special, and if you’re a purist and you have a huge budget, somebody like a Lenny Kravitz, for example, then it’s great. But most records, even huge-budget records, aren’t made like that. When Metallica cuts a record, it’s done digitally, you know? So, okay, I was wrong about that. But, if we were to see something like that where this iPad technology competed, absolutely.”
Remote Possibilities It’s been a decidedly less of a sonic revelation for Joe Gore, a Bay Area producer/multiinstrumentalist (and former editor for Guitar Player) who’s recorded with the likes of Courtney Love, Aimee Mann, Carrie Underwood, Tracy Chapman, and The Velvet Underground’s John Cale, to name a few.
“I’m not yet at the point of using the iPad as a sound generator for much, except for fun. But, I’m using it as a tool to control the more mature sound generators in a computer. It’s really 100-percent there,” he says. “The most amazing hit-the-ball-out-of-the-park app that I’m working with so far is TouchOSC [by Hexler]. Especially since Apple, to their eternal credit, jumped on it really quickly and released a Logic upgrade [9.1.2] specifically designed to support that functionality.”
Essentially a programmable remote-control environment, TouchOSC is user-definable and can be customized to any hardware or software system that implements the Open Sound Control protocol. “It’s just spectacular,” says Gore. “The template included with the app is a brilliant piece of UI design. Not only does it, as you might expect, work really well at moving faders and things like that, but it has a very ingenious way of getting deep inside each channel and editing plug-ins directly from the iPad surface.”
Speaking about his previous experiences with hardware DAW control surfaces, Gore recalls that it was always more effort to access anything beyond basic levels adjustments, and it often took as much time to remember how to perform functions as it would have to just grab the mouse.
“But with TouchOSC on the iPad, it’s just so beautifully done,” he says. “Because the communication is two-way, you get meaningful text about everything. It also feels really good and the ergonomics are fantastic. And that’s just the provided template. With TouchOSC, you can build your own control surfaces, though I haven’t experimented with that yet. It’s kind of like MainStage, where you can drag virtual knobs and faders and size them; it’s just fabulous. A few minutes with that is just enough to convince you that the future (of mixing) is going to be some version of a touch interface.”
Turning the Tables Acclaimed New York City-based reggae-dub composer, producer, remixer, and multimedia artist Paul D. Miller, a.k.a. DJ Spooky, whose autonomous virtual DJ/mix app has already enjoyed 3.5 million downloads, credits the iPad as being a total game changer.
DJ Spooky’s iPad app has had 3.5 million downloads.
“My app lets me DJ pretty much in the same way that I would use turntables. I’ve been slowly getting rid of the turntables altogether—I know that sounds like sacrilege,” confides Miller. “But I use it all the time, every day. I’m in the studio now, for instance, in the middle of doing classical music, and I’m using Sibelius and Finale to notate material through a virtual piano app.” Miller also uses his iPad for eff ects, especially the Moog Filtatron app; remixing looped tracks with the Audio Palette app from Kent Jolly; and beat generation with apps such as DigiDrummer, iDrum, and Major Lazer.
He does see shortcomings with the iPad as a professional audio tool, though. “The interface, and being able to get things out of it is a drag. It’s a definite bottleneck. You have to do everything through the iTunes interface—importing, exporting. I mean, they’ve tweaked it and they’ve done all sorts of stuff , so that’s good to see. But, it’s just very ‘locked,’ and you have to figure it out a little more. You have to open up a Mac account like me.com or mac.com, and it’s just that extra step. It’s a very sticky architecture; it keeps pulling you further and further in, and it doesn’t talk to other things.”
For this reason, Miller generally records the output of the iPad rather than rendering and saving audio internally. Random slowdowns and/or crashes, he says, are other issues that plague the machine at the moment.
“I mean, even the New York Times app or friggin’ Martha Stewart app—there’s always quirky things that somehow bounce out and all of a sudden, the next thing you know, the software’s quit, right in the middle of something. So, it’s that kind of uncertainty in the middle of a concert that you don’t want to have. I’d like it to be as robust as the desktop Macs. But, because it’s so new and it’s had so much energy leveled at it so quickly, I think (developers) have just been throwing software into it without going through a lot of beta testing. In fact, the audience is the beta testing!” Miller laughs.
“The iPad has become this mega ecosystem very quickly, like really shocking. I had no idea it would move this fast.”