Musical Solar System

April 29, 2011

A new iPad app called Planetary, which drops on May 2, visualizes your entire music collection as a solar system: artists are stars, albums are planets, and tracks are moons. (a big thanks to FlowingData for the heads up here!) I wouldn’t be surprised if the idea came from Kepler’s idea of a music universalis, though this celestial take on music has never been expressed quite as literally before.

It’s sure to be a fun, immersive take on what has traditionally been a pretty unremarkable task: browsing your music. As with my recent posts about SoundPrism and iRig, the iPhone and iPad are starting to inspire musicians and developers to dream up completely new ways of visualizing and creating music. Traditional frameworks and systems (like the keyboard) are being questioned as new interfaces (like touchscreens) redefine what’s possible.

We’ll have to see if Planetary is actually a “better” way to explore music, but in the meantime I’ll definitely take “more stunning.”

Check out the official website:



April 7, 2011

“Music like you’ve never seen before.”

SoundPrism is a brand new app that completely reimagines musical notation and how sound is visualized. The imagination required to do this is impressive, but it’s the nuanced execution and beautiful design that make it noteworthy.

At its core, SoundPrism is simply a music sequencer that is beautiful and easy to use. But that completely undersells what’s going on here and the level of consideration that went into its creation. To get a feel for what this app is all about, check out this introductory video:

Here are three key takeaways I want to point out:

“SoundPrism is based on the theory that music is interesting if you create tension and release it.”

This quote from the clip is absolutely true, and the foundation of all Western music theory. Music is a beautiful, elaborate departure from the “home” note (the tonic of whatever key you’re in) through various cadences and chord progressions that lead to the chord furthest away from home: the dominant, or V chord, thus creating a faint sense of unease (which I think we’ve all felt when we’re away from home…). The journey back to the tonic note leads to a sigh of relief as the tension is released. Everyone from Chuck Berry to Bach created music with this principle in mind, if only subconsciously. Ever hear of 3-chord rock? The three chords are the I, IV, and V of a key. The progression from I to V and back again is part of the propulsive force that makes the music so dynamic and exciting (along with the rhythm, of course). So while Beethoven’s journey through the 5th Symphony is undeniably epic and complex, blues is simply a distillation of the same tension-and-release principle, boiled down to the most essential chords while keeping the music interesting.

What makes SoundPrism so great is that its creators made a point not just to make the app easy to use, but to make the manipulation of tension and release easy to control. Why? Because it’s an essential part of making interesting pieces of music. It’s a fact that, to my knowledge, has never before been acknowledged by creators of musical software.

You don’t change keys, you change colors.

It’s a synaesthetic‘s dream. When you scroll up on the interface the hue shifts like the Northern Lights. There is no mention of being in F-sharp or B-flat, but rather in “green” or “purple.” I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the word “tone” is used by both visual artists and musicians to refer to roughly the same concept.

Major and minor modalities are treated independent of key.

Usually one will refer to the mode and the key at the same time. For example, “This song is in D major,” or, “We’ll be transposing this piece into G-minor.” But in SoundPrism you interact with modes in the same way you interact with notes, which is a massively different way of conceptualizing music-making. The odd-numbered horizontal lines are slightly brighter, and gestures along those lines will result in notes in the major mode. The even-numbered horizontal lines are slightly darker and correspond to the minor mode. The SoundPrism creators refer to these modes as “happy” and “sad” respectively, which isn’t a new comparison (this is how most musicians first learn the difference) but somehow seems more appropriate here.

This app, especially in its Pro version with upcoming Core MIDI support, shows a lot of promise for film scoring, demo production, and ambient soundscape creation. But what may be more exciting is what it could bring to the non-musician community, as it strips away some of the layers of technical skill and knowledge required to compose music in the first place.

The future definitely looks bright… and colorful.


November 15, 2010

Tristan Perich, a New York composer of experimental music, wanted to see how small he could make big philharmonic pieces.

This Wired piece details 1-Bit Symphony, a 40-minute symphonic work on a single, tiny microchip. While technically not 1-bit in size (the work is actually 8 KB), it is an impressively small creation in an age of miniature ubiquity. (You can order 1-Bit Symphony here, which includes a small battery and is shipped in a CD jewel case.)

It’s not the file-size or dimensions that are particularly notable (the iPod Nano, for instance, can probably boast more extraordinary specs), but rather the minimalist nature of the setup. This is a bare-bones recording, and underscores how little one needs these days to make music. It’s an extreme example, but hopefully it will inspire musicians to balk at costly setups and begin working within limitations they can afford, master, and use easily.

The Amplitube iRig is a perfect example of one way for musicians to exploit current technology. The iRig is simply an interface: You plug your guitar into one end, your iPhone/iPad into the other, and your headphones into a third input. Just download the Amplitube app, load up a few effects and pedals, and you have a full-fledged recording setup.

Add to this the Sonoma Four Track iPhone app, and you have a multi-track mini studio on you at all times

The value in these tools is in their accessibility and ease-of-use, but are also valuable for the creative process. The flood of gadgets available to a musician (pedals, amps, mixers, microphones, cables, compressors…) can obscure the fact that the name of the game is music. You don’t need very much to create music, and now you don’t need much to record it either. The only real sacrifice with using these “iTools” is fidelity, but this is a non-issue when recording demos, ideas, piecing together songs, or practicing.

And the fact is, if you can’t create great music using these tools then you aren’t ready for a full-fledged studio setup anyway. The power of a recording lies in the heart and soul of the musician, lyrical craft, and an inspired placement of notes, not the sample rate of the resulting file.

Windows 98 Remix

October 10, 2010

Further muddying the waters between sound and music:

From The Basement

December 21, 2009

Here are some fresh, live acts From The Basement.

This site is a great example of what happens when you synergize design and performance. It’s not enough to have a website full of exclusive clips of great artists. Here are some reasons From The Basement engages the viewer, besides the quality performances:

  • The link to each performance is a screenshot of said performance, and the photo is LARGE. Large photos are inviting and compelling, and the fact that it’s a screenshot gives the site an honest, transparent quality.
  • The look and feel of each screenshot (and, therefore, each performance) is consistent. This is not a collection of random performances at different venues. Each act performs in the same space, giving the whole site cohesion.
  • There are not a lot of words. Actions and visuals  speak louder. The site is as immediate and up-front as a live performance.
  • The artist selections were clearly governed by taste and preference, not charts and numbers. I find it appealing that the selection of artists is not Top 40, and not strictly independent, but a carefully chosen hybrid of the two. This site is not trying to please the masses, they are trying to please themselves.

There is an inherent sense of quality in the choices made on this website. Content is not always king. The way in which you deliver content matters.

Tracks on a Map

November 8, 2009

Tracks_on_a_Map is a new interface for interacting with music from around the world. It’s definitely worth a quick go-round to get a feel for the timbres and rhythms that make up the global sonic landscape right now.

For more on the soundscape concept and defining locales by their sounds, check out my related post, “Travelsong

On i

August 29, 2009


There is little doubt that Apple is not just a company, it’s a zeitgeist. Apple products inspire brand loyalty that rivals Harley-Davidson’s (Exhibit A), with a reputation centered on quality and innovation.

But there’s something more insidious going on, and it has nothing to do with Apple Fanboys: Apple has taken our identities. Not literally of course, but it has taken our own identifier, “I.” For those interested in the philosophical implications of the self and what it means to be conscious and self-aware, “I” holds great importance. 18th century philosopher David Hume famously explored the concept of the self over time, and the book Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid is a Pulitzer Prize-winning 800-page tome centered around defining the Self as a “strange loop,” and explores this concept through a wide range of analogies and examples. These are just two of hundreds of works based on “I”.

But what of “i”?

Apple’s iPod has relegated the proper noun “I” to the ranks of standard noun, and instead gives Pod the distinction. The Pod is the Thing, not us. The iMac, the iPhone… iWork, iLife… What happens when we start to use the lower-case “i” to refer to ourselves?:

i think, therefore i am not.

i don’t think this was an intentional move by Apple, but simply an unintended consequence. My feeling is that they used “i” because it looks like an upside-down exclamation point—a purely aesthetic choice. But perhaps they are playing with the use of i to represent imaginary numbers in mathematics, and used this to embed the concept of “imagination.” Or maybe “innovation” is the suggestion. But the connection between the imaginary and the self is a dark philosophical notion, one that we are all familiar with after having watched The Matrix.

At the end of the day the concept works brilliantly from a marketing perspective. To get someone to fall in line and do your bidding, you must first break the will. You must destroy your subject’s sense of importance and worth. “I am nothing.” Or, rather:

iThink, therefore iBuy.