Mobile music apps

Two apps that allow arranging or mixing of pre-existing musical elements leads to a discussion of originality and composition. Only in the Escape Pod can you connect dots like this!



Hello and welcome back to the Mpomy Escape Pod podcast. My name is Michael Pomerantz and I am your host. Thanks so much to everyone who has been listening and giving feedback. Keep that coming, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it.

Today on the Escape Pod, I want to talk about some tools that I’m using for making music at home. I guess this is really more of a technology spiel, but it also relates to workflow and creativity, which are both issues that transcend technology. The overarching theme is finding the technology that fits with my preferred approach to making music. This is a tough area for technology, and I’ll explain. If you think back to the advent of the iPhone, none of us had ever used that particular type of device before because it didn’t exist. Oh sure, we can say we had used a camera and a computer, but the thing that makes the iPhone so spectacular is that we had never used that touch screen before. But the learning curve was easy enough to make up for the lack of familiarity. That’s a big part of why it caused such a revolution. Completely different PLUS totally easy EQUALS blockbuster.

But music making is something that’s been going on for millennia. And technology SHOULD make that easier, clearing a path (via disruption!) to remove friction and lubricate the creative process. But here’s the problem. There are a lot of different ways to make music. Which means that technology can embrace those legacy/analog procedures and approximate them as best as possible.

On the other hand, technology can introduce completely new interfaces and procedures (particularly this that use the touch screen) that will hopefully take us to the same destination of musical creation. In other words, a different path that would never have been available without the new tech.

And then there are approaches which try to make new modalities and traditional procedures happen in the same workspace. Basically a combination approach.

There are numerous apps that all provide some different combination of these approaches. Some are more limited than others, while some have all the tools to produce a professional sounding album – ON YOUR PHONE. And while that tech has now existed for a good little while, it seems more of a challenge or lark, rather than a way that albums will be made in the future. The point is that the tech is out there, but the interface – the way we go about the exercise of making music, is something with which creators are constantly tinkering. There is no consensus way of making music on mobile devices, even those with larger screens, like tablets.

So, with this background, I want to look briefly at two mobile apps for making music. They are called Launchpad and Incredibox. I think they are both great and offer intuitive interfaces that allow for a lot of creativity with minimal effort.

But note! Both of these apps take away the possibility of playing wrong notes. Miles Davis famously said there are no wrong notes, but that’s not really true – he was just better at finding the right notes than maybe anyone else in history. For the rest of us, it sounds better when we hit the right notes.

This is the part where we talk about laziness. We live in an era where we expect instant gratification. Watch whatever you want whenever you want, and you don’t even have to leave your house. Food from anywhere is delivered directly to your door. The idea that we almost always maximize “utility” simply by increasing “convenience” is a bit incongruous. If something is really awesome, I mean it really kicks ass, then what I would expect is that there is a great deal of EFFORT involved. In other words, it is not convenient to create works of genius.

And there is a second layer that is perhaps even more important. The utility=convenience contrivance is, effectively, a bait and switch. For so many years, probably over a decade now, bait and switch has been the order of the day. Just take the example of Google – you get free mail, free word processing app, free everything! Except we now know it wasn’t free. The advent of surveillance capitalism means that you can pay for Gmail, and Google docs and every other “convenient” thing – you can pay without knowing you are paying. We would never tolerate that anywhere else. I’m sure that even billionaires would not consent to start consuming a product without having ANY IDEA what such consumption was costing them.

Alright, that’s enough of that digression. The subterfuge with these two apps I’m about to talk about here is not nearly as sinister as anything Facebook or YouTube have done. It’s not crime, but rather a compromise. To evaluate that compromise, we need to grapple with the philosophical problem of defining an “original” work. These two apps present you with rhythms and melodies that can easily be layered and combined in a very large number of possibilities. So the app user becomes an arranger of sorts, but are the results truly classifiable as “original compositions?”

Fortunately, we don’t have to worry about the practical implications of this question. What I mean is there is no legal impediment (in the U.S. anyway) in passing off these recombined versions of someone else’s work as your own if you are the one manipulating the app. All the samples and sequences are royalty free meaning that users can treat the raw content as if it were in the public domain. Obviously, the apps themselves are subject to copyright, but the new work you pump out is your own. The artists who originally concocted this raw material take their cut through in-app purchases or the purchase of the app itself. But these elements (which make up what I would describe as a GIGANTIC portion of the ensuing arrangement’s “originality”) are just like the drum samples that I use in Ableton Live. In other words – “take these parts and build YOUR original work.”

So, these two apps are interesting and worthy of your attention, but before I get to them, I do want to talk about my experience with Ableton Live so far. I always wanted to be a superstar DJ and when I first heard Squarepusher back in 1997, I realized that I needed to get hip with making music on a computer. Over the years I fooled around with GarageBand and a bootlegged copy of its big brother, Logic. It all worked fine for the little things I was doing, but when the pandemic arrived, I knew I wanted to use something that was not bootleg software and could give me a pro-level tool that wouldn’t come with limitations. I picked Ableton because it seemed like something Squarepusher would use if he were coming up today.

My experience with Ableton Live has been great, so far. I’ve learned the different work flow that goes with Live’s different-looking workspace. I can record my own building blocks and easily add limitless samples and midi tracks to go along with my guitar, bass and keyboard playing.

Here’s the key, tho. I don’t play drums. I believe that I have a rhythm impairment that prevents me from keeping time or staying with a metronome. It is embarrassing. I start messing around on touch pads to play finger drums and the result is disastrous. Same with real drums. There is a feature in Live and most other drum machines and software which attempts to correct this issue – called quantize, but I can’t bring myself to use it. I’m mortified. It would be like using auto-tune. IDK – maybe I should try the quantize thing.

Anyway, the point is that I am VERY dependent on pre-existing musical elements to compose or create in Live. This is true for original music and covers. It is also true for improvisation in Live, but that is a different topic we can get into another time. The big takeaway for this discussion is just that messing with Ableton Live over the past year has left me feeling much better about making music from pre-existing parts.

So, now let’s talk about that same concept (making music from pre-existing elements) and how it is carried out by these two very different, but very terrific apps.

Quick background, I’m using these on an iPhone 10s, but the apps will both work on any phone from the last couple years. Also, the first app I’m going to highlight, the uninspiringly titled “Launchpad’ is for iOS only, won’t work on Android. The other app, which is called “Incredibox” is available on iOS, Android, and even in native apps for Microsoft and Apple computers. Launchpad is free but comes with a pretty limited array of sounds to combine. After messing with the interface for a pretty short time I realized I liked it and went right to the in-app shop for a couple $3 sounds packs. Incredibox, on the other hand, is a one-time purchase for $4, and the dev team has a solid track record of updates, all of which are included so far.

OK – let’s start with Launchpad. The name pretty much describes what you get. Your touch screen becomes a six-by-six grid with various loops triggered by touching the labeled grid spaces. In addition to the name of the loop, the grid spaces are also color-coded to help you remember what is a rhythm loop, what’s a melody and what is a bass line. You can only trigger one item per column at a time, and choosing a loop from a where another loop is already playing will stop the current loop and put in the new loop. In other words, no layering of loops that are in the same column. Also, all of this happens on the beat, making it harder to mess up.

Another shortcut that Launchpad gives you is the relation of samples and loops across a row. They all go together. This means you can get rhythm, bass, keys and other sounds that were all meant to go together by triggering everything in the same row. The real fun, obviously, comes when you experiment in a given grid with things that are in the same key and time signature, but are not as closely related as what you find in a single row. As you can tell, there are a lot of combinations, and the ability to changes things dynamically, in real time (without fucking up the rhythm!!), means that this is not only a tool for “composing,” but also a tool for “performing.” This makes Launchpad a good choice for those of us who like to do those two things at the same time.

Let me just quickly say a couple more things about Launchpad. It has two extra rows that give you touch control over volume for each column, as well as, effects for delay and filter. There is some deep editing of pads and effects, but I haven’t wanted to mess around with any of that. I much prefer the intuitive nature of just being able to pick the thing up spontaneously, load in a sound pack, and start messing around and see what I can come up with. When something sounds good enough to keep, there is a handy recording feature, which then shares an mp3 over your wifi.

Here is some more of what I’ve done just messing around with this Launchpad.

Incredibox is a very similar affair in that you layer stuff that all COULD go together in a way that suits you. Instead of a sound pack, you start by picking a “version,” which is really the same thing. The first difference I want to note is that Incredibox feels very much like a collaboration with a musical artist. In other words, no matter how you mix stuff up, it still has the hallmark and originality of the musicians who made the app. This means less originality, but it also means a greater personality than the more generic sounding building blocks you get with Launchpad.

The Incredibox interface, which I will talk about in a moment, is cool and different, but let’s be clear – this app is about SOUND. As of now, there are eight sound packs or Versions, with names like “Alpha,” “The Love,” “Brazil,” and “Dystopia.” The samples that you get with each Version follow the general vibe suggested by that Version’s title. As with Launchpad, everything goes together in terms of key and rhythm but there is still a lot of variation depending on what elements you choose to combine.

As we talk about the interface, the consistent personality and style of the dev team and the app itself is reinforced. What is on your screen after you pick your version? A cartoon of seven shirtless dudes who are identical except for their slightly varying height, and twenty sounds that you can drag to one of the characters meant to clothe him and get him singing. It makes perfect sense that animation shows singing, because all of the samples were made by beatboxing – hence the name of the app. And the fact that all identical characters are identical drives home that this is a collaboration between you and the seven brunette boys with their varying costumes.

There is a game aspect that goes with Incredibox, but upon my initial examination, it appears to have been an afterthought. If you put together the “right” combination of loops in a given Version, you can unlock a funky break with unique animation. While it is very exciting to look at something different from my seven beatboxing boys, there is no way to know what the right “combination” is. You just run through the fairly limited number of combinations until you light up all the clues and then, bang! You get your animation.

As with Launchpad, Inredibox lets you record and share you “mix” which is a very good way to describe the ensuing work. You can download an mp3, but there is also a sharing platform at Incredibox dot com which acts almost like a social network for the app’s users. You can hear and share your mixes from this platform and also check out the work of others using the app. I wonder how long it would take to find two mixes by completely different people that are identical.

And, frankly, I’m OK with that. The advent of online music completely changes the relationship with artist and audience. Creating music with the audience is something that Peter Gabriel was talking about almost twenty years ago. It changes the economics and the idea of what constitutes the artist’s finished work. I am so used to a particular product being the end point of a discreet amount of music creativity. What I mean is that you make a song, and that’s the outcome. With Incredibox, that paradigm is disrupted. While is there is no way to make music that DOESN’T sound like it was made with the app, the musicians and devs who made the app don’t get the same satisfaction of their being a FINAL mix. Their music remains in a state of flux. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it takes some getting used to.

Launchpad allows for a lot more anonymity. The creative people who make the loops really fade into the background and you might have a hard time, from just listening, knowing how the music came to your ears. That’s not the case with Incredibox. Here are two mixes I created from different Versions on the same app. To my ear, the connection is plainly audible.

The first one is from the Brasil Version.

This next one is from the Dystopia Version, which was just released.

So, that will it for today’s Escape Pod. Thank you again to everyone who is listening, and please tell your friends. More good stuff coming in the pipeline, so make sure you are subscribed. Also, check out the YouTube channel by searching for MPOMY ESCAPE POD on YouTube. You can tweet me @MPOMY. We will continue to celebrate life with music and more here at the MPOMY ESCAPE POD podcast. Thanks again for listening and see you next time.

The MPOMY ESCAPE POD podcast is an MPOMY Production and is written, produced and edited by Michael Pomerantz.