The novelty of the iPhone or [your favorite device here] may fade. But part of what matters in mobile design is thinking about how to create interfaces and uses that can scale to the size of your palm. That can mean embracing radical simplicity, and reducing an interactive, digital musical object down to its essential noise-making functions. In acoustic instrument design, that means economizing sound production in a form. In the digital world, it means finding the interactive role you’d want to bring with you onstage, in the length roughly equivalent your fingertips to your wrist.

I’m a few weeks overdue actually writing about it, but one design I really admire is Star6, developed by Jason Forrest and Agile Partners. There are no awkward, gimmicky emulations of hardware interfaces here; it’s clear this was an interface that was illustrated in two-dimensions. It has funky nerdster chic color combos, with neon pink atop wood grain. It demonstrates that, in the space of a grid, you can fit triangles. It makes use of computer wifi capability to easily load samples without mucking around with over-designed clients – or record right on the iPhone. And it’s – surprisingly – one of the few apps to make heavy use of the accelerometer, which means rather than looking like you’re trying to text message someone, you can move it around. There’s a “grain” mode so that you can randomize sounds and not have everything synced all the time. I also enjoy the “reset” button. These are all design decisions that could make sense in more commercial software – and our own home-brewed Max/Pd patches and such, too.

Apparently Agile Partners were also influenced by the brightly-colored, handheld fun of the Buddha Machine, too; see their interview with the creator.

A lovely lineup of free samples, including the Buddha Machine

It’s not a perfect app (no mobile app really can be – that’s the fun of it), and it doesn’t do everything, but I find Star6’s personality rather irresistible. The real test of all of this is whether you can use it in real music-making. And, while my inbox is full of cheezy bands trying to ride the iPhone wave, I love the offbeat Star6 music launch party from Berlin, as documented in the video below. It ranges from Jason’s own work to Warp Records artist Jackson and ex-Chicks on Speed Kiki Moorse. And there’s a crazy iPhone + banjo + accordion cover of Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl.” There are even some genuinely experimental sounds – not the sort of thing you’d expect at a launch event, sadly. (I wish we could have more of that.)

An Evening With Star6 – Berlin (Compilation) from Star6 on Vimeo.

More on the artists, and some of Star6 creator Jason Forrest’s own unique work:

Jason’s own artistic aesthetic, as seen in this video for “War Photographer,” does have this quirky efficiency to it, the sense of cut-out animation (in both visuals and music, I’d argue), and saturated, rich, retro colors.


The eclectic Berlin launch.

Jackson (Warp, FR)
Kiki Moorse (ex-Chicks On Speed,DE)
Song Band (US)
Jason Forrest (CRD, US)
Guido Mobius (Karaoke Kalk, DE)
Ben Butler & Mousepad (SCT/DE)
DJ’s: Finkobot & Marius Reisser

Jacki Terrasse / Joseph (@ Maria)
An Der Schilling Brücke
10243 Berlin

For more on the artists:

Video shot by Martin Sulzer
Photos by Marco Macrobi

Complete sets:
Ben Butler and Mousepad
Guido Mobius
Kiki Moorse
Jason Forrest


  • jackson is such a badass.

    love him pointing it at the dancing crowd like a remote control.

  • Martin

    like watching steve ballmer making music …

  • Rob P.

    I was waiting for the "developers, developers" sample to kick in.

    At least he was wearing a dark shirt to hide that unsightly perspiration!

  • sunny

    Everyone staring at their iPhone while performing/rocking out looks silly. But I guess with such small "button"s it's unavoidable.

  • Yeah, I agree, there's a bit of a problem there. If even more could be done with gestures, you could avoid looking at the screen at all live, or at least wouldn't need to fixate on it. But then, it's rather an interesting problem — and a lot of instruments can make you look silly or keep you from connecting with an audience.

  • Kadath

    I don't know how anyone can criticize iPhone/iPod musicians as looking silly or boring while performing. I've lost count of how many sleep-inducing "real" electronic artists and DJs I've seen, just pushing buttons, turning knobs, fiddling with their mixers, periodically looking up to yell "let me see your hands" or some other stupid raver cliche. These iPhone performances aren't any worse.

  • Maybe if they're really BIG buttons and knobs?

    I don't know, let's think about this. Do we really mean performance presence, or do we mean the *content* of the musical performance? Would anyone ever say, "Jeez. Look at that banjo player. He's just, like sitting there picking at the thing. I can't even see his fingers move." No, of course not – because an awesome banjo player is playing something that sounds incredible. Unless there's a banjo player in the audience, people don't really know what's going on with his fingers exactly. They get the basic idea, and they enjoy the music. Or, alternatively, "Jeez. That entire violin section hacking away." I mean, in fairness, after a couple of minutes a violin section really *isn't* an exciting thing to watch for anyone but the conductor, which is why we don't kick back at home and watch the New York Phil on mute on our television.

    What all of this suggests to me is not that electronic instruments are difficult to understand, but, really, two things:

    1. They present an experience with which we're already *too* familiar. (I.e., "looks like he's checking his email.")


    2. They do something that is inherently abstract that we *want* to see visualized in a way that we really didn't need with the banjo.

    Of course, if someone is yelling "let me see your hands," I think they're probably beyond help. But you get my point.

  • @ Rob P. : You mean like this?

    Agree with Kadath. I don't see many electronic instruments around these days that don't make you look a bit geeky… It's sort of in the nature of the beast, yeah?

  • I could also point out that we ARE geeky. 😉

  • quantize

    ouch thats embarrassing…very

  • Steve

    Great points, Peter. I would add a third reason:

    3. With electronic musical instruments, the audience can not be sure how much (if any) of the musical ideas generated are executed in real-time (like a banjo performance) rather than playback/manipulation of previously recorded/generated. I'm not arguing that one process is "better" than another. Rather I'm suggesting that even though the paradigm is continuing to shift, when audiences attend a live performance, they expect to hear "live" music.

  • apoclypse

    I really liked the group with the keytar and drummer, they were really rocking out. LOL!

  • ifthenwhy

    Please join us for a new, updated performance of The Emperors New Clothes.

    Can a entire musical genre die a horrid death from just one video?

    Yes. Yes it can.

  • bjm

    no music…only distortion… 🙁

  • gregor

    I think the biggest problem is that the music just isn't very interesting, so we look to the performance to be interesting, and it isn't.

    Compare it with Rudess' bebot nature video; amazing sound, so the fact that he's sitting playing with his iphone isn't important.

  • I think the issue with all live electronic music performance is not the reality of what is or is not happening in real time, but rather the audience's interest in the music and their educated opinion about what is (or should be) happening.

    Take for example take a look at how a huge stadium will watch and cheer on a celebrity DJ. What's Tiesto doing up there beyond mixing a record or two? Well, he's reading the crowd and if he's good then he is shaping the context of the evening, but his actual "live" performance contains no "actual" performance of music.

    Then on the other side of the spectrum, consider the tape performances by the electro-acoustic set. They saw so need for the live performance but rather the live presentation of hearing sound on a larger level.

    But I think most audiences in western civilization come in some way from string-based music. So your average audience's experience is to see performers performing. So in regards to performing with one's iPhone I can say that people usually find it pretty interesting. With Star6, one has such a huge range of sound that the audience is usually more surprised than anything else. ATM it's definitely a "gee-wiz" attitude, but as more sophisticated apps keep arriving on the market, and as users become more familiar with what is happening from a music/technical standpoint it will become more commonplace and also more accepted.

    As for Star6, I was personally very surprised to see just how diverse the music was at our evening in Berlin. Of course we chose different types of musicians to perform, but we had very little idea about what they would actually do. The diversity between Kiki Moorse and Ben Butler and Mousepad is pretty staggering!

  • I agree with BJM:

    With all my respect to the performers, but, to say the least… the actual music was just lots of distortion and some leather jacket guy acting "avant garde". If I make that noise with a Korg M1 which is right now "totally uncool", would you cover my gig?. I know it's a subjective thing but for me this is falling into a hype thing. If it's made by an Iphone suddenly it's interesting, although there's no melody or recognizable rhythm.

    It's like the "leaf trombone" thing. Don't get me wrong, please. Total respect for the app developer, as I'm a coder and a geek myself, but it seems that nobody wants to point that musically most of these apps are just sound toys. And yes, you could make a masterpiece out of a toy, but it takes a lot of effort to really know your instrument and create something interesting. There are videos out there of people playing amazing instrumentals with their supermarket Yamaha PSR's who don't get this coverage.

    So, I'm not bashing against Iphone or chipmusic. I'm complaining againts people that seems to dedicate more time to choose a trendy t-shirt to go onstage and look supercool instead of programming their samples.

    Give me some Edison monome video intead of a guy headbanging to a squarewave.

    By the way, the banjo guy rocked. And the accordion girl was hot with the tiara.

  • I agree with Jorge. Too much weight is given to the process and not on the result.

    As for iPhone apps, I'm in the process of trying this app now. The only other music app I have is Bebot. Both, I think, lend themselves to being put through a mixer and performed as an instrument in their own respects.

  • Hey,

    My friend and I won the star6 audience choice youtube contest (chiming in a bit late on this thread)… but I have done a good half dozen live performances with star6. I've been able to get people dancing to it… It's the only app I've found on the iPhone that actually acts like an instrument. A very cool, different, and extremely expressive instrument.

    I generally play guitars of some sort or another, but I love using star6 because it's easy to learn and extremely deep once you get into it. The pitch control, for example, can be used to actually do basslines… kind of like playing a tilt operated trombone or something.

    Lot's of fun, like e'ryday.

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