The iPhone has become an almost absurdly-popular platform for music apps this year, even given more capable, more plentiful PCs. But to those who don’t yet “get” the appeal, talk to a mobile music addict: having the ability to be creatively musically in corners of time that would otherwise go unused, like a cramped bus ride, can be a beautiful thing. (Now, you start talking about taking away my PC/Mac experience, and I will start screaming in agony – but that’s a topic for a separate post.) The question is, what form should that app take? Today, I’ve got an iPhone round-up going as I clear out my news inbox, but that thread lies beneath all the stories…

I’m working on putting together a collection of truly productive, non-gimmicky/non-toy music apps now that the platform is maturing. But two apps released this week I think deserve special mention, and mention together – partly because of the different angle they take.

They’re both essentially handheld grooveboxes. They’re both relatively powerful, bringing desktop-style production to the platform. They’re both good options, and at this price, you might go buy both. But as I go off to test these two apps, I’m already struck by the contrast between the two.

One is the kind of app that we’re seeing a whole lot of on the iPhone, just as we once saw it in me-too apps on desktop computers. It assumes that the way to reach more people is to give them a whole bunch of canned loops that already sound like the styles they might want to play, and assume they’ll be pretty limited in their ability to do much with those loops.

The other of the two apps eschews the obligatory audio loops for real synthesis, and strips out the usual “let’s try to look like hardware” interface for something a lot more minimal and (I think) touch device friendly. That’s a design lesson that might well be applied beyond the iPhone, too.

First, consider the looped audio approach.

From IK Multimedia, GrooveMaker is a real-time app for manipulating audio loops. Interestingly, IK brought it over from the Mac/PC software. There are some powerful features, real-time control over audio, WiFi upload to your computer. It’s all well and good, so far.

The problem is that GrooveMaker is yet another app that assumes the only way people can have fun is to start with a bunch of canned loops and genres. GrooveMaker comes with hundreds of loops in house, hip-hop, and club styles. But that’s it – there’s no way to really easily start a track from scratch. (Update: Note that I should say you can at least sequence from scratch, but only with the stock content – which would have made GrooveMaker bigger news on this platform were it not for the release of iDrum and BeatMaker first.)

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not anti-sample. It’s not my own working style because it just doesn’t inspire me, but that’s a personal feeling, and not one I’d impose on anyone else. In fact, some of my best friends (ahem) are capable of doing things with sampled loops that blow my mind. The problem I have is with lowest-common-denominator thinking. In fact, I think synthesized tracks, tracks that give you real control over the sound, are often more fun for beginners.

Take, for instance, Smule. As founder Ge Wang discussed with CDM, their Ocarina and Leaf Trombone app are aimed really at non-musicians. But because these instruments use synthesized sound, people are free to really play with them and make whatever noise with them they like, rather than getting stuck with canned sounds to “remix.”

Now, perhaps a future version of GrooveMaker will make it easier to bring in other audio. Even then, it’ll have a lot of catching up to do with Intua’s far more powerful BeatMaker having been on the market for some time and offering features like integration with’s soft synth. But let’s talk for a moment about the flexibility of synthesis.


More Funner, with Synths?

bleep!BOX takes a different approach. Now, there have already been some 808 and 909 emulations on the iPhone. But you really have to see this instrument in action. Creator David Wallin has done some interesting work to make lots of sound parameters accessible.

David writes us:

I wanted to drop you a line to let you know that my iPhone groove box app is finally approved and live in the app store. It features 10 drum/synth parts (808 / 909 emulations of snares, hihats, etc and 4x 2-Oscillator analog synth parts). All sounds are generated realtime and are highly tweakable – no samples are used.

Compare the results: with the canned loop, you get something that sounds good right away – though it also sound predictable. It then actually requires a fair amount of effort to make that sound your own, if you succeed at all.

Using synthesized sound, on the other hand, you initially get, well, nothing at all. But you can very quickly get to something you’ve created yourself, even if your skill level isn’t all that high.

That’s an oversimplification, of course, but I think it’s at least born out in the design philosophies here; bleep!BOX allows the user to be more constructive than passive. (Audio manipulation techniques are capable of some tricks all their own – especially when you get into time manipulation and granular resynthesis. But that’s just the means to the end. There’s a difference between synthesizing music and consuming – or even passively remixing – music.)

I’m looking forward to spending some time with bleep!BOX as a sketchpad for beats. I’ll be interested to see how it might evolve to allow easier integration with desktop music workflows.

But notice what you can do with synthesized sounds – you can actually play. I think this is part of what made the Korg DS-10 such a smash hit on the Nintendo DS, even given the DS’ extremely constrained audio fidelity. (The iPhone – and, incidentally, Sony’s PSP – fare much better.)

Whether you’re a beginner or advanced user, “play” and expression are really what it’s about. A kazoo, for instance, doesn’t have canned sounds. It doesn’t come with presets. It can, frankly, embarrass you. But it’s fun to play, because you can feel a certain amount of freedom with it.

Ironically, I think it actually requires a fairly advanced user to have that kind of freedom with pre-canned loops. Aiming at a “lowest common denominator” is too often disparaged, when it can really mean aiming at a large public.

But maybe the reason “lowest common denominator” gets a bad name is that more advanced tools are often more fun. I’d love to see more work done on synthesized sound that’s really fun to play with.

The choice is yours, naturally. The two instruments:

So, iPhone/iPod touch users – now that the novelty has worn off, have you found apps you continue to use over time?

And, since you do come to CDM for opinions, anyone care to disagree with my take (or nod approvingly)?

  • Peter, I'd say you're spot on here!

    I just purchased bleep!BOX. Great app! 🙂

  • Peter, I think you've nailed it.

    There's something fundamentally different between the two creative processes. And that difference seems magnified in the mobile context. It may be that mobile just pushes the constraints of each approach further.

    Maybe I just don't have good loop mixing skills. But creating a track from notes rather than loops gives me a completely different sense of creative accomplishment. It's the feeling you get when you can say, "Yea. I made that."

    I never get that feeling manipulating loops. In response to "Did YOU make that?" I respond, "Well kind of… Look at this cool software that I used." For me it ends up feeling more like arranging the photos from another person's vacation.

  • Synth lover

    Well it's a nice toy, but well… toy, that costs 10$. If you are thinking about creating / composition from scratch you should choose something else. e.g. iSequence has full blown step sequencer, 3 octaves, 55 instruments on board and is 3 times cheaper !

  • Great post. I agree with RichardL. I want to "CREATE" music, not just tweak some loops. I am however still dreaming about the day I can download "Ableton iLive" to my iPhone.

  • I don't get the, "it costs too much" argument here. Someone probably spent many months or a year creating that program. Are you really complaining about the price of a piece of music creation software that costs about as much as a burrito?

  • Synth lover

    Kurt: There are in fact some apps that let you "CREATE" music from scratch. Have you seen iSequence or SunVox?

  • As far as iphone music apps are concerned, I bought Beatmaker, Noise.IO, Jasuto and Curtis.

    Beatmaker : very nice interface and quite powerful but there's a bit of lag when switching screens, etc. The sequencer is a nice thing to have, but not really adapted to live improvisation/composition. It's better to have patterns that you made before and to just tweak parameters live. I've made a few sample packs with sounds from some of my instruments and so far only used it live to trigger a few samples (and thus replaced my old Yamaha SU10). I'll have to check if it can stay synced to Nanoloop 2.3 when they're both set to the same tempo…

    Noise.IO : lots of cool synthesis possibilities but one of the worst user interfaces I've ever seen. The designers never got out of the 70's, it seems… I can't use it, it's just too awful and non-intuitive. And I've used lots of synths (hardware or software, my DX11 is easier to use than this). Once again, it's a shame as the synth engine is actually really good.

    Jasuto : excellent, cheap, actually innovative and fun to use modular synth/sequencer. I still haven't spent enough time to create something that I'd use live or in a track, but the potential is definitely there. Get it if you haven't done it yet.

    Curtis (sample-based granular synth/thingy) : I just quickly tried the new version that allows users to import samples. My samples were not perfectly read but I'm not sure that I used the right samplerate… Can be cool for some effects and specific things in a track, but it's not intended to be used to compose a whole song, of course.

    Mujik is also very, very well made and I particulary like the fact that it does not try to make people think that it's a musical instrument. It's an elaborate and beautiful musical toy, quite similar in a way to Toshio Iwai's Electroplankton : in Mujik you play with the designers' sounds and sequences just like you play with Iwai's creations in Electroplankton.

    And yes, iphone apps are cheap. I mean, if you've got an iphone you've obviously got at least some money available for non-vital things. Don't whine about the price of an application that's likely cheaper than a beer…

    Bleep!Box looks nice, but I didn't see any song/live mode where you can use more than one pattern without having to load a new one each time. Without that, I don't think I could really use it for anything more than just making some noise for a few minutes in the subway :). Apart from that the app seems cool though, with a simple and elegant interface.

  • @oscillateur: It's true there is no 'song mode' yet, though I'm planning on adding this in the first update (along with .wav export and some other stuff). It'll allow you to string patterns together into a song. Also a pattern can be up to 8 sections long right now, so you can make little songlets. There are several options for live playing in bleep!BOX and I have some ideas for even more.

  • BTW, a few minutes on the subway is the ideal place to use bleep!BOX 😉

  • Yeah, I already use Nanoloop 2.3 a lot on the subway :).

    If you add a song mode, you might consider something similar to LSDj's live mode, which allows to create and manipulate complex structures quite easily…

    And thanks for your answers, it's always nice to have direct feedback from the devs :).

  • Toy or no Toy, Groovemaker music is already being used to score national network television! Russ Landau is using it to score a new FOX TV Show, called "Seducing Cindy". Point is, you can use it and start from scratch, selecting one beat at a time, and sequencing the grooves…it's all up to you how much you can do with your music after that…

  • John Silverman

    What's appropriate for the iphone? I think Beatmaker is very cool, but at some point when I'm working with it, the tiny interface and intellectualism of the choices make me fatigued. I think "why don't I just wait till I get home and then I can do this in comfort?"

    My next app purchases will be gestural creation tools that are fun, and then I'll take the material generated and maybe use it on my desktop system.

    I don't perform live at the moment, though.

  • Robman84

    There's a place for both types of app. Most things I try in groovemaker seem to sound "pleasing to the ear" but of course I'd like to tweak more as that's in my nature. I have countless loop/sample based apps and really enjoy beatmaker and looptastic. For creativity though I lean towards isyn, bebot, a bunch of 303 emulators, NLog etc. I think ishred strikes a nice balance -sample based guitar sounds that can be "effected" beyond recognition and the performance is everything. Bleepbox is an interesting concept. You're "restricted" to the particular synth types (so no claps and snares together) but the synthesis engine is capable of awesome percussion sounds that I find hard to create in normal virtual analog synths. I'm looking forward to seeing it develop further.

  • aaron m

    Aw, oops.. I just sent you an email about Bleep!Box before I noticed the article. Sorry about that.

    I can't agree more.. Bleep!Box as I use it more and more is the App I was seemingly waiting for. While I look forward to any updates, this thing already has me dancing in circles in glee. Awesome stuff. The dev's really knew what they were doing and you can tell they themselves are experienced musicians because everything I keep itching for appears to be here.

    Also.. the motion recording was a really nice touch. This is truly like having an electribe emx in your pocket.. great rival to Korg's DS-10.

    Kick a** job ppl that made this. A++, look forward to blowing more money on your future projects should they be as qualtra as this.

  • Joe

    Peter, those last 8 paragraphs were beautiful, I nearly cried! Spot on Sir Kirn!!!


    The time is coming to make a difference between all the gimmicks like the newes IKM and other 'content-packed' software incl. iDrum which just pretends to give you freedom of music creation and REAL tools to create music YOU like


    SunVox, Beatmaker, Curtis etc.

    to the Phone music to the next professional stage.

    I am really fed up with the 'toys'

  • dyscode

    PS: to be precise I am not fed up with the GUI or Interface design but with the locked content.

  • im really fed up with iphones.

  • kidhead

    @ RichardL – I agree. Two different creative processes. I always think of loop mixing as DJing and from scratch creation as Production. I entertain myself with both but in different mind sets. Loop mixing is like listening to a track that I can edit in real time and just keep enjoying. If I only have a few minutes on a bus ride or waiting at the airport I play with loops. If I have some more time, I break out the editor and synths and work out some tunes that are floating in my head. The Korg DS is good for that too. Just have to through in props for Beatmaker. My first app and still my favorite.

  • kidhead

    Peter, has the novelty worn off? I don't think it has. As long as developers keep pushing what can be done with the interface. Take for example something like SynthPond. Sure it sits between instrument and toy, but the creative potential is enormous. Leverage the power of a touch screen interface, with accelerometers, in the palm of your hand. Beautiful really.

  • Groovemaker offers the capability to use it as a launching pad while exporting the grooves to any other music DAW for further production.

    Others using it as the end of music production are genuinely satisfied while those using it as a means will absolutely get more mileage out of it:)