INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Wall Street Journal NOVEMBER 16, 2012 - by Michael Hsu
To tap your inner songwriter, try a music-making app that sings a playful tune
If you don't know a treble clef from an ampersand, don't worry. Beginner-friendly music apps make creating a simple song as accessible as playing a game. Your compositions will be modest - a short electronic loop that you can use as a ringtone, perhaps - but fun to marvel at, like a high score. "For me, writing music is listening to music," Philip Glass once said. "I don't think of it; I listen to it... It's not something that has to be imagined." Composing with these apps is similar: listen, adjust, repeat.
One of the earliest and most famous music-making apps is Bloom, which turns taps of your touch screen into dreamy electronic pieces. It was designed by musicians Brian Eno and Peter Chilvers (who released their fourth app, Scape, this fall). To find the best tools for the novice, we asked Mr. Chilvers for his favorites - all are as enjoyable as Fruit Ninja and more engaging to listen to than Carly Rae Jepsen. "There are many ways to compose," said Mr. Chilvers. "It doesn't have to be a whole load of black and white dots on a set of lines."
TonePad Pro - With TonePad Pro, composing a catchy electronic ditty is nearly foolproof. When you launch the app, you're presented with a grid of circles, like a small Lite-Brite board, for creating a looped song. The app is easy to figure out (tap a circle to make it play a specific pitch), and the scale is edited so you can't pick a wrong note. "You can do pretty much anything and it will sound interesting," said Mr. Chilvers. "But people gradually get sparser and sparser" - using fewer notes in their loops - "as they get better at listening and understanding what they're doing." When you've finished your masterpiece, you can email it to yourself as a ringtone (sync your phone with your computer to install).
Soundrop - Soundrop is a simple but very addictive musical diversion: falling balls in the app trigger a sound whenever they hit a line that you've drawn on the screen with the swipe of your finger - the harder the impact, the higher the pitch. By angling the lines just so, you can create structures for the balls to bounce through, playing a string of notes in the process. "It starts to create a very definite shape and a melody," said Mr. Chilvers. The results are mesmerizing to watch and listen to, reminiscent of minimalist composer Steve Reich's early pieces. "You very quickly can grasp what it is doing, how you can change it and how you can improve it," said Mr. Chilvers. "It has far more to do with building than composing."
FLOW: qin - This app uses the sounds of a Chinese instrument called the guqin to create sparse soundscapes (imagine Brian Eno in ancient China). The app is similar to wielding a wind chime on a breezy day - you're not so much composing as waiting for something interesting to happen - but that's the appeal. It may take a while to grasp exactly how the app works, but Mr. Chilvers suggests: "Just tap around randomly until you get something you like." He usually opts for the simpler guqin sounds to create a just noticeable audio backdrop. "There is a line Brian [Eno] often uses to describe ambient music: 'It is as ignorable as it is interesting,' " Mr. Chilvers said. "It is an interesting sweet spot to occupy."
KORG iKaossilator - This app may seem intimidating at first - there are a lot of esoteric settings that you never need to touch - but getting started is easy: Hit the red record button and fiddle with the app's touch pad to create your own variations on the thumping techno and hip-hop loops that start playing. To change the melody of a synth line or bring out different elements of a percussion part, move your finger from one side of the touch pad to the other and just see what happens. "You need no musical ability, as long as you can listen," said Mr. Chilvers. "Possibly more than the other apps, it lets you feel that you made something that is really quite well produced; there is a lot of polish on the sound."